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Mr. Tipping indicated dissent.

Mr. Grieve: I see the Minister shaking his head, approving of my view that that is not what the Bill does. In those circumstances, I am disinclined to go along with the amendment.

One point emerged during consideration of the Bill in Committee. The Government were able to justify denying the right to make donations to all who were not on the electoral register because if one started to allow other categories, as Lord Neill suggested--I think without his committee really applying its mind to the consequences--it would create enormous bureaucratic problems of validating donors. Therefore, unless the Minister can persuade me that such a provision would not cause such problems--I do not know why it should not cause them--I would not be in favour of complicating the issue.

We might reasonably consider another issue. Although I certainly think that persons under 18 who do not have the vote should be encouraged to make small donations to political parties, I am not sure that it would be in the public interest for young people to be encouraged to make very substantial donations to political parties. Although that is perhaps a more esoteric point, I think that it is perfectly proper for the House to say that the donation limit should stick at £200, which--in view of the Bill's other provisions--is where it will be in reality.

The hon. Member for Battersea also expressed his concern--I was about to call it the bee in his bonnet, but that would perhaps be very slightly unfair--to establish £250,000 as the absolute maximum that an individual may give annually in political donations. The logic of his argument was very difficult to follow. At one point, he told us that he thought that, although it was inherently corrupting to allow donations of more than £250,000 from an individual, it was not inherently corrupting to allow such donations from a company. That beggars belief.

If a company is paying huge sums to a political party, it might be said that it was doing so for corrupt purposes, allowing the company to promote its self-advantage and interests. Moreover, it would be difficult to dissociate such potentially huge donations from companies from donations from individuals.

Mr. Linton: The point that I was seeking to make is that if a company gives a donation, it has to conduct a ballot of all its shareholders to allow it to do so. Before a trade union makes a donation, every one of its members has to vote in a political fund ballot. In those cases, a decision to make a donation, or to change that decision, can be taken only collectively by a large group of people. The decision to turn on and off the tap does not rest in one person's hands. That is what is different about individual donations.

Mr. Grieve: I find the hon. Gentleman's argument on that point a little flawed. Although a private company may have shareholders, the shareholders may be only two or three in number. Therefore, in reality it seems unlikely that there will always be shareholder control over decisions by a private company to make donations.

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Moreover, private companies, if they are incorporated in the United Kingdom, may frequently be vehicles for perfectly legitimate donations of substantial sums.

The Bill currently allows--we have not considered the issue on Report, but may well have to return to it later--donations by certain categories of European Union company that do not require shareholder approval at all. Therefore, it seems extremely optimistic to think that such an approach will provide proper control or an ability to remove the possible taint of corruption.

The other reason why we should not believe that it would be desirable to make amendment No. 163 is that the electorate themselves will make their decision. The hon. Member for Battersea has criticised--implicitly, if not explicitly--the Labour party for accepting, since it came to office, substantial individual donations exceeding the £250,000 limit. However, he has not yet told us that, consequently, he will not support the Government at the next general election.

Mr. Linton: As I said, before the previous general election, the Labour party and other parties had no choice but to seek donations to match those received by the Conservative party.

Mr. Grieve: Surely that is the point. As long as there is transparency about the source of gifts, the electorate--through the media, which will undoubtedly thoroughly investigate those matters--will indicate very precisely their view on whether it is proper for a political party to accept such donations. In Committee, some Labour Members argued that the Conservative party was damaged by the donations that it received in the early 1990s. That is a legitimate argument. If we follow that line of reason, the electorate showed their disapproval of the donations from those individuals.

10.30 pm

However, just as the electorate may disapprove, they may also be entitled to approve of such donations. Philanthropists prepared to give substantial sums of money from undoubtedly high motives do exist. It is an essential part of our civil liberties that individuals should be allowed to dispose of their money as they see fit. Whatever may happen in other countries, it is wrong to put a fetter on that.

The hon. Member for Battersea asked what the limit was on political donations in France. I am ignorant of the ceiling there. Indeed, I was not aware that there was such a limit, but I accept what he says. However, French politics has suffered over the years from serious examples of corruption both by individuals seeking their own ends and by corporations--there has been a lot about that in the French press recently. If such limits exist, they do not seem to have had any impact on improving the standing of politicians in that country. That is another reason why we should reject the amendment.

Mr. Stunell: I take almost exactly the opposite view to that of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve): I think that the first amendment is mistaken and the second is desirable. I shall set out my case briefly.

If I were a millionaire living in--to take a country at random--Belize and had sent my son to Eton, I might give him a Christmas present of, let us say, £1 million. If,

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when we got to somewhere near Easter, he made a voluntary decision to make a donation to a political party of, let us say--picking a random number--£1 million, it would be permitted under the amendment. I doubt whether that is what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) intends. That should be sufficient to cause him to seek to withdraw it.

A donation of £200 is an adequate and sensible limit for those under 18. We might want to raise that limit in the future, but not now. For the record, I have taken advice and I believe that the minimum age for membership of the Liberal Democrats is 14. We are certainly on the record as wanting a voting age of 16, so in due course we shall want to move towards what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but at the moment his amendment would do what we have tried to guard against: it would create a loophole for one situation that provided a gap through which the less scrupulous could march with impunity. He has made a nice case, but he has left an enormous loophole.

The Liberal Democrats have argued for a ceiling on individual donations. Speaking personally, I should like a ceiling on donations from other sources as well, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield However, amendment No. 163 is better than no amendment, so it finds favour with the Liberal Democrats. Amendment No. 162 certainly does not.

Mr. Miller: To answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the limit in France is 50,000 francs. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the situation across Europe and consider the contradictions in the pattern of funding from individuals and corporate donors. It seems to me that further research is needed. The reliance on European Commission decision 270\83 against France on the question of corporate donors must be examined further, as it covers insurance companies, not political parties. There is no pattern to the donations by companies, trade unions and individuals: the matter is a complete hotch-potch. I accept the integrity of the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, but the amendment does not stand up in the context of clause 48.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to study clause 48 again, as some significant improvements could be made. If the decision in case 270\83 were rejected, the clause could be tightened satisfactorily.

Mr. Tipping: Amendment No. 163 takes us back to familiar territory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) pushed the case for it hard in Committee. Amendment No. 162 breaks new ground and, although members of the Committee will remember that its subject was discussed in passing, this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to discuss it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea pointed out that people under 18 cannot be permissible donors, but he readily acknowledged that, under the de minimis provisions, a young person under 18 could contribute £200. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked whether a £5 subscription fee would be included in that £200. I can tell him that it would.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) described the £200-limit as adequate and sensible, and I agree. As I see it, the only point of amendment No. 162

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would be that it would allow young people under 18 to contribute sums greater than that. I heard some Labour Members comment that any young people who wanted to do that must be off their heads. However, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made the more serious point that, under the Bill, people must be on the electoral register before they can contribute to a party. To break that link by accepting the amendment would be a step too far. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 163 has attracted much argument both in Committee and in the House this evening. If there is to be a limit on donations, what should it be? The Government's libertarian view, supported by the Neill committee, is that people should be entitled to spend money as they think fit. I agree with that principle.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea was sceptical, to put it mildly, about whether the new reporting provisions would bring about a change in climate. The Bill is about transparency and honesty. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to what has happened with the Register of Members' Interests. As the reporting requirements have become more onerous, hon. Members have become more careful about what they do and what they receive.

It is widely accepted that the Bill will bring about changes in culture and in attitudes. All hon. Members support the notion that political parties should look for smaller donations, and that they should not rely on large donations. The attitude of the press and the public means that large donations will always be questioned. There is nothing wrong with them, but I think that the public will see them as suspicious, feeling that no one gives large sums for nothing. I do not think that the £250,000 cap is necessary.

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