Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Julian Lewis: In the interests of fairness to Lord Owen, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would, on reflection, think that he should describe Lord Owen and his campaign as very much in favour of Europe and of this country's membership of it, but against Britain joining the single European currency, a view that is shared by at least 64 per cent. of the electorate.

Mr. MacShane: One of the things that I have got used to is people saying, "We are in favour of Europe, but we do not like the social chapter. We are in favour of Europe, but we do not like the single currency. We are in favour of Europe, but we do not like common agricultural policy. We are in favour of Europe, but we do not like the European Commission. We are in favour of Europe, but we do not like Mr. Santer, Mr. Prodi, Mr. Patten or the recently ennobled Lord Brittan." As Abba Eban said in a slightly different context, that is just semantic fiction. We should bury that silly word "Euro-sceptic." Those who are anti-European should be honest, as the hon. Gentleman is, and come out and say so.

I welcome Clause 11, which deals with the funding of policy discussion. We already have a considerable amount of state funding--funding by the taxpayer. Whatever the words to disguise it, £3 million goes straight to the Opposition Front-Bench team. An enhanced salary has been created only in recent years for the Leader of the Opposition. The chauffeur-driven car that he enjoys is a perk that is worth a good deal of cash.

I have no problems with that, but I should like us to go a stage further. Whether that can be done through amendment in Committee, or is something that the Neill committee has to come back to remains to be seen, but it is necessary for political parties to have the resources to carry out effective discussion and education about a policy.

Older members of the Conservative party will remember how, after 1945, it made a comeback because it became a mass party again. It opened great centres for political education. The Conservative party adjusted to the new realities of the post-war world through extensive policy discussion and debate. Too much of our country's discussion on policy, on political ideas and on what Government policy of the day should be is in the hands of editors of newspaper opinion pages, or is based on the big speeches of party leaders. Often, those are distorted from all sides--I am not making a Labour party point--

10 Jan 2000 : Column 82

by the way that they are reported in the press. To counter this, none of the parties has adequate resources for policy education and discussion.

The Bill suggests that the Electoral Commission could in any financial year make available £2 million of so-called policy development grants to political parties. I welcome that but, if we assume that that money will be divided up just between the three main parties, each year they will get £650,000 which, if divided into 659 constituencies, is about £1,000 for each constituency. If we divide that by the average number of voters in each constituency, it comes to about 1p per voter each year for policy discussion.

I hope that that is not a reductio ad absurdum argument, but, as an American senator once said, when we add £1 million, £1 million and £1 million, we begin to have real money, but when we divide £2 million between the political parties, activists and constituencies, it does not add up to much.

If we are, as a Parliament and as political parties, to win back some control over our democracy from the men of money and the organisations of money, we will have to make education about policy part of our political party process. That will require funding. It is good that schools are starting civic education, but that will be of no use if political parties do not have the resources to carry it forward. The Electoral Commission is exactly the right body to oversee the payment of that money and to ensure that it is not given to parties to be used at the pleasure of the party leadership, but spent properly on policy discussion and debate.

I welcome the Bill. It will help to reassure the public that the massive vote that they gave the Labour party to form the Government is being used to introduce law that will not only end the scandals that have disfigured our politics and gravely damaged what was once a great political party, the Conservative party, but to usher in continuing debate about the need for the people and their elected representatives to regain some control over the political process.

I know that we are a property-owning democracy, but property, capital and money should not own democracy. The Bill is the beginning of reclaiming the right of people and their elected representatives to have some control over the policy and the political parties that govern in their name.

7.36 pm

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I aim to give the shortest speech in the debate and, of course, the only one that comes from a non-party perspective. I do not have a party; I do not want a party. I am not showered with the largesse of Short money. I do not seek Short money. The proper posture for the Tatton Independent is one of cheerful frugality, but I was elected on an issue of trust. I care about trust, and the people of Tatton showed spectacularly that they cared about it.

This important Bill is, significantly, about trust. It is about the essence of our democracy. It is about the way in which we prevent abuses. For the first time, there are provisions to control our political parties, which up to now have been getting and spending money and wasting their powers as they wished because no legislation existed. Amazingly, until now, they have been operating

10 Jan 2000 : Column 83

more or less in a free-fire zone. Our electoral law is based on the electoral law of 1883, which was most recently revised in 1983. Some change is long overdue.

I have nothing against political parties. I regard them as necessary--I would not even say necessary evils. They are necessary for sound and stable government, although it is possible to have one or two Members of Parliament outside the party system, but the parties' power has increased, is increasing and should be diminished.

For that reason, I welcome the Bill. To some extent, it reins in the excesses of party spending and party funding. Essentially, the parties are raising more money than they can safely spend. That is part of the problem.

I welcome, as I know that many other Members will, the ban on foreign funding. I welcome, as I know that they will, the greater transparency on the point at which donors should be named. I do not welcome--it is the fundamental flaw of the Bill, and of the Neill report--the relatively large amount of money that the parties are allowed to spend. In the last general election, the two main parties spent more than £25 million each. At the next election, they will be able to spend nearly £20 million.

Where does the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department think that money is coming from? Is it coming from the little people? Is it coming from the rank and file? Is it coming from ordinary members, from whom it can safely be raised--from the rubber chicken dinners? There are not enough rubber chickens out there. There are not enough party regulars with the will to eat them to raise that kind of money. This is an important reservation, as it goes to the heart of some of the abuses of recent years.

If I may correct the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), it was an American congressman who said:

Today, we are talking about real and serious money, but I do not understand how any party will be able to raise it safely to the extent allowed in the Bill.

Is it possible that new members and new contributions will be attracted to the Labour party by some of its innovations, such as the closed list system in the European elections, the extension of the property franchise in elections in the City of London--the last rotten borough in Britain--or the decision to use an electoral college to select Labour's candidate for mayor of London? It seems to me that those proposals are undemocratic, and that there is an undemocratic element at the Bill's heart: it concerns how the money will be raised.

In evidence to the Neill committee, I suggested that each party be allowed to spend an upper limit of £2 million in a general election. Andrew Rawnsley, of The Observer, suggested that the figure should be £5 million. Whatever the figure is, it will have to be within the reach of ordinary party members. If it is not, where will the money come from, if not from the Bernie Ecclestones and Michael Ashcrofts--be they never so blameless characters, as I do not doubt that they are--when the bills come to be paid?

When the Government adjust their policy until, quite by chance, it suits Mr. Bernie Ecclestone's business interests, and when the Conservative party argues for a

10 Jan 2000 : Column 84

life peerage for Mr. Ashcroft, people will start to ask, "What's going on?" They will get a whiff of something that they do not like. I know that the people of Tatton are very sensitive to that.

Will we go down the American route, in which a candidate might spend $16 million to buy a Senate seat, but--as happened in California--still fail? I was based in America for many years, and remember talking to Senator Lawton Childs--Democrat of Florida, and an honourable public servant--who was weighing up whether he should run for a second six-year term. He worked out that, if he did so, he would have to spend one half of his time fundraising, so he quit, because that is not what he went into politics for. I feel that, with the central defect in the Bill, we are going down that wrong road.

We do not want to go down the road of turning our party conferences into trade fairs. If I wanted to have lunch with the Home Secretary at the Labour party conference--a fairly unlikely contingency--I would be happy to pay for my lunch, and I would be happy to pay for his lunch, but I would not want to have to raise for the Labour party £10,000, £20,000, £50,000 or whatever the equivalent might be for the privilege of having lunch with him.

I can recommend a better way to go. Last July, the Tatton Independent party held its annual conference, in Knutsford, and it was much more party than conference. I paid for everyone's lunch, and the only deal that I made with them was that I was not allowed to have a standing ovation. It worked extremely well. It is a kinder, gentler politics, much cheaper and much closer to the people.

I am sometimes asked--because of the strange way in which I got into the House--whether I think that the current Parliament is under the same taint of suspicion as the previous Parliament. I used to say no. Now I say, "No--well, not in the same way." The culture of greed has gone. The cash in brown envelopes has gone. The invoices supplied for amending a Finance Bill have gone. A recent celebrated libel case definitively drew a very welcome line under that, and I should, in passing, pay tribute to Sir Gordon Downey--a very great public servant, and a servant of this House--and to his vindication. We knew all along that he would be vindicated.

Does that mean that the beast of corruption has been got rid of in our system? No, it does not--it is still out there somewhere. It lies out of range of the nets and harpoons of the parliamentary policing system, which is working quite well now, in two spheres: in the funding of political parties and the award of honours, and in the relationship between them.

We know that there is a relationship between the two because of some of the evidence given to the Neill Committee. Although that evidence is not reflected in the Bill, it was very important evidence, which came from Lord Pym, who was at that time chairman of the political honours scrutiny committee. He was asked whether there was, or should be, any connection at all between donations to a political party and the subsequent award of honours.

Lord Pym was the gatekeeper of the system, and one might have expected him to answer, "No, in no circumstances, and over my dead body." In fact, he answered that, in some circumstances, all other things being equal, he could see that a political party contribution could be a bonus rather than a minus, because the

10 Jan 2000 : Column 85

individual was putting his money where his opinions were--hence a contribution to a political party was an achievement.

Just consider that. When has signing a cheque been an achievement? Accumulating money--depending on how it is accumulated--may be an achievement, but I do not think that signing a cheque is one. All other factors in a candidate's qualifications being equal, the chairman might as well have provided us with a rate card. How much for a peerage? How much for a knighthood, or for a humble MBE? What will £50,000 a year for five years buy? Hon. Members will appreciate where we were going with that practice, which was opening the door to the buying and selling of influence.

Now the political honours scrutiny committee has a new chairman--Lord Hurd--who, to his great credit, is applying the rules much more vigorously, and we have a much better system in place. However, there is still a grave risk, which comes from the Government's briefing paper on the Neill report, issued at the end of July. The paper quoted with approval one of the scrutiny committee's criteria: to consider

Within those words lurk hidden shades of meaning.

We shall not have a clean system and a system that entirely enjoys the public's trust until donations to our political parties are of zero significance, or even of disqualifying significance, in the award of honours.

Next Section

IndexHome Page