Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Tipping: I was interested to hear about the family within the Conservative party. The hallmark of a good family is that they have extremely acrimonious rows. Long may that continue in the Conservative party. The Government have learnt their lessons and know that a row should occur behind closed doors.

Mr. Walter: Only in Millbank.

Mr. Tipping: Yes. Looking at the Government Benches, I see at least three or four hon. Friends who would not get through the door of Millbank Tower. A healthy spirit of independence still lives among Labour Members.

The hon. Member for North Dorset spoke about transfer arrangements. He asked what would be transferred from the register of companies to the new Electoral Commission, and whether it would include property and liabilities. That is not the intention of the Bill, which allows the transfer of material, data and systems. Such matters will be for the Electoral Commission and for the registrar of companies to negotiate and decide. Our intentions are well known and well signalled, and I do not see any problems about the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Office-holders to be registered

Mr. Stunell: I beg to move amendment No. 11 in page 13, line 12, after `must', insert

    `either—(a)'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 12, in page 13, line 16, at end insert

    `;or

    (b) where there is an approved federal party structure have overall responsibility for—

    (i) the financial affairs of the federal party and for ensuring compliance with the provisions of Parts III to V and VII, and

    (ii) notifying the Electoral Commission of the duly authorised treasurer of every other approved constituent part of the party.'.

Mr. Stunell: The timing of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who has just arrived, could not be better. I am pleased to speak to the amendments and was glad to hear the Minister's remarks. I appreciate that the concept of federalism does not have universal support in the Committee, and that it is not necessarily seen as a universally adoptable concept in the United Kingdom or in Europe. The point of the amendments is not, however, to persuade others that federalism is a good idea, but to provide freedom to practise it ourselves. We see the same sort of problem in the Bill as the Conservatives might see if it contained a provision stating that all property should be held in common among people belonging to the Conservative party. A provision ensuring separate Labour parties for men and women might cause the Labour party similar problems. In other words, I am speaking about a fundamental concept that relates to how we think about important issues. Such a concept could be equality or private property; in relation to the amendment, however, it is the system of government. That may seem bizarre and impractical. I am not here to persuade the Committee, which is entitled to its view, but to ask it not to introduce legislation that makes it illegal to practise one of the philosophical concepts of governance that is important to the Liberal Democrats and other political parties. The Minister was right to mention the problems that the Green party has encountered.

I was encouraged to hear what the hon. Member for North Dorset said about there being some autonomy in the Scottish and Welsh branches of the Conservative party, but the structure of any truly federal organisation, such as the Liberal Democrats, requires more than the provision of a bit of autonomy here and there. As the Minister said, it is possible to row and make up afterwards, although we have no evidence of the Conservative party making up.

I hope that the Minister will take advice on what should be included in the amendments that he intends to table. The Liberal Democrats have separate political parties for Scotland, Wales and England and a federal party to cover the United Kingdom. The argument that the Minister used in the previous clause does not automatically satisfy our concerns about this clause. It is not merely a case of having geographical subdivisions, but of having the capacity to have a federal party that covers the United Kingdom and its geographical subdivisions.

The amendment would allow that to happen. It sets out the responsibility of the treasurer of the federal party for the federal party as a whole—a role that we do not want to debase—while ensuring that the commissioner is properly connected to other federal components of the party. The amendment is not designed to weaken the Bill. We are happy to work with the Minister to ensure that that does not happen. The last thing we want to do is to provide a loophole that can be exploited by any party, whether it has good or evil intent. However, it is right and proper that we are allowed to have a form of political organisation that is fundamental to our thinking. We fear that is not possible as the Bill stands.

When we debate the Government's amendments, I hope that we do better than we did in our consultations on the draft Bill. My colleagues who were engaged in discussions with civil servants and others reported a state of mutual bemusement. We found it difficult to explain our issues and civil servants had problems comprehending our points. I am delighted to hear that progress has been made. Perhaps the diplomacy and politeness of the Minister's civil servants was mistaken for misunderstanding. I want discussions to continue so that amendments do not fail to achieve their purpose.

We have tabled an amendment that we hope will meet our objective. We are open to suggestions as to how it might be improved. I ask the Committee to bear in mind the fact that what we are discussing, arcane and unlikely as it may seem, is of great importance, not just to Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament—some of whom, I freely confess, do not share in every detail the party's enthusiasm—but to our colleagues in the constituent parts of the federal party. Had your co-Chairman, Mrs. Michie, been with us today, Mr. Maxton, I should particularly have drawn the Committee's attention to her presentation to the Procedure Committee. She stoutly defended the principle of federalism in the United Kingdom. I know that she is even more thoroughly appraised of those matters than I am.

10 am

Mr. Tipping: This is a good example of an attempt by the Committee and political parties to work together to solve a problem. The two amendments are concerned with the role of the registered treasurer of a party. In moving them, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has raised some understandable concerns about the impact of the Bill on the structure of his party. I hope that I can allay some of those concerns. I have already mentioned that we intend to try to rectify the problem on Report.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the Liberal Democrats are a federal party with constituent organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, coming together under the umbrella of a national party structure. The constituent organisations have considerable autonomy, not least in their financial affairs. The Liberal Democrats are not unique in that. Other parties that are not formally federally constituted enjoy, in practice, some autonomy from the centre. The onset of devolution has clearly highlighted and perhaps enhanced the autonomy of the Scottish and Welsh arms of the main Great Britain or United Kingdom-organised parties.

I understand that in the case of the Green party the process has gone further. For some years, the Scottish Green party has been a wholly separate organisation from the Green party of England and Wales which is, in turn, now considering whether to divide into two independently-constituted organisations.

The Government acknowledge that the scheme for the registration of political parties needs to recognise federal arrangements. We are considering whether the scheme for the registration of parties can be modified to allow a party to confine its registration to one part of Great Britain. Were that possible, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and others could register separately in the relevant country.

That would be relatively simple, but the hon. Member for Hazel Grove is—correctly, I think—asking for more. He gives the example of a federal party that is in a sense over the top—though one should be careful how one uses such terms—with constituent bodies in each country. We shall consider that. The further discussion with officials that the hon. Gentleman asked for will not be a problem; practitioners of the black arts sometimes bemuse those who view the issues in a more academic way. We shall try to find an easier solution to the geographical problem.

No easy solution is available to the problem that has rightly been presented to the Committee of a federal party over geographical limits. That will be a relatively complex issue, which is a reason why we have not been able to table amendments today. However, we shall not forget about it—we shall have further discussions and I hope that we shall be able to accommodate the hon. Gentleman's desires. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn on the understanding that the Government will advance their own proposals.

Mr. Stunell: I thank the Minister for that response. I appreciate that the matter is complex. The drafting is useful, especially with regard to the concept of the approved federal structure. The issues are for further discussion, and I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 13, line 13, leave out

    `for the financial affairs of the party and'.

This is a probing amendment to seek clarification of who is supposed to be the responsible person. The Bill will give rise to several potentially complex issues and could lead to difficulties unintended by the draftsmen.

The thrust of the amendment is that there must be a person responsible for compliance with this provision of the Bill, and we welcome that. My party will ensure that it has a full-time compliance officer. However, the officer will not necessarily be the person with

    ``overall responsibility for the financial affairs of the party''.

I do not know how the Labour party operates; my impression is that the financial roles become more diffused from the top as the party organisation becomes larger. The party treasurer may not be the person with overall control of day-to-day accounting of the organisation—he may be responsible primarily for fund raising or for presenting the party's official front to the local organisations and associations, urging them to raise money. I acknowledge that, with smaller political parties, the treasurer may be the be-all and end-all of the system, doing everything right down to signing off the accounts.

Why, if compliance is necessary, does subsection (4) also state that the person

    ``must have overall responsibility for the financial affairs of the party''?

The Minister may wish to explain. I should also be grateful if he explained the meaning of that phrase.

We have lifted sections from the Companies Acts that do not seem to bear complete relation to the reality of political parties and their organisation. I shall discuss that when we reach the next amendment. A balance must be struck between the existence of a political party, however much one might dislike its presence, and its keeping financial probity. The essential issue is surely that there is compliance. If that is so, we should aim to ensure that there is a person with a responsibility to ensure compliance, with whom the buck would stop were there to be a failure of compliance. I should be grateful to hear the Minister's comments, and I shall confine my remarks until I have heard more.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering


©Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 20 January 2000