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Mr. Grieve: I shall be brief. I welcome the amendments and am grateful to the Minister for having taken note of the arguments that were made in Committee. The earlier amendments in the group are especially important. The change from £1,000 to £5,000 offers much greater scope and flexibility for very small parties. If the Bill had remained unamended, the second bracket would have extended up to quite substantial levels of party income and expenditure. We regarded that as undesirable.

This is another example of some very sensible work taking place in Committee. I am grateful to the Minister for having listened carefully and improving the Bill substantially as a result.

Mr. Stunell: I largely echo the points that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has made. I seek reassurance from the Minister on only one aspect. The Government have changed the limits, but not in the way that we proposed in Committee. A band of income and expenditure by accounting units between £1,000 and £5,000 has been shifted down a gear, if I may put it that way, but the guidance that the Electoral Commission will publish in relation to the three bands is not yet known to us. The Electoral Commission, looking at that, might decide to introduce for the lowest band proposals that were suitable for an organisation spending £4,900, thereby making things more complex for those spending less than £1,000.

Mr. Tipping: In Committee, and again tonight, the hon. Gentleman has emphasised the nature of Mrs. Brown in his constituency, who needs a light touch on these matters. In Committee, and tonight, I have given an assurance that the light touch will apply in the nought to £5,000 band.

Mr. Stunell: I thank the Minister for his reply. Perhaps I should make it clear that Mrs. Brown is the hypothetical treasurer of a very small branch of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Evans: They are all small.

9.45 pm

Mr. Stunell: Voices suggest that my example is not so hypothetical. Certainly the branch's accounts are small.

In the light of the Minister's assurance--I might return to it on another occasion for it to be repeated in even stronger form--I welcome the amendments. They offer a major reassurance. As I said in Committee, we face a problem that is parallel to the one facing school governing bodies. We are imposing more complex and onerous procedures on people who are, in essence, volunteers and who do things out of the goodness of their hearts. If we make things too difficult for them, they will stop and that will not benefit politics in this country. I welcome the Minister's assurances.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 13, in page 22, line 14, leave out "£1,000" and insert "£5,000".--[Mr. Tipping.]

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Clause 39

Supplementary provisions about auditors


Amendment made: No. 14, in page 23, line 29, after "all", insert "reasonable".--[Mr. Tipping.]

Clause 45

Donations for purposes of Part IV

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 156, in page 27, leave out line 13.

I do not know what Mrs. Brown would think of this amendment.

Mr. Stunell: I can tell the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Evans: I wait with bated breath.

The amendment deals with the provisions in clause 45 about sponsorship. Clause 45(2)(a) to (e) are fairly straightforward and deal with gifts of property and money to a party, subscriptions, fees, gifts in kind and money lent to a party. Those provisions are clearly defined.

However, it is in clause 45(2)(e) that the Government--and not just the Government--are in a stew. Lord Neill has been unclear as to what constitutes sponsorship of a party. Pepper v. Hart was mentioned earlier, and I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to tell us clearly what constitutes sponsorship of a political party.

As I said, the clause contains clear and unclear areas, and it is the grey areas that we should attempt to clarify. The Government have said that, under the Bill, they will not give tax concessions to people making small contributions to political parties, but all the political parties are looking for smaller donations from a wider variety of sources. That is healthier for democracy, so the provisions for sponsorship should be clarified.

I do not believe that the Government intend to stop the Motorsport Industry Association from asking Members to drive motor racing cars for charity. However, hon. Members have to approach businesses in our constituencies to raise funds and, last year, the limit on that was £1,000. Goodness knows what it will be this year. Such approaches do not benefit the political parties as such, but there is a relationship between firms in the constituencies and individual Members of Parliament. I assume that the Government have no intention of preventing such relationships.

The grey area is demonstrated by a letter of 17 January 2000 from the Home Secretary to Lord Neill. The Home Secretary asks for a clearer definition and refers to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is looking for clarification about the treatment of exhibition stands at party conferences. That is an issue of increasing interest to all political parties, because such stands provide a tremendous opportunity for firms to meet party representatives, councillors, Members of Parliament, Ministers and members of Her Majesty's Opposition. I cannot see any problem with that.

The Home Secretary goes on to say in his letter that he is


13 Mar 2000 : Column 120

    of exhibition stands. There is also the point about whether the stands are from a permissible source, which could affect exhibitions by the Government of Gibraltar and charities. There would perhaps be no need for shareholder approval for those stands to be made available at party conferences.

The Home Secretary goes on to talk about the possibility that sponsorship from companies in the range of £20,000 to £40,000 a year would not need shareholder approval. Lord Neill is not so keen on that abstention, and says that over several years that could amount to a large sum.

On stands, Lord Neill says to the Home Secretary that this


Lord Neill also mentions dinners where people are asked to pay large amounts of money. I do not know about other hon. Members, but when I am asked to pay about £150 to go to a dinner, I do not expect to get £150-worth of food--indeed, some of us would be hard put to eat £150-worth of food--so I expect that some of the money will be a donation to the cause concerned. In the United States it is common to have dinners that cost $1,000, $2,000 or even $5,000 a plate, where diners can listen to the President or other senior politicians. That is an interesting issue that needs to be considered.

What constitutes a commercial rate? That is an important point. If a political party holds a big dinner, and companies buy tables at, perhaps, £500 per head, one aspect of whether that is a commercial rate is whether the contributions need shareholder approval. Brochures containing advertisements may be available at the tables, and the menu card may be sponsored. The dinner itself or individual courses may be subsidised or sponsored by a particular company. What is a commercial rate for such activity? I should like the Minister to address that question.

At some of the dinners that I have been privileged to attend over the past few years, Lord Archer and several other people have been feted for doing auctions. That poses another problem about what is commercial, and it is a serious point. I have been at functions where a painting has been made available or someone has been commissioned to do a painting if a guest bids a sufficient sum. The painting itself may be worth £10,000 and the winning bid may be about £15,000. Does the fact that someone has offered a painting worth £10,000 count as one donation, and the fact that someone has paid £15,000 for it count as another donation, so that donations of £25,000 have been made for the same item?

Mr. Stunell: Will the hon. Gentleman turn his mind to a situation that sometimes faces the Liberal Democrats: the bid is for only £5,000?

Mr. Evans: And that is for the entire political party! I would say that the person had been had.

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Let us take another example of tickets. I was at a dinner the other day where four tickets for the England-Wales rugby game were on offer. Their face value was about £160, but much more would be bid for such scarce tickets. Indeed, ordinary punters find it difficult to get hold of them.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will my hon. Friend explain how he manages to retain his youthful figure while going to all these dinners?

Mr. Evans: I am sponsored by Whitbread plc--it is declared in the Register of Members' Interests--which allows me regularly to use its gym at County Hall. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would be more than welcome to join me in one or two sessions.

We need clarification of sponsorship in respect of tickets for Wimbledon or other sporting occasions--the value often vastly exceeds the face value--especially when companies have bought them. Indeed, we do not know whether it has paid over the odds in order to get hold of such tickets.

At one Labour party conference, a famous leading supermarket sponsored the ribbons that held passes that Labour representatives and delegates wore around their necks. We do not know how much the supermarket paid for the privilege.

Companies often sponsor forums at conferences. I remember one a couple of years ago that was sponsored by Sky, which had something to do with sport--I believe that it held such a forum at every party conference--at which food was available. Such sponsorship must be taken into account.

Will the Minister say something about a raffle in which somebody buys many tickets? For a valuable first prize, somebody might buy a lot of tickets as a way of making a donation and circumventing some of the sensible rules and regulations proposed. We need clarification. We have tabled the amendment not to prohibit sponsorship but to clarify matters on which Lord Neill has proved inadequate. Such a grey area is enormously difficult; I look forward to the Minister's response.


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