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Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 110A:

The noble Lord said: This group of amendments is concerned with the commencement of the Bill and the transitional arrangements for moving existing registered parties to the new registers of political parties to be maintained by the electoral commission. Such matters normally fall to be considered towards the end of a Bill, but we are discussing them now because the transitional arrangements set in the new schedule (to be inserted by Amendment No. 322W) will supersede those contained in Clause 31. Accordingly, that clause may now be omitted from the Bill.

I believe that it is a common desire of the three main political parties to see the controls on donations and campaign expenditure, as set out in Parts IV and V of the Bill, brought into effect as quickly as possible after Royal Assent. It is clearly right that these controls should be in place in good time before the next general election, whenever that may be. These amendments are dedicated to that end.

Amendment No. 320D provides for Part I of the new schedule, to be inserted by Amendment No. 322W, to come into force two weeks after Royal Assent. Thereafter, existing registered parties will have a period of six weeks to supply the electoral commission with certain documentation and information, including a copy of their draft scheme setting out the party's organisational and financial structure, together with details of the person to be registered as party treasurer. At the end of the six weeks' "compliance period", we envisage that there will be a short interlude to allow time for the electoral commission to transfer parties to the new registers before Part II of the Bill comes into force. It will then be possible to bring the controls on donations and campaign expenditure into force.

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On the assumption that the Bill is passed in the latter part of November, we are looking to commence Parts II, IV and V of the Bill on or about 1st February 2001. The controls on third party expenditure would come into force at the same time. This will allow the controls to operate for a minimum of three months if, for example, the general election takes place on 3rd May 2001. Whether there is an election on that date, is, of course, a matter for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. It is not for me to predict the date of the general election, but rather to ensure that the long overdue limits on what a party may spend at an election are in place in good time.

The timetable that I have set out is, I believe, both realistic and achievable. A similar commencement timetable applied in the case of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998. The transitional arrangements ran smoothly on that occasion. I see no reason why existing registered parties should not be ready in time to comply with the requirements placed upon them by the new schedule.

To prepare existing political parties for the new Act, the Home Office Electoral Commission Project Team has issued a comprehensive package to registered parties setting out the steps that they will need to take by the end of the six-week compliance period. Officials will continue to offer advice and guidance to existing parties over the next few weeks. However, if an existing registered party fails to submit the necessary documentation and information by the end of the compliance period, there must be some consequence for the party concerned. Paragraph 5 of Part I of the new schedule provides that, in such circumstances, the party's registration will be terminated. However, the party will have a further period of three months from the end of the compliance period to submit the necessary documentation to the commission, without the need to submit a fresh application for registration.

Part II of the new schedule contains a number of other transitional provisions, the most significant of which I shall now highlight. Paragraph 8 will enable the appointment of the electoral commissioners to proceed as quickly as possible after Royal Assent. Under Clause 3 of the Bill, the commissioners may be appointed only with the agreement of the Speaker of the House of Commons and after consultation with the leader of those parties with two or more MPs. If the necessary consultation could only take place after Royal Assent, we would not be in a position to appoint the commissioners until the new year. Paragraph 8 of Part II will validate consultation undertaken prior to Royal Assent. Letters have been sent to the leaders of the relevant political parties. The new Speaker will be consulted when he or she is selected.

Paragraph 9 of Part II of the new schedule will enable the Home Secretary to make the first order under Clause 23(8)(c) of the Bill on his own initiative; that is, without a recommendation from the electoral commission. We discussed the purpose of Clause 23(8) a short while ago, so I shall not repeat the detail. Suffice it to say that an existing registered party would need to know at the start of the compliance period

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whether its draft scheme should include all the party's constituent or affiliated organisations. It follows that an order under Clause 23(8)(c), specifying organisations that are not to be regarded as part of a party for the purposes of the Bill, must be made immediately after Royal Assent and before the electoral commissioners have been appointed--hence the need for the provision.

Similar timing considerations explain the need for paragraph 10 of Part II of the new schedule. This will enable a replacement for the Registration of Political Parties (Prohibited Words and Expressions) Order 1998 to be put in place without the need to consult the electoral commission.

Most of the other government amendments in this group are paving or consequential amendments to Amendment No. 322W. However, I should say a little about two of these. Amendment No. 110A adjusts the definition of an "existing party" in Clause 32. In effect, the amendment brings forward the cut-off date for determining those registered parties eligible to receive assistance with meeting their start-up costs. In order to speed up the payment of grants to parties, it is now proposed that Clause 32 should come into force two weeks after Royal Assent. It follows that only those parties registered at that time should qualify for start-up grants.

Finally, Amendment No. 320C provides for paragraph 10(4) of Schedule 20 to come into force on Royal Assent. This paragraph inserts a new Section 34A into the Government of Wales Act 1998. The new section empowers the National Assembly to make payments to groups of Assembly members to assist the members of such groups to discharge their functions as Assembly members. Such financial support to party groups in the Assembly is equivalent to that paid to opposition parties in another place--that is to say, "Short money"--and, in this House, "Cranborne money".

There is unanimous agreement in the Assembly that this power should come into force as soon as possible, not least so that party groups can properly meet their responsibilities as regards bilingualism. The Scottish Parliament has had equivalent powers--conferred by Section 97 of the Scotland Act 1998--since its inception.

Before I sit down, I should also say a few words about Amendment No. 320. By removing subsection (3) of Clause 151 this amendment would delay the establishment of the electoral commission and consequently delay the introduction of the controls on parties' income and expenditure. As I indicated at the outset, I believe that both Government and Opposition have a common desire to see these controls in place as soon as possible after Royal Assent and in time for the next general election. I very much hope therefore that the Opposition Front Bench will not press the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: One of the reasons some of these amendments have had to be moved by the Government is that it has taken so unconscionably

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long to put this Bill through Parliament. If we had dealt with it in May and June--as we could reasonably have expected--we would not be asked to breach the usual time intervals and the usual procedures by which parliamentary legislation is put in place. The noble Lord pointed out that some of his amendments give approval to work which will take place prior to Royal Assent. The Committee will be aware that that is not usual procedure. Until Parliament has agreed a measure, by and large government cannot undertake work on it. The Committee will remember that that was the excuse the Government used to delay the establishment of the Appointments Commission for this Chamber. The Government said that the relevant Bill had not received Royal Assent and therefore the necessary steps could not be taken.

I do not complain about the procedure that is being followed; I simply point out that that is what the Government are doing. Work is going ahead before this Bill has received Royal Assent. I hope that will not set a precedent for other Bills which take too long to pass through Parliament because of the Government's incompetence. If I heard the Minister aright, one of the reasons he wants some of these early dates--

4.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I do not wish to labour the point but I well recall that when the party opposite was in power the then government undertook preparatory work before the implementation of legislation. One or two pieces of legislation come to mind. I remember that much preparatory work was undertaken before the poll tax legislation was implemented. I remember that when the Meat Hygiene Service was created work was undertaken to ensure that the body was speedily established after Royal Assent of the relevant legislation. This practice is not uncommon. I am sure that the noble Lord understands that point.

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