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Police corruption investigations have started on individual cases and will follow their course. Many more, mainly unanswered questions have emerged from the debate today, not least those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and the hon. Member for Somerton and
Frome, who said that the jury was out on whether we were considering incompetence or conspiracy. I tend to agree with that.
We must also concentrate on the system itself. The motion deals with the crafty rise in state funding for political ends organised by Labour, whether through Government special advisers and communications officers in Whitehall or the communications allowance in Parliament. The attempts by some hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), for Manchester, Central and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), to argue that all parties are as bad as each other was pathetic in the context of the debate.
The Labour partys fascination with Lord Ashcrofts input as deputy chairman of the Conservative party is bizarre. As Lord Ashcroft recently noted, the candidates fund, which he chairs but does not control, mainly comes from donors other than him. At £2 million a year, it amounts to only around 15 per cent. of the partys total annual spending.
The core of the debate is the relationship between Labour and the trade unions. I say the core because, last year, Labour received donations of £11.8 million, of which £8.6 millionor 73 per cent.came from the trade unions.
Since Labour came to power, some 18 Acts and 200 statutory instruments dealing with employment legislation have been passed. That includes the introduction of the £10 million so-called union modernisation fund, which has so far handed out £5.8 million of taxpayers cash to fund projects such as building links between the T and G and the Polish workers association, expanding ASLEFs website andwait for itsupporting online discussion forums at the TUC. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds made a similar point. The Government constantly talk about their modernisation agenda, but when we talk about modernisation [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say to hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies that constant interventions from a sedentary position are not allowed. They simply disrupt the debate and have no sensible effect. If hon. Members wish to intervene, they must stand in the normal way and if the Member on their feet does not want to give way, that is the end of it.
Mr. Djanogly: When we talk about modernising unions, the reaction in previous debates has been that the Conservatives did that 30 years ago and that the matter does not need further consideration. That was the extent of the Governments bias.
Under huge pressure, last weekend the Prime Minister at last conceded the connection between the political contribution that a union member makes as an individual and that money ending up in the Labour partys coffers. For those who think that that is stating the obvious, it is not. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham pointed out, some unions have made larger contributions than can be attributed to their political fund contributing members. If we also consider that some unions affiliate at regional and local level, and that other help, such as manpower, which the Lord Chancellor described as completely transparent, is unrecorded, existing transparency and reporting are nothing more than a joke. If the Prime Minister thinks that his paltry weekend rehash of existing proposals will be perceived as anything other than a smokescreen for his partys huge complacency and failings, he should think again.
The Prime Minister is unwilling to follow through the logic of accepting the individual position over the collective position of union members. The so-called openness of Labour and unions to changing their relationship, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Central described, is not the historic position. However, I hope that it is the position now. Yes, the Prime Minister said that the 30-year-old opt-out rights for union political contributions should now be clearly stated to members, but they have certainly not been to date.
Why, in this day and age, should an individual be assumed to want to contribute to a political party for which he probably did not vote? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham explained, we need to keep in mind the fact that most trade unionists are not Labour voters. The 2005 British election survey revealed that 54.3 per cent. of trade unionists voted for parties other than Labour. That is why there should be a specific opt-in to making political fund contributions. I opt in to paying my membership of the Conservative party, and so should someone who pays money to the Labour party. Union members who opt in to paying into the political fund should also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds noted, have the right to decide to which political cause their money goes.
The regulatory framework for unions, through the certification officer, is clearly in dire need of modernisation. We are especially concerned that there should be a review of the relationship between the certification officer and the Electoral Commission, not least as regards registering political donations. In July, a written question revealed that the Electoral Commission had no record of any meeting with the
certification officer or his representatives. That is no way to run a system to monitor union contributions.
The Lord Chancellor appeared to be desperate to move on with funding talks, but flip-flopped about including unions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester spotted. We need to change the law and set funding limits but we also need to update the modernisation of unions. That clear message comes out of the debate.
We still have a problem that will not go away. No matter how many laws are passed, legislation is no substitute for integrity. We currently have laws that require timely disclosure of donations, which Labour has broken. We also have laws that require people to declare their indirect donations, which Labour has again broken. We could introduce more laws, and then Labour could flout them, too. If the Liberal Democrats or anyone else think that using state funding will improve the ethics of party funding, they should think again. Nothing shows that to be the case.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said, the Conservative party has a problem. We could discuss new funding proposals with Labour and the Liberal Democrats for ever and a day, but are the Government capable of abiding by whatever rules we finally agree? Can Labour be trusted to deal with us fairly on funding? The great questions here, as matters stand, are: can Labour be trusted to deal with us fairly on funding and, more important, can it be trusted by the British people?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I should have liked to thank all hon. Members for a positive, thought-provoking and inspiring debate, but I doubt, given your recent remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about interventions, that that would have been a strictly accurate description of the past couple of hours. However, I want to put on record my thanks, especially to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for his measured response to the debate and for the fact that he, like us, still wants to make progress in the next weeks and months on party funding.
I also particularly want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, who apologised for the incidents that have taken place in the past couple of weeksas indeed do I, and as did the Prime Minister, very clearly, as soon as he knew. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) should listen more carefully to some of these things.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who said that anything that brings Parliament into disrepute is a blow to parliamentary democracy. Maintaining and rebuilding faith in political parties is vital for us all, and I continue to hope that hon. Members from all parties will engage constructively in taking this forward. How political parties are funded matters because of the central role that they play in democracy. We should be able, in this democracy of ours, to have debates and conversations about the importance of political parties instead of the kind of debate that we have had today.
the debate about the financing of our political parties is
a debate about the health of our democracy and how we can improve it.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Why did the Hayden Phillips talks include only the three UK parties in the discussions on a formal and ongoing basis? Will the hon. Lady give a commitment that future talks will, on the basis of equality, include the political parties of Northern Ireland and the parties of government of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru?
Bridget Prentice: I realise that the hon. Gentleman has come into the debate only in the past couple of minutes, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I will be more than happy to have discussions with him about how we take these matters forward.
It is vital that political party finances are, and are seen to be, completely transparent and above board. If we are to command high levels of public support, funding arrangements must be fair and transparent. We have gone a considerable way to introducing transparency. With all-party support, we sought to tackle the problem of excessive spending through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which reflected the key recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Patrick Neill. It is worth reminding the House of what that Act did. It introduced a national limit on campaign expenditure, created the Electoral Commission, made the funding system more transparent, required all donations above £5,000 nationally and £1,000 locally to be made public, and outlawed foreign donations.
It is clear that we now need to move beyond the recent specific issues and consider the basis of the funding of our parties for the future. In the Queens Speech, we said that we would bring forward proposals to reform party finance and expenditure, and we intend to develop a comprehensive package of reforms building on the principles established by Sir Hayden Phillipss inter-party review, which reported in October. That review, which was supported at the time of his March report by the official Opposition as well as by the Liberal Democrats, identifies important principles that should underpin the way forward.
In particular, Sir Hayden identified the key flaw in the system as the political spending arms race, whereby expenditure has spiralled upwards even as party membership has declined. I understand that the official Opposition want to deny that that arms race exists but, given that the money spent between the two main parties in the 12 months before the last general election rose to £90 million, which was nearly 40 per cent. up on the £65 million spent during a similar period in 2000-01, that is clearly what we have before us. Sir Hayden said that the 2000 Act
sought to control the level of spending, but it has proved inadequate to the challenge.
Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that Hayden Phillips produced a comprehensive paper showing conclusively that, since 1992, expenditure on general elections by the political parties has increased by less than incomes and only fractionally more than
zero in real terms? Will she now agree to do what her colleague studiously refused to do, which is to allow these documents to be put into the public domain so that we can end the position whereby we debate on the basis of speculation rather than fact?
Bridget Prentice: I am afraid that I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency association receives funding of some £3,000 from the Churchill Luncheon Club, that his analysis of Sir Haydens report as regards the increase in expenditure is plain wrong. In fact, Sir Hayden shows that support for the principle of continuous spending limits at a national level is crucial. The importance of effective spending limits cannot be overstated. The Constitutional Affairs Committee observed that the United States is a constructive example of the way in which we would not want this country to go if spending were left unchecked.
We heard many comments about trade unions and donation caps. Sir Hayden acknowledged the distinction between affiliation fees paid to political parties by trade unions, which are in effect an aggregation of individual donations, and the other donations that are paid to parties from trade unions. He recommended that the process for treating political levy donations individually should be more transparent and traceable. We accept that, and we are committed to bringing greater transparency to political donations, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only yesterday. Other donations from trade unions would be subject to any cap on donations, treating the trade unions in the same way as other major donors to political parties. Both the Constitutional Affairs Committee and Sir Haydens review said that limiting donations to political parties from private sources would require an increase in financial support from public funds. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor said, we are yet to be convinced that there is public acceptance of an extension of state funding, but we will continue to consider and consult on that issue.
Mr. Simon: The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) was so pious about party funding by the state, but will his party offer to give back the £35 million of taxpayers money that it has been spending on political spending in the past decade?
Bridget Prentice: Of course, it is not for me to answer for the official Opposition, but if my hon. Friend is referring to the fact that this Government have increased the money that is given to the Opposition parties, particularly the £4.4 million that the Conservatives now get from Short money, that is worth reflecting on.
We welcome the publication of Sir Hayden Phillips report. We accept his main recommendations...we are happy to discuss spending caps on all year round non-election campaigning and proposals for tighter controls on third-party expenditure.[ Official Report, 15 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 469.]
Personally, I do not think that we ever should have shown how we spent our money. The Conservative Central Office is not a charity dedicated to helping the sick and the suffering...There was a black hole in the Partys finances...The solution was easy: we gave up publishing accounts.
If that is the level of debate from the Conservatives, I suspect that we will not get very far in all-party consensus, but nor will we allow them to stop us and other parties moving forward and making party political funding transparent, clear and easy to follow.
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