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7.15 pm

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman said that the amendment goes only part of the way. What sort of amendment would he have preferred? Only when we have the dissolution order before Parliament do we know the date of the general election.

Mr. Grieve: I expressed myself badly. The Opposition felt disquiet initially when we considered whether restrictions on third-party expenditure were justifiable. In a spirit of supportiveness, and an understanding of what the Bill is trying to achieve and what Lord Neill recommended, we have put that disquiet to one side. That is one of the reasons why the Bill has progressed with enormous cross-party co-operation. We have made it clear several times that we are prepared to implement Lord Neill's recommendations, even when we can see that there will be practical difficulties. I simply wished to make the point that the right hon. Gentleman's amendment will not get rid of control over third parties, but he has undoubtedly identified the best way of bringing it back within the bounds of reasonableness.

I hope that the Government will give amendment No. 138 some serious thought, coming as it does from a distinguished Labour Back Bencher. We do not wish to depart from the spirit of sensible inquiry that has dominated proceedings on the Bill, and that is greatly to the credit of the Minister. However, the problem will not go away. I would be staggered if the other place failed to point out that the provision fails to comply with basic human rights. If it comes back to this House and has not been properly dealt with, or the Government have not agreed to think again, I foresee that it will not pass without argument. I would prefer to see the consensus that we have achieved hitherto being maintained and I hope that the Government will think again.

I considered whether it was possible to define a period other than the election period itself. However, as I am sure the Minister will agree, another period cannot work. The only sensible limit is the election period.

Mr. Tipping: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) for their comments. We have listened to all the comments made during the Bill's progress. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that, if the Bill could be improved, it would be improved and, if consensus could be found, we would try to find a way forward. That has so far happened.

At times during the speech by the hon. Gentleman, I wondered whether he had moved away from a commitment to spending controls on third parties but, as he developed his theme, he made it clear that he was not against the principle. However, he thought that there would be practical difficulties. I remind him that a central tenet of the Bill is to put financial controls on political parties, which Neill advocated.

Neill also advocated that third parties should be allowed to spend 5 per cent., say, of what political parties spend. That can be judged only against a timetable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead advocates a much shorter timetable, but that is a matter of judgment.

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We must remember that organisations such as pro-life or environmental groups undertake normal and legitimate campaigning activities. Society benefits from such activities and I hope that we see more of them. They would contravene the Bill only when it became clear that they were trying to influence the outcome of an election. We are not trying to stymie campaign groups--heaven forbid. We want them to do a lot more, and there is a lot of energy to be harnessed. However, when it comes to influencing election outcomes, spending controls should apply to such groups.

I think that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield agrees with that, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead does. The important question is how such controls are set against the timetable.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister seems to miss the point. I accept that many organisations will campaign in so general a way that their activities could not be considered relevant to an election. However, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, one can envisage campaigns on a subject such as the euro that might suggest that belief in the euro was incompatible with belonging to the Conservative party or voting Conservative, and that non-belief in the euro was incompatible with belonging to, or voting, Labour. Such campaigns must fall foul of the Bill if an election were to be called unexpectedly after expenditure had been incurred.

Mr. Tipping: I did not miss the point. I was trying to explain it, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman grasped what I was saying so quickly shows that I was going in the right direction.

A range of campaign groups' activities will not be covered by the Bill, but it is right to say that those activities that attempt to influence an election will be restricted by the proposals. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is keen to ensure that the regulations are not too onerous and that they do not put people off political campaigns.

I am grateful for the generous, but I think unwarranted, comments from my right hon. Friend, and I feared that the word "but" was on its way. However, I emphasise that I do not want the regulations to be onerous or off-putting. The Bill contains a series of measures that affect larger organisations more than smaller ones. It is framework legislation that covers all sorts of elections--to the European Parliament, for example, or for seats in Scotland and Wales. It is not confined to referendums, nor is it designed around an election in connection with the euro. It contains a series of steps to regulate third-party campaign spending.

Those of us who are involved in political activity, in the mainstream or around the fringes, can make educated guesses about when general elections will be held. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead made the point that the Prime Minister of the day has an advantage.

Mr. Grieve: That is a major concession.

Mr. Tipping: It is not a major concession. It is a matter of fact. I can see the hon. Member for South Staffordshire

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(Sir P. Cormack) laughing, but tables turn and electoral cycles change. What is one party's interest now may not be so in the future.

We believe that the Bill can be improved, and it has been improved already. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said about attitudes in the House of Lords. We will look at tonight's debate and take account of the comments made down the road. However, we must have a system that recognises the principle of restricting third-party spending. We must also try to ensure that it is not too onerous--an objective that I am sure unites the House.

The 365-day provision in the Bill is workable, and the Government are on the right track. We have listened to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said, as we will listen to what is said in another place. I understand that my right hon. Friend is warning me, but I hope that he will accept what I have said and withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I also have a Beaconsfield connection, like the Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), although one of us was a more successful candidate than the others.

I have a specific question for the Minister. I understand that the regulation to which he referred does not apply to publishers of newspapers. Will he say what would happen if a major campaign organisation--with a platform in favour of the euro, for example, or against abortion--decided to publish a newspaper during the regulated period? Would that expenditure be controlled by the Bill?

Mr. Tipping: I am interested in the history of success and failure in Beaconsfield. Clearly, a lot of unsuccessful campaigning has gone on there. If the newspaper described by the hon. Gentleman were published by a third-party organisation, it would be counted as campaign expenditure, in the true sense of the phrase.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the Minister really mean what he just said? If Mr. Paul Sykes decided to buy a newspaper, which he filled with news about matters other than just the euro, would that be considered to be an election expense under the Bill?

Mr. Tipping: If Mr. Paul Sykes or anyone else purchased a regular newspaper, in which he ran articles and features designed to influence the process and outcome of an election, that would clearly be campaign expenditure. However, if he bought The Daily Telegraph, for example, and that newspaper carried on promoting a variety of causes with a focus that went beyond the election--even if most of those promotions were against the Labour party--that would not be counted as an election expense. A balance has to be struck, and at some point a judgment has to be made.

I can tell the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that it is hard to speak about hypothetical examples. These matters deserve careful judgment, but I repeat: material designed to influence elections will be considered to be campaign material, whereas traditional newspapers will not.

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7.30 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: There is a saying, "If you're in a hole, stop digging." The hon. Gentleman seems to be giving a great many hostages to fortune. Does he really mean to move his Government towards press censorship? The hon. Gentleman may shake his head. He is an immensely amiable character, and we all love him dearly, but he has said some extraordinary things, and this must be sorted out.

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