Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Tony Lloyd: What the hon. Member for Huntingdon said was interesting. When asked whether he considered that the commission had done a good job in respect of unincorporated associations, he said that he did not have time to consider it. However, he was forthright in his response to the hon. Member for Cambridge when he said that its examination of the Midlands Industrial Council had been full and proper.
Mr. Djanogly: The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point is simple. I was briefed at a later date by one of my hon. Friends.
Tony Lloyd: You would be the first to agree, Sir Nicholas, that it is a delight to know that, even though the process is slow, the Conservative Front Bench learns bit by bit—although, in this case, perhaps not enough.
I asked about the role of the Electoral Commission because it is obvious to many people that one of the criticisms of it has been its failure properly to investigate, even with its powers, organisations such as the Midlands Industrial Council. That is important if we want to achieve adequate transparency that reassures members of the general public that they can know who the funders are, particularly the high-value funders. Even if the amendment were not optimal, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take seriously the need for us to move rapidly in its direction, which would guarantee that all high-value donors can be known. I say clearly to the Conservative party, my party and to the Liberal Democrats that there is nothing wrong with people acting in a public-spirited way and giving money to political parties, but it is wrong when that is done covertly and is designed to prevent the public from being reassured that the money trail is legitimate and is there simply to enhance the benefits of our party political system.
Mr. Tyrie: Perhaps one or two Labour Members will confirm that I am not completely out of sorts with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I just wonder whether he has thought through the full implications of his argument. Surely, at the heart of matters, is whether we think that individuals or institutions have a role in donations. If we are to move to long-term reform, we must reach the point at which parties are donated to by those who can vote for them, and that they are individuals, not organisations, trade unions, companies or intermediaries such as the one that we are discussing.
Even though I recognise that it would be hugely difficult in a short period for the Labour party to adjust, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there might be merit in it thinking over the long term of moving in the direction of removing all intermediary institutions, including trade unions and businesses, as well as bodies such as the Midlands Industrial Council, from the role of funding political parties in the 21st century?
Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman has consistently put forward particular views on these matters. I understand but do not share all of them. For the record, I do not necessarily believe that intermediary organisations are wrong, whether they be private companies or unincorporated associations, as long as it is clear what the flows of moneys are and who has access to what the public will perceive as financial influence if those transfers of money are not properly transparent and properly there to be seen.
Mr. Tyrie: I am fascinated by that reply, because it seems to acknowledge the idea that as long as there is transparency, it is all right for intermediate bodies such as trade unions and such institutions or, for that matter, companies to donate money with the purpose of obtaining influence. The hon. Gentleman used the word “influence” in his reply to my intervention. Does that not go to the heart of the perception of the problems with such institutions and the need for reform to remove concern in the public mind?
Tony Lloyd: I honestly do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. What I sought to say—I will need to read the record to ensure that what I sought to say is what the words actually say—is that transparency is necessary so that the public are able to see whether people are seeking to gain unreasonable influence. We need transparency so that people are not allowed to draw that conclusion about the political process.
I have no objection to the existence of an organisation such as the Midlands Industrial Council. In a society and democracy such as ours, it is, at present, part of a legitimate process. What is difficult is the perception that it is a shadowy organisation whose very existence is designed to obscure the identity of those who give.
I do not mind people giving to the Conservative party. I encourage them to give to my own party through the means available. I do not think that an intermediary body of itself is the problem because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, my party went through a long and, I accept, sometimes tortuous process whereby the concept of the collectivisation of the giving process was necessary historically to set some kind of balance against the unfair power of money in party politics. That goes back to the origins of the Labour party. I do not think that my party needs to run away from that background as if it were somehow illegitimate or immoral, because it is neither.
What the Labour party and the trade unions have to do, as should all political parties and unincorporated associations, is guarantee that the public at large and the individuals involved are quite clear on the question of transparency. That is the spirit that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire seeks to capture with the amendment.
Mr. Tyrie: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so generously. This helpful exchange goes to the heart of some of the problems. Nobody on the Conservative Benches seeks to alter the constitutional relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions. It is only the issue of influence that may be bought by money that is of legitimate concern in my view and, I believe, in the view of most Opposition Members. Indeed, it is the public’s concern as well. The hon. Gentleman has just confirmed again that he did not mean to say what he said, but the record will show what he did say—we will have to wait and see. He said that we need transparency to know whether organisations seek to gain an unreasonable influence over the political process, which suggests that there are donations for which influence at a reasonable level is gained. I fundamentally disagree with him. That is the division on the issue. We do not think it is right for people to be able to buy influence over the political process, full stop.
1.45 pm
Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman and I are at one on that. For example, the question must arise about who funds an unincorporated association, the Churchill luncheon club, which I believe is a donor to his constituency, and what their role and ambitions are. After I have sat down, he might seek to catch your eye, Sir Nicholas, to explain the role of the Churchill luncheon club.
Mr. Tyrie: I would like to catch the hon. Gentleman’s eye, as he has referred to my constituency.
Tony Lloyd: Indeed. I shall give way if the hon. Gentleman can tell us who the donors to the Churchill luncheon club are.
Mr. Tyrie: The Churchill luncheon club makes about—
The Chairman: Order. I am not much liking this. There is too much nitty-gritty about the constituencies of individual Members of Parliament. May we perhaps concentrate on the matter in the same way in which it was introduced—succinctly and to the point?
Tony Lloyd: Alas, Sir Nicholas, I was tempted by others. As often happens in this big old world, temptation leads us in the wrong direction. I will try to correct the error of my ways henceforth and bring my remarks to a conclusion. I apologise, in a sense, to the hon. Member for Chichester, because your ruling means that I cannot give him the opportunity to respond. As a matter of courtesy, I would have liked to give him that opportunity.
Let me simply say this: in our political system, it is right that unreasonable influence is something we all deplore. Inevitably, the public have suspicions. They have had suspicions about my party in the recent past when flows of money arose that we have not been able properly to account for. As a long-standing member of my party, I regret and deplore that, and I hope that hon. Members from all political backgrounds would do the same.
The way to get round the matter is not to get rid of the unincorporated association—whether at constituency or national level—but to ensure that we have the transparency necessary to reassure the public that the exchange is legitimate and not one that seeks to acquire unfair and unreasonable influence. That is what the Bill ought to be about.
The hon. Gentleman and I disagree about the exact conclusions, but it might well be that we agree with the sentiments behind what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire is seeking to do.
Dr. Whitehead: For the purposes of clarity, can my hon. Friend explain the point on the £1,000 of donations referred to in the amendment? A distinction appears to be made between the results of, for example, a lunch where a number of people have contributed some money in relation to that lunch, which is collected and donated in a convenient way, as opposed to an arrangement whereby a number of people, for the purposes of hiding the origin of their donation, donate large sums of money, which are gathered together?
Indeed, if the origins of those donations were recorded, there would be no point in having intermediary activity at all and the organisation concerned might well cease to exist. As, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea suggested, one organisation that might be in that category may have recently ceased to exist—perhaps in anticipation of something that might happen in the Committee.
Tony Lloyd: I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion by exploring the line of argument put forward by my hon. Friend. Of course, he is right.
At the heart of the amendment is the issue of collective giving at relatively modest levels—for example, the kind of thing that might take place at a luncheon club. Such a club may well be legitimate and beyond suspicion, and I am happy to state that. That also applies to a trade union. I know of no trade union where an individual gives at the level of £1,000, but certainly, if the union is giving collectively, the question about transparency ought to catch it.
The matter before us is the perception that all political parties have gained from shadowy organisations whose purpose is to prevent the transparency that the amendment seeks. That is why I strongly support the spirit behind the amendment.
Mr. Tyrie: On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I seek your guidance on how I might be able to respond to the allegation made about my constituency. I completely agree—even if I quietly disagree—with the point that you made from the Chair, but I would be grateful if you told me how I might put the record straight. I do not want to create undue fuss, but I do not think the matter can be left entirely.
The Chairman: I think that there will be a debate on the schedule as a whole. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman—briefly and succinctly—may correct the record then.
Mr. Wills: The extent and quality our debate on the clause demonstrate the debt that the Committee owes to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire for tabling the amendment. I understand and share the concern expressed on Second Reading and in today’s debate that we need to do more to promote greater transparency of donations from unincorporated associations. We must ensure that such structures are not used to conceal the ultimate source of donations to parties.
Unincorporated associations have given money to all the parties represented here today: the Labour Finance and Industry Group has given money to my party; the Midlands Industrial Council, as we have heard, is a long-standing donor to the Conservative party; and there are historic Liberal clubs, often registered as unincorporated associations, that give money to the Liberal party. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is not present, but if he were I would remind him that that the Scottish women’s independence fund trust has donated money to the Scottish National party.
There is nothing inherently wrong about such associations contributing. Of course, it is a matter of consensus that such contributions should not be used to purchase influence—that is abhorrent. The only people who should have influence over political parties are the voters, through exercise of the vote. That is the source of authority and power in our democracy, nothing else. Everyone is agreed on that.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central made is important and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Chichester should take issue with it. Transparency is the best guarantor for everybody that such influence is not purchased in our society, and above all that everybody in our democracy can see that it is not being purchased. It is not the existence of unincorporated associations that matters; what matters is that they should be transparent. We have to recognise that there is enough evidence to show that they are not as transparent as we would wish.
The provisions in clause 8 and schedule 3, which apply to unincorporated associations as they do to other donors, already address some of the concerns about transparency, which I share with other hon. Members here. There is a lot of cross-party agreement on the importance of transparency.
I appreciate that there are continuing concerns and I am willing to consider actively—indeed, we are considering actively—what more we can do. Again, I would prefer to move forward on a consensual basis, as on many areas of the Bill. One way we could promote greater openness about donations from unincorporated associations would be to require them to declare the names and addresses of their members and donors. We must be certain that we are not putting undue burdens on them and bear in mind the need for flexibility and proportionality, but we are considering options to that effect.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Minister has suggested two groups: those listed as members and those who might be listed as donors. Is there a reason for suggesting the first group?
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Prepared 21 November 2008