Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Julian Lewis: In support of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, let me say that political parties may, as the Home Secretary said, tend to concentrate most of their expenditure nearer the election or referendum than at an earlier stage. However, pressure groups will tend to take a much longer view; they will want to spend their available money much more evenly throughout the whole period, but will not know when they are allowed to start doing so.

Mr. Maclennan: That is a fair point. It reinforces my view about the desirability of ending the uncertainty about the date of elections, so that calculations on funding and other matters can be made freely and openly. In prefacing my remarks on this point, I said that I was not sure what the answer was within the ambit of the Bill. My fear is that the limit provided will not be effective--perhaps it cannot be. Perhaps we should introduce a set and predictable date for elections.

I believe that the Bill, although well intentioned and quite useful, so far as it goes, will not significantly alter the public perception about the possibility of buying

10 Jan 2000 : Column 58

political support. Transparency is important and desirable--however, we have for many years seen transparency at work in other countries. In the United States, people openly give money to candidates for election to the Presidency. Millions of dollars are spent openly, yet the cynicism of the public in that country must not be under-estimated, despite the existence of complete transparency and the fact that it is possible to chart the favours bought and given for that money. An article in The Guardian pointed that out as recently as last Friday.

I fear that, in putting all the emphasis on transparency, the Government have missed a real opportunity to do something that would really change the public perception. I regret, in particular, that they have not limited donations by individuals. This could be seen as a self-serving view from a Liberal Democrat who is incapable of summoning the kind of assistance that Mr. Bernie Ecclestone gave the Labour party. I do not for a moment deny our inability to summon to our war chest the sums of money that can be commanded by those who are either in Government or can present themselves as tolerably likely to be in Government. That is the reality--it is why that kind of money is given, and will continue to be given unless the practice is stopped.

The Neill committee considered the issue. It pointed out that, in the 1997 election, the Labour party received 21 donations of more than £50,000, and that, in 1996-97, the Conservative party received 119 such donations. It is simply not tenable to argue that people who donate large sums of money are not courted by senior members of those political parties. So long as that happens, and large sums of money are donated by powerful, industrial figures, the public will be suspicious about what the donors are getting in return. It is hard to deny the probability of a major quid pro quo; people do not give such sums out of the goodness of their heart, or because of their peculiar commitment to supporting democracy instead of buying a painting by El Greco.

The only way to eradicate such suspicions is to limit donations. We proposed to the Neill committee that the limit should be £50,000, but appear to have been unable to obtain consensus in respect of that or any other figure. But the principle still needs arguing.

If there is disappointment that the Bill does not deliver the public confidence the Government claim that they seek to secure, I hope that they will return to the issue with an open mind. Incidentally, they will probably find it more difficult to obtain such large sums of money, although perhaps not for a few years--however, that is not the point. The point is that the commitment to democracy should be spread across many more people, and donations should be capped at a much lower level. However, that would have a significant consequence for the funding of the two old political parties, as they used to be called. When elections are in the offing, the Labour and Conservative parties spend as if there were no tomorrow. Indeed, representatives gave evidence to the Neill committee of how it works from their point of view, and how they had to raise funds of more than £10 million to meet the challenges of elections.

I think that we are spending too much on elections. We have not yet gone as far as the United States, but the need to raise such sums of money goes far beyond what is required to ensure that the issues about which the electors are being asked to decide are properly understood.

10 Jan 2000 : Column 59

Not only is more being spent on each general election, but there is, concurrently, a requirement--which I welcome--to spend more on other elections. I refer to elections for the mayoralty in London, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. Demand for money with which political parties can fight those elections is growing exponentially. If we do not cap donations at a lower level than that proposed by the Government, political parties will be forced to go cap in hand to rich donors and entertain them at the Dome, and the favours that the donors ask for will be more difficult to withhold.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I apologise for not having heard the opening speeches. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he wants to change the whole electoral system in favour of proportional representation and various other major changes, while not allowing anyone to pay for it? Is he assuming that the state will pay for it all?

Mr. Maclennan: No, I am making no such assumptions. I have not mentioned the mode of election--nor, the hon. Lady may be surprised to discover, has it even been on my mind. I am, in this part of my speech, concerned much less with the effect of the Bill on Liberal Democrat fortunes than with the business of Government. The Labour party's dependence on substantial amounts of money donated by a handful of very rich people who can then call the tune is undesirable. The hon. Lady's party argued eloquently for state funding when in opposition. The Home Secretary appeared, uncharacteristically, to have forgotten, in his reply to my earlier intervention, that, as recently as 1994, in its evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the Labour party argued that the public were prepared, and would be more prepared, for an element of state funding. I am arguing only for a cap on expenditure that is substantially below what the Bill proposes, for a cap on individual giving of around £50,000, and for a modicum of state funding for elections.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, just before Christmas, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced that the cap on spending for this year's London mayoral elections should be set at £990,000 per candidate? There was widespread opposition to that announcement, as it seemed to make it even more clear that yet another potentially worthwhile electoral process could be bought by the few, rather than owned by the many.

Mr. Maclennan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend but I do not want to labour the point that I have made.

I do not suggest that the problem of the pressure on political parties in a modern democracy that arises from the need for funding will be solved entirely by state funding. It is simply a principle that we can espouse without changing very much the direction of our thinking about our democracy. Most aspects of elections are funded by the taxpayer, and the partial state funding of political parties does not seem to me to be a very big step beyond what has long been accepted as inevitable.

The dangers of not tackling the problem are rendered eminently clear by what is going on in Germany at the moment. But for the grace of God, the fate of

10 Jan 2000 : Column 60

ex-Chancellor Kohl and his colleagues could be shared by a number of senior figures in this country and in the United States. We should not be as complacent as I think we are at risk of being about our own system for funding politics and political parties.

My party and I welcome the Bill, but I hope that it will not be thought that it represents the end of the discussion. The Bill should not draw down the shutters on further steps to reinforce the process of paying for our democracy in a way that allows people to be confident that the system cannot be bought by people outside the political process, as has sometimes happened.

6.3 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) can be satisfied that the Bill will not by any means be the end of the debate.

Speaking for the official Opposition, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said that our record in connection with funding for political parties is better than that of other countries, and I would not disagree. However, the right hon. Gentleman would agree with me, I am sure, that we should not be complacent: enough has happened in the past few years to cause a good deal of disquiet among people who would not normally be worried about party financing.

Over the years, I and other colleagues have pressed for reform of the rules governing party funding and general election expenditure. On 12 February 1997, just before the general election, I introduced the most recent of my ten-minute Bills on the subject. I am glad to say that a good deal of what was advocated in that and in other colleagues' proposals has been incorporated in the Bill. We are making progress.

The then Conservative Government and Labour Opposition were very critical of each other's money raising methods, and I pointed out at the time that it was difficult to understand why the matter had not been referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In the circumstances, that seemed the appropriate course of action, but the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)--to whom I sent a note to the effect that I would mention him in passing in this debate--refused to do so. When the committee was set up under Lord Nolan, Labour Members pressed again and again for it to consider party funding, but the right hon. Gentleman told the House:

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire did not really explain why the question of funding was not considered when his party held office, but I am genuinely pleased that he has accepted much of what is in the Bill, and that he has said that the Conservative party will not vote against it tonight.

I am pleased at that, not because there is any danger that the Government might lose in a Division, but because we are slowly approaching unanimity on the question of party expenditure and funding generally. That is useful, and will do much for British public life.

The Bill provides that donations above £5,000 will have to be declared. I see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is about to leave the Chamber. Before he

10 Jan 2000 : Column 61

does so, I want to tell him that I should like the sum to be £2,000. That proposal may or may not be accepted in Committee, but there is a case to be made for it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page