Previous Section Index Home Page

It is on that sentence and the link between association fundraising and the declarations of Members, whose benefit is the crucial aspect, that the confusion has arisen. If I may, I shall come to that point in a moment.

First, let us establish what we are trying to do. As we debated as recently as two weeks ago, openness and transparency are very important. Curiously, however, we have discovered over the past few years that that can be overdone, in the sense that duplication is unnecessary and adds nothing to the simple keeping of a central record, which should suffice. What has grown up is a process whereby, in addition to a thorough central record, a parallel institution has demanded that the same matters be recorded with it. That dual reporting has been an unintended consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and it is, to any sensible person, absurd. Once is enough; if it has to be done twice and moreover the requirements are not exactly parallel, there will be a minefield on which people falling foul of the rules can be tripped up and maligned in the press for not complying with those rules.

Basically, we have had too many rules, and they have become so complicated that being a Member of Parliament is now a bit like running a small business. I would like to thank, properly, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for trying to clarify those rules and presenting this report to the House. However, as he said, the process of making them less complicated has itself proved rather complicated. It is a bit like when Nigel Lawson, now Lord Lawson, said that the process of simplifying taxation inevitably makes taxation more complicated.

We have hit on a point that seems to be muddy. The underlying principle is that if any of us, as an individual Member of this House, appears to be benefiting from the raising or giving of money, we should declare it openly. However, two issues have given rise to concern in the 45 minutes of debate that we have had: the phrase “linked to” and the operation of our local constituency associations. I do things, as I am sure do the Minister and others in this House, to raise money for the Conservative party—in the Minister’s case, of course, it is not for the Conservative party—and I would like to think that if I am speaking at a fundraising dinner I can raise more than a thousand quid for the party. [Hon. Members: “No problem!”] Indeed; we could add a nought—we never know if people are queuing at the door.

However, that is not for my benefit. I think that the Minister said, rightly, that I would not receive the benefit, but it is fair to say that in some of his answers he gave a slightly different impression. Likewise, if I attend a meeting of my association—a dinner at which I, as the local Member of Parliament, might be speaking—and it raises more than £1,000, we are in a grey area where it may or may not be declarable. At the moment, in attending such an event, I would be raising money for the European and county council elections.
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1126
That is of no benefit to me whatsoever, beyond the broader political advance that those elections will lead to. That is, however, in no way a direct contribution to me or my campaign.

Dr. Strang: I do not think that our local parties often organise dinners in our constituencies that raise more than £1,000 in profit, but if a profit of more than £1,000 is raised, given what has been said, it will obviously benefit the local Member. I know that the party is not just an electoral machine, but it is obviously a benefit to the local Member if the organisation makes a profit of more than £1,000. What has been said during the debate so far indicates that that amount should be recorded somewhere.

Alan Duncan: Once again, the right hon. Gentleman perfectly illustrates the new cloudiness in the rules, which we would like to avoid. If, for instance, my association were to raise £1,000 and I were not there, it ought to declare it and the rules clearly state that. If it were to raise £1,000 specifically for my election, and I were not there, it would be clear—if I knew that it had happened—that I should declare it, too. But the primary reporting obligation must rest with the constituency association.

The problem is the rather dangerous word “linked”. It is a word that the press use. When they say that a Member is linked to someone, and show a photograph, it might mean that they met that person five years ago. The question is: at what point does “linked to” become a direct benefit such that it is registrable? If “linked to” leads the registrar to say that it is better to declare, we will get “obligation creep”, if I can put it that way, where the rules are interpreted ever more widely, so that the declaration of almost anything becomes necessary.

Andrew Mackinlay: I share the bewilderment of the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). We seem to be going in a direction opposite to that set out in legislation passed by this House. We set up a complicated plethora of legislation in relation to political parties that placed a burden on them to disclose finances. In the Labour party, there are constituency agreements with trade unions where the burden of transparency is on the constituency, not the Member of Parliament. Why encumber a Member of Parliament who is diligently doing things and carrying out political activity? If there has to be a declaration, it surely should be the job of the constituency Labour party, Liberal association or whatever. I am not suggesting that that is the correct course, but there is a degree of logic to it because the constituency organisation is the recipient. It disburses the money between local, European and Westminster elections.

Alan Duncan: It may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire can explain a clear delineation that I and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) have not spotted, but the matter does seem a bit blurred. At the very least, I make a plea for some clarification of how the process will work in practice.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am becoming more troubled as this debate proceeds. During the past few years we have been trying to identify areas where people can gain undue influence over Members of Parliament. If people
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1127
are giving large sums of money that could conceivably influence a Member of Parliament, it is quite right that that must be declared in the fullest possible way, that the donors should be identified, and that foreigners should be excluded—all of that. If we are talking about people paying a modest price for a ticket, however, going down this road will discourage ordinary people from giving the modest sums that enable democracy to flourish in this country. That is a retrograde step. I believe that it is terribly important that a multitude of people give relatively modest sums to fuel our democracy. I am totally against more state participation in the funding of political parties, but I am worried that we are going down a slippery slope that could deter ordinary, decent people from forking out a fiver, a tenner or £20 to go to function.

Alan Duncan: My hon. Friend has very strong views about where political participation and transparency potentially collide, and I understand his arguments.

I do not wish to dwell on the matter any longer, other than to say that the debate has, importantly, put the spotlight on some potential difficulties. If there is one thing that we want to avoid at all costs—the report goes a long way towards doing so—it is Members who behave honestly getting tripped up by a set of rules that they do not fully understand or about which they might not have known. The moral obligation on a Member to declare must surely rest on his having known what he needed to declare in the first place. If his local association does something, or something happens in connection with an event with which he was theoretically linked, and by failing to declare it a Member is made to appear guilty, that could lead to some injustice. The whole point of the changes is to tidy the system up and try to avoid that. However, I shall park that matter to one side.

I wish to say a couple of things about the Electoral Commission. It is fair to say that there was a phase when it rather enjoyed empire-building and involving itself in parliamentary matters even when there was a perfectly good parliamentary system in place to ensure the openness and standards that we wanted. I would like to think that we have passed that phase, but I simply cannot see why participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme has to be declared. It is hardly a benefit in kind. It is informative and very hard work in many cases, and I certainly recommend that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) go on the Marines training course. Getting through the tube in the Special Air Service exercise is quite something.

The Electoral Commission should examine some of its own practices. I had a minor spat with it last year, as one of its declaration forms is complete gibberish. It requires a Member or anyone else filling it in to declare the details of a donation for an overseas trip. By the very nature of a visit to a foreign country, the donor of the trip is not a permissible donor under electoral law. They cannot be the origin of money given to a political party, but it is perfectly legitimate for us to accept a visit to a foreign country paid for by the host Government. On section D of its form, the commission requires a signature under the words:

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1128

That is complete nonsense, but despite being told that, the Electoral Commission will not change that idiotic, perilous form. It, too, has some lessons to learn.

As I think the whole House will agree, the Minister is quite right that the two operations have to work in alignment and in parallel, so we understand that the thresholds will be agreed and will fall into place in both our system and the Electoral Commission’s system at a later date. We appreciate also that calling the register the Register of Members’ Financial Interests will better explain to the outside world that we are talking about money, and that money of pecuniary interest—I know that the Committee states that we should no longer use that term, so I shall call it financial interest—matters the most.

The report largely explains the rules for each category helpfully. All that I ask—I sense that this is the mood of the House—is that some clarity be given about how the interaction between Members, fundraising events and their local associations will work. Beyond that, I hope that the House will support the endorsement of the report.

4.23 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Like the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), I rather assumed that this would be a brief and uncomplicated debate, but it has proved to be anything but. One difficulty is that whenever anyone refers to the obligations that are placed on political parties or Members in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it comes as a huge revelation to Members that they have been required to act in a particular way. It is hardly surprising, then, that hon. Members occasionally find themselves caught out by inadvertence rather than by anything else.

We have had a dual reporting system with different categories and criteria and, therefore, somebody who believed that they had done the right thing by registering interests properly with the Registrar of Members’ Interests found themselves at fault because they had not done so with the Electoral Commission under the 2000 Act. Many of us have argued for bringing the two systems together and rationalising them, for a long time. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee, on which I once served, on their work on putting the two codes together.

Let me say gently to the Deputy Leader of the House that he did not shed an awful lot of light on the matter that caused all the difficulties this afternoon, not because he was not trying desperately hard to do so, but because, every time he opened his mouth, someone had a new flash of inspiration about an event in their constituencies that perhaps they should have registered, but had not. They therefore reacted with alarm. However, hon. Members should know that the proposals do not change the law or the current position. If they have arranged a dinner, or an event such as the mythical coffee mornings in the Rhondda, which raise more than £1,000 in profit—I am impressed by that; perhaps it is the best way in which to raise funds in south Wales, but it does not work so well in Somerset in terms of gross profit—which are designed to raise money for their candidature that falls within the terms of the 2000 Act. Such an event will now have to
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1129
be registered on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests here, but the registration no longer needs to be duplicated. Reporting by political parties is different.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The more I listen, the more confused I become. Most fundraising events are not held not to further the interests of the sitting Member, but to pay for the rent of the premises that the party occupies, the agent’s salary and other matters. When a general election is called, most of us have a fighting fund, which is—then and only then—entirely for the benefit of the prospective Member. There is a genuine difference between the two, but, this afternoon, we find the waters muddied.

Mr. Heath: They are not muddied. The hon. Gentleman has described what the political parties, not the Member, must register. The Member does not have to register anything that is not for his particular benefit. That is the distinction, which is not especially difficult. If in doubt, Members will have to consult the Registrar and ensure that they are doing things correctly. However, the provision should not come as a surprise to hon. Members because it is not new. Whom one tells is new, not the necessity to report. That is crucial.

I want to deal with the interesting and important point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made in an intervention on the Deputy Leader of the House about category 3 declaration. It covers

I assume, because of the rules of advocacy, which the report also includes, that that category covers simply providing advice to a company or organisation arising from our knowledge as Members of Parliament of the proceedings and procedures of Parliament, and not advocacy, which is not allowed under the rules. However, we need to consider that carefully at some stage. If we want to avoid the appearance of partiality, it is difficult to be a Member of Parliament, who is employed for the purposes of providing services associated with being a Member of Parliament, without the question of partiality arising.

I shall take it no further today, but that category is there in black and white as a recognisable category. We shall see who registers and what sort of interests are registered under that category, but we would do well to return to it in future, to see whether it is appropriate.

Having said that, I think that we have a good and sensible coalition of the two codes under which we are allowed to register, although I agree that there is still some nonsense in the arrangement. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) mentioned one example, which is the registration of visits under the armed forces parliamentary scheme. When I went to the Arctic with the Royal Marines, I did not feel that I got an enormous financial benefit from sitting in a tent in the Arctic circle, but I benefited enormously in my personal development and my knowledge of the privations that the armed forces face. I was pleased to have that opportunity. I am not convinced that it ought to be a registrable interest, but on the other hand, what harm does it do me to say that that is what I have done? I do
9 Feb 2009 : Column 1130
not see that anyone would suggest that such a declaration would be a pejorative declaration.

Andrew Mackinlay: Some years ago I participated in the Industry and Parliament Trust scheme with BAE Systems. I am proud of that experience, which was very successful and I think that it was mutually beneficial. However, BAE Systems does advocacy and from time to time runs into controversy. I have reflected on the matter for some time, and I would have been more comfortable had it been the norm for work with the Industry and Parliament Trust to be declared, for the reasons that I have given, which do not apply to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The Industry and Parliament Trust is a very good scheme, but a declaration needs to be made.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comment. The other example is this car parking business. I remember putting forward a strong argument when the proposal was first mooted, when we all used to get tickets for parking at airports, which the Electoral Commission held to be a declarable interest under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, despite the fact that they were available to all Members and to be used only for parliamentary work. Therefore, there was no personal advantage whatever; the advantage was to the House authorities in not having to pay for the parking, rather than to the Member concerned. The individual Member was neither better nor worse off from being able to park at an airport. I hope that all such matters will eventually be brought into line by the coalition of the two codes.

Finally, let me reassure the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that if he holds a dinner that is registrable, in that it raises more than £1,000 for his personal campaign, there is no requirement for him to list all the people who were there or where they sat and what they ate. That is not part of the code. He simply has to register the fact that the event happened. That does not seem to be quite as intrusive as perhaps he feared. I welcome the report and I hope that the House will support it this afternoon.

4.33 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The Minister has done a good job this afternoon in trying to push the House in the right direction, but I am deeply saddened that this House is yet again sending out a negative message to the public, which is that we do not want to be transparent. The suggestion is that we want somehow to hide what we are doing and to hide the money coming into our associations which will, one way or another, eventually benefit us. That is a negative message. It reinforces what the press and the public think about this House, and it is a downright shame. The clear message going out to the public is that we do not want to register benefits and interests.

Constituency associations and political parties have one key objective—it is the No. 1 objective in their constitutions; indeed, they say it on the front page—and that is to win elections. The key election that political parties want to win is the election to get their members back into this House. Members will return to this House if their constituency associations are doing well, by winning local government elections, for instance, because that can be helpful to those Members.

9 Feb 2009 : Column 1131

I disagree entirely with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this point. We should be totally transparent about this, because we have nothing to hide. The whole organisation of a political party—its constituency organisations, its associations—exists to return candidates; there are no grey areas, so I wonder why we feel that we have something to hide. We should be declaring the £1,000 that is raised for our constituency association, and we should be happy to do so, so that the public can benefit from that transparency and we can be held to account.

I welcome this paper, as far as it goes, but we should go much further. We really should look at how our staff are employed and at the conditions and selection processes involved. Of course, Members should have control over which staff are selected, but our staff should be employed formally and professionally by the Department of Resources, not by 646 separate small businesses in the House. That is not what we come to Parliament to do. We are legislators; we are here to fight for our constituents, our associations and our country. We are not here to act as small businesses employing people. We should get away from that practice, which would save us a lot of problems and give the public more confidence about what we do here and how we are doing it. God knows, the public need to get some confidence in us; at the moment, they certainly do not have any.

Finally, I should like to mention the outside earnings syndrome. In this day and age, it is nonsense for Members to be moonlighting and doing other jobs that earn them more money than their main job here pays them. I spend between 60 and 80 hours a week doing my job. I could do more, and I could do a better job, if I had more time to do it. There is no way that I have time to go out and earn money on the side by being a barrister, writing articles for newspapers or going on the circuit giving after-dinner speeches. Those practices are total nonsense in this day and age in a modern Parliament, and we should stop that abuse. Those Members are out there earning a good living doing something else while drawing their full salary here but failing to do the full job.

Andrew Mackinlay: Surely the answer is to adopt the practice of many modern Parliaments and to introduce transparency. Under such a system, a person could moonlight—to use the hon. Gentleman’s word—but that would have to be declared and an abatement would be made to the MP’s salary. The MP’s voters could also take his behaviour into account in their assessment of whether they wished to return him at the next general election.

Next Section Index Home Page