Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I am slightly thrown by the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. The lead amendment in this group has not been moved, and Amendment No. 140 in my name follows very neatly after that. As I understand it, the debate may also fall within the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. Before I embark on a short speech in defence of Amendment No. 140, perhaps the Minister will tell the Committee whether he intends to speak to that amendment in dealing with this group. If not, I shall move the amendment separately.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: If the noble Lord asks whether I accept Amendment No. 140, the answer is no. I suspect that I shall cover that point in my response.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: There is a strong case for allowing European parties which are publicly linked to parties in this country to send donations. In Europe there is a growing belief that political parties work together. The Green Party has two Members in the European Parliament, and certainly there are very strong links between various parties. Since this amendment deals also with those kinds of elections, we believe it should be perfectly permissible for members of brother and sister parties in the European Union to be able, without any restriction, to subscribe to parties in this country, and vice versa. Although the Minister indicates that he does not intend to accept Amendment No. 140, I hope he will deal with the point so that we can decide whether the matter should be brought back at Report stage.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: In general terms I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The noble Lord said that he, and perhaps others, regarded the amendment as somewhat radical. If we review progress on this Bill thus far we are perhaps entitled to believe that certain radical remedies are called for. Successive governments exhort the citizens of Northern Ireland to behave as their counterparts in the other three parts of the kingdom. However, far too often in legislation every effort appears to be made by successive governments to make us different and then complain that we are different. It is hardly surprising that, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, forecast, certain rather

12 Oct 2000 : Column 545

unscrupulous bodies and parties will regard these exotic parts of the Bill as challenges that they are duty bound to subvert and get round. As in many other cases in this Bill, ways and means will be found to get round what Ministers may regard as safeguards-- certain study groups already at work will probably succeed--that in due course are exposed as very flimsy.

Lord Goodhart: On this occasion I wear my hat as a member of the Neill committee. The position of that committee is substantially that which has been accepted by the Government, although with one amendment, with which I shall deal in a minute or two. The position of my party was somewhat different. In its evidence to the Neill committee it proposed that donations from overseas, other than foreign governments, should be acceptable, subject to the principle that there should be a general ban on donations of more than £50,000. As that limitation was not accepted by the Neill committee, the proposal put forward by my friends in my party is left somewhat in limbo. The view taken by the Neill committee was that what I might broadly call "overseas donations" should be banned. There are serious arguments for saying that they should be permissible. Those arguments were rehearsed within the committee and in the evidence given to it.

The ultimate view--it was a unanimous view--was that it is for those who are entitled to vote in elections in the United Kingdom to fund the parties which take part in these elections. It is not appropriate that people who are not resident in this country--I cannot avoid referring to Michael Ashcroft in this context--and who do not have the commitment to be resident in this country should be allowed to donate what is in many cases a very substantial sum to the coffers of their party.

In Mr Ashcroft's case, he has indicated that he intends to return and take up residence in this country and qualify as a voter. Indeed, I think he has since registered himself as a voter in the constituency of Maidenhead and is therefore eligible to donate money. There are other examples. There was the notorious example of someone from Hong Kong with a dubious background who donated a substantial sum. This is an important principle. It is one which, certainly at the time we received the evidence, was shared by the party to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, belongs. In its evidence the Conservative Party said:

    "Although, we have no reason to believe that any money received by a Party in the past should not have been accepted, Mr Hague has made it clear that in the future we will not accept foreign donations. No such donations have been offered or received since the General Election".

I wait with some interest to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will say--to find out whether that is still the view of the Conservative Party.

Nothing that has happened in the interval since the Neill report was published leads me to suggest that the view that was taken by the Neill committee should now be reversed. There are of course difficulties. I said that the Neill report was accepted by the Government with one alteration. The Neill committee proposed that it

12 Oct 2000 : Column 546

should be possible for anyone eligible to vote in this country to make a donation to a political party. The Government proposed that it should be restricted to those who were on the electoral register.

The Government put that forward--this was stated in their reply to the Neill committee--because administratively it is a relatively simple matter to check who is in fact on the electoral register, but it is much more difficult to find out whether someone who, let us say, sends a cheque drawn on a British bank in a letter from an address in London is in fact eligible to be on the register. It is not of course difficult for anyone who is eligible to be on the register to put themselves on the register. For that reason, the Neill committee, when this proposal was put to it, did not object to it being brought forward in the form in which it is brought forward by the Government.

I am not here to put a party view, but merely to explain why the Neill committee took the view that it did and to express the view that there are no grounds subsequent to the publication of our report for departing from that view.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We now come to an important group of amendments which relate to the whole question of a restriction on donations to register parties and who is a permissible donor. It is easy enough to make the general observation that political parties should not take donations from foreigners. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is well aware that Mr William Hague has made it clear that the Conservative Party will not do so. It is much more difficult to define who foreigners are. Although I have not actually sat down with a map of the world and counted, I understand that the citizens of about 80 countries can come to this country and register to vote. They then become eligible to make donations to political parties.

That seems to me to be a very large coach and horses through the general and easily accepted principle about foreign people not being allowed to donate. Even though they may be allowed to come here and vote, they are not citizens of the United Kingdom. They are not expected to become citizens. They remain, in any kind of common use of the word--if I can be allowed to be so politically incorrect on a day when I am supposed not even to think of myself as British, let alone Scottish, which might be considered worse--not British. They are not citizens of this country. But because of the Empire of the past and one thing and another, they can come here, they can register and they can actually donate money.

Other people manage to live in Britain, vote in Britain, but remain non-domiciled for the purposes of paying their taxes in Britain. We begin to get into a very difficult issue when we discuss that. If you live here, think you can vote here and therefore donate here, but then you manage in some mysterious way to avoid paying any taxes here, I am not entirely sure whether you are on the same footing, certainly as myself, and probably as most Members of the Committee.

12 Oct 2000 : Column 547

We get into very difficult territory here. It is some of that difficulty that we are attempting to explore in these amendments. The amendments are not closely related but they are all related to the question of donors. One is almost confronted with the problem of disentangling a grouping or not. I decided not to. But it means that we need to take many of these amendments quite separately because they address separate issues.

As my noble friend Lord Lamont is not present to move Amendments Nos. 134C and 239P, we will not hear a ministerial response to the amendments. Therefore, at this time we need not discuss them.

I shall start with Amendment No. 137. If we are supposed to be prohibiting foreign donations, why does the Bill allow foreign donations from companies incorporated in France, Spain, Germany, Austria or any other EU country? Clause 49(2)(b)(ii) states that a company incorporated within the European Union is allowed to donate. I do not understand that. If we are against foreign donations, how can we possibly accept donations from companies incorporated in other countries? They may be our partners in the European Union, but they are foreign countries for the purposes of donations. I think I am right in saying that a citizen of Italy cannot give a donation to a British political party. So why should a company incorporated in Italy be allowed to do that? That is the first puzzle.

I am also baffled by government Amendment No. 137A. If we are not allowed to talk about the European Union but have to talk about

    "the United Kingdom or another member state",

then it is time we grew up. "Members of the European Union" is straightforward and easily understood. We do not need,

    "United Kingdom or another member state".

If that is the way it has always been done, it is time we stopped, because, on the principle of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, we would save a few words. If we saved those few words every time they appeared in Bills, Bills might just be slightly shorter than they tend to be.

My noble friend Lord Norton and I have both tabled amendments in relation to bequests. It is somewhat unfortunate that the issue should be entangled in the wider issues raised in this grouping. I believe that we ought to be able to find some agreement across the Committee on the amendments concerned with bequests, although I do not think that we will necessarily find agreement across the Committee on some of the other amendments in this group.

Amendment No. 142 seeks to allow bequests from people who are not actually registered in an electoral register at the time of their death but were at that time,

    "ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom and had within the previous five years been registered in an electoral register".

The provision on bequests as it now stands is far too narrowly drawn. There are many reasons why a person may wish to make a bequest to a political party but has

12 Oct 2000 : Column 548

failed to register to vote before his death. He may simply have forgotten to register; he may have been missed off the registration form because he was in hospital or in a nursing home; he may even have become disillusioned with the political process and decided not to register but to give money to a political party in the hope that the position might improve after his death. But in any case I cannot see why we should refuse people's last instructions in their wills about what will happen to their money after their deaths simply because they do not happen to have been registered to vote at the time they died. Unless something is happening that I do not understand, I cannot see what advantage someone will gain from a political party receiving money from him after he is dead--unless the Labour Party is going to claim even greater powers than the Prime Minister occasionally claims for himself. I just do not see what the problem is.

I turn to Amendment No. 138. Why does the Bill allow one political party to donate to another? In what circumstances does the Minister envisage that will happen? Is it a device to accommodate the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party, or does it have a more sinister intent? As noble Lords will be aware, the spending limits in referendums, which we shall discuss in due course, are deliberately and quite cynically being rigged by the Government. Under the Bill, there will not be a level playing field on referendum expenses and costs. In a referendum on the euro, if one were to be called, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland would be able to spend a combined total of £9 million to run their campaign to abolish the pound, whereas the Conservative Party would be able to spend only £5 million to save the pound. Whatever noble Lords may think of the arguments, that is not a level playing field.

Nor would it be a level playing field, using exactly the same kind of arithmetic, with regard to the referendum on Scotland and the referendum on Wales, where three parties were on one side and one was on the other. Of course the levels of expenditure were considerably lower than the millions I mentioned, but it was still relevant. It is not a level playing field. There is no point in anyone pretending that it is.

The Home Secretary defended that imbalance in a most amazing way. He said that the limits were not rigged because the poor Liberal Democrats--I do not know whether they were consulted about this--would not be able to raise the £3 million they are allowed to spend under the Bill. Ah, but they do not have to! The Labour Party, which will no doubt have more than its £5 million limit to spend on scrapping the pound, will be able to top up the Liberal Democrats because of Clause 49(2)(c). I cannot believe that that is why the provision is there. But there are more suspicious people in your Lordships' House who may well think that that is exactly why the provision is there. But regardless of one's position for or against the euro, or for or against devolution, or for or against any other issue that may go to a referendum in the future, it

12 Oct 2000 : Column 549

cannot be right that one political party can donate to another. I hope that the Government will explain why one political party will be able to donate to another.

I presume that the provision excludes a political party in Northern Ireland donating to a political party in Great Britain. If it does not exclude that, the whole point of the separate Northern Ireland register is blown out of the water. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

I am sorry to say to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that on this occasion I cannot support him on Amendment No. 140, which seeks to allow donations from other EU political parties. As well as going completely against the Neill report and driving a coach and horses through the ban on foreign funding, the noble Lord's amendment would make even worse the situation I have just described in relation to Amendment No. 138, because political parties on the Continent could fund political parties in this country to run referendum campaigns on, say, the euro.

I turn to Amendment No. 139. It seeks to give effect to one of the recommendations of the Neill committee in that it would allow citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the republic to donate to Northern Ireland parties. Indeed, it would allow them to donate to all parties in the United Kingdom. We had this argument at fair length on the previous Committee day. What is interesting, I suppose--I have not seen any statistics--is that the one group of, if I may call them this, foreign citizens who come to this country in greater numbers than any other group and are entitled to vote are citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Many of them spend a little time in this country--perhaps working or whatever it may be--and then go back to the republic. If they are here, they will be able to register to vote, and therefore will be able to donate; but if they are in the republic, they will not be able to do so.

When one considers that the Northern Ireland Act 1949, of which the Neill committee reminded us, stated clearly in relation to the republic that it was not a foreign country, it seems to me that we should accept the logic of a previous piece of legislation put through this Parliament and accept that voters in the Republic of Ireland are in a quite different position from voters in every other country in the world.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page