§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)
I beg to move,That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following motions:That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.That the draft Local Elections (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The first order increases the limits on candidates' election expenses at parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom and at local government elections in Great Britain to take account of inflation. The existing limits were set in March 1992. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has power to vary the maxima where, in his view, there has been a change in the value of money and it seems reasonable to increase these limits to take account of the change.
The main political parties and the local authority associations have been consulted about the proposal to increase the limits. The Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have all indicated their support for an increase to take account of inflation. The aim is to have the increases in place in good time for the local government elections in May and also for the outstanding parliamentary by-elections.
The draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1994 perform two different functions. First, they increase the limits on candidates' election expenses at European parliamentary elections to take account of inflation. The existing limits have not changed since the previous European parliamentary general election in 1989.
Secondly, they apply for the purposes of European parliamentary elections in England and Wales an amendment made by the Education Act 1993 about the use of grant-maintained schools as polling stations. That amendment was made to ensure that returning officers continued to have the right to use, free of charge, rooms in grant-maintained schools once responsibility for funding such schools passed to new funding authorities.
The draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland)(Amendment) Regulations 1994 increase the limits on candidates' election expenses at European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland, while the draft Local Elections (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 increases the limits at local elections in Northern Ireland. These increases correspond to the increases in Great Britain.
I hope that the House will approve all four orders.
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
The four orders propose to raise the maximum limit of candidates' election expenses. They are very modest measures but, 682 whatever our views on the precise level of the limit, I hope that the whole House will agree that the principle of limiting expenditure on elections is fundamental and central to our democracy. Without it, we could move rapidly towards the excesses of the system in the United States where it appears that one has almost to be a millionaire before one can afford to run for office. That is true not only nationally but locally and in state elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Ilsley) reminds me that, even in union elections, money talks.
In the United States, Ross Perot, a billionaire, entered the presidential contest because he felt that it was appropriate and, in Italy at the moment, there is a similar development with Berlusconi. I hope that this evening we are not encouraging such a phenomenon in British politics.
Of course, the principle of limits on expenditure applies only to local expenses. The local limits that we are debating contrast strongly with the free-for-all that exists at the national level. Local limits are, rightly, rigorously enforced and respected but national expenses are limitless and constitute a democratic deficit in the United Kingdom.
Political campaigning by individual candidates, as opposed to national party political machines, is an essential element in any healthy democratic system. Getting it right locally is all the more important today when the national political system is showing serious signs of ill health. There is undoubtedly, and rightly, a deep public cynicism about politics and politicians in general and of the House of Commons in particular.
The idea of democracy as a system of government by the people, for the people and of the people is an increasingly laughable characterisation of the over centralised, unaccountable and Executive-dominated system that passes for a democracy in this country. Labour has a wider democratic agenda to tackle the problem, but I shall not go into detail now because I know that you would bring me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the orders highlight another issue.
All too often, contemporary political debate in this country is conducted through intermediaries, be they journalists, television reporters or assorted media pundits, but I do not blame them for that. We—in this place and at other political levels—are responsible for the fact that the importance of the relationship between candidates for office and their prospective electors has become an increasingly marginal relationship in the conduct of politics.
We believe that strengthening the local link and the local dialogue, as the orders do, is vital if we are to close the ever widening divide between politicians and the public. It is, therefore, more important than ever that those who are standing for public office as elected representatives have adequate resources during local election campaigns to project themselves locally as individuals and to publicise their own distinctive views and those of their party to the particular constituency electorates that they seek to represent. Candidates' election expenses at the parliamentary and European level are, in the main, geared entirely towards precisely that.
We believe, that in most respects, the current system of limiting a candidate's expenses is reasonable although hardly generous. In these days of direct mail, glossy literature and telephone canvassing, hon. Members may 683 feel that keeping down their expenses is rather like a boxer trying to make the weight limit—something that you may appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In 1992, my own limit was £6,900 or thereabouts. It draws gasps of astonishment from people who campaign in other circles, such as those in pressure groups trying to mount a local or national campaign, those running a business or marketing particular products, and especially those from abroad. My American acquaintances in particular are staggered when they hear that there are such low limits on the amount that individual candidates can expend locally.
We believe that the local limits on election expenses should be uprated annually in line with inflation. Had the March 1986 expenses been linked to inflation, an additional £700 at today's prices would have been available to a parliamentary candidate in a borough constituency. The Minister mentioned linking these limits to inflation or catching up with inflation and, if he is listening, I ask him to comment on the possibility of a permanent link with inflation so that orders such as this are not necessary on an occasional basis and the amount that we can spend locally ratchet up with the retail prices index.
The real danger not covered in the orders is the fact that the role of local campaigning on the basis of a rough parity of party funds is fatally flawed because of the huge differences allowed at national level. The Labour party's Plant committee on electoral systems recently examined the problem and concluded:Whilst the principle that wealthy candidates should not have undue advantages by access to greater funds still, in the main, applies at local level, it has become meaningless in terms of national expenditure.Accompanied by a substantial increase by outside bodies in the promotion or rejection of a political party or its views, the concept of equality between parties is being steadily eroded.As in so many things, the Conservatives are isolated on this matter. Of the parties present in the House this evening, only the Conservative party is opposed to national limits on expenditure. Surely the notion of political equality is absolutely fundamental to a democratic system.
More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle noted:The first and most truly so-called variety of democracy is that which is based on the principle of equality.People may be unequal in the marketplace, much as some of us may regret that, but at the ballot box, they should be equal. We should do everything in the House to ensure that they stand as equals when they cast their vote.
The increase in expenditure at European elections is most welcome. I believe that every penny of that expenditure will be extremely helpful to Conservative candidates, who will need to explain the commitments in the European People's party manifesto. One commitment—I quote one of many possibilities—isto move resolutely forward in furthering the process of European unification and integration.No doubt many of the Conservative Members who have now vacated the Chamber will take great interest in that and in explaining to potential Conservative voters the possibility of a European defence force, a European immigration policy and a European constitution. No doubt the hon. Members who have left the Chamber are, at this very moment, rushing out to the electorate to notify them of those policy developments under the European People's party manifesto.
684 Perhaps we shall remember the orders going through the House this evening for the reason that this could be the last occasion on which the European parliamentary elections are fought on a first-past-the-post basis, which requires these limits. We shall have to consider new ways in which to devise expenditure limits for the next round of European elections after the elections in June.
Another concern about the orders is their failure to address the problems, again identified by the Labour party's Plant commission, of overspending the limits and their enforcement at local level. The commission said:We consider it grossly unfair that an agent at constituency level, often a voluntary member of the party, is subject to legal control, and liable to a possible prison sentence for breaching the law, whilst a national party and outside bodies can freely spend and influence the electors, technically on a national basis, but in reality giving support for candidates of one political party.That is wrong. There should be even-handedness in the way in which people are treated at national level, just as there is at local level. What is good for an individual, volunteer local party agent—the majority of us have such agents—should be good enough for a named person who should take responsibility for the legal implications of raising money and spending money at national level, if limits are breached. I state again for the record that Labour will legislate for national maximum spending limits, backed by legal sanctions, to ensure even-handedness.
We believe that the orders are a seriously missed opportunity to eliminate the anachronism of the differential in election expenses between candidates for borough constituencies and candidates for county constituencies. That, of course, applies to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland elections and not to the European elections. The orders make that disparity greater. There is an increase in the expenses per elector in county constituency elections of 6.1 per cent.—from 4.9p per elector to 5.2p per elector. There is an increase of only 5.4 per cent. in the amount allocated per head to the electors in a borough constituency—from 3.7p to 3.9p per elector. The arguments that might once have justified that disparity have long since passed and it would be sensible for that disparity now to be removed. Again, I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on whether he feels that that matter should now be the subject of a serious review so that we can equalise the amounts that are given to borough constituency elections and to county constituency elections.
The orders are also faulty in that they fail to take account of the many new developments in election techniques. Those techniques are familiar to most of us and may be more familiar to those who have fought marginal seats. None the less, should the exemption of various capital items from the definition of expenses be considered? Those items might include the election headquarters, computers, printing machinery and telephone equipment. That would ensure that the maximum permitted election expenses are limited to items that are specifically directed at the elector, such as literature, the direct promotion of candidates, canvassing, direct mail and, perhaps, poster and press advertising.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether he would be receptive to such a change in the definition of election expenses. Perhaps he will clarify and pinpoint the services for which the money pays.
It is important that we state that Labour has argued since 1929 that there should be a fundamental review of the whole way in which we fund political parties. The subject 685 is currently being considered by the Select Committee on Home Affairs and, although it has a Conservative majority, I look forward to it proposing some radical reforms to party funding. I am pleased to welcome the Chairman of that Committee, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), to our proceedings. He may care to comment at some point on the Committee's discussions on this important matter. I ask him to tell us, at the very least, whether the Committee may consider committing itself to the setting up of an independent electoral commission, along the lines of the Boundary Commission, to oversee the whole area of election expense regulation and to oblige all United Kingdom political parties to disclose in their annual accounts any donation from a single source above a particular limit, let us say £5,000 per calendar year. That is the minimum that we expect from the Select Committee and I should be pleased if the Chairman would comment on that or on any other point made so far if he can do so without giving away too many secrets.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
The inquiry into the funding of political parties is in a state of activity at the moment. The Committee has not yet come to a conclusion and it is too early for me to say what conclusions we shall come to on the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
§ Mr. Allen
That is most helpful. I look forward to the report. No doubt I shall reciprocate with a slightly more elaborate set of comments when I see the report. I wish the hon. and learned Gentleman well in drafting it.
Another relevant point is the limit on local government expenses being extended from £192 per local government candidate plus 3.8p per head to £205 per candidate plus 4p per head. We certainly welcome and support that part of the order, but we also believe that there is now a very strong case indeed for examining the maximum and determining whether we are allowing sufficient resources to local authority candidates to fight their corners effectively.
It is little use the House sometimes rather complacently saying that our turnouts are a lot greater than local government turnouts, when it is within the power of the House to assist candidates of all parties to spend a little more money contacting their electorates through additional literature or whatever other means they seek to employ. Turnouts in local government elections are too low, and we should do our bit to ensure that they are increased. However, it is incumbent upon the House to examine seriously whether the amount to which we limit local government candidates is sufficient to help local government achieve the turnouts, involvement and local interest that we would all like to see. Perhaps the Minister will comment not on the specific amount but on the broad dimension of funding that we allow local government candidates to use.
Similarly, in the case of by-elections, there should be a higher maximum for parliamentary and local elections. Do we really expect the Eastleigh, Rotherham, Dagenham and Barking by-elections to be fought effectively on current limits? Those events are of national interest and they will generate immense activity. In such circumstances, we might need to consider once more whether the admittedly more generous amounts that are allowed to people who are fighting by-elections could be considered yet again in the light of modern circumstances.
686 The measures were drafted some time ago; certainly before the advent of widespread computerisation, widespread direct mail, and the press conference every hour, it seems, in local by-elections. Perhaps, with future measures, we should take a step back to assess the level of expenditure and come up with a more realistic limit for local and parliamentary by-elections.
I have sought to place today's modest increases in expenses for candidates within the broader context of the enormous disparities within the levels of national party political funding which seriously undermine our democratic system. Recent allegations about the behaviour of certain Conservative councils suggest that the incestuous relationship between money and political power is alive and well in modern Britain. The problem, however, is not primarily that of illegality, important though it is to root out corruption from whatever source. The insidious problem is posed by large-scale, frequently clandestine but nevertheless legal financing of the governing party by the small wealthy minority who benefit directly from its tax policies. As we know, a number of the more substantial contributors to Conservative party funds—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the scope of the debate is narrow. Although he has been in order until now, the hon. Gentleman is beginning to stray beyond the bounds of the debate.
§ Mr. Allen
The very important point that I am trying to make is that people in our respective constituencies, be they in a constituency Labour party, a Conservative association, and whatever it is that the Liberal Democrats have, work extremely hard to raise money. That is why we have the limits. Such people work very hard to raise money through socials, jumble sales, coffee mornings and so on. That hard graft of local party politics goes on in order to raise money, and we rightly put ceilings on expenditure.
However, that has to stand in stark contrast with those who, at national level, are without any limit whatsoever and who, because they happen to be a foreign shipping magnate or a business man in Hong Kong, can donate amounts of money far in excess of that which any constituency has raised in 10 or 20 years.
That element of fairness must be conveyed. Those individuals have a far greater and disproportionate effect, even though they might be citizens of a foreign country working on behalf of a foreign business, than the hundreds of people—I pay tribute to workers in party politics, be they Labour or Conservative—who work day in and day out, voluntarily and without payment to make local parties the engine of local democracy. Without those local parties we would not have politics; we would just have top-down financed political parties. Sources of Conservative party finance raise several questions that I will not go into.
Although we support the orders, Opposition Members have a more radical agenda. The future Labour Government will remove the manifest unfairness of the existing system of party funding. We will legislate for limits on national spending, just as we have today on local spending. We will introduce state aid. We will ensure that party accounts are published. We will ban the funding of political parties by foreign individuals and foreign businesses. As part of our wider democratic agenda, we will work to create a level playing field for all political parties and candidates at local and national level, and we 687 will create a democratic system in which elections cannot be bought by wealthy vested interests but are won by the party with practical and imaginative ideas. We alone require no loaded dice. We alone will welcome that fair fight.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I am not sure what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) meant when he said, "We alone require no loaded dice." I do not know whether he sought to include or exclude the Liberal Democrats in that.
The hon. Gentleman laid out a wide canvas of reforms. I will not imitate that tonight, but suffice it to say that I hope that he will think it appropriate to seek cross-party agreement for any such reforms. Part of the essence of the hon. Gentleman's fair criticism of the Government is that they proceed in matters such as the reform of our electoral system with scant regard for the views of other parties on matters that are central to the efficacy of our democracy.
§ Mr. Allen
If I was not clear, let make it clear that the association of ideas on the national maximum is shared by the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and, indeed, other parties, too. Only one party stands against a national maximum, and that is the one which needs a national maximum in order to make its own case, because it is incapable of making it on a level playing field.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. None the less, I would value the opportunity of a dialogue with him on this as on other matters, as, I am sure, would other parties represented in this House. I am prompted to say that because of what the hon. Gentleman said about the different expenditures in borough and county electorates.
I remember serving on the Speaker's Conference on electoral law some years ago, when this matter was considered very carefully. Clear evidence persuaded the conference that the expenditure necessarily incurred in campaigning in county elections was higher per head of the population than in borough constituencies.
In the view of the Speaker's Conference, that was sufficient to advocate the difference which these measures carry forward today. I do not have a dogmatic view on whether the difference is justified in contemporary circumstances, because I recognise that there have been substantial changes in the methods of campaigning at local level since the Speaker's Conference reported in the 1970s.
It would make sense to carry out a deep study of the actual costs of campaigning at parliamentary and European elections in the latter decade of this century in order to have some justification for the figures, which we normally uprate once in the lifetime of a Parliament, to see whether they are a proper reflection of the costs.
The figures are somewhat artificial. For example, they do not reflect the extent to which telephone canvassing may have become a core part of campaigning today. Nor do they reflect the difficulty in tracing expenditure on such campaigning.
From my experience of campaigning in a very scattered rural constituency, I must reflect that the nature of the expenditure incurred is very different from that incurred in a borough. The expenditure on petrol in driving from one 688 public meeting to another is considerable, and expenditure on advertising as many as four or five dozen meetings in different local newspapers is considerable because of present printing costs.
I know that, at the current levels of expenditure permitted by Parliament, it is difficult in such a rural area to do more than publish two, or at the most three, leaflets locally during an election campaign. I am not sure that that makes total sense in present times.
§ Mr. Allen
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is coming towards the conclusion that, if the limits are too low—there is a case for saying that these limits are too low—we are in danger of introducing a possible element of corruption into the local electoral process, because the temptation that may exist to exceed the limits is great where they may be over-rigorous.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I think that that is a risk. Certainly it is one that we should be aware of in looking at the realism of these measures in uprating the limits. I think that the Government have tied the uprating simply to the increase in the cost of living, but I do not think that there has been any detailed analytical work on the components of electioneering in bringing forward these measures.
Campaigning has been much more sophisticated recently. There is much more targeted campaigning locally. There is much more printing of letters which are directed to particular members of the electorate, in an attempt to have a more sensitive campaign than perhaps in the old days of the soapbox, which the Prime Minister, in his effort to get back to basics, employed—it must be said, with some success—at the last election.
Nonetheless, as we must be concerned about the evident cyclical decline in the number of our electors participating in elections, it is extremely important that election expenses which can be incurred at the local level should properly and fully reflect what it costs to run an informative campaign which allows candidates fully to display what they are offering to the public.
As I said, there is a certain artificiality about the limits today. Of course, the biggest artificiality of all is that to which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North referred—the tight control of local expenditure and the absence of control of national expenditure, which has a distorting effect on campaigning.
Although I am not one of those who believe that what happens locally does not matter much—electoral battles are fought on television and won by the party leaders; and, provided that we control the amount of television time and cover of the principal advocates in a national election, what goes on below that does not matter greatly—the extraordinary disproportion of expenditure nationally is something we need to examine in a fair and modern democracy. However, we cannot look at that matter within the ambit of these measures, which deal with a limited part of our democratic process.
I put it to the Government that the time has come to set up a Speaker's Conference to look at the disproportion between the tight control of local expenditure, which we are seeking modestly to raise tonight, and the absence of control of national expenditure. Undoubtedly, the Labour party has a clear view about what evidence it might submit to a Speaker's Conference. The Liberal Democrats might submit slightly different evidence, because there are 689 serious problems of control of national expenditure. We must take account of the practical difficulties of controlling national expenditure if we are to seek any change.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Is there not an urgent need also to look at the consequences of the incumbency? Today, with the growth of regional and local media, Members of Parliament, local councillors and others have an increasing advantage over challenging candidates—that matter needs to be looked at—and generally there is no starting date in terms of knowing when an election campaign begins.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is an advantage for the sitting tenant, whose record and history are known.
§ Mr. Maclennan
In some cases it is an advantage, but it cannot be said that it is a universal advantage. The changeovers that occur suggest that it is not a sure-fire recipe for success at the polls. The hon. Gentleman is right: it is something that we should examine.
The opportunity for a new candidate to come forward and sell himself at an election on the basis of two or three little bits of paper seems to be inadequate. I do not want to see a huge increase in spending on elections, which would also militate against the challenge of small parties, new parties and local parties which are not well heeled and which have little to do with the merits of the candidature.
§ Mr. Allen
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned fixed-term Parliaments, which would have an interesting impact on local expenditure limits. If candidates were to know when an election was to take place, that might well affect the way that they plan their campaigns. Does the hon. Gentleman have a view on that?
§ Mr. Maclennan
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am in favour of fixed Parliaments. However, that goes far beyond the ambit of the measures. Although it may be interesting for me to go down those avenues, I must confine myself strictly to what we are considering today.
I put it to the Minister that the time has come for a new look at these matters in the round. There is plenty of time before his party will have to face the electorate and nemesis.
The Government are therefore in an ideal position to take that step. In my experience, Speaker's Conferences tend to be dominated by the partisan views of those who participate in them. Nonetheless, they have served a purpose in the past of enabling evidence to be accumulated which can then go into the public domain and lead to a public debate. Such a debate preceded the alteration in the voting age, for example. Incidentally, Parliament rejected the recommendation of the Speaker's Conference on the voting age.
It is an appropriate process for considering how the matters should be taken forward. We should seek to modernise the system of the control of expenditure, and we should take account of the realities of campaigning in this day and age.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Mr. Peter Lloyd
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) made a number of complaints about the orders, and he wanted them to do a lot of things which they cannot do. That is not merely because the orders do not contain the requisite material, but because they cannot do those things under the governing legislation. However, there were two or three points in particular upon which he asked my opinion.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could have increases automatically with inflation. I do not think that we can under the present law, because the Home Secretary is charged to come forward with regulations when he feels that it is appropriate to raise the expenses in line with the changing value of money. That must be his decision, and he has done that by consulting through his officials with the political parties. When there is a consensus—as there is on this occasion—he will introduce an order.
The hon. Gentleman also remarked on the disparity, as he saw it, between borough and county, with the latter having higher expenses. He thought that the differences were now out of date. That was an odd way of putting it, because the reason for the differences is geography, and that remains as it was. The distances in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as compared with the constituency of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), are as they were previously.
There is no doubt that a large constituency, with long distances to travel and a spread population, involves greater expenses than a smaller, urban constituency. There is no reason why the differentials should be wrong now if they were right some years ago. They could be looked at, but they could be changed only if the Home Secretary introduced orders which did not raise the ceilings in county constituencies with inflation, as he was recommending the House did in borough constituencies.
§ Mr. Allen
The point that I was making in terms of the balance between counties and boroughs being slightly different now was based on the new campaigning techniques. There is greater emphasis on telephone calling and direct mail shots, and the physical moving of people and goods to different places around a constituency during a campaign has been somewhat diminished. The balance has shifted a little to more technological means of campaigning.
Will the Minister comment on the point about research, raised by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland? Would it not be helpful to look into a lot of those things and for the Home Office to undertake some serious research into whether we have it right at the moment? That research could be even more serious than that which is undertaken already.
§ Mr. Lloyd
I will come to that point in a moment.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North suggested that the ceilings on candidates' expenses were too low generally, and that he would like them raised. That would need legislation. I am not convinced that higher ceilings are needed. It is interesting that some 40 per cent. of Labour party candidates spend about 80 per cent. of what they could spend in elections. It does not appear that they are pressing on those ceilings.
There may be a need to look at the matter again. We last looked at it in conjunction with the other parties in 1987, when I did not have responsibility for these matters. The 691 hon. Gentleman knows that a series of study groups is dealing with aspects of voting and electioneering. There are six groups, which are drawing lessons from the general election. They have presented their draft reports, and those have either been sent to the political parties for comment in the past few days or are about to go out.
We do not ask that the matter of candidates' expenses should be looked at again. There are a large number of other issues which impinge upon those matters, and we will be interested to hear of any other issues when we meet with the political parties. It is sensible to take the matters forward by consensus because, at the very least, there needs to be agreement that certain aspects need to be looked at, rather than because of pressure from one party or another to make changes.
I am not sure that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is right when he says that we need a Speaker's Conference. I would much rather have meetings with the political parties on the basis of the wide-ranging reports which we are already putting forward. If additional issues arose, they could be examined to see whether it was agreed that certain aspects should be examined further—research, to use the hon. Gentleman's term.
The examinations could determine whether other discussions were needed, or whether there was not enough of a consensus to find a way forward. It would be much better to have meetings and discussions first. I do not want to rule anything out, but I would not like the hon. Gentleman to think that I was ruling anything in before the discussions.
§ Mr. Allen
While a Speaker's Conference may be going too far, and while many of us welcome the study groups and working groups which were established under the auspices of the Home Office, perhaps a middle way could be for an independent electoral commission, as I suggested. There may be matters which are to the benefit of the electors which may not necessarily be for the benefit of individual political parties, despite the fact that we always try to represent all our electors.
§ Mr. Lloyd
The outcome of the discussions between the political parties will be for wider debate. For example, we are consulting local authority associations, and other interested groups will want to comment. I do not believe that general, non-partisan interested groupings will be excluded in any way, but it would be sensible to take things stage by stage.
A great deal of work has been done by the study groups which have already reported. We should take that work forward and add any other matters that the political parties combined want to study further as well.
I will finish on the funding of parties nationally. That matter is outside the substance of this debate, but has been mentioned several times. The matter is being looked at by the Select Committee, and observations have been made by both hon. Members who took part in the debate. I am tempted to make some counter-observations of my own, but it is better if hon. Members keep within the rules of the debate. It would be sensible to wait until we knew the recommendations of the Select Committee.
I hope and expect from what has been said in this short debate that the House will give approval to the four statutory instruments.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.
That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]
That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]
That the draft Local Elections (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 17th February, be approved.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]