Candidates' limit on campaign costs may double

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Indy Politics

Candidates at the next general election may be allowed to double their campaign spending after party officials complained that the ceiling for expenses was too low.

Candidates at the next general election may be allowed to double their campaign spending after party officials complained that the ceiling for expenses was too low.

The offer was made in behind-the-scenes negotiations over a new Bill to regulate political funding, which will be debated by peers tomorrow. But the Bill is running short of time, as are five others stuck in a logjam that must pass through the House of Lords before the Queen's Speech later this year.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is to defy proposals made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, whose inquiry into political funding preceded the Bill, by giving himself the power to change election spending limits if he believes such a move is justified by the rate of inflation.

The committee said the limit should be index linked and should only be changed on the recommendation of a new Electoral Commission, which will oversee tighter rules on campaign spending and fund-raising.

Mr Straw has promised senior figures in opposition parties he will reconsider plans to allow each election candidate a limit of £8,000. They want the figure raised to £12,000 or even £16,000 for each constituency.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will impose a national limit of £20m per party on election spending. But party election managers have argued that the separate local limits on each candidate are too low.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' head of campaigns, said the £20m national limit was too high, while the £8,000 constituency limit was too low.

A party would be allowed to spend up to £100,000 on a by-election but could spend only one-twelfth of that at a general election, which might take place just a few weeks later, he said. Ministers had promised him they would reconsider their position.

"I have said to them that I will argue for a lower national limit but at the same time the Home Secretary should use this new power to increase the constituency limits," he said. "They have said they will look at it and come back to it."

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill could find itself in trouble on a number of counts, though. Apart from the possibility that it could run out of time, leaving the Government facing the embarrassment of breaking a promise to clean up political funding, some parts of the Bill will face opposition from Conservative and Labour peers.

Tories may object to a proposals that could exempt Northern Ireland from new rules on political funding. The Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life said foreign donations should be banned in Northern Ireland but that those from the Irish Republic should be allowed. Conservatives believe that would allow donations from the United States to continue to be channelled into the accounts of Sinn Fein.

Lord Shore of Stepney, a Labour peer and a member of the Neill committee, will argue against plans to define foreign donations as those from outside the European Union - allowing money to come into Britain from France and Germany.

But it is still possible that the Bill will not become law at all before the next general election. If it does, others in the pipeline might have to be dropped instead. One alternative is to delay the Queen's Speech until December to get all the legislation through the Lords, which returned from the summerrecess a month earlier than the Commons.

The Conservatives may choose to spin out the debates because they think that a late Queen's Speech will prevent the Government from introducing a ban on fox-hunting during the coming session of Parliament.