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Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points. When he talks about the standards boards, it is important to recognise that some local councillors are unfairly penalised. For example, a complaint can be made against a parish councillor who, in order to prove his innocence, will have to incur costs of a few thousand pounds, simply for being a good citizen and trying to do the best that he can. Let us not forget that there are
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issues in local government that need reform. We need to consider the matter of local councillors not being able to vote on planning issues if they declare their views. They have an enormous problem in that they cannot effectively speak up for their constituents if they cannot say where they stand publicly.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that he hoped that we would all speak with the same voice, but if a political party tables a motion like the one that the Liberal Democrats have tabled, it is worth putting on record their inconsistency and examining how they have behaved in ways totally contrary to the way in which they expect the rest of us to behave.

For example, the motion speaks of

but this is the party that has taken £2.4 million from a convicted criminal. The Lib Dems talk about trust in parliamentarians, but that man gave them money from a fraudulent company that never traded. He did not live in Britain, and he was not allowed to vote here. What happened to the due diligence that one would expect from anyone taking such a huge sum of money? So much for due diligence.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): All the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions would be completely got rid of if his party were to accept the £50,000 cap on donations. Will he accept that proposal now?

Mr. Vara: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does his homework a little better in future before he makes an intervention. He should be aware that it was my party that suggested, a long time ago, that there should be a cap of £50,000 for individuals, companies and organisations. It was not accepted because the governing party did not want to put a cap on trade union donations.

David Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Vara: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman and he will have an opportunity to speak later.

The Lib Dems speak of restoring

Let us consider the idea of the Lib Dems talking about trust in British politics. On page 21 of their campaign document, “Effective Opposition”, produced by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, it says:

On page 23, it says:

and on page 4, it states:

On page 6, it says that

It goes on to say:

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Finally, the document— [ Interruption. ] I see that my reminder to the Lib Dems of their campaigning tactics is too much for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who moved the motion, because he has had to leave the Chamber. It is a pity. I presume that he knows it already, and that was why he felt it necessary to leave.

On page 33—I am coming to the end of my quotations from this document—it states:

At the last elections—the London elections—the party that has so graciously tabled the motion decided to break the rules. In December 2008, Ofcom ruled that the Lib Dem London mayoral television adverts were in “extremely serious breach” of guidance outlined by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. Indeed, the television companies were fined a total of £40,000 and it was later revealed that the Lib Dems could have been breaking Electoral Commission rules by not declaring the adverts as donations in kind.

It is important to put on record all that I have just said because it highlights the inconsistency between a party’s putting forward such a motion and the practice on the ground.

Simon Hughes: I cannot possibly deal with all the points that the hon. Gentleman made. However, I make it absolutely clear, as someone who had some responsibility for the first matter that he raised, that we would never have taken a donation from anybody who at that time had a criminal conviction. The conviction followed much later. The party carried out all the due diligence tests and the Electoral Commission confirmed that we had done so.

Mr. Vara: A quick look at the electoral register would have highlighted that the individual concerned did not vote in this country. A quick analysis of the situation would have determined that the individual was not resident in Britain. A simple search of a company or two would have confirmed that the company did not trade. That alone, I would have thought, would have raised alarms to an average amateur in politics. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. He has put it on the record, and I have put my comments on the record, too.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I feel like I am intruding on private grief, but let us put the record straight. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what he thinks the incentive would be for somebody who is not registered for tax purposes in the UK to fund a political party and seek to influence the outcome of elections? What would be the incentive for a political party to accept such a donation?

Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about overseas issues. He will, of course, be aware that the noble Lord Paul, who more or less agreed to underwrite the general election campaign that never was about a year or so ago, is non-domiciled. I accept that overseas issues to do with Members of the other Chamber cut across both sides of the House. That needs to be looked at. I suggest that he refrains from trying to score cheap political points and perhaps does his homework a little bit in future.

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Kelvin Hopkins: Will the hon. Gentleman make a good start by sending back the Ashcroft cheques now?

Mr. Vara: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman refer to the answer that I just gave. He might like to review the enormous sums of funds that have been given by the noble Lord Paul to his party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think we have had a pretty good run around the course now. I would be happier if the hon. Gentleman concentrated on the terms of the motion and the amendment.

Mr. Vara: I agree entirely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was simply addressing some of the questions raised by hon. Members.

Clearly, the upper Chamber is in need of urgent reform in terms of both accountability and composition. The Opposition support a substantially elected upper Chamber. People who legislate for the people should have the mandate of the people on whose behalf they legislate. That should be a guiding principle. Of course, it is important that we take an urgent look at the financial aspects that apply in the other place. Incidentally, may I put on the record the fact that my colleague, the noble Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Conservatives in the upper House, has been a vocal proponent of Lords reform for a very long time?

When addressing electoral reform, we must also consider the issue of Members of the European Parliament.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend will know that I share his belief that we should have a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. Did he share my disappointment that the Deputy Leader of the House gave as a reason not to proceed too quickly on Lords reform the fact that the other House would have strong views about it? Surely the point is that the Lords will always have a view about it and we should not put off until tomorrow what could and should be done today.

Mr. Vara: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Clearly, the other House will have views. We need to listen to those and move on rather than putting such matters into the long grass, which is what has been done by the Government so far.

I turn back to the issue of Members of the European Parliament.

Simon Hughes: On the issue of Lords reform, if the Government were persuaded that this Parliament was the time to legislate for a wholly or substantially elected House of Lords, may I take it from what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have said over the past months that the Conservative party would support it?

Mr. Vara: My party is in favour of a substantially elected House of Lords. We need to go through the process and when that happens we will support what we have voted for in the past in this Chamber.

On the third attempt, let me turn to the issue of Members of the European Parliament. We need to extend reform to that institution and those individuals, too. We have started the process and have produced a
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full list of the breakdown of our MEPs’ expenses as part of our commitment to transparency and openness in public life.

If we are to regain the public’s trust, we must make changes to the way in which political parties are funded. For our part, we have put forward a comprehensive set of radical proposals for party funding. As I said, at the centre of them is an across-the-board cap on donations of £50,000 a year, covering individuals, companies and trade unions. It was unfortunate that the Government decided that they would not go with that proposal, but that was hardly surprising given that some £12 million was given to the governing party last year by trade unions and that since 2001 the Labour party has received some £75 million from trade unions.

David Howarth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for coming back to this topic. May I take it that he is committing his party to voting for the Liberal Democrat new clauses on the £50,000 cap and on the trade union matter when the Political Parties and Elections Bill comes back to the Chamber next week and the week after?

Mr. Vara: The answer to that question will be given by whoever is at this Dispatch Box when that Bill comes before the House. I shall certainly not give the hon. Gentleman an answer to a question on a future debate; I would much rather concentrate on the motion that he and his party have tabled in the debate at hand than discuss matters that are not on the Order Paper at the moment.

It is important that the integrity of Parliament should be taken on board by all of us. It is not only the issue of finance that brings this place into disrepute; it is also the way in which politicians and Parliament operate. For example, if a party gives a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the European Union constitution, that party—the Labour party—should honour that pledge when it is elected back into government. It demeaned the Prime Minister and the office that he holds when he said that the Lisbon treaty was a different document. This was particularly highlighted by the fact that many of his European Union counterparts said that the Lisbon treaty was a European constitution in all but name.

As well as ensuring that there is proper accountability in the House, we must also ensure that any announcements are made in this House first, and not announced on the “Today” programme or leaked to the newspapers. That issue comes up regularly at business questions, and the Leader of the House gives us many assurances—as have her predecessors—that she will take it on board and pass it on to her Cabinet colleagues, yet we still find that, week in and week out, announcements are made outside the House rather than here, where Ministers can be held to account by the parliamentarians who were elected to hold them to account.

The matter of written parliamentary questions was raised in a point relating to the consistency and timing of replies to those questions. I suggest that the issue of proper answers should also be addressed. It is absurd for the Government to give answers such as, “We do not hold the information in the format requested.” If that is the case, they should give the information in whatever
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format exists, rather than withholding the information completely. The former Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Justice, often said that one of the problems was that too many questions were being tabled. But if the questions were answered properly in the first instance, there would be no need for the huge number of supplementaries that have to follow. It is bad enough that written questions do not get proper answers, but it is even worse now that the Government simply do not bother to give any answers at all. At the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, which had been tabled for more than a month, received no reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply.

Andrew Mackinlay: Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is appalling that there is an industry of planted questions? Will he give the House an undertaking that those on the Conservative Front Bench do not do that, or that, if they do, they will stop it? This industry of planted questions being hawked around every day is a debasement of Parliament, and it denies the people who are the architects and authors of their own questions the opportunity of succeeding in getting them on to the Order Paper.

Mr. Vara: The Conservatives certainly do not do that, because we are not in government and we do not have to take questions every day, as Ministers do. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes was highlighted when, during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister stood up and started to answer a question before the Labour Back Bencher had even asked it. The question had clearly been planted, and the Prime Minister clearly knew the answer. That gave away the tactics with which this Prime Minister operates.

It is also important that Parliament exercises proper scrutiny over legislation that comes from Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has made proposals on this, including strengthening the European Scrutiny Committee and giving it the power to force a debate and a vote on a motion, and placing on a statutory basis the convention that Ministers must gain parliamentary approval before agreeing a decision in the Council of Ministers.

It is important to bring the integrity of the ballot up to 21st-century standards. There is some merit in the Electoral Commission’s recent warning that Britain’s system of elections was designed for the 19th century and not for the modern world. Who can forget Judge Richard Mawrey’s comments in 2005, when he found two Birmingham city councillors guilty of being involved in ballot rigging and postal vote fraud? He spoke of

John Bercow: I absolutely understand that, in talking about the integrity of the ballot, my hon. Friend referred to public elections, which are very important. On the subject of the integrity of the ballot, and the entitlement to elect, does he agree that the House should have the self-respect and self-confidence to elect its own Select Committees, a commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) some years ago?

Mr. Vara: I certainly know that there has been an abuse of the election of a Chairman of a Select Committee, when the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee
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was forced through in the House, rather than the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) being elected by fellow Select Committee members.

Mr. Cash: In relation to the scrutiny of European legislation, does my hon. Friend agree, especially given the strikes that we are facing in the United Kingdom, that when European law is trapped by its own system into having the European Court of Justice make decisions that cannot be reversed, it is vital to our national interests to reassert the supremacy of our own Parliament and require the judiciary to obey the latest relevant Act of Parliament? The Conservative party agreed to that proposition when it supported my amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill two years ago.

Mr. Vara: It is important that we are the final arbiters of which rules are used to judge us. That is why we should have the final scrutiny of such issues and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead has proposed, the right to vote on specific motions.

It is a privilege to be in this House, and we have chosen to put ourselves forward to be here. If we do that, we must accept that 21st-century standards require proper accountability and proper transparency over funds. We should conduct our affairs in a way that inspires confidence in what we do, rather than derision. There has been much debate—and many words—on this subject in recent months, and the time has now come for us to stop talking and to start doing something about it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There is a general consensus, for reasons that we all know about, that the debate should come to an end at 9 o’clock. There is therefore a limited amount of time left, and a lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If they could tailor their remarks to the time remaining, that would be extremely helpful.

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