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Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): The Government have been in power for 130 weeks, and the Secretary of State has five Ministers. In that time, no Minister has visited any of the eight constituencies within the West Surrey health authority area. Is that because the authority has lost 111 beds, nurse vacancies are over 300 and accident and emergency trolley waits are the longest in the country? I join the right hon. Gentleman's praise for NHS staff, but does he intend to come and tell those staff that things can only get better, as they have seen a sharp deterioration in the years since his party came to power?

Mr. Milburn: The right hon. Lady takes an active interest in her local health service--particularly the local hospitals--and she has been to see me to express some of her concerns. The question of why no Minister has visited the area is one that I will try to put right for her and for the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), if she would find that helpful. She should recall that the reasons we have some of the problems in West Surrey are precisely the appalling deficits that the health authority built up when she, I think, was Secretary of State for Health.


Hare Coursing

Mr. Harry Cohen, supported by Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas and Mr. Colin Pickthall, presented a Bill to make hare coursing illegal: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed [Bill 42].

Recycled Content of Newsprint

Mr. Gordon Prentice, supported by Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Roger Berry, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Tom Brake, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. David Chaytor, Valerie Davey, Ms Julia Drown, Mr. Don Foster and Mrs. Diana Organ, presented a Bill to increase the amount of recycled paper collected and used in newsprint in England and Wales; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed [Bill 43].



10 Jan 2000 : Column 34

Orders of the Day

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.20 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill draws comprehensively on the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired first by Lord Nolan and now by Lord Neill. I place on record my thanks and, I believe, those of the whole House, for the excellence of the Committee's work, and express our gratitude to its distinguished chairmen and members.

The Bill is an important milestone in the development of our democratic institutions. For the first time, how political parties conduct themselves will be the subject of statutory regulation. Political groupings have been a feature of our parliamentary system of government for more than 300 years, and it has been well over 100 years since Disraeli led the way with the development of mass party organisations to parallel his 1867 extension of the franchise. It is something of a paradox, then, that so little statutory recognition has so far been given to the central role played by political parties in the political life of this country.

Parties are vital to the effective functioning of any representative democracy, but the political parties of today do not simply sustain a particular set of political leaders in office. In any mature democracy, political parties also provide both a crucial link between the citizen and the elected Government of the day and some of the key processes by which that elected Government are held to account.

Parties must be capable of discharging effectively those onerous responsibilities, and that necessarily requires money. Parties can secure funding from one of two basic sources: they can receive a subvention from the state or they can attract funding from their own supporters. The Neill committee recommended against the first of those approaches: a view with which the Government wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, rather than underpinning representative democracy, over-reliance on state funding could in the end undermine it.

Political parties should be the champions of the people, ensuring that the state is their servant and not their master. An over-reliance on state funding could absorb parties into the fabric of the state, thereby putting their own institutional needs and those of the state above the needs of those whom they are elected to represent. The health of our democracy is far better served if parties are principally reliant on their own efforts to secure adequate funding. Such an approach compels parties to engage with their members and supporters.

That engagement between parties and the people must be a reciprocal one. We should celebrate the fact that so many supporters of political parties recognise their civic responsibilities and duties by contributing to their chosen party's financial well-being. Democracy does not come cheap, and those who are able should be ready to dip into their pockets to help to sustain it.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Why is the Labour party in government

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wholeheartedly in support of the arguments against state funding when, as recently as in the consideration of the Houghton committee, it took the opposite view? Is it simply that its power in the land has grown since then, or has some objective reason displaced all its earlier arguments?

Mr. Straw: I am trying to cast my mind back to when the Houghton committee reported: it was not in the past decade or so, and I think that it was in the mid-1980s. Our view on state funding today is fully consistent with the view that we took in 1995, when the Labour party in opposition gave evidence to the then Nolan committee. I remember that, because I had the honour on behalf of my party of drafting the evidence and getting my colleagues' approval for it, as well as giving oral evidence. Parties do sometimes change their minds. On some issues, even I have been known to change my mind, but it happens that, on this and other issues of a constitutional nature, I have not.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and I may reach some agreement on my next point. The Neill committee argued that, if we want such civic engagement as I have mentioned, the state should at least be prepared to give a helping hand by providing tax relief for small donations. On that discrete point, the Government remain unpersuaded of the case for such a scheme but, overall, the controls on campaign expenditure in the Bill will significantly reduce the demands on parties to raise even greater sums of money.

We have also reduced the pressure on political parties by more than doubling the taxpayers' funds available to Opposition parties. Such is the generous spirit that we have brought to government that the subvention of state aid to the Liberal Democrats has increased by a factor of three and the Conservatives now receive more than £3 million of state funding to help them to make their opposition effective.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): It has not done them much good.

Mr. Straw: We are also interested in best value--as is the Conservative party--and it remains to be seen whether the Audit Commission will feel the need to scrutinise whether the Conservatives have used that £3 million to good advantage. Certainly, I make no complaints about the state of the Opposition. Long may they continue in the same way. Of course I say that in jest.

At the heart of the Bill's provisions is the need to ensure that the funding of political parties is open and transparent. Greater transparency will not only strengthen the accountability of political parties but help to buttress their financial standing. The secrecy that has hitherto been permitted to political parties in their funding, and the scandals to which such secrecy has given rise in recent years, have undoubtedly left a sour taste. In contrast, all political parties--and the reputation of our political system as a whole--will benefit from the Bill.

The Neill committee also recognised that, in order to restore public confidence in the political process, it was important to put an end to what the committee termed the

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"arms race" in election spending. Campaign spending at a national level by the two main parties has increased from an average of £5 million in 1983 to £27 million in 1997. If we took no action, those sums could easily exceed £30 million for each party at the next general election. The perceived need to match, if not exceed, spending by the other side has put a tremendous burden on the parties. Such pressure could lead a party to an unhealthy reliance on a handful of wealthy donors, and that would plainly not be good for democracy.

The new arrangements also introduce controls on spending at a national level as well as a local one, for the first time. Our Victorian forebears, when faced with growing electoral abuse, introduced the Secret Ballot Act 1872 and the Corrupt Practices Act 1883 to stamp out the buying and selling of votes, something that was done brazenly at that time.

Compared with today, elections were fought on a very different basis in the latter part of the 19th century. In the days before a national press and the broadcast media, the electoral battleground was in individual constituencies. Indeed, elections took place on different days over some time, and it was common for leading figures, including Gladstone, to stand for election in two, three or more constituencies and then make their choice according to the sessional orders--with great celebration if they were lucky enough to have been returned for two or more constituencies. Although the campaign took place at a local level and hardly at all at a national level--it was only events such as Gladstone's famous Midlothian campaign that saw the beginnings of national campaigning--and even after controls were introduced, vast sums by today's standards were deployed in an attempt to buy elections. It helps to put current levels of campaign spending into some historical perspective to learn that, at the 1880 general election, after controls were introduced, candidates spent the equivalent of £106 million at 1997 prices, but they spent it at a local, not a national, level.

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