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I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that we on these Benches are very happy to support the amendment. In the interests of fair-mindedness, it is right and appropriate to support the Green Party's claim to an entitlement to a grant for its policy development work. We on these Benches believe that all parties are entitled to some support from the state towards what they do, not only in issues of policy development.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I hate to spoil a party when it is getting into full flow. I fully understand the purpose of the noble Lord's amendment, which is to widen eligibility for policy development grants. On the face of it, that seems a perfectly reasonable and fair objective. The noble Lord is right to pose the question: "Why should the big parties share out this public funding between them while smaller parties are left to struggle on with their meagre resources?"
But, as with so many of the questions raised on the Bill, the answer is in the Neill committee report. The Neill committee envisaged that policy development grants would be available only to parties represented in the House of Commons. Given the rationale for such grants, it is clear why this is the case.
The committee saw the development of ideas and long-term policy as one of the key functions of political parties. However, the committee was concerned that political parties were increasingly hard-pressed to keep up with the cost of campaigns and were, as a consequence, increasingly less able to devote resources to the development of long-term policy. This left them less prepared for the possibility of office.
Clearly this is only a real problem where there is a realistic chance of a party achieving office. With due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, I think that even he would accept that the chances of the Green Party getting close to achieving political office are some way off in the future.
The purpose of the policy development fund envisaged by the Neill committee is not to provide financial support and assistance to a myriad of smaller parties. It is primarily to help those parties that enjoy what I think we can best describe as "significant electoral support" in the fulfilment of one of their functions.
Any widening of the eligibility would serve only to reduce the amount of money available to those parties which it was intended should benefit from the fund and thus reduce the effectiveness of the scheme. I doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be convinced by that argument to withdraw his amendment in those terms, but that is what was envisaged. That is how the noble Lord, Lord Neill, saw it. For those reasons we believe that the amendment should be rejected.
Viscount Astor: Before the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, replies, perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. The argument about funding is straight copy from a Treasury brief. I do not think that the Minster can get away with the argument that if small parties were included there would be less money for big parties. If more parties are included it takes a very small top-up to make sure that the big parties get what they originally thought they should. It would not be a substantial amount of money. Therefore, I have
The important point is that we have a situation here where the Government have brought in devolution. There is now a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. Paragraphs (d) and (e) of the noble Lord's amendment specifically mention "Scottish Parliament" and "Welsh Assembly" as a form of qualification. Surely, if the Government really believe in devolution and supporting the principle of devolution, they must recognise that the House of Commons and your Lordships' Houses should not be the only criteria for policy development grants. We have devolution. Perhaps there is an answer here. Perhaps the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly could decide on their own to give policy development grants, or perhaps we should put a clause in the Bill giving them power to do that. Perhaps the Minister would care to answer that question?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Viscount develops an interesting argument but I suspect that it is something which is a devolved matter: it will be for them. We can have further argument and debate about that. However, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, was clear that these policy development grants should apply only to those parties that were represented in the House of Commons. That was the basis on which he reported. There has been criticism that we have tried to cherry-pick and depart substantially from the Neill report recommendations. We are trying not to do that. That is precisely the case in this particular instance. I can well understand why the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, would like to seduce us into helping and assisting the Green Party and other minor parties further in this way. But we are not minded to do that.
We return to the principles set out in the Neill report. That is the basis on which this piece of legislation has been drafted, based and developed. No doubt if the devolved assemblies wish to give support to parties within those assemblies, certainly in terms of providing them with policy support, they will do so. I understand that that is part of the intention of the new administration that has been formed for London. I understand that the mayor is keen to see all parties assisted and supported within the assembly. Perhaps that is the way forward. We do not believe that we should make available state funding to minor and
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on this subject. I referred particularly to the London elections but introduced a reference to this point as well. I received a very sympathetic letter. It is clear that this is a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee were making a judgment on a situation as they found it. They found representation in the House of Commons the right one to choose.
I object to the idea of making a judgment that my party is one which would never have power. I remember the days when the Liberal Democrat Party--the Liberal Party as it was then--was very much at this kind of level. One sees how it has grown since. Indeed, the great Labour Party is not unashamed to have it as some kind of partner. What kind of partner, we are never quite sure, but nevertheless as some kind of partner. All over Europe, the Green parties, with fairer methods of election than on the whole we have to our House of Commons, are being represented and are partners in government.
I do not think that you can make a judgment that the party to which I belong will not be a party of government. You can say that it will not be a party of government in my lifetime. But there was a time when my nearest and dearest used to say to me that the Liberal Party would never be a party of government in my lifetime. They have been proved wrong.
There is a serious point of principle here. I am delighted with the support I have received from both the Front Benches on this side of the Committee. I certainly intend to return to this matter at a later stage. It is only fair that we should give the Government, who in some ways are showing themselves as prepared to think again and in others are being forced to think again, the chance to look at this matter once more. Equity demands that the amendment should be passed. I shall certainly bring it back at Report stage in the hope that the Government will think again. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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