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Lord Bach: It is not a criminal offence. Criminal offences arise under Clause 51. This is in effect civil proceedings for forfeiture and that is why the burden of proof required is the civil burden. I can say no more other than to ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 154 is part of a large group in which I tabled amendments along with my noble friend Lord Norton and the Government. They concern the donations regime and the reporting period.
Amendment No. 154 seeks to question whether, if we are correct in placing a requirement on political parties during a busy election period to report weekly, we will achieve a great deal. It will certainly show what a party received. But it will not show what it spent. At the end of the day both could equally easily be revealed.
It is particularly important to recognise that all our parties, especially constituency associations, wish to raise, through their fighting funds, more than they can spend in an election campaign. They will then have a bit of help for the following few months or perhaps even pay off the overdraft accumulated in the preceding few months--I cannot believe that the other parties are any different from the Conservative Party in that regard.
Most Members of the Committee present have been involved in elections and I am sure will agree that they are busy times. So I question whether we want to put this extra burden of weekly reporting on to the treasurers of our constituency parties.
The same argument applies to headquarters parties, but they are more likely to have systems and staff in place. Many of our parties at local level depend on one person. I have never been a constituency agent at general elections but those who have will know how extremely busy they are. I wonder about imposing such a duty on someone who may be a professional or a volunteer and on a treasure who will be extremely busy trying to persuade people to part with money for the fighting fund.
Lord McNally: I shall not repeat the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, but it is a plea for the people at the sharp end. I have probably been in more political parties than most Members of the Committee, and I can say that the one thing they have in common is a difficulty in persuading someone to be treasurer. It is the most difficult job of all.
It will be extremely difficult to persuade anyone to take on the job of treasurer if some of these onerous responsibilities are built into the Bill. We must make it sensible for organisations which, in all our political parties, still rely heavily on volunteers. The idea of weekly reporting is extremely burdensome and we on these Benches support the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, in suggesting that Ministers look hard again at their proposal.
The point has been made during debates on this and previous Bills that political parties in this country are, to some extent, under threat. There is a problem with persuading people to participate in politics, particularly in political parties. We have variously addressed the need, although we have not come up with any answers, to revitalise parties in this country.
They are an essential part of the democratic process and the need for them becomes arguably greater as more and more people channel their interest through pressure groups. There needs to be a balance. I start from the belief that we must be careful when introducing measures which impose important and significant burdens on the political parties. That might reduce their capacity to do the job which we look to them to do and might discourage people from participating in political parties and keeping them going. That is my starting point.
What flows from that is the belief that, if there are to be impositions on parties--given the principles underpinning the Bill, I accept that it imposes burdens--we must impose a test on each burden that is introduced. That is a compelling justification test: is there a compelling justification for a particular burden imposed by the Bill? There may be a justification--perhaps using the criterion might be whether the obligation appears in the Neill report. However, it has not become clear from our deliberations that it is necessarily a compelling one. Looking at the Bill, I cannot see what is the compelling justification for the frequency of reports.
One can see the case that parties must report and produce accounts. I do not believe that anyone would disagree with that. What is at issue is the frequency with which they are produced. Furthermore, in respect of Clause 58, why should it be at the rate of one each week when, as has been mentioned, the parties will face a major burden? It imposes a burden at a difficult time and I cannot see why. Yes, they should report for the election campaign but why should they be weekly reports?
To some extent my worries are reinforced by the Minister's earlier response to Amendment No. 146B. We are imposing significant burdens on the parties, and we must be wary of building burden upon burden. No doubt the Minister will provide a compelling justification for this, if there is one. I do not see why parties should be burdened in this way. The Minister must provide a compelling justification if the Committee is to accept the provisions in Clause 57 relating to the frequency of reports and, more especially, Clause 58 relating to weekly reports.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: This amendment covers some significant points. I do not repeat the arguments which have been powerfully advanced, except to say that I am involved in the regulatory system in the City. One finds that regulators always want to capture a bit more information. They believe
I should like to hear from the Minister what the regulator--in this case the commission--will do with the information that it gets every week and what its value is. Why is it of value to know what a party has collected in the past seven days? The regulator knows that it will receive a report at the end of the campaign, quite properly. There will be a disclosure of total funds. However, I have not yet heard a proper answer to the question why it should make any difference to the commission to know what is happening out there at seven-day intervals. I have heard that it imposes on the political system, which is weak and creaking at constituency level, a huge amount of bureaucracy which, as several Members of the Committee have said, will deter people from participating and thus set at nought the purpose of the Bill, which is to reinvigorate our democracy.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This important group of amendments is concerned with reporting requirements in respect of donations. I shall respond first to the Opposition's amendments to Clause 57 and Schedule 5 and the Question that Clause 58 stand part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, spoke only to the weekly reporting measures contained in the Bill but did not look at the other parts covered by his amendment. I shall go through all of them in turn.
Amendments Nos. 154 and 155 to Clause 57 would have the effect of requiring that only one donation report be prepared in respect of each year. As it stands, the clause reflects the view of the Neill committee that there should be quarterly reporting. The committee was concerned to ensure that information about disclosable donations entered the public domain as quickly as possible. It is not difficult to see that the aim of transparency is not well served if a significant donation is only disclosed anything up to 13 months after it is made.
The amendments to Schedule 5, together with the removal of Clause 58, would similarly restrict the reporting requirements. In this case the effect would be to dispense with the weekly reporting requirement that applies in the immediate run-up to a general election. In providing for the preparation of weekly donation reports during the period of an election campaign, the Bill simply gives effect to another of the recommendations of the Neill committee. I should like to quote a very telling passage from paragraph 4.58 of the report which justifies such an arrangement:
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