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Mr. Grieve: Do I take it that, under the system that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward, there could be no transfer of surplus funds from one part of the federation to another? If one area did not use up to its limit, would the other area be unable to benefit?

Mr. Stunell: As the amendments are drafted and as the rest of the Bill stands, it would be proper for a party to contribute to another party, as it would be, for instance, for a constituency party with the unitary construction permitted by the Bill to contribute to a national campaign, or vice versa. Nobody can trespass the limits that are set for their level. If they do, they will carry the can for that liability, rather than it transferring to a different level.

I fully accept that there may be some more drafting work to be done on our amendments, that there may be some avenues that I have failed to explore or loopholes that may appear. Our amendments are designed to take forward the discussion that we had in Committee and address the concerns and issues that the Minister and his civil servants brought to our attention. I hope that during this debate and the subsequent discussion that the Minister has generously offered, we can advance the argument a little further.

We are keen for the Bill to be enacted. We do not want to be the grit in the machine. We regret that we have introduced some complexities that the Minister probably could do without, but we consider this to be matter of principle. It has considerable ideological significance and real political importance, especially for our colleagues in Scotland, who operated in a much looser political framework in the past. We are happy that that framework has been drawn into the federal structure, and we should be most reluctant to see that structure broken now.

9.15 pm

Mr. Grieve: I shall not detain the House, save to say that the official Opposition do not want to stand in the way of the Liberal Democrat party's constitutional niceties. It would be churlish of us to object if it suited those niceties to require some alteration to this part of the Bill.

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I remain uneasy, however, and my anxieties do not find a clear answer in the Bill. I intervened on the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) to suggest that the amendment could be to the manifest disadvantage of his party, or of any federal party. I assumed that it would mean that the usual flow of funds during a campaign to those areas thought to need more funds could not cross the federation's internal boundaries. The hon. Gentleman then persuaded me that the Bill provides for the transfer of gifts between political parties.

That illustrates the complexities involved in this matter. Moreover, I know that the Liberal Democrat party has links with the Alliance party in Northern Ireland. Although we shall not discuss it tonight, the question of Northern Ireland--and how to deal with it--arises. That problem has caused great concern to hon. Members of all parties.

For that reason, I shall listen very carefully to the Minister's response. Adjustments without downsides should always be made, but I am still not sure how the amendment squares with some of the other provisions--even though I have read the Bill 150 times.

Mr. Syms: I started off being sympathetic to the amendment, but then began to wonder--perhaps because my knowledge of the constitution of the Liberal Democrat party is lacking. However, although I can understand the amendment's application to Scotland, Wales and England, I cannot understand how the regions could be separated out. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was worried about how money could be ring-fenced, and I share his disquiet.

I presume that the Liberal Democrats would register as one party under the Bill. Some line of authority must run through even a federal political party. If a party registers as a federal party, will it have to register as one party, or several?

Mr. Stunell: We would register as one political party, within a federal structure. For example, the United States is one country, but each state is separate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I could explore the point in more detail over a cup of coffee in the Members' Tea Room.

Mr. Syms: The United States is an interesting example, but this country remains a basically unitary state, with the exception of Scotland.

Mr. Stunell: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for intervening again so soon, but I want to draw a clear distinction between country and political party. The political party's structure is a matter for its internal organisation and its views. A party can have a federal structure in a unitary country, if it so wishes, and the Liberal Democrat party does so wish.

Mr. Syms: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I understand that the Liberal Democrats are organised in the way in which they would like to organise the state. It is a perfectly respectable point of view, but unfortunately we are not organised in that particular fashion.

I think that, in so far as it is possible to accommodate the needs of a responsible and major political party, we should try to do so. However, I think that this may be one of those instances in which there are issues under the

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surface--issues that may not be entirely obvious--and that, especially given the regional structure in England, it will be difficult to incorporate the proposal in the Bill. I shall, however, be interested to hear the Minister's view.

Mr. Tipping: The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said that there had been quite a dialogue about this issue--and it is a difficult issue, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who is new to our discussions on the subject.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove raised the matter in Committee, and we had a helpful meeting involving Liberal party officials on 27 January. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for writing to me last week, on 7 March, describing the way forward as he saw it. Let me add, somewhat mischievously, that I think his letter took longer to write than we had anticipated--but no doubt that reflects the real difficulties that exist. In any event, the hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to explain the problem tonight. It is not just a Liberal Democrats issue; there have been representations from the Green party.

Mr. Grieve: Once a proposal of this kind was enshrined in law, it would surely be open to parties to organise on a village basis, and to register several thousand parties in a federation. It is a theoretical possibility, but it must be a possibility.

Mr. Tipping: I shall deal with the Government's view of the amendments shortly, but it would clearly be possible to devolve to a very low level. There are different ideas between and within parties about the extent to which it would be possible to devolve. I am quite radical: for instance, I believe strongly in home rule for Hucknall and for north Nottinghamshire.

I want to be positive and helpful. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove spoke of dialogue and the need to make progress, and I am keen to do that, but I think that the amendments involve fundamental problems, not least the problem of what


means. Presumably it means a structure that the Electoral Commission has agreed, but the amendments do not provide a framework to help the commission to decide what such a structure might be.

I should also point out--as, indeed, did the hon. Gentleman--that parties will need to adapt to meet the new requirements. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that his party was considering that, and that it, along with the other parties, would have to make changes. Let me repeat that I am trying to be helpful. I note that the hon. Gentleman's party has made changes to its "federal structure" to meet the provisions of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, and that, although it is a "federal" party, there is an official in the party who signs the forms for candidates throughout the United Kingdom. That shows how parties can change to meet the requirements of new legislation.

The scale of the problem involved in the registration of political parties, however, pales into insignificance when we deal with financial matters. It is important that we look at how we change the parties ourselves and acknowledge that federal parties are important for our political structure. Given the significance of the Liberal Democrat party and the Green party, it is important to find a solution.

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The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) suggested that the issue had ramifications for Northern Ireland. The Government have not been in a position to bring forward amendments on separate registration in Northern Ireland because we need to crack this problem first. This problem spills over into Northern Ireland.

I should like the opportunity to examine further the proposals put before the House by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove and which he submitted last week. Secondly, I would like to arrange a meeting between Home Office and Liberal Democrat officials. Following that, I should like to arrange a more political meeting involving the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues to try and find a way forward.

This is a difficult issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are keen to find a solution. It is important that the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and other parties are not disadvantaged. We will work with him to take this matter forward. I would be pleased if I could guarantee to find a solution, but I cannot. However, I guarantee that over the next few weeks we will work with him and his colleagues to find a solution to what is a very important issue for the Liberal Democrat party. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.


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