POLITICAL PARTIES AND ELECTIONS BILL – 20 October 2008
Dr Julian Lewis: I am quite happy to have had to wait rather a long time to make what is rather a short speech, because otherwise I might have missed the contributions of some of the late entrants, such as that of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr Tony Wright) who has just put on a bravura 24-minute performance. That was particularly striking given that I do not think he had intended to make a speech at all until he was spoken to by his Whip. I realise how much I yet have to learn about the workings of this place, but I congratulate him on that effort.
There have been a considerable number of noises about consensus, followed-up by a considerable number of highly partisan speeches. In contrast, throughout the debate I have been making a considerable number of highly partisan heckles and interventions, but I shall now make what I hope will be a highly consensual speech. It is about nothing that anyone else has discussed, because it is not about something that is in the Bill – but about something that I hope might be put into it. It follows on from discussions that I have had with various Ministers, Shadow Ministers and the Electoral Commission, and from a campaign earlier this year.
As we are all aware, on 16 May three Judges, in their wisdom, ruled that the private home addresses of hon. Members should be published in response to Freedom of Information requests. That led to a great deal of heart-searching, anguish and concern on the part of Members, 256 of whom signed an Early-Day Motion stating that their home addresses should be kept secret and not revealed in response to such requests. They included 98 Members from my party, 31 Liberal Democrat Members – about half of each of those parliamentary parties – and 111 Labour Members. That number would have been much higher but for the fact that many Government Ministers and appointees were not able to sign an Early-Day Motion.
One of the strongest supporters of the move to change the rules and ensure that such addresses were not revealed was the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who spoke earlier in this debate. Other supporters were the Leader of the House (Harriet Harman) and her then Deputy (Helen Goodman). A very strong supporter was a Minister who is now in the Ministry of Justice, who gave a seriously worrying account of something that had happened when the revealing of an address had led to an encounter on that Minister's doorstep. It could easily have had a very nasty result.
The outcome of all that was that, on 17 July, through a Statutory Instrument, the rules were changed. Hon. Members will no longer be put at risk in that way as a result of the decision by three Judges – each of whom, most revealingly, declined to give me his home address. However, a point directly relevant to the Bill is the reason why the Information Tribunal in February, and the three Judges in May, said that they thought it appropriate for hon. Members' home addresses to be revealed. They said – although not quite in these words – that the cat was already out of the bag because candidates had to reveal their home addresses in certain documents at election-time. We all know what those documents are, but I do not propose to spell it out. I do not want to make it any easier for people who wish to cause trouble to go into the matter, because I hope that we will get the law changed.
I contacted the Electoral Commission and had a conversation on 22 July with Mr Peter Wardle, the Chief Executive. I wrote to him on 30 July and pointed out that, as I have said, the primary reason for the decision was that the cat was already out of the bag. My argument was – and is – that the cat had been let only partly out of the bag. Just because something is revealed locally from time to time, that is no reason to have to reveal it en masse, all the time, on the internet. That would have been the effect of the Freedom of Information ruling.
I put it to the Electoral Commission that there were four alternative ways to close the loophole. The first was that the requirement at election-time
"should be altered from disclosure of a home address"
on various papers
"to disclosure of any valid address via which the candidate can receive communications."
The second was that
"the candidate need not disclose any address at all."
The third was that
"only the first three letters/digits of the postcode of the candidate's genuine home address should be disclosed",
and the fourth was that
"a genuine home address should be disclosed to the Electoral Returning Officer only, who would have to be satisfied by documentary or other means that it was valid but who would not disclose it to third parties."
Mr Wardle helpfully replied on 4 August, stating:
"In your letter of 30 July, you set out four possibilities. For the reasons I expand on below, I think the Commission would be likely to prefer your option (3) – that only the first 3 digits of the postcode of the candidate's genuine home address should be disclosed. In brief, the reason for my view is that the Commission is likely to take the view that electors and candidates should have the opportunity to establish for themselves what connection a candidate has with the area they are seeking to represent."
He pointed out that the requirement for a home address to be disclosed went back to the Ballot Act 1872 and had been carried forward, most recently in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Mr. Wardle said that his
"understanding is that the arguments for maintaining these arrangements"
related to people seeing that
"where there are rules on residency (e.g. in relation to eligibility to stand at a local election), they had been followed; or, where there are no residency rules, to ensure that candidates and electors can identify which candidates are local to the area."
He pointed out that in different Parliaments and in different elections, such as European elections, there are not the same requirements for such details to be disclosed.
I know that time is against me, so I shall conclude by saying merely that I believe that it was a good thing that the Electoral Commission stated the following to me:
"In our report, we did not recommend the complete removal of candidates' addresses from ballot papers – but we did suggest that addresses on ballot papers" –
one of the examples that we all know about –
"could be abridged. Giving the first three digits of a postcode would, for example, be one way of achieving that."
The House has made its position overwhelmingly clear on this issue. The House has spoken: it does not wish hon. Members' home addresses to be revealed. The only reason this came about in the first place was through people pointing out that the home addresses of candidates are revealed at election-time, albeit in a restricted way locally. The Bill gives us the opportunity to close that loophole, which nearly led to a very dangerous result. I do not expect an answer from the Minister tonight, but I hope that he will consider tabling an amendment in Committee. I am sure that such an amendment would meet with a great deal of genuine, consensual support. My Front-Bench colleagues informed me today that they would be happy to table such an amendment, but I hope that that will not be necessary.
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[Mr Jonathan Djanogly: ... My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) made a strong case for including a home address secrecy clause, which we shall support.
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The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr Michael Wills): ... The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) raised an issue that concerns many Members, and I am grateful to him for the spirit in which he did so. He will know from our previous discussions that I am keen to continue a dialogue on that, but he will also know that in our view it is not necessarily as simple as he suggests. For example, there are implications for electoral administrators. The current provisions exist for a reason, and there continues to be a body of opinion in favour of them. They are not merely a historical anachronism, as he elegantly suggested. I can assure him that we will consider the matter, take it forward, and continue what I hope that he agrees has been a constructive dialogue.]