The last year certainly hasn’t been a quiet one when it comes to controversies over how parties raise and spend money. Whilst the massive and long-running story of MPs’ expenses has rather overshadowed the previous stories, Royal Assent has just been given to the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which is intended to deal with the issues thrown up by those previous events.
New rules on political donations
The changes are intended both to reduce the administrative burden on volunteers such as local party treasurers but also to ensure that more information is revealed as to the actual sources of money received by parties or candidates.
Question over the actual origin of money given to parties have come up in the cases such as David Abrahams’s donations to Labour (where he provided money to intermediaries who then donated to Labour and whose names were those in the public donations records) and the Midlands Industrial Council (who took money from individuals and in turn made donations to Conservatives, but with the MIC being declared as the donor).
In future donations will have to be accompanied with a declaration as to the source of the money (dealing with the David Abrahams type situation). Unincorporated associations making donations of over £25,000 in a year will have to reveal the source of donations to themselves of more than £7,500 (dealing, at least in part, with the Midlands Industrial Council type situation, though that £7,500 is a fairly generous figure).
There has also been ongoing controversy over whether tax exiles and similar should be able to donate. Under the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, donations or loans of more than £7,500 can only come from those resident, ordinarily resident and domiciled in the UK.
The Peter Hain Labour deputy leadership campaign illustrated problems over who exactly is legally liable if the rules are not followed. In future, members associations (a group or organisation primarily made up of members of one party) will have to appoint a “responsible person” who will be liable for failures to follow the rules. Holders of public office will also be able to appoint a compliance officer to assist them with declaration of donations.
To make life easier for voluntary treasurers, and to reflect the impact of inflation since the figures were first set, the basic threshold for recording and checking on the permissibility of donations and loans rises from £200 to £500, with the threshold for then reporting them to the Electoral Commission rising from £1,000 to £1,500 (for monies received locally) and from £5,000 to £7,500 (for monies received nationally). Finally, there is a defence in future of “reasonable excuses” for non-compliance.
New controls on election expenditure
If the general election takes place in spring next year, there will be extra controls on local expenditure from January 2010. The Electoral Commission is required to provide guidance on how these new rules should be operated. As this is a large area in itself, it will be the subject of the next column.
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 contains a timetable for switching from household registration to individual registration. Currently one electoral registration form is sent to each household, to be completed by one in person in the household on behalf of everyone there. In future – in fact, quite a way in the future as the timetable is very leisurely – everyone will get and have to fill in their own individual form, providing additional personal information which can be used to help protect against electoral fraud.
A voluntary phase will start in July next year, with household registration continuing but voluntary individual registration on offer. For this, people will be asked to provide their signature, date of birth and national insurance number. Each year the working of this system will be reviewed by the Electoral Commission until 2014 when, if the Commission recommends it, a vote will go before Parliament to change to full mandatory individual registration from July 2015.
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 also paves the way for a series of pilots on how the quality of the electoral register could be improved by making more use of the data held by public authorities. There are many records in the public sector of who lives where which currently are not used to help improve the accuracy or completeness of the electoral register.
This is linked to individual registration as switching from household registration may result in lower registration rates (as was the case in Northern Ireland). Better use of other data could be a way to help compensate for this.
Sharing more government data raises obvious fears about privacy, accuracy and security, but the examples of countries such as Australia show how, done well, it can bring sensible electoral benefits.
These pilots could be a really good route to making better use of data in ways that people are happy with. However, the experience of the pilots on e-voting should give pause for caution, as in those little emphasis was given to issues such as cross-checking accuracy of data and transparency of (and so confidence in) in data handling procedures.
Changes to the Electoral Commission
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 introduces numerous technical, but widely welcomed, changes to the Electoral Commission’s powers, such as providing better investigatory powers and a wider range of sanctions.
The new civil sanctions are particularly sensible as currently the Electoral Commission is frequently faced with a choice between doing nothing or pursuing an inappropriate criminal prosecution. Where the circumstances involve, for example, a voluntary party treasurer failing to declare a donation on time because they had also just become a parent then neither option at the moment really suits. Doing nothing isn’t appropriate but a criminal conviction would be rather over the top. A fine would often be much more appropriate.
The make-up of the Electoral Commission is also set to change, with up to four Commissioners now able to be people with recent political experience. This had been rejected in the past for fear of politicising its work, but should be a way to deal with the still heard criticisms that the Electoral Commission too often displays an ignorance of how the political and electoral systems actually work in practice. Electoral Commission staff in future will also be able to have been active in politics more recently than the current rules allow.
There are several other detailed changes, including:
- Dealing with a technical issue that could have prevented some people from getting on the electoral register if a general election were to take place during the summer when the annual electoral registration canvass takes place.
- Allowing vacant Northern Ireland MEP seats to be filled without a by-election. Instead, the relevant party specifies a replacement.
- Changing the rules in Scotland about the retention of general election documents, bringing them in line with the rest of the UK. They will now be held by the relevant Returning Officers rather than the Sheriff Clerks.
- Specifying that in future European elections should be organised on the basis of local authority (rather than Parliamentary) Returning Officers and allowing the Greater London Returning Officer to be the London European Returning Officer.
- Setting up a new body to administer the planned Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors (CORE), which would collate the electoral registers from around the country into one database. The brings to an end a long-drawn out, slightly farcical sequence, where the Government was saying to the Electoral Commission, “Will you look after CORE?”, the Electoral Commission said back, “But what will that involve?”, the Government said, “We can’t say for sure until we know who is looking after it. Will you look after CORE?” And so on round in circles for months.
- And finally, a measure that got a degree of controversy – in future candidates at general elections will be able to choose to exclude their home address from publicly available documents.
It’s been common to abbreviate “National Insurance number” to “NI number”, but in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 it becomes NINO.