HC Deb 14 February 1985 vol 73 cc493-518

Amendment No. 51 proposed [13 February], in page 16, line 6, leave out '£1,000' and insert '£500'—[Sir John Farr.]

The Chairman of Ways and Means

With this, we may take the following amendments: No. 70, in page 16, line 6, leave out '£1,000' and insert '£500 or such amount as the Secretary of State may by order determine; no order shall be made under this section unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament'. No. 52, in page 16,1ine 9, leave out 'one twentieth' and insert 'one tenth'.

No. 85, in page 16, line 9, leave out 'one twentieth' and add 'three fortieths'.

New clause 7—Abolition of deposit and increase in number of nominations'(1) In Schedule 1 of the principal Act, paragraph 9 ("Deposit") shall cease to have effect; (2) In paragraph 7(1) of Schedule 1 in the principal Act, for the word "eight" there shall be substituted "at least one hundred".'. New clause 8—Nomination papers'In Schedule 1 to the principal Act paragraph 7(2) shall cease to have effect.'. New clause 11—Exemption from deposit'In Schedule 1 to the Principal Act (Parliamentary elections rules) shall be added a new rule 1013 (8A) A candidate shall be exempted from the requirement of depositing a sum with the returning officer provided that he is the nominated candidate of a registered political party as defined in the Schedule (Registered Political Parties)".'. New clause 23—Conditions for nomination'Schedule 1 to the principal Act shall be amended by substituting for rules 9 and 53 the following rule— A nomination shall not be valid unless it is signed by 500 electors of the Division for which that nomination is made; the nomination shall remain valid notwithstanding a margin of error in the number of five per cent.; and any such nomination may be presented for checking by the returning officer during a period of six months prior to the date of a parliamentary election".'. Amendment No. 65—new schedule— 'REGISTERED POLITICAL PARTIES

  1. (1) The Secretary of State for the Home Department may, by order, establish a scheme for the registration of political parties. No condition of eligibility shall attach to such a scheme, except that a registration fee, prescribed by the Secretary of State shall be payable.
  2. (2) Any party so registered shall be a registered political party for the purposes of this Act.
  3. (3) No political party will have to register to be able to participate in an election. Political parties not wishing to register will be able to continue to field candidates by the method otherwise prescribed in the principal Act.'.

4.9 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The reasons for an election deposit were outlined by the Home Secretary yesterday. I cannot see any objection to a deposit, but, at the same time, I am not over-enthusiastic about such a large increase from £150 to £1,000. I take the point that the equivalent of the 1918 £150 would be in the region of £2,000; nevertheless, a jump from £150 to £1,000 in one go is unnecessary. I think that the point has been established.

It is important in these matters, which are not dealt with frequently in Committee, for obvious reasons, that we should try so far as possible to reach a consensus. The idea of the collection of a certain number of signatures has some support on the Government Benches, but I do not believe that that would be an adequate substitute for a deposit. It would be easy in some circumstances to collect signatures. As the Select Committee rightly said, the getting of signatures would be an easy step for certain candidates whose interest in the democratic system can be questioned. There are merchants of racial hatred involved in standing for election. Such people know full well how, in certain circumstances, at sensitive moments, it is possible to collect signatures by making the point that people do not have to vote for the person concerned, but that he merely wants to stand as a candidate and should not be denied that right.

I am not concerned about the frivolous candidate. I accept the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on Second Reading that there is little evidence that frivolous candidates cause any harm to the democratic system. I do not mind whether Lord Sutch or Lord Double Sutch stands as a candidate. Indeed, it can be argued that such candidates bring a certain amount of gaiety to the hustings—more so at by-elections, for obvious reasons. Like my right hon. Friend, I see no argument that having a large number of these candidates, as there were in the Chesterfield by-election, does any harm to the democratic process. If harm is done, let us see the evidence. Those candidates do not cause me sleepless nights.

I am concerned about candidates whose motive in standing, particularly at by-elections, but sometimes at general elections, is race hatred. They do not bring any gaiety to the hustings or to any other feature of national life.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that class hatred would be equally obnoxious? If he is moving in the direction of taking a stance on what he is calling race hatred—I hope he will expand on it if he is to give it any meaning—would he bring into the category people on the extreme Left generally who make class hatred one of their main platforms and who seek to divide society in the same way?

Mr. Winnick

Not surprisingly, I anticipated such an intervention. If the hon. Gentleman puts his question seriously, I will answer it.

Mr. Forth

It was.

Mr. Winnick

If the hon. Gentleman wants an answer, I shall be only too pleased to give him one. If he was just making an intervention for the sake of it, I shall not waste my time. He may not be satisfied with the answer. It can be said in regard to class hatred that the Government need no lessons from anybody, not only on the promotion of class hatred, but on carrying out policies which cause the maximum difficulty to working people through mass unemployment.

I would have no objection to any party to the right of the Conservative party, which I suppose is possible, which was not concerned with matters of race hatred putting forward an extremely Right-wing point of view. I would not say that that is necessarily an obstacle to, or a difficulty for, the democratic system. I shall try to answer the hon. Gentleman by saying that it is the same with candidates on the ultra-Left, if I may use that term. I know that I may not carry the hon. Gentleman with me, but this is my reasoning. The difference is that the candidates on the ultra-Right, such as the National Front, are concerned with trying to stir up as much hatred, suspicion and xenophobia against ethnic minorities—

The Chairman

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not noticed that the revised selection list includes new clause 29, which deals specifically with the matter on which he is touching and which seems unrelated to the amendments that are before the Committee. It might be in the best interests of the Committee to wait until then to raise these matters.

4.15 pm
Mr. Winnick

I am pleased that new clause 29 has been selected for debate, but the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) asked me a question which I was trying to answer. If I may say so, it is related to the reasons why I believe that a deposit, and not simply a collection of signatures, is necessary. I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman. We shall see later whether he has been persuaded by what I have said.

Referring again to the candidates of race hatred, to save their deposit is a sign for them, though not in our eyes or in the view of the community, that they have achieved electoral credibility. They can say that they have saved their deposits in so many constituencies. This is why I make the same point to the Minister as I made yesterday during the Home Secretary's speech.

I favour a more modest increase in the deposit. I accept that there should be some increase. It might have been increased to £250 or £300, with the retention of a threshold of 12.5 per cent. of the total votes cast, as now, or a threshold of 10 per cent. I should have thought that that would achieve a wider consensus in Committee than what is proposed. That is why I argued that point of view in the appropriate place, but at the end of the day one has to accept the position outlined by the Home Secretary yesterday.

I do not want to exaggerate the danger of the National Front. It would be wrong to do so. Fortunately, our society is sufficiently mature not to support candidates who clearly stand for election, in the same way as the Mosley movement stood in elections before the second world war, to stir up as much racial trouble, strife and hatred as they can although they try, usually unsuccessfully, to keep within the law. By and large the latter-day movement, like the pre-war movement, has hardly got off the ground.

Although I do not have the figures for the last election, in the 1979 contest the National Front obtained more than 5 per cent. of the votes though, fortunately, only in five constituencies. The very fact that it was able to get that amount of electoral support, limited and modest as it was, gives rise to anxiety among people like me who believe that a 5 per cent. threshold is too low. I know that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) does not agree with me because, if I may say so, he is a kind of fanatic for the collection of signatures as a substitute for a deposit. Clearly I shall not carry him with me. There is a divide in the Committee, and why not?

Mr. William Powell (Corby)

The hon. Gentleman says that he accepts the need for an increase in the deposit. He wants a rather more modest increase. Can he explain to the Committee why any increase in the deposit is necessary?

Mr. Winnick

With respect, the hon. Gentleman should direct that question more to his own Front Bench. Ministers were concerned that there should be an increase. I do not usually like to be associated with Ministers in argument, but fairness demands it. The Select Committee looked into those matters and recommended the figure of £1,000. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is aware of that. As I have already prayed in aid the Select Committee, perhaps I could also pray in aid the fact it recommended a threshold of 7.5 per cent. An amendment along those lines is being taken with this group. In my view, it would be better to have a threshold of 7.5 per cent. I imagine the Committee will agree that the deposit should be £500. However, perhaps the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West will divide the Committee on that. We shall wait and see.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Winnick

I see that the hon. Gentleman will not do so, as he is shaking his head.

I hope that on Report the Home Secretary will consider the possibility of increasing the threshold from the proposed 5 per cent. to 7.5 per cent. That would serve the democratic process better. I stress that I speak for myself on those issues.

It would be difficult to change the threshold and deposit on a later occasion. We all know that they were established way back in 1918. If there were a change in the electoral climate, which I do not expect for one moment, or if there were a danger, as we have seen in France, of a Fascist revival, it would be difficult to change the law, because the people to whom I have been referring would say that the law was being changed purely and simply because of them. These matters should be considered in a proper way, bearing in mind that we are not likely to deal again with the issue of the deposit or threshold for a long time to come. Those are the reasons why amendment No. 85 should be given sympathetic consideration.

I agree with those who argue that standing for Parliament is first and foremost a serious business. There are advantages to be gained, as was stated last night. Candidates receive about £800 worth of free postage, and there is publicity. Other advantages are given—in my view rightly so—to a candidate. That is why I feel that it is right and proper that, unlike in local elections where those facilities are not given, there should be a deposit. If we cannot retain the present deposit and threshold, we should try to reach a consensus. Presumably we have done so on the basis of what the Home Secretary said last night.

Before we come to a final conclusion on Report and Third Reading, if I may say so with due modesty, we should bear in mind some of the points that I have raised. At the end of the day we are concerned with preserving our democratic system, with all its faults— and no doubt there are many. Living in any dictatorship, Left or Right —[Interruption.]—though my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and I may disagree about whether it is really Left—is a nightmare. We have the virtue of living in a democracy, and long may it remain so. Part of our job is to try to ensure that the manner in which we go about our business, laying down rules and regulations for standing at elections and so on, is such that we can say that we, as a House of Commons, are making our own contribution to ensuring that our democratic system survives and is in safe hands, and does not give an opportunity to those whose main motive is—

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

I cannot for the life of me understand why my hon. Friend should introduce me in a debate about what is Left and what is not. The point that I was making under my breath was that one can say that a candidate gets advantages, but if he does not have the organisation behind him, all the free postage in the world does not mean a damned thing. There is not much of an advantage unless one has support.

Mr. Winnick

I was praying in aid my hon. Friend because I thought that he would agree with me. I did not want to cause controversy between the two of us. When the Liberals and the smaller parties argue about how difficult the obstacles are, let us bear in mind how our party came into existence. We did not have the aid of television, press coverage or much sympathy, yet despite all the difficulties, within 24 years, fortunately, we became one of the two main parties in the state. I know that my hon. Friend agrees with me that we shall remain one of the two main parties in the state.

Mr. Parris

What the hon. Gentleman's party did have were the combined financial resources of the trade union movement to draw upon for putting up parliamentary deposits.

Mr. Winnick

In the beginning the amount of trade union support that we had was minimal. At any time the amount of financial support that we get from the trade unions is a trifle compared with the contributions which the Conservative party gets from big business and other such interests.

In conclusion, I believe that we should be careful about how we set the threshold and the deposit, bearing in mind that we should not do anything that undermines our parliamentary and democratic system.

Mr. Parris

One would think from listening to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that the way to decide these matters was to survey the range of political parties likely to stand, decide which ones were the most offensive to oneself and set the level of the threshold at such a point that those parties would be most severely penalised financially. The hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of using the very argument that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary studiously avoided last night. That argument will be seized upon by parties such as the National Front against what the Government are now proposing.

Parties such as the National Front will say that this is a measure to obstruct democracy and prevent parties like it from even standing. As they cannot afford to stand they will feel that they have a moral right to take to the streets or indulge in extra-parliamentary action instead. If I had listened to the hon. Gentleman in the frame of mind in which such parties will listen to him, I might have felt some moral authority for such a response. That response would be wrong and dangerous, and we should do nothing to encourage it. My concern is that the measure might encourage it.

I should like to speak to my new clause 11 and the associated amendment No. 65, which is a new schedule. I do not ask hon. Members to weary themselves going through my wording in any detail. It is sure to be technically defective. It may even be the wrong way of going about what I seek to achieve. I should like to outline my aims and ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reply.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for the concession that he announced last night reducing the deposit from £1,000 to £500. I do not wish to be churlish about that; it is a major improvement. My concern is for the devastating effect that the loss of all those deposits would have on a small party that wishes to field a respectable number of candidates at a general election and wishes to say that it is at least fielding enough candidates to have a chance, should it receive sufficient support, of forming an important part of the Parliament that follows the election. There would be a devastating effect if that party failed to get the 5 per cent. of votes that it needs to retain its deposit. For instance, I reckon that if the Ecology party decided to field a candidate in every constituency at a general election to show that it was a major national party, it would probably lose the deposits for all 650 candidates, which would come to about £325,000. I doubt whether a small party such as that could afford to risk such a loss at a general election.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

My hon. Friend is a fair man. He will appreciate that in many elections, particularly by-elections, candidates are not nominated candidates of a registered political party but stand as individuals promoting an individual philosophy. Is not my hon. Friend's proposal likely to give to the nominated candidate a more favourable status than that accorded to the non-nominated candidate?

4.30 pm
Mr. Parris

Yes, it is. For that reason my proposals are not perfect. They come to the assistance of a certain class of candidate without necessarily coming to the assistance of every candidate whom I would wish to help. I cannot imagine any system of parliamentary deposits which would assist every worthy candidate or which may not in some circumstances punish a worthy candidate.

Mr. Winnick

I may be doing the hon. Gentleman an injustice, but I am not aware that he campaigned against deposits before the Bill became an issue. After all, deposits for standing at an election have been around for many years. If I am wrong, obviously the hon. Gentleman will tell me. If it is such a great issue with him, why did not he campaign before?

The hon. Gentleman said that I was giving assistance, so to speak, to racialist organisations. Will he bear in mind that legislation passed by both Labour and Conservative Governments in the past 15 or 20 years has been directed at race hate organisations. There has been legislation against incitement to race hatred and there is no doubt about who it was directed at. Action was taken before the war to prevent people from wearing paramilitary uniform. Again there can be no question who were to be the victims of such a law. The hon. Gentleman should bear those points in mind.

Mr. Parris

I do bear them in mind. As long as such laws exist, and they do and should, and so long as political parties are prepared to keep within the law, and they do and they must on pain of prosecution, they should be allowed to field candidates at elections.

Mr. Winnick

I am not saying that they should not.

Mr. Parris

Good. The hon. Gentleman is not saying that they should not; he is just saying that he would like to set the threshold and the deposit at such a level that it is difficult or impossible for them to do so.

The deposit was, I think, introduced in 1918. I was unable to campaign against it at that time and so was the hon. Gentleman. I have never thought that the deposit was a fair test of a candidate's seriousness. The larger the deposit is, the less fair the test. Therefore, the proposal to increase it to £1,000 makes the injustice a more pressing one and I said so on Second Reading.

I seek to set up a scheme whereby a political party can limit its liability to loss of deposit at a general election. I propose a voluntary scheme whereby a political party may register as a political party. The registration would serve no purpose and give it no privileges, immunities or benefits of any kind, other than the benefit which will flow in relation to the parliamentary deposit. There will be no test of whether a party may or may not register other than its preparedness to pay the registration fee. The registration fee should be set at a level which discourages any but the serious parties from wishing to register—£5,000, £10,000, £15,000 or perhaps £20,000.

The registration would, in essence, be a tendered group parliamentary deposit. Having paid that registration fee, the party would then be able to field as many candidates as it liked without paying any further deposit for those candidates and without risking the loss of further deposits. For example, if the Ecology party or the National Front could collect the money necessary to register, it could field candidates in every constituency at a general election.

The payment of that fee would be a serious test of a party's interest in a general election. No frivolous party or candidate would be able to stand. At the same time there would be a limit to the amount that a party could lose by standing at a general election and it would not be open to a party to say that, although it had support in the country, it had been prevented from fielding candidates by the system of parliamentary deposits.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend has had a most ingenious idea, but will he consider one drawback? He is talking about a registration fee which he suggests is a sort of collective deposit. However, I think that he will agree that the registration fee would probably not be fixed by statute, whether primary or secondary legislation. If that is right, who will set the registration fee? Assuming that it is done under the diktat of Government, what is to stop the Government, by some form of authority of their own, increasing the registration fee to such a level as to serve as a deterrent?

Mr. Parris

I envisage that the fee would be set by order. Even if one were to assume that orders passed through the House without receiving the parliamentary attention they deserve, it would, as my hon. Friend says, be within the power of any Government to make it impossible for a small political party to register as a political party. That would not make it impossible to field candidates by payment of the ordinary deposit. I am not suggesting that we abolish the £500 deposit. That will stay within the power of any candidate. That will be an additional benefit to a registered political party. So long as the matter is treated in good faith by the Government of the day, it will be a helpful benefit.

There has been argument about whether the threshold should be 5 per cent., 7.5 per cent., 10 per cent., 12.5 per cent. or whatever. Five per cent. is better than 10 per cent. Nevertheless, any party must start from zero. A party is likely to start with a level of public support which would not give it even 5 per cent. of the votes cast in a general election across the constituencies in which it fields candidates. Therefore, it does not particularly matter whether the party is blighted at 2, 5, 7 or 10 per cent. Any threshold which makes it impossible for a small party which is just starting up to field a credible number of candidates in a general election is a serious disincentive to small parties. Our first-past-the-post system is already a serious disincentive to small parties and we need not add to it through our system of deposits.

Mr. Winnick

What about the Labour party?

Mr. Parris

It is said that the parliamentary deposit was introduced in 1918 as a result of a deal cobbled up between the Whigs and the Tories to prevent the emerging Labour party from emerging any further. I believe that the amount was a working man's wage in a year. If that was so, the deal failed. It failed because the Labour party had the organised trade union movement to draw on, not only for parliamentary deposits but for the 10 or 12.5 per cent. of votes that it needed in every constituency.

A small party can start up despite a crippling parliamentary deposit if it starts up on the back of an existing national institution or organisation such as the trade union movement, or, perhaps, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It is much more difficult for a party such as the Ecology party, or, indeed, for the Liberal party at one time. I imagine that that party would have been crippled by the proposals had they been in force between the 1950s and the early 1970s.

My scheme may not be perfect—I am sure that it is not—but I want to see a system that does not stifle small political parties at birth. We are strong enough to tolerate the existence of such parties and to stand against them in general elections. We should not rule them out at the first post.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Let me take the opportunity to welcome the Government's movement away from the original proposal and thank them for having responded to recommendations and represenations that were made to them earlier. I represent a party that has a vested interest. We have far too many lost deposits, and a deposit of £1,000 would have been a real deterrent to standing at elections.

It is in the interests of democracy in Wales—whether or not people in Wales agree with our policies—and indeed in other parts of the United Kingdom that those who have a coherent view to put forward in a democratic way, or any view for that matter, should have an opportunity to stand at elections. That should be part of the system.

I appreciate the dangers in some areas, where there has been racial tension arising from the activities of the National Front, but I prefer to have a system in which any party has to stand up and be counted and be shown to be as small as it is, rather than to masquerade under the pretence that it has a greater following by virtue of the fact that it is not standing for election and has an excuse for not so standing.

I want a system that allows the maximum participation, and the £500 and 5 per cent. is not unreasonable compared with the position in the past. Obviously, anyone who has to fork out a deposit for an election and is in danger of losing it would rather have no deposit at all.

I incline towards having a number of names attached to the nomination rather than a means test of any sort. I can see the danger that some people would nominate just to allow somebody to stand, without any intention of giving him support. It may be that the vote of the person who nominates should, by virtue of the fact that he has nominated, be deemed to be cast in that process. Alternatively, it may be that a smaller number than the 100 which has been mentioned should be required to be present at the registration office, so that it takes a bit of effort and is not just a matter of signing a piece of paper so that whoever is on the doorstep goes away as quickly as possible. That is one possibility if we are to consider having names instead of a financial disincentive.

There is the real problem, which has been mentioned by Liberal Members, of having large sums of money tied up. That problem will still arise from this formula. With 38 seats in Wales, at £500 a time, £19,000 would be tied up in deposits. That is a lot of money, and it is money that is needed to fight the election. Over the whole of the United Kingdom it would be that much more.

The position of the Ecology party should, I think, command a certain degree of sympathy and support within the Committee. That party has a valid viewpoint to put forward, and it should be facilitated in the democratic process. If the Ecology party were to put up candidates for 600-odd seats, that would cost £300,000, which would be totally unrealistic.

Having agreed so far with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris), I wish to turn for a moment to the new clause and the amendment. I recoil from the idea of registration of political parties, because that has a flavour of going towards a corporate approach to our politics. I do not like the idea put forward in amendment No. 65 of a registration fee prescribed by the Secretary of State, because there would be a real danger of that being increased as time goes on. The idea appears to be a sort of discount system for those who intend to fight on a wide scale. A deposit of £20,000, for a party such as Plaid Cymru, which wishes to fight only 38 seats out of 600, is unrealistic. I do not see any merit in that, although I recognise the problem.

It would appear that, for some months, we have been moving towards a compromise. The proposals are not ideal as far as we are concerned. We would rather not see finance coming into it, but; to the extent that finance is going to come into it, we thank the Government for having put forward a compromise that goes some way towards meeting the problem.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 70, which stands in my name. Essentially, it has two points. It suggests that the deposit be fixed at £500 and that Parliament should have the power to raise that sum by affirmative resolution.

I was pleased to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary meeting the views of the Committee by decreasing the proposed £1,000 to £500. That is a very useful concession. I feel sure that most hon. Members will applaud his decision on that matter. The reason is clear. This is a constitutional issue of considerable importance, and I think it desirable that it should receive as widespread support as possible. At £1,000, it did not seem to me that general support was likely to be forthcoming. Therefore, I think that my right hon. and learned Friend deserves the thanks of the Committee.

My second point relates to the proposal that it should be possible to raise the deposit by affirmative resolution. The chance of primary legislation on these matters coming before the House of Commons in the near future is remote. I hope to be in this place for many years—20 or 30 years is the minimum that we should consider for my presence here—but I should be rather surprised—

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

That remark can only be aimed at hon. Members behind the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg)—the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) and others.

4.45 pm
Mr. Hogg

The Conservative party does not stab its members in the back. The hon. Gentleman is confusing the two sides of the Committee.

I am making a serious point. It is unlikely that we shall see primary legislation dealing with this issue in, say, the next 10 or 20 years. Yet, however good the Government's economic policy may be, I shall be surprised if we see no inflation in that period. In the course of time the value of the deposit will decrease substantially in real terms and we shall be facing the same kind of problem as we are facing now, with a deposit of no value. That being so, I should like Parliament to have the power to increase the deposit without recourse to primary legislation.

I am as aware as any hon. Member of the defects of orders. I recognise that they are unamendable and that, with the Government's majority today, it is difficult to defeat them. Therefore, there are criticisms to be made of making important changes by way of orders. But I hope that the Committee has sufficient confidence in the affirmative resolution procedure to give the Government the power that I have in mind. If we do not do something along those lines, we shall again have meaningless deposits in, say, 15 years' time.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

The deposit is a most important way of demonstrating that one wishes to stand in a general election or a by-election. I particularly welcomed the concession made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary late last night when he announced the reduction from £1,000 to £500.

In amendment No. 99, standing in my name, I had called for it to be further reduced to £250, and I very much wish that it could have been that way, because no one should be deterred from standing. It is a great honour, it costs something to stand, it is not free, and £250, a much higher threshold and a larger number of assenters would make much sense.

The most important point and the reason why the question of deposits is suddenly very much on the agenda is that in the general election of 1983 2,578 candidates were validly nominated, working out at 3.9 candidates per seat, of whom 679 were from other minor parties or independents. Excluding those who belonged to the Ecology party and other such parties, there were 474 true independents devoid of any known political party. In comparison, in 1979 there were 2,576 candidates standing, working out at 4.1 candidates per seat, with 754 independents or candidates with other non-party definitions. The votes cast for those independents and others amounted in 1983 to over 1.6 million—slightly down on 1979, when the figure was 1,677,417.

The real problem, however, is in by-elections, when one sees the deposit issue, the problems and the abuse by so many people standing for the most strange reasons. The opportunity might he used to promote the cause of a person in prison or as a public relations exercise to promote the sale of vodka. In Chesterfield, 17 candidates stood—some of them mad, including the one who was elected. [Interruption.] There was even a Monster Raving Loony candidate, so that makes at least two.

In 1979, 156 candidates in by-elections lost their deposits. Candidates stood for ridiculous and frivolous causes—Reclassify the Sun, Fourwheel Drive, Yoga, Elvis Presley, Soon to be Unemployed and an Official Loony. There is clearly a need to deter such frivolous candidates. Reluctantly, I concede that a £500 deposit is acceptable, but we must consider how many candidates have lost their deposits in the past. In the 1983 general election, 739 candidates lost their deposits — five Conservatives, 119 Labour, five Liberal, six SDP, 54 British National Party, 35 Communist, 108 Ecology party, 60 National Front, 32 Plaid Cymru, 53 Scottish National party, 21 Workers Revolutionary party and 241 others. In other words, a large number of strange candidates lost their deposits and were not elected.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Some strange candidates certainly were elected.

Mr. Bruinvels

I am pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is now present. He said yesterday that it would be easy to get 500 people to sign an assentors list. I disagree, although I know that some people will sign anything that is put before them. My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and I have put down new clause 23, which provides: A nomination shall not be valid unless it is signed by 500 electors of the Division for which that nomination is made; the nomination shall remain valid notwithstanding a margin of error in the number of five per cent. That seems a sensible way to show that the candidate is not frivolous. Some candidates of that type have obtained more than 500 votes in recent by-elections, so the nominators clearly meant what they said. In Enfield, the Turkish Troops out of Cyprus candidate polled 687 votes. In Cynon Valley the Communist candidate polled 642 votes and an Independent in Chesterfield gained 1,355 votes. Clearly, those who nominated the candidates genuinely wished them to stand.

Mr. Wigley

The difficulty is that the candidate does not know where the 687 supporters are in Enfield, so 500 signatures still seems too many. Rather than just signing a paper, nominators should have to show that their support is solid, perhaps by going to the registration office. In those circumstances, 100 would seem a more reasonable number.

Mr. Bruinvels

I am not convinced that 100 is sufficient, although I take the point that one does not always know who one's supporters are. I believe that a requirement for 500 signatures will discourage recklessness and frivolity. One hopes that the 500 voters will then put their money and their vote where their mouth is.

I wish genuine candidates to be able to stand and not to be deterred by a high deposit. If new clause 23 is accepted nominations will be properly handled, but we do not want difficulties caused by complicated procedures for signing. I hope that, whatever the Committee decision, clear guidance will be given as to the way in which the nomination form should be signed. Even in my own case, one of the 30 assentors did not sign properly. Time is often of the essence, so clear guidance is important.

Amendment No. 52 deals with the number of votes needed to save the deposit. I believe that the 10 per cent. threshold suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) and myself is reasonable. In the light of the number of candidates who did not lose their deposits, if we are tightening up the rules and preventing some candidates from standing, the rest should still be able to stand. In 1983 there were 2,578 candidates. I want the democratic process to survive and to grow. I want real candidates to be able to stand for real constituencies. Therefore, although I am disappointed that my amendment No. 99 did not find favour, I support the Government's proposal for a £500 deposit.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I wish to speak to new clause 23 and to develop the theme so eloquently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). The new clause proposes that a nomination form should be signed by 500 electors, and I wish to deal with the practical aspects of that.

First, I should make it clear that the proposal is based not on some quirk of my own but on considerable study of other legislatures. Our proposal is in sympathy with practice in other democracies, whereas the current procedure is not.

For instance, nominations to the Belgian Chamber of Representatives must be supported by 200 to 500 electors, depending on the size of the constituency. For the Belgian Senate, directly elected Senators must be supported by 100 electors. There are no deposit requirements for either House.

In Denmark, between 25 and 50 signatures are required for nomination. Again, no deposit is required.

In West Germany, nominations for candidates for the Bundestag must be signed by 200 electors entitled to vote in the constituency concerned. In the Land party lists, parties not previously represented by at least five members but recognised as political parties — this has been a major theme in speeches from all parts of the Committee in this debate—must have nominations signed by one elector per thousand entitled to vote in the previous general election up to a maximum of 2,000. Again, no deposit is required.

In Italy, between 351 and 700 signatures are required for nomination to either House, depending on the size of the constituency. Again, no deposit is required.

In Canada, at least 25 supporting signatures of electors in each constituency are required for nomination to the House of Commons. A deposit of 200 Canadian dollars is required.

Finally, although I could spend a long time citing other legislatures that support my argument, in the Netherlands candidates in each electoral district for both Chambers must be supported by a minimum of 25 electors.

5 pm

One can see, therefore, that requirement for support on a far wider basis than the United Kingdom nomination paper, with its simple procedure of proposer, seconder and eight subscribing electors, is in use. A cash sum is not a bar to publicists who are not genuine. I believe that it is a real disincentive to truly democratic candidates who should have the right to stand. I therefore favour removing the outdated £150 deposit and replacing it with a nomination roll of 500 electors. Such rolls could, as now unofficially, be submitted in advance to the acting returning officer to be checked for any errors.

I deal now with the practical problems that right hon. and hon. Members may raise. There is no problem of verification elsewhere, and I do not believe that our local government staff are any less efficient than others. I therefore allow the period in the proposed new clause of six months for any political agent to offer a list for verification with the provision of a further six months. To overcome the difficulty that would arise if anybody should move away from a constituency or to a higher place—in which case, I understand, such a person does not participate in our elections — I have introduced a provision for a margin of error of up to 5 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East rightly referred to some of the absurdities who tried to stand for Parliament in the Chesterfield by-election. One accepts that aspect of British eccentricity, but it hardly endears itself to serious candidature for the House of Commons.

In my view, we should consider five principles. The first is the argument that might have been suggested—although I am sure that in his wisdom the Minister will not do so—that the electoral system is being damaged by an increasing number of candidates standing at parliamentary elections. In that connection, I refer to the evidence submitted by the Home Office to the Select Committee on Home Affairs inquiry into electoral law and procedure in 1983, that there was little evidence of serious abuse of electoral privileges by candidates who do not come from the main political parties. Secondly, there is the argument that an increase in the parliamentary deposit would deter frivolous candidates. The Committee should be mindful that at the general election a number of companies and trade bodies considered putting up 650 parliamentary candidates purely for the purposes of publicity and free literature. A bar of £150, or £500, would be no disincentive. Furthermore, such candidates bodies might be looking to the possibility of obtaining television time, and so on. Such abuse will not be dealt with under the present system. Under the proposed new clause, the requirement of 500 assentors or electors will overcome this difficulty. The genuine Conservative in south Wales or the Left-wing candidate who would like to put up on the sunny south coast where prosperity under the Conservatives prevails will thus be entitled to that democratic right, as will the various ethnic and Celtic interests which may wish to be represented in a wider way in the House of Commons.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that there is no reasonable alternative to raising the deposit. The advantage of my proposed alternative is that it demands political commitment from the prospective candidate. If we go down the road of increased deposits, we will be putting a bar on genuine parliamentary candidates who are not able to afford, out of their own pockets, to stand for Parliament.

Fourthly, it has been argued on occasion that 100 signatures, or, as I have suggested, 500 signatures, would create problems for the electoral returning officer. I have overcome that difficulty by suggesting that political agents can submit these for verification up to six months before a general election. To counter the argument about the uncertainty of the date of a general election, when somebody is of the view that a general election is likely, he could submit a list and continue to do so on a six-monthly cycle, with an allowance for a margin of error of 5 per cent.

Finally, the argument has been advanced that £500 is not much to raise for a parliamentary deposit. I believe that all political parties will be faced with the problem of having to put up front significant sums of money to contest elections. If the deposit is increased, the smaller parties, or those which wish to demonstrate a serious intention, will be in difficulties. The answer to all the problems that have been raised are in the proposed new clause.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Having listened to my hon. Friends the Members for York (Mr. Gregory) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), I think that one major disadvantage arises. If there is a requirement for that number of signatures to support a candidate, this will be prejudicial to a candidate who is adopted at short notice. Will not such a candidate be kept out of the competition altogether?

Mr. Gregory

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not regard that as a problem. If a candidate has the foresight to consider the matter beforehand, he has the relevant period of time in which to obtain the signatures. The vast majority of political parties select their candidates, many months—indeed, years—beforehand. Even the fringe parties have that in mind. The suggestion seems to be that some of the loony candidates, deciding that they have a spare £150—or, as it will be, £500—rather than put that money on a horse race will invest it in a forthcoming general election or by-election. How otherwise could Mr. Piccaro have put up as the Official Acne Candidate, or, indeed, the candidates who stood for "Reclassify Sun Newspaper" or "Chesterfield in Thame"? The serious contender to the mother of Parliaments will have considered this before the calling of a general election or by-election and will have prepared the ground beforehand. I believe that the local government objections will be overcome.

On those grounds, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to accept the clause and not to prevaricate. This is not something new that I have thrust upon him, because I have been in correspondence with his Department for approximately a year and a quarter. During that time he will have had an opportunity to compare our system with that of other legislatures, he will wish to bring Britain into line with them, he will appreciate the flexibility that I propose in the suggested 5 per cent. and six months, and, in his wisdom, he will want to accept the clause.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

I have taken time out from the Committee that is considering the Local Government Bill. I apologise to this Committee for the fact that I may have to leave the Chamber after I have spoken to make a further contribution to the consideration of the Local Government Bill by my physical presence, if nothing else.

I wish to raise a matter that arises on new schedule 65. In my view, there is a growing problem with regard to the masquerading of political parties. Such a masquerade occurred recently in Birmingham. A council faced a problem in the council elections in the Erdington district when a disappointed Conservative candidate stood as a Conservative candidate against the official Conservative candidate. The impersonation of the political party extended to the distribution of almost identical literature. This resulted in confusion among the electorate, who mistakenly voted for the wrong candidate. Had the 350-odd votes mistakenly cast gone to the official Conservative candidate, he would have won the seat. It was not a problem of losing the seat. The problem was that confusion was sewn in the minds of the electorate. Following the election, we questioned many people in that community and found that they genuinely did not know who was the real Conservative candidate because they had been confused by the literature that has been disseminated among the electorate. That is wrong as an electoral practice.

It is a growing problem, not only with our party, but with the Labour and Liberal parties. People stand as Independent Labour candidates, Official Labour candidates, Independent Conservative candidates and so on. We need to control the image—the brand name—of the respected political parties. Electoral policy has been not to accept any organised political party. Each candidate stands as an individual, although as often as not he may have a party label attached to him. However, a problem arises in the situation which I have described. The addition of the new schedule—although I understand that it is not meant in quite the way that I interpret it, but nevertheless it fits my proposal admirably — together with my small amendment would adequately cover the problem of literature being disseminated among the electorate purporting to be from a political party, when in fact it is not that party's official literature.

I see no reason why political parties should not register as genuine, bona fide political parties, provided that it does not stop others from organising a political party and putting up candidates at an election should they so wish. At least my proposal would control the labels that we use and would avoid confusing the electorate.

I hope that earnest consideration will be given to the proposal. The problem has occured in Birmingham and will happen elsewhere, as I know from the many representations made to Birmingham from other parts of the country. The simple addition of this schedule, with my amendment, would adequately overcome what I believe to be a growing problem.

Mr. Forth

I apologise to the Committee for my brief absence a moment ago. I was necessarily speaking to a group of my constituents who have honoured us with their presence today. I hope the Committee will accept that as a legitimate reason for my brief absence.

We are discussing two principal matters. One is whether we believe that it is desirable to seek to reduce the number of candidates who stand at elections, and the other, what, if we did so decide, would be the best method to do so. Several colleagues have already mentioned specific examples of elections where a large number of candidates have stood. I want to tell the Committee of my favourite, because it illustrates the point extremely well.

At one by-election, one candidate was called Mr. Tarquin-Fintim-Linbinwhin-Binlim-Bus Ole Biscuit Barrel F. Tang. He described himself as the candidate for the Cambridge University Raving Loony Society, and obtained 223 votes. We can draw two different conclusions from that. One is that such candidates bring elections into disrepute and that we should seek to discourage them; the other is that is such a candidate can attract 223 votes, the electorate get the candidate and the politician that they deserve. That is a specific example of a candidate standing in a frivolous manner, offering himself for election with no serious intent. He was obviously well able to afford the £150 deposit.

We must consider whether we should seek to reduce the number of candidates. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) set the matter in a different context when he referred to parties of the extreme Right offering themselves to the electorate on some sort of racist platform. He failed to condemn, or to draw attention to, the parties of the extreme Left which offer themselves to the electorate on platforms of class hatred and divisiveness, and which on many occasions preach revolution or even violence.

5.15 pm

We must consider whether it is our job or duty to seek to deny the opportunity to such small and fringe parties —to say nothing of self-described loony parties—to offer themselves to the electorate. That first question leads on to our second consideration. If we wish to make a reduction in the number of candidates, what would be the best method of doing so? Two possibilities are being considered by the Committee, one of which is financial. The Government's original proposal to introduce a £1,000 deposit was hardly extreme or outrageous. I calculate that £1,000 represents about six weeks average manual wages, or about the cost of a package holiday in the Mediterranean for a family of four. That is hardly likely seriously to discourage people from offering themselves in something as important as a parliamentary election. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand why there has been such concern about the figure of £1,000 and why a compromise figure of £500 has been suggested.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary kindly wrote to me saying: we have accepted all along that there is no figure which is clearly and absolutely right. The figure of £1,000 is the one that was unanimously recommended by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The burden of persuasion is, therefore, on those who argue for a different figure. I believe that £1,000 is a reasonable amount to ask of those who wish to offer themselves in something as important as a parliamentary election. Unless I am otherwise persuaded—and I shall listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has to say when he replies to the debate—on balance I would prefer the £1,000 figure to remain.

I am not convinced about the requirement for signatures. Those of us who receive petitions from the public know that it is all too easy, unfortunately, to gather a large number of signatures for almost anything one cares to dream up. I have often been tempted to go on to the streets, offer a blank piece of paper to people and ask them to sign it. I am convinced that I could gather a large number of signatures and then use that paper for whatever purpose I chose. I do not believe that an apparently impressive, numerically large number of signatures is necessarily the right and proper way to authenticate parliamentary candidature. I prefer the simple, but effective financial method of discouraging frivolous candidates, which would still allow those who seriously wish to offer themselves to do so. However, I shall listen to what my hon. Friend has to say before finally determining my position.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I assure the hon. Member for Mid-Worcester (Mr. Forth) that he need never apologise for his absence.

I very much welcome the Government's response to our representations, and to the discussions that we had with them. I shall deal later with the principle involved on clause stand part, but now I deal with the reduction to £500. The figure could, with advantage, have been less, but in our discussions with them the Government began by proposing a higher figure and so we arrived at £500 as a compromise that involved as high a figure as we were ready to accept and as low a figure as the Government were ready to accept. Indeed, that is the way in which compromises are reached. Thus, we reluctantly accept that figure. However, it is very much coupled with the question of the threshold. The present threshold of 12.5 per cent. would have been unacceptable in relation to a deposit that was more than three times as high as the present one. The Government took the view that that threshold could be reduced, but did not wish to reduce it as far as we thought appropriate.

Once we had decided with the Government on the level of the deposit, we had to decide between us about the level of the threshold. Although the Government originally thought that the threshold should be higher than 5 per cent., I am very glad that, in the spirit of compromise that the Home Secretary referred to last night, they ultimately agreed to our proposition that the £500 deposit should be accompanied by a 5 per cent. threshold.

The compromise was typical, in that no one is really satisfied with it. But at any rate it is tolerable, and many small parties will find contesting elections a little less onerous than they would have done if the Government's original proposal had remained or if the Government's proposal of a revised threshold had been maintained. I should make it clear once again that the Government's original proposal would not have been in any way politically disadvantageous to the Labour party. A 5 per cent. threshold would have meant that we would have retained almost all our deposits, even in an adverse electoral year. The issue involved not what was convenient to the Labour or Conservative parties, but the right of access to the ballot paper of those advocating minority, eccentric or unpopular views. Indeed, that is what an election is all about. It is because we believed that that principle should be maintained that we proposed the amendment. That being so, we are very pleased that the Government have accepted it, and look forward to its incorporation in the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for what he has said. He has not been the only hon. Member to welcome what the Government have decided to commend to the House, which is, of course, an acceptance of the amendment proposed so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr). None of those who have accepted the compromise have thrown their hats in the air any more than I have done. The outcome is not so unsatisfactory as to be unacceptable to all, and is not so satisfactory as to bring great pleasure to all. But, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that is the mark of a sensible compromise.

It is interesting that the debate has revealed that, however wide the circle of agreement, there are still some who are determined to remain outside it. We heard a few such contributions this afternoon, not least from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He managed to find himself thinking that we had been ungenerous and had fixed the level of the deposit too high, even at £500, and that we had correspondingly been too generous and liberal in fixing the threshold at 5 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman had not been so patently sincere, I might have found his arguments a little contrived, because of his very determination to take issue with what otherwise seem essentially modest proposals. He was the first hon. Member to mention the Chesterfield by-election. It proved to be an interesting diversion for several hon. Members to speculate on the names of the candidates, their numbers and the sanity of any or all of them. However, I should not like to venture into that debate.

I do not think that it shows an excess of pomposity at the Dispatch Box if I say that I think that the House should address itself a little more seriously to the question of electing Members of Parliament who then go on to form or influence the formation of a Government. After all, we are a democracy. There are barely a few dozen true democracies out of a United Nations' membership of more than 150 countries. There are plenty of people who would like the opportunity to stand in serious elections. I wonder whether it is a sign of maturity or of decadence that we should smile indulgently on those who try to turn elections into farces.

The Government have always tried to make clear that the issue really involves recognision of the fact that being a candidate at a parliamentary election gives that person considerable advantages in terms of the free distribution of literature, restrictions on the proper coverage of the election, and so on, and that it is appropriate that the community should expect him to be a serious candidate. That does not mean "serious" in the sense that he is addressing the problems of the world seriously, or in a manner that seems to him to be serious, but that he has a serious prospect of obtaining a reasonable degree of support. Therefore, the argument must be about what a reasonable degree of support is.

We have taken a reasonable view of that in saying that one vote in 20 is not an unreasonable ambition for anyone who is remotely serious as a candidate. Indeed, £1,000 would certainly not have been an unreasonable figure to reflect the financial benefits of candidature. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) said. I am as attracted to the figure of £1,000 as I was the day that I first advocated it with considerable passion and vehemence, when the House first debated the issue in the summer. However, I have been driven to £500 and I console myself with the thought that at least that is an appropriate recognition of the privileges of being a candidate, even though it is in no way as sufficient as I would have liked the House to accept.

Of course, I appreciate that there are some who do not agree with that. For example, the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) do not agree. My hon. Friend spoke of the devastating effect on small parties. Sometimes our language is abused by using dramatic words to describe relatively undramatic situations. We are used to that in newspaper headlines, but I was not hitherto accustomed to it in my hon. Friend's speeches. His use of the word "devastating" was somewhat hyperbolic in the context of the situation that he outlined to us. He seemed to say that a small party would have aspirations to have a substantial wedge of Members of Parliament and would therefore put up a lot of candidates. He argued that it would be driven into bankruptcy by having to pay lost deposits in respect of each of them. In so far as I followed his argument, I would say that if a party was so unreal in its ambitions that it thought that it would get Members of Parliament by putting up a lot of candidates, and subsequently failed to cross the threshold, it must be concluded that its subjective view of the world was not one that it could expect the rest of us to share.

We all get sentimental about the Ecology party, but it barely polls more than a few hundred votes in any constituency. If hon. Members accept my definition of seriousness, which is that a candidate has a serious prospect of obtaining a reasonable proportion of the vote and that that is why he is given the privileges that attach to being a parliamentary candidate, we cannot take parties at their own subjective estimates. It becomes even more difficult when, as we know in the case of the National Front, a party obtains party broadcasts on the strength of putting up a certain number of candidates. If we make it easy for people to have the opportunity to address millions of our fellow citizens at prime time in a party political broadcast, we must ensure that only those who have realistic level of support in the community are entitled to that privilege.

5.30 pm

It is with some regret—though not for the reasons advanced by my hon. Friend—that I have concluded that his suggestion of using the register would not be an appropriate way forward. It would not be a proper use of the register for anyone who could be bothered to register, even the official Raving Loony party, which, after my remarks yesterday, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has assured me is not yet part of the alliance, nor does he intend that it should be. That registration should give the right to stand, without hindrance or impediment, in any constituency would not begin to be credible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) raised the important issue of people standing claiming to be representatives of a party of which they are not representatives. That problem concerns not only the Conservative party; it should also concern the Labour party following a recent council election in Glasgow at which two candidates claimed to be the official candidates, as a result of which the Labour party won the seat with a reduced majority.

The problem could have been resolved by having a register of parties. However, that would have led to consequences which led a number of those involved in the political parties to conclude that it would not be an acceptable price to pay. It is with some reluctance, therefore, that I have concluded that the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield cannot be dealt with in this measure in the manner proposed, for different reasons, by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that the Government would have been more than content to have taken powers in the Bill to enable a future Government to increase, by affirmative resolution, the level of the deposit. However, that proposition would not have been acceptable to others and, in the spirit of compromise that has emerged in discussing this important measure, which sets the framework under which we all contest elections, we decided not to pursue that line, although it was with some reluctance that we reached that conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) made an interesting speech about signatories, and we know that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed supports the idea of signatories. The fact that somebody has signed a nomination paper does not indicate support; it indicates assent to his nomination. They are very different propositions, as I discovered when, to my surprise, a Welsh National candidate decided to contest my constituency of Putney. I had not hitherto thought that Putney was on the list of promising seats for the Welsh National party.

Mr. Kaufman

On the same basis, I was surprised to find a Conservative nominated against me.

Mr. Mellor

In my case, the gentleman concerned, who bore an impressively Welsh name, got nominated in the Welsh National party's interest — thought not, I believe, formally so—and when his list of signatories was put in a number of them were found to be well known for their support for another party, some of them were members of that other party and others denied hotly that they had ever intended to cast their vote for the gentleman in question, but simply thought that it was a neighbourly thing to do to sign his nomination paper.

We must face the fact, from the wholly unnecessary court case brought by an eccentric candidate — who might not have stood had we had the higher level of deposit—that eccentric candidates are not always fun; that one drew my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) through the court.

It was suggested that Screaming Lord Sutch had managed to obtain the signatories for his nomination by spending a few minutes in a pub across the road from where he had to hand in his nomination paper.

Simply multiplying 10 by 50 does not remedy the fact that some people will sign anything. Indeed, a noted psephologist told me always to bear in mind the American experience of the researcher who sent a document through the post to a number of households saying, "Please sign this and return it to me at your earliest convenience." People did so and were astonished to find that they had signed their own death warrants.

Mr. Wigley

I shall not pursue the Minister's point about the election in Putney because that was a pure freelance operation. Will he consider—perhaps not in relation to this Bill but for future reference — the suggestion that if, say, 10 people were required, as they are now—the proposer and seconder and eight assenters —to attend in person to nominate formally in the town hall and to be identified as those 10 persons, that might give a formality to the procedure which would dissuade people from acting too glibly?

Mr. Mellor

There are endless permutations, and I accept the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman makes that one. We must bear in mind that already, as a result of this measure, electoral registration offices are having a great deal of pressure put on them. They must find the staff to perform the various tasks that we are placing on them, for example, in relation to increased absent voting and so on. The thought of 500 people — or however many might be decided upon—queuing up outside the town hall waiting to enter to prove their identity in the limited time available to get one's tackle in order for an election makes such a proposal inappropriate.

Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that some electoral returning officers have themselves put forward the idea of nominators being present to attest at the time of nomination? As those officers see some merit in that suggestion, my hon. Friend should not belittle the idea. Does he agree that it deserves more serious consideration?

Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend has recently joined us in the debate and I am sorry if my words have not met with favour from him, though others in the Committee would disagree with him. It is the nature of this whole area, perhaps uniquely so, that almost everybody has a different view. We have at least succeeded in arriving at a solution, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, which I hope leaves most people relatively satisfied that justice had been done, and on that basis I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Sir John Farr

I have been delighted to hear the remarks of the Minister, of the Home Secretary yesterday and of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) today. Rarely does one get united support for any amendment to any measure

The size of the election deposit is a key factor—it could be called the linchpin of the Bill — and by selecting £500 rather than £1,000 we are not placing democracy beyond the reach of aspirant candidates. I am grateful to hon. Members for their support and to the Government for accepting the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Kaufman

As the Committee is anxious to reach a conclusion on this matter, I shall explain why my hon. Friends and I propose to divide on the motion.

We have just agreed to incorporate into the clause an amendment which will halve the deposit originally proposed by the Government. In our view, it is still £500 too much. We believe that a deposit should not be required at a parliamentary election and that there are other, more valid, ways of dealing with the validity of a candidature.

The response yesterday of the Home Secretary to an intervention by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) gained in firmness what it lacked in logic. As the Home Secretary put it, if a candidate places the money down and is prepared to forfeit it, that indicates that he has some reasonable expectation of obtaining the number of votes required for him not to forfeit his deposit. That view would not have met with approval from Socrates. The logic is not easily discernible. Somewhere between the first and second part of that sentence there is a large undistributed middle.

The Home Secretary has not offered any satisfactory justification. The Under-Secretary of State, in what was, in a sense, a speech on the clause stand part motion, repeated one of the errors of the Home Secretary when he talked about the financial gains that accrued to someone who used a small deposit to become a candidate—for example, free postage.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the argument of the Under-Secretary of State—that because they are small parties they should not be in a position to fight—is fallacious because many of our modern national parties grew from small parties? Therefore, small parties have the right to stand.

Mr. Kaufman

I agree totally with my hon. Friend. If we make it possible for only large established parties with access to large amounts of money to contest elections, we shall suppress the growth of new ideas and trends. It is a fact that the National Front will have access to the amounts of money that will enable its members to stand for election. National Front candidates would, therefore, be able to afford to trade £1,000 for the £8,000 to which the Home Secretary drew attention as the benefits in terms of free postage. The small parties, including the Ecology party — there are many other small parties, some of which I like and some of which I dislike—simply do not have the necessary money. [Interruption.] I do not refer to the party of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). I never dare take a view on his party. I am referring to small groupings with wide interests. They simply do not have the resources, money or workers to use the free facilities. Therefore, it is an error to believe that this is a worthwhile bargain. The commercial people or those who want the publicity are ready to pay £500 or £1,000 for the greater publicity they will gain.

I do not agree with the Home Secretary who said: The deposit is founded in principle because the essence of election to Parliament is the contest between people who have serious aspirations to represent a constituency." — [Official Report, 13 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 423.] The deposit was invented as a way of imposing upon all candidates in an election a share of the cost of the election. Previously candidates had been required directly to bear a share of the cost of election.

If we are to have an open democracy in which opinions which are unpopular or which have not yet found their time are allowed to be voiced before the electorate and in which people are allowed to seek votes from the electorate— however few votes they may receive—the deposit is not a proper means of validating a candidature. I hope that hon. Members who share that view will join us in the Division Lobby.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The alliance also feels that it is necessary to vote against the motion. I have never believed that money is a test of a candidate's political seriousness. I differ from the Government on that fundamental issue of how one tests a candidate's political seriousness.

In a way, I am not surprised that the Government should place money higher on their list of tests than I do. My party believes that it is the breadth of support that a candidate can demonstrate which, if a test be needed, is the best test. That is why we have argued consistently for signatures.

I welcome the fact that the Government have sought to compromise and have considerably reduced the proposed increase in the deposit. I welcome also the conversion of the Labour Front Bench to the view that there should not be a deposit at all. That conversion has occurred under the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who has exercised a beneficent influence on his party's thinking.

Above all, I welcome openness, democracy and the opportunity to demonstrate when people are wrong and are not going to win support. I welcome the fact that the Ecology party is able to stand in elections and that we can demonstrate that the Liberal party is a far more convincing proponent of concern for the environment than that party. I welcome the fact that, when the National Front stands in elections, it is shown that it commands only minimal support. I wish those who have views to advance to stand in elections. I do not wish them to suffer under a financial penalty in their attempt to do so.

5.45 pm
Mr. Parris

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said that only a realistic level of support entitles a party to consider itself a serious contender in a general election. I do not agree. I believe that there are such things in politics as ideas as well as support at the polls. I believe that ideas as well as voting figures can be serious. Ideas may have to spend a long time in the wilderness before attracting electoral support. These changes make that wilderness a little less hospitable to ideas. To the extent that the Government have considerably compromised, I welcome the changes and I shall support the clause in the Lobby. I am still sorry that the test of a candidate's seriousness is the amount of money that he is able to put up.

Sir John Farr

I was a little surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) suggest that the Labour party was opposed to any deposit at all. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) rightly said that, when evidence was given to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Liberal pary did not say that financial considerations and deposits should not be taken into account. The Labour party is on record, however, in the White Paper, as officially advocating a deposit of £600. It is no good the right hon. Member for Gorton now saying that a deposit should not be required and that that is the official view of his party. It may be the official view of one part of his party, but it is not the unanimous view.

Question put:

The Committee divided: Ayes 209, Noes 104.

Division No. 106] [10.45 pm
Alton, David Kennedy, Charles
Ashdown, Paddy Meyer, Sir Anthony
Beith, A. J. Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Bruce, Malcolm Penhaligon, David
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Steel, Rt Hon David
Freud, Clement Wigley, Dafydd
Godman, Dr Norman
Hancock, Mr. Michael Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. Michael Meadowcroft and
Johnston, Russell Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth.
Ancram, Michael Couchman, James
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Cowans, Harry
Barron, Kevin Currie, Mrs Edwina
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Dixon, Donald
Beggs, Roy Dorrell, Stephen
Bermingham, Gerald Dubs, Alfred
Boscawen, Hon Robert du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dunn, Robert
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Durant, Tony
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Emery, Sir Peter
Brooke, Hon Peter Fallon, Michael
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Favell, Anthony
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Bruinvels, Peter Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Budgen, Nick Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Burt, Alistair Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)
Butcher, John Forth, Eric
Campbell-Savours, Dale Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Canavan, Dennis Fox, Marcus
Cash, William Franks, Cecil
Chapman, Sydney Freeman, Roger
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Galley, Roy
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Garel-Jones, Tristan
Colvin, Michael Gow, Ian
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Greenway, Harry
Coombs, Simon Gregory, Conal
Cope, John Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Corbett, Robin Ground, Patrick
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Nicholson, J.
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Oppenheim, Phillip
Hanley, Jeremy Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Paisley, Rev Ian
Harris, David Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Harvey, Robert Pawsey, James
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk) Pollock, Alexander
Hawksley, Warren Portillo, Michael
Hayes, J. Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Haynes, Frank Powell, William (Corby)
Hayward, Robert Powley, John
Henderson, Barry Proctor, K. Harvey
Hickmet, Richard Raffan, Keith
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Rhodes James, Robert
Holt, Richard Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Robinson, P. (Belfast E)
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Roe, Mrs Marion
Hunt, David (Wirral) Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Hunter, Andrew Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Irving, Charles Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Jessel, Toby Silvester, Fred
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Skeet, T. H. H.
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Skinner, Dennis
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Key, Robert Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Speed, Keith
Knowles, Michael Speller, Tony
Lang, Ian Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Lawrence, Ivan Stanbrook, Ivor
Leadbitter, Ted Stern, Michael
Lee, John (Pendle) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Lightbown, David Stradling Thomas, J.
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Sumberg, David
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Lord, Michael Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Luce, Richard Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Lyell, Nicholas Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Thurnham, Peter
McCusker, Harold Tracey, Richard
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Twinn, Dr Ian
Maclean, David John van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Malins, Humfrey Waddington, David
Marland, Paul Walden, George
Mates, Michael Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)
Mather, Carol Waller, Gary
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Ward, John
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Mellor, David Watts, John
Merchant, Piers Wheeler, John
Michie, William Winnick, David
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Winterton, Nicholas
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Wolfson, Mark
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Wood, Timothy
Moore, John Yeo, Tim
Moynihan, Hon C.
Needham, Richard Tellers for the Noes:
Nellist, David Mr. John Major and
Nicholls, Patrick Mr. Michael Neubert

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 12, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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