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Mr. Robathan: In many ways, I am loth to intervene in such a silly and partisan attack on a collection of people. There may have been individuals in the Conservative party who have misbehaved, as there have been in the Labour party and other parties. I hold no brief for corrupt politicians, of whom there are remarkably few in any party.

The hon. Gentleman attacks us collectively, which I resent. Will he will urge the Labour party, and all organisations within it, to return money to the creditors of TransTec if it turns out that some of the money that should go to them has found its way into the Labour party's coffers?

Mr. Bradley: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting debating point. I think that he is anticipating events to a large extent. When he intervened earlier in the debate, he mentioned the name of Bernie Ecclestone. That is a very good example, because although, as far as I understand it, no wrongdoing was ever sustained against the Labour party, the very perception that there may have been a question mark against that donation caused the Labour party to refer the matter to Lord Neill's committee and to accept its recommendation to return the donation.

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Conservative Members have said that they are at one with us on the principles of the Bill, but--I speak more in sorrow than in anger--their actions belie that commitment. I see no evidence that the Conservative party has ever returned money. It did not return Asil Nadir's donation. It has certainly not taken the trouble even to refer the Michael Ashcroft controversy to its own ethics and integrity committee. Try as he will, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley: If it is a brief point.

Mr. Robathan: Could the hon. Gentleman enumerate the cases in which Lord Neill has suggested that money should be returned from the Conservative party to anyone else? Lord Neill--I think that it was Lord Neill--instructed the Labour party to return the £1 million donated by Bernie Ecclestone in order to ensure that tobacco sponsorship was allowed for Formula One racing.

Mr. Bradley: I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall return in my speech to Lord Neill. I suspect that he has never asked, suggested, recommended or instructed the Conservative party to return funds to non-permissible sources because it has never referred to him for advice on the money that it receives--in stark contrast to the behaviour of the Labour party. That is why the public holds the Labour party in greater esteem than the Conservative party. Until the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues learn that lesson, we shall continue to seek to teach it to them.

Let me quote from a letter to the Neill committee, dated 30 January 1998, from the then deputy chairman of the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend). He said:

That clearly did not exclude the United Nations ambassadors of foreign Governments. The letter continues:

    "As a consequence, we did not record separately donations that were received from overseas."

That startling omission supports my view that the Conservative party is prepared to take money from anyone, in any currency and any denomination.

It is clear that the Conservative party received massive overseas funding throughout the 1990s. It received £10 million in the run-up to the previous general election alone, and £16 million between the elections of 1992 and 1997. I derive those figures from the Conservative party's own published accounts. There were 47 overseas donations in that period at an average of £345,000. Twenty per cent. of all donations of more than £100,000 received by the Conservative party came from overseas sources.

Other hon. Members have referred to the identity of some of those generous sources of funding. They include Sir Y.K. Pao and Mr. C.K. Ma of Hong Kong; John Latsis, the ship owner; and Asil Nadir. What did they want? What did they think that their contributions to the

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then party of Government's fighting fund would confer on them? That question was posed eloquently by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell).

However, much more interesting than what they sought is what they got for their money. Throughout that period and beyond, the Conservative party refused to regulate its affairs. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that, when the opportunity existed for the previous Government to ask Lord Neill or his predecessor, Lord Nolan, to examine precisely those matters on which he has now reported and which form the basis of the Bill, they declined it. We are entitled to ask why the Conservative party, in that period and subsequently, refused self-regulation. That is why it is so necessary that legislation be introduced that will require, by statute, the Conservative party to submit to regulation.

Lord McAlpine, a previous Conservative party treasurer, stated, not under pressure from Jeremy Paxman but in his autobiography:

That might be news to some, but we all knew it, and, by 1997, the electors had certainly woken up to it. He went on to state that

    "it is a fighting machine dedicated to winning elections. I believe it to be the height of folly to expose how such a machine manages its resources or, indeed, how large or small these resources are at any one time."

The former Conservative party treasurer was clearly saying no to regulation, clarity, transparency, accountability and scruples.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Would the hon. Gentleman concede that Lord McAlpine clearly told the Neill committee that no one who gave money to the Conservative party had influence over its policies, and that the party chairman was seen to tear his hair out? I quote from the Neill report itself.

Mr. Bradley: If the hon. Gentleman tells me that Lord McAlpine said that, I am sure that he said it. However, I am more interested in what has happened since 1997 than before. I believe that matters have gone from bad to worse. The lack of values set out by Lord McAlpine is in stark contrast to what he has said about the current treasurer of the Conservative party. Lord McAlpine said that the current treasurer would take up that post "over my dead body". I wonder what he meant by that.

However, it is extraordinary that the current Conservative party treasurer is also its principal donor and the leading fund raiser for the party. With extraordinary irony, the Bill will mean that he will be the accounting officer, or regulator, for the party, too.

What is known about the recent record of Mr. Michael Ashcroft and the Conservative party exemplifies why the Bill is so necessary, and makes it clear why the Conservatives have resisted its provisions until they have no choice. I want to spend a few minutes explaining not only why Mr. Ashcroft is an inappropriate person to be treasurer of the Conservative party, but why he is a non-permissible source.

The former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Windsor, told the Neill inquiry that the party's approach to foreign funding had changed with

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the election of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to the leadership. In his speech accepting that post, the right hon. Gentleman said:

    "We must be open about our funding. In not being so in the past, we have often appeared secretive and defensive. And we have paid a political price for that. It is time to be much more open. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

    But I want to go further than that. We have to recognise public concern across the Western world about the sources of funding for political parties. We must respond to that concern. We will publish new guidance later this year"--

he was speaking in 1997--

    "and our intention is that in future years the Conservative Party will no longer accept foreign donations."

Thus the right hon. Gentleman put it on the record in 1997 that those guidelines would be published.

Lord Parkinson, who was then chairman of the Conservative party, told the Neill committee:

The Conservative party's formal evidence to the committee made the same unequivocal assertion. It said:

    "Although we have no reason to believe that any money received by the Party in the past should not have been accepted, Mr Hague has made it clear that in future we will not accept foreign donations. No such donations have been offered or received since the General Election."

What is Michael Ashcroft if he is not a foreign donor? Let us consider his attachment to the United Kingdom. He is non-resident; he is a non-taxpayer; he is the owner of a foreign bank; he is the holder of a foreign nationality; he is the diplomatic representative of a foreign Government and the funder of a foreign political party. How much more foreign can one get?

I put that point in what I thought were civilised terms in a letter to the leader of the Conservative party as long ago as April last year. The reply that I received from the current chairman of the Conservative party was succinct and very much to the point. He said:

In 1997, the leader of the Conservative party said that the Conservative party would publish its guidelines for foreign funding and, in 1999, the chairman of the same party told me that it had "stated rules". What are those stated rules? How do they conform, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said that they do, to the Neill proposals? How close are the proposals of those on the Conservative Front Bench to the proposals set out in the Bill?

All the attempts that I have made to prize out of the Conservative party a copy of those guidelines have failed. I suggest that that is simply because they do not exist or because they certainly did not exist until they were cobbled together very hurriedly last November in response to continuing inquiries from The Independent and The Times. I am not altogether surprised that the Conservative party is now hastily covering its tracks. Its leader says that it will not take foreign funding but the hon. Member for Windsor says that it does. In the hon. Gentleman's letter of 30 January 1998 to the Neill committee, he says:

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    In other words, the donations that the Conservative party has received from the Belize Bank Trust company are classified as foreign donations, yet the Conservative party says that it does not accept foreign donations. The acceptance of the substantial funding that the Conservative party receives from Mr. Michael Ashcroft via the Belize Bank Trust company not only contravenes the Conservatives' own, and as yet unpublished, guidelines but clearly contravenes Lord Neill's recommendations.

For the avoidance of doubt, I wrote to Lord Neill in December and asked

    " whether in principle a trust company based outside the United Kingdom and, indeed, the European Community would constitute a permissible source of funding."

On 22 December, Lord Neill wrote back to say:

    "I draw your attention in particular to Recommendation 26"--

of his committee's report--

    "which states, inter alia, that only companies incorporated in the UK should be a 'permissible source' of company donations."

Clearly, the Belize bank is not in that category. As I have said, Mr. Ashcroft's donations, on which the Conservative party in a large part depends, are counter to both the spirit and the letter of the Neill recommendations and the provisions of the Bill. The Conservative party knows that.

I also asked Lord Neill whether he had received in submission from the Conservative party a copy of the guidelines to which the party chairman so frequently refers and whether Lord Neill had offered any advice on them. In the same letter to me, he said:

As I hinted earlier, that is either because the guidelines do not exist or because the Conservative party does not wish to risk the criticism that would follow if it submitted its questionable guidelines to the Neill committee.

I have a number of questions. It is, perhaps, unusual to ask questions of those on the Opposition Front Bench, but they will shortly have an opportunity to respond. I should like a clear answer to this question: will the Conservative party adopt the Neill committee recommendations in the way that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire suggested that it already had? If it will not adopt those recommendations and embrace the provisions of the Bill, will the Conservative party finally publish the guidelines that steer its approach to foreign funding, which the Leader of the Opposition said he would publish in 1997 and the chairman of the party says are already enshrined in stated rules?

Will the Conservatives explain why their practice does not conform to Neill's recommendations? To satisfy the hon. Member for Blaby, and if there is any doubt in their minds, will they refer the matter to the Neill committee? If necessary, are they prepared to repay to Mr. Michael Ashcroft the donations that he has made, and continues to make?

While they are on the subject--I am sure that there is a great deal of interest in this issue--will the Conservatives let us know whether the police are still pursuing the investigations that they were supposed to have mounted last year into the apparent raiding of the records of the Conservative party accounts at the Royal Bank of Scotland, or has that piece of propaganda quietly subsided into the sands?

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The wheel has come full circle. In my view, the Conservative party is as sleaze-ridden in this Parliament as it was in the previous one. There were no guidelines before 1997--that much is apparent from what Conservatives have said--and I believe that there have been none since. There were foreign donations before 1997. I believe that foreign donations have been accepted ever since.

The undertakings given by the Leader of the Opposition on the issue are pure opportunism and hypocrisy. It has been business as usual. The Conservative party has dragged British politics into disrepute. That is why the Bill is needed, and it has taken a Labour Government to provide it, whether the Conservative party likes it or not.

In closing, I shall comment briefly on the provisions of the Bill, which I welcome, although I have some reservations. In clauses 45 and 46, I see no reference to the benefits that political parties derive from the underwriting of loans and the guaranteeing of bank overdrafts by third parties. That can be a benefit far greater than even the most significant donation, depending on the size of the debt or overdraft. I see no definition in those clauses that would catch that as a donation.

It is important to ensure that, in cases where donations are returned as impermissible sources of funds, no benefit should be derived during the 30-day qualification period. For example, a very large donation could attract a large amount of interest in the 30-day period before it is returned to a non-permissible source. I hope that we will close that loophole. Similarly, any forfeiture of impermissible donations should include any benefit derived from interest payments.

I am concerned, and others have mentioned it too, about the difficulty of policing the onus on donors of multiple amounts of less than £200 to declare their accumulated funding. If someone donates £199 a day on a standing order, by the end of the year he will have donated £70,000--a significant sum.

Most importantly, I am concerned about the reduction in clause 130 of the qualifying period for overseas electors from 20 to 10 years. It surely cannot be the purpose of the Bill to prevent British residents overseas from making legitimate donations. I am thinking, for example, of people who have dedicated a life to the British economy, paid taxes throughout their working life, and retired to the sunshine of Spain, and who wish to maintain contact with the political party that they support and the political scene in Britain. It cannot be the intention of the Bill to deprive them of that right.

The clause misses the point. I do not believe that hard-working UK taxpayers will understand or accept that someone who pays no UK tax should be allowed to influence British politics. That important point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton).

If people purposefully remove their assets from this country to avoid paying UK tax--I am not suggesting that they are breaking the law in any way--they should forgo their right to influence the British political agenda. Others have alluded to the clear principle that there should be no representation without taxation. I hope that the Government will table amendments in Committee to ensure that those who are entitled to fund UK political parties are registered to vote here and, unless retired, liable to pay tax.

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With those and the other amendments that I and other hon. Members have mentioned, the Bill will do the job that the British electorate expect of it. The Bill may not prevent the Conservatives or, it must be said, any other political party from taking money from unsavoury sources, but at least the British electorate will know who pays the piper. They will at last be able to exercise their judgment and cast their vote according not only to the stated policy in a party manifesto but to the company that the party keeps.

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