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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I shall be brief. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. There is universal agreement that the principle that he has outlined is correct.

I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that perhaps the solution that he should consider is not to think of the internet service provider as the publisher, but more as the post office. He should concentrate on the authors of such libels, because these problems will face many Members in the future. The matter must be resolved.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Although truth is frequently a fugitive and a casualty in general election campaigns, impugning the character of individuals is a very serious matter. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for the way in which he has approached what has been a distressing matter for him. We are also grateful to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and to all the others who have given support.

We on the Opposition Front Bench wish to associate ourselves wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend's remarks. I have seen the Minister's letter, and we are grateful for his expression of sympathy. However, it is important that these so-called loopholes are plugged and it is crucial that we reach a proper solution. We shall not press the issue tonight, but we want a solution that provides the answer that my hon. Friend seeks.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The Government note the broad support on both sides of the House for dealing with this issue, and the strong sympathy that exists for the proposition made, on this occasion, by the hon. Member

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for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). I have already indicated to him my personal sympathy for his view. There are, however, practical difficulties to overcome. I have set those out in a letter to him, and I offer him another meeting if he wants to discuss the matter further. I am happy to discuss the issues with him. I make it clear that at this stage I can give him no assurance that we will be able to support him, but the door to dialogue is open and I hope that, on that basis, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Dr. Julian Lewis: In view of that expectedly helpful response from the Under-Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 130

Reduction of qualifying period for overseas electors

Mr. Walter: I beg to move amendment No. 145, in page 82, line 5, at end insert--

'and in the Companies (Northern Ireland) Order 1986'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 175, in schedule 18, page 162, leave out lines 1 and 2.

Mr. Walter: Amendment No. 145 highlights an important inconsistency. The provisions set out in schedule 18 will be inserted in the Companies Act 1985. That would appear to be consistent with clause 48, which says:

consistent so far--

    or the Companies (Northern Ireland) Order 1986.

That order appears to be missing from part IX, and is certainly missing from clause 130 and schedule 18.

I remind the Minister of the White Paper published by the Home Office, which said:

It continued:

    Parallel amendments will be made to the Companies (Northern Ireland) Order 1986.

There was temporary devolution to a Northern Ireland Assembly, which has now been suspended. The order to which I referred was passed by the House, and the House has the power to amend it to bring it into line with the Bill. I expect the Government to accept our amendment to expand the provision to bring Northern Ireland companies into line with those in the rest of the UK.

Amendment No. 175 deals with a concern raised with hon. Members by the Confederation of British Industry, which is the definition of an EU political organisation. Schedule 18 makes it clear that such an organisation can be a political party, but goes on to say that it can also be

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    That is a catch-all phrase. What does "any political nature" mean? Does it refer to the Institute for Public Policy Research or the Centre for Policy Studies? Companies are genuinely concerned that contributions that they might make to quasi-academic organisations that produce political papers will be deemed political donations.

I remind the Minister that in Committee his colleague, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), said:

    We will need to take the issue away and reflect on it.--[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 10 February 2000; c. 390.]

We have not heard that the Government have discussed the matter.

Mr. Tipping: We talked about this issue at some length in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman has reinforced his points today. Suffice it to say that I recognise, as does the House, that Northern Ireland has its own companies legislation. That is a devolved issue, which the Government believe requires separate and parallel legislation. I know that my answer will be unsatisfactory to him. In view of our lengthy discussion of Northern Ireland issues earlier this evening, I suspect that we will return to this matter at a later date.

Amendment No. 175 is interesting. The hon. Gentleman says that it has been influenced by the CBI. The Government accept that the current definition of an EU political organisation is very broad and have therefore agreed to consider it further. There is to be a meeting with the CBI this coming Thursday and we shall listen to the views of the CBI. Following the meeting, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. Again, we may need to return to the issue at a later stage.

Mr. Walter: I expect that we shall revisit the issue in another place. In view of the assurances given by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.45 pm

Clause 134

Supervisory powers of Commission

Amendments made: No. 72, in page 85, line 16, after "or", insert "other".
No. 73, in page 85, line 26, leave out from "records" to end of line 31 and insert--
'(3A) Where any such records as are mentioned in subsection (1) or (3) are kept in electronic form, then--
(a) the power of the Commission under subsection (1) to require any such records to be produced for inspection includes power to require a copy of the records to be made available for inspection in legible form (and subsection (2)(a) shall accordingly apply in relation to any copy so made available); and
(b) the power of any person ("the inspector") under subsection (3) to inspect any such records includes power to require any person on the premises in question to give the inspector such assistance as he may reasonably require to enable him--

14 Mar 2000 : Column 266

(i) to inspect and make copies of the records in legible form or to make records of information contained in them, or
(ii) to inspect and check the operation of any computer, and any associated apparatus or material, that is or has been in use in connection with the keeping of the records.'.
No. 74, in page 85, line 37, after second "to", insert--
No. 75, in page 85, line 38, after "donee)", insert "or
(b) a person who is (or has been) a candidate at an election (other than a local government election in Scotland) or the election agent for such a candidate,".
No. 76, in page 85, line 40, after "(2)", insert "(3A),".
No. 77, in page 85, line 43, after "obtaining", insert--
No. 78, in page 85, line 47, at end insert--
(b) such information or explanations relating to expenses incurred by or on behalf of candidates within paragraph (b) of that subsection as the Commission reasonably require for the purpose of monitoring compliance on the part of such candidates and their agents with the restrictions imposed by or by virtue of any enactment on the incurring of such expenses,
as the case may be.'.
No. 79, in page 86, leave out line 11 and insert--
'or (in the case of such a party with accounting units) the central organisation of the party or any of its accounting units,'.--[Mr. Touhig.]

Schedule 19


Amendment made: No. 124, in page 169, leave out lines 11 to 13.--[Mr. Touhig.]

Clause 141

Offences committed by unincorporated associations

Amendments made: No. 80, in page 91, line 14, leave out from "Act" to "be" in line 16 and insert--
', and the offence is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of, any partner, he as well as the partnership shall'.
No. 81, in page 91, line 20, leave out from "Act" to first "be" in line 27 and insert--
'and the offence is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of--
(a) any officer of the association, or
(b) any member of the committee or other similar governing body of the association,
he, as well as the association, shall'.--[Mr. Touhig.]

Clause 144

Orders and regulations

Amendment made: No. 82, in page 92, line 16, at end insert--
'(dd) section 122;'.--[Mr. Touhig.]

14 Mar 2000 : Column 267

Clause 148

General interpretation

Amendment made: No. 83, in page 93, line 27, at end insert--
' "functions" includes powers and duties;'.--[Mr. Touhig.]

Schedule 20

Minor and consequential amendments

Mr. Tipping: I beg to move amendment No. 125, in page 173, line 22, leave out--

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