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Party Funding

22. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What plans he has to amend the law relating to party funding. [147117]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The current law on party funding is fully in line with the recommendations made by the Neill Committee in 1998. The Electoral Commission is undertaking a review of all aspects of party funding. It is due to conclude its considerations this summer, and we will consider its recommendations carefully.

Norman Baker : The Minister may recall the Prime Minister telling "Newsnight" in 2002:

Will the Minister help the Prime Minister in this difficult matter by bringing in a clear system of state party funding so that he does not have to rely on dubious business men for his money? [Interruption.]

Mr. Leslie: There is not yet a consensus on state funding, as we heard from the reaction to the hon. Gentleman—although he usually gets that reaction. Given that the state already funds the Conservative party to the tune of £4.3 million and the Liberal Democrats to the tune of almost £2 million, a considerable amount of public resources already go to the hon. Gentleman's party and others. It is important, however, that we continue to talk about such matters, and consider the recommendations of the Electoral Commission when it reports this summer.

John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to rule out any consideration of state funding for parties, despite the pleas of Liberal Democrat Members—and does he agree that this is a question of rights? I contribute to the Labour party because I choose to do so; I do not want to pay through my taxes for the campaign of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), or of any other Opposition Member.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course it is good for any party to be a volunteer party—that is, for fund-raising to be by choice. Judging by the amount of expenditure at the last general election, there was no shortage of money available. Additional scope for funding already exists in the form of parliamentary allowances, policy development grants from the Electoral Commission, Short money and so forth. The Electoral Commission is aware of the situation and will report on it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): What the hon. Gentleman says is all very well—we accept that there is a degree of indirect state funding in

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that regard. Does he accept, however, that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) spoke for many Members on both sides of the House when he urged that it should not be increased? We do not want our ordinary party political activities to be funded by the state, and I hope that the Minister and the Government will turn their face against any such ridiculous suggestion.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman reflects the views of many hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Electoral Commission—the independent expert in this field—will no doubt make its recommendations, which we will consider very carefully. I do not want to have a closed mind on the subject at this stage.

Second Chamber

23. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Whether the Government intend to separate membership of the second Chamber from the honours system. [147118]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government do not plan at this stage to break the link between the life peerage and membership of the House of Lords. Our Bill will, however, propose ending the link between the hereditary peerage and membership of the House of Lords.

Tony Wright: May I remind my hon. Friend that the royal commission on Lords reform, which the Government established, made a clear and unanimous recommendation that the award of a peerage and membership of the House of the Lords should be "completely distinct"? Whatever else we do on House of Lords reform, will he give an undertaking finally to separate being awarded an honour from service in the second Chamber of Parliament?

Mr. Leslie: What my hon. Friend says about the royal commission is true. Last February, however, there were discussions and a lack of decision on the composition of the second Chamber. That has considerably changed the landscape. We will introduce a Bill to make incremental progress when we can, but our minds are not closed about future changes that may be required. Some issues may need resolving later.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): When it comes to separating honours from political power, what is the Under-Secretary's verdict on the people's peers who signed a contract to work in the Lords, yet have never even bothered to turn up? How does he reconcile his party's promise, which was binding in a contract with the people called a manifesto, to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative, with the subsequent contrary policy that it will be all appointed?

Mr. Leslie: To take the hon. Gentleman's first point about the appointments process, the proposals in the Bill to create an independent statutory appointments commission will not only remove patronage from the Prime Minister but allow general election results to be

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reflected in the process. That is a step towards a more democratic and legitimate system, although I accept that there may be a need for further discussion beyond the Bill. I believe that the Lords do a good job with the work that they contribute. When we consider the Bill we shall discuss a statutory appointments commission, so that appointments can be made on merit in future.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): But are we getting value for money from the House of Lords Appointments Commission? It is almost three years since the first batch of people's peers was appointed—and as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said, we do not hear much from them.

Mr. Leslie: I am not sure whether it is fair to generalise in that way. Different Members of both Houses will have different records in Parliament. However, I believe that it is our job—and especially mine—to examine the framework in which appointments are made, and that the Bill will be firm about the way in which we structure a statutory appointments commission to ensure that we have good criteria for appointments in future.

Magistrates Courts (East Anglia)

24. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy from East Anglia to discuss court closures. [147119]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I have no current plans to meet representatives of the magistracy in East Anglia to discuss court closures—not least because there are no planned court closures in East Anglia.

Mr. Bellingham : I am pleased to hear that. I am sorry that the other Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) is not answering this question, because we have had previous exchanges on this subject.

Does the Under-Secretary accept that not only the present Government but, to be fair, the previous Government, have been too cavalier about closing magistrates courts? In my constituency, Hunstanton and Fakenham have been closed; again, that happened not only under the present Government but under the previous Government. Those courts were good at ensuring that local justice was administered to local hooligans and thugs by local people. Surely the time has come to stop further closures. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be none?

Mr. Leslie: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that in the last year of the previous Administration, 21 courts were closed. As I said, I do not intend any courts to be closed in East Anglia at the moment, and the magistrates courts committees do not have any plans to do so either. I shall keep his suggestions under review and I am glad that we have already been able to hear a small number of appeals on magistrates courts and to allow some of them, thus preventing more closures than have been prevented in any other year.

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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in which to secure the future of courthouses in rural parts of East Anglia and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is for him to reassure the magistracy—I declare an interest, as a member of the Magistrates Association—that the decisions will be placed in the hands not of short-sighted accountants who cannot see beyond the next balance sheet, but of people who appreciate the value of local courthouses with local magistrates dispensing justice locally?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we have sufficient local courthouses to administer local justice. However, we must make sure that we respond flexibly to modern circumstances, and that we have adequate facilities for victims, witnesses and so on. Those are the considerations that we have borne in mind when considering the resources in the magistrates courts estate across the country.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Does the Minister not recognise that far too many courthouses in rural areas have already closed under this Government? About 100 courts have closed since they came to power. It is not acceptable simply to say that there may not be so many closure plans in the future. The real problem is that the Minister's Department boxes in local magistrates courts committees and makes it more or less inevitable that any small courthouse will fail to meet Government criteria. The Government must recognise that local justice is more important than their obsession with the tick-box culture and political correctness.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is clearly seeking some line of attack on the closure of magistrates courts. I remind him that we are not planning any such closures in East Anglia, and that 21 closures took place in the final year of the Conservative Administration. That compares with the 10 courts that closed last year. This year we have allowed more appeals than ever before, which has ensured that fewer courts are closing. We have to look at each case on its own merits. We are also building new courts—for example, in Ipswich and in Cambridgeshire. That is a sensible way to move forward.

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