Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.10 pm

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): My party welcomes the Bill. It represents an improvement, or a move towards one, in how political parties conduct themselves. It will boost the public's confidence, which has been so badly undermined in recent years.

Before the Scottish Parliament elections, the parties reached an agreement largely based on the Neill recommendations and included the provisions in a statutory instrument, which seems to have worked well. Neill felt that the political arrangements in Scotland were best handled by

I seek a reassurance that, when the composition of the Electoral Commission and the Speaker's Committee is being decided, the different interests and political structures in Scotland and the other devolved areas will be taken into account.

I note that two of the statutory members of the Speaker's Committee will be the Westminster Minister with responsibility for local government--presumably that means local government in England and Wales--and the Home Secretary, neither of whom has a large locus in either Scotland or the other devolved parts of the United Kingdom.

The policy development grants seem to relate to policy on all matters for places such as Scotland: devolved as well as reserved. The smaller parties--smaller, I hasten

10 Jan 2000 : Column 91

to add, in Westminster--need to be considered. I noticed that, when the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) spoke of how the money would be divvied up, he worked on the basis of a division by three. I assume that that was simply for arithmetic ease.

Allocation is often made on the basis of representation in the House, but the cost of research is not proportional to a party's membership or number of seats in the Chamber. It may cost the Liberal Democrats as much as it costs the Labour party to develop a housing policy, for example. We must be careful about the criteria that are used in the allocation of moneys under the scheme. That is especially important in the devolved parts of the United Kingdom, as the representation in the devolved Chambers is certainly not similar to that in Westminster.

I welcome, in clause 31, the help for parties towards the cost of complying with the various strictures of the legislation. The raising of the de minimis level from £50 to £200 will certainly reduce the costs of compliance, and that is welcome. I note that the Bill refers to the cost of installing software and even the provision of software by the Electoral Commission. I emphasise again that the cost of administering the consequences of the Bill is not necessarily in proportion to a party's representation in Westminster.

Classifying a permissible voter as one who is on the electoral register means that the headquarters of every party will have to have the registers for the entire country, or at least all those parts of it in which they are interested, presumably in electronic format. It is certainly not the practice in Scotland for the assessor or registrar to give out compact discs or floppy discs free with the register. Perhaps an amendment could be made to ensure that party headquarters are able to get computerised versions of the registers each year as they are issued, without having to bear the cost.

I have a problem with the definition of a permissible voter as one who is on the register, as opposed to the Neill recommendation that it should be someone who is entitled to be on the register. I realise that the concept of a rolling register minimises the problem to some extent, as does the fact that the requirement applies only to those who donate above the de minimis limit of £200, but I have a problem in principle with a formulation that, in theory, debars a substantial number of our citizens from donating to a political party. The latest estimate from the 1991 census shows that about 3 million people were not on the register.

Mr. Peter Bradley: Does the hon. Gentleman concede that it is a strange principle that somebody should be entitled to fund a party for which he or she is not prepared to vote?

Mr. Morgan: It is not up to me to try to explain the decisions of individual citizens. People may decide not to register for religious reasons, for example, and they should not be excluded from giving money to a party if they so choose. The Neill recommendation would be as easy to administer and would avoid the problem.

Clause 44 and schedule 4 concern the returning of accounts from a party's different accounting units, which can go down as far as the individual ward and branch.

10 Jan 2000 : Column 92

I am glad that no financial return is to be required if the year's transactions in the unit amount to less than £25,000. As a former national treasurer, and subsequently secretary, of my party, I know the difficulty of getting information from several hundred ward organisations. The problems that I faced would pale into insignificance beside those involved in collecting information required on a statutory basis.

I note that the commission has the power to require returns from such accounting units, and I seek an assurance that such a power would be used only in exceptional circumstances, when somebody thought that the provision was being used to fiddle the books.

Recommendation 38 of the Neill committee suggested that tax relief should be allowed on small donations. I understand what the hon. Member for Rotherham and others said about that being more of a benefit to the Conservative party than to other parties representing some of the poorer constituencies--the average income is fairly low in my rural constituency--but I tend towards the Neill committee's view that it is important to encourage small donors to be the mainstay of political parties, as tax relief would do. It is perhaps a lost opportunity not to have implemented the recommendation.

I welcome the controls on election expenditure by political parties. It has already been pointed out that the Representation of the People Act 1983 has long been a farce. Candidates jump through hoops worrying whether they have spent too much on telegrams, whatever they may be, while the parties spend millions of pounds without any controls. We need to avoid being in the same situation as the United States faces.

A cynic might say that the limits set out in the schedules in connection with various elections are those that will suit the larger parties. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who is not a cynic, certainly made that point, and the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) also alluded to it. In Scotland, for example, the limit for a general election will be £2,160,000. In Scottish Parliament elections, the limit will be £1,516,000. I will not give away any state secrets if I say that the SNP will be in no danger of breaching either limit. We must ask why the limits are so high and who will benefit from that.

I also have a problem with the provisions on third parties and their expenditure and I echo the points made by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). A limit will be placed on what each third party can spend, but there will be no limit overall on what third parties can spend. I accept that some third parties may spend money that is not identifiable with any particular party, but the reality is that third parties more and more spend money that definitely relates to the campaign of one party. A trade union, for example, may run a campaign that appears to favour two Opposition parties equally, but in reality we know that it is targeted in favour of one party. A strong case can be made to include third-party contributions in the overall total of a party's spending and the Electoral Commission should be allowed to make a judgment on whether a third-party campaign has contributed towards a party's expenditure.

Clause 122 provides for limits on expenditure in by-elections. I accept what the Minister said, and I know from my own experience that the limits in by-elections have been stretched on some occasions. However, the new

10 Jan 2000 : Column 93

limit of £100,000 is on the high side, especially in Scotland where the electorate in each constituency is smaller than in constituencies south of the border. Setting the limit as high as £100,000 will allow the larger and wealthier parties to influence disproportionately the outcome in by-elections, which--as hon. Members have said--can be crucial in the run-up to general elections.

The potentially retrospective nature of other provisions in the Bill will also cause problems, because we will not know in advance the date of the general election. The arguments in favour of a fixed-term Parliament are strong, and that would fix the problem. Those arguments are strengthened by the fact that we now have that very system in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, and this House, could learn from those examples.

It strikes me that, as with so much legislation, we will not get the Bill right first time. We can try to enforce restrictions on political parties and other people who wish to influence the course of political debate, but they will spend time--people are probably doing so even as we speak--working out ways to get round those restrictions. We have made an important start, but we will have to be prepared to come back to the issue as people find ways to get round the restrictions and to subvert democracy.

8.24 pm

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): When the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) commended my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) on the civilised way in which he voiced his hostility to some of the positions on party funding adopted by the Conservative party, the right hon. Gentleman may have been issuing an anticipatory reprimand to me because, although I am attracted by the spirit of consensus that has prevailed today, I can see little justification for it. The principles that Opposition Members have enunciated are not borne out by their practices.

When I challenged the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) in an intervention earlier, he suggested that the Conservative party conforms to the recommendations that the Neill committee published some time ago. I do not believe that to be the case. He may have misunderstood my intervention and I may have misunderstood his response, but the chairman of the Conservative party was quoted in The Times on 24 November as saying:

In other words, the Conservative party does not conform to the recommendations of the Neill committee, nor does it conform to the proposals set out in the Bill. That should be a cause of grave concern to the House.

The Bill is necessary for all the reasons that have been eloquently expressed this evening. We need to render our political process transparent and our political parties accountable. We need to eliminate undue influence, or the perception of it, on the way in which we conduct our political affairs. We desperately and urgently need to restore public confidence in our political system. In too many parts of the country, indifference to our political system is giving way to alienation and disaffection. We saw that in the low turnouts in the recent European and

10 Jan 2000 : Column 94

local elections. Scepticism about politicians' ability to make a positive difference to the daily lives of our constituents too often gives way to cynicism about our preparedness to do so or to serve in the public interest.

The Bill will contribute to rehabilitating our political system, as will other constitutional reforms, including not least the reform of the upper Chamber. However, we cannot deny that our political system has been a victim of the extraordinary degradation of politics and politicians in recent years. The problem is that, even if it can be shown that sleaze was a problem principally of the previous Government and the Conservative party, when one political party is brought low, we all suffer, because our political system is degraded. It will be restored only if all political parties act in concert to restore it, which is why I am concerned at the apparent chasm that still exists, despite the speeches of consensus tonight, between the Conservative party on the one hand and the Government's proposals in the Bill and the Neill committee recommendations on the other. I hope that the Conservative spokesman will take the opportunity when he winds up to disabuse me of that apprehension.

The Conservative party is largely responsible for the public's perception that sleaze, both individual and collective, attends our political system. One does not have to do research in the Library to support that contention, because we have had reminders in the very recent past. There is Lord Archer--until recently, I understand, a man of "probity" and "integrity". The Conservative party fell out of love with the man long before it was prepared to part company with his cheque book. That is not to its credit. I need not go into detail about the Hamilton case, because we are all familiar with it. The same applies to Jonathan Aitken, who started by buckling on the shield of truth and has finished up by strapping on the electronic tagging device of perjury.

Whenever the Conservative party is asked, "Will you open the box or take the money?", it opts to take the money. It has been prepared to take money from anyone, anywhere, in any currency, in any denomination, in brown envelopes--however it comes--with no questions asked and no explanations offered or given.

Next Section

IndexHome Page