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The Official Opposition has repeatedly said that it supports the Neill committee's recommendations. If that is so, I trust that the noble Lords will, with one exception, agree to withdraw their amendments and will support the inclusion of Clause 58 in the Bill. I say "with one exception" because the Government are content to support Amendment No. 165, although for rather different reasons to those advanced by the noble Lords opposite. I shall come to that in a few moments.
The government amendments in the group are concerned with a number of technical or drafting points. In particular, they clarify the information about donations to be reported to the electoral commission under Schedules 5 and 6 and to be entered in the register of donations maintained by the commission under Clause 64 and Schedule 6.
Amendments Nos. 165 and 168C relate to the information to be included in weekly donation reports. As I have indicated, weekly donation reports differ from quarterly reports in that they include details of disclosable donations received as opposed to donations accepted by a party. Given the timetable to which these weekly reports have to be made, a party may not have established by the time a report is sent to the commission whether a particular donation listed in the report is from a permissible donor. As drafted at present, Paragraphs 2(4) to (8) of Schedule 5 envisage that the details required relate to permissible donors. While that approach is appropriate to quarterly reports, it does not fit the circumstances of weekly reports. Amendments Nos. 165 and 168C would therefore provide that in the case of a weekly report a party is simply required to give the name and address of the donor to the extent that such details are known at the time.
Amendment No. 176A to Clause 64 relates to the content of the register of recordable donations reported by party members and members' associations and to holders of elective office. Clause 64(4) provides
Amendment No. 189B ensures that the information about a donation made to a regulated donee, as is mentioned in paragraph 9(4) of Schedule 6, is included in the register of donations maintained under that Schedule.
Lord Norton of Louth: Perhaps I may pursue a point in relation to the Government's amendments. I understood from what the Minister was saying and from what was in the Neill report that one of the principal justifications for transparency--the frequency of the reports to ensure transparency during election campaign--is that electors might know what money is coming in because it might influence how they voted. That was the justification provided by the noble Lord.
I understand that what the Government want to do, recognising the practical problems, is to allow parties to receive money and to report they have received it, even though the givers may be impermissible donors because at the time the parties are not sure that they are permissible donors as they may not have had a chance to check them out. Is there not a situation, therefore, where money may be coming in which is potentially tainted? The impression may be given that the parties are nonetheless accepting it, even though afterwards they have to give it back. But they may have suffered from the perception in the meantime.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can see the noble Lord's argument. But, having listened to him for much of the evening, is that not the argument that he has adduced previously for not having a more regulated system? In other words, let transparency deal with it all. Surely the noble Lord does not intend to use that argument against this clause.
Lord Goodhart: I am not in entire agreement with what has been said by my own Front Bench on this occasion, although I think that what my noble friends are concerned about is the possibility of a requirement of reporting by local parties, which, as I understand it, will not be required by Clause 58. It seemed to the Neill committee--I strongly endorse this point--that it is necessary that substantial gifts made to central party organisations should be disclosed as soon as is reasonably practicable if those donations are made during an election campaign.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My amendment was very much a probing amendment, to get us into a debate. I am not so concerned about quarterly reports, although I rather hope that when parties are asked to make their quarterly reports, those will be donations which they have accepted and which are legitimate. It is only during the weekly report period before an election that the Bill expects parties to report just the donations when they have not had time to check them. I think I am right. The Minister will no doubt be able to confirm that.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: On the first point, given the timetabling of the quarterly reports, the noble Lord is right. They will be from permissible donors at the point at which they are finally reported.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That is fine, but I am really then homing in on the weekly reports. I am pleased that the Minister has added his name to Amendment No. 165 because in some ways he is accepting the burden of work which weekly reporting will place on the headquarters of political parties. I assume that the electoral commission will say every Friday, "You will report what has happened in the previous week and we will publish it on Monday or Tuesday", or whatever may be the case.
Perhaps I may refer to my real worry. I think that this is what my noble friend Lord Norton was getting at; and, with all due respect, the Minister failed to make the point. I shall paint a scenario. Someone wishes to support the Conservative Party, but is not a permissible donor. Perish the thought that we have anyone shady who would support us! He decides that he will send £1 million to the Labour Party. The Labour Party is then obliged to report to the electoral commission that it has received £1 million from Joe Bloggs. That immediately allows the Conservative Party to say, "Disgraceful! Look at what the Labour Party is doing"--and up will get the tabloids, and so on. It would be extremely embarrassing for the Labour Party. Frankly, one could play it the other way round as well. That is what my noble friend was getting at. It may be far-fetched but there is just a chance of a dirty tricks operation if a political party receives a donation and is obliged to report it before it can check it because it simply does not have time. It could be confronted with a very embarrassing situation the following week when the commission publishes it.
Perhaps I may move back a step: if the party receives the donation and realises, because it has put in place the appropriate systems or simply that someone is sufficiently sharp to spot it and says, "Oh no, that's not right. There's something wrong here", and establishes that something is amiss, must it still be reported to the commission, even though the donation will be returned? That scenario could be almost as damaging as the first scenario.
One of the problems of encountering an example of this kind on the hoof, as it were, is that it is difficult to tease it out. Nevertheless, I think that my noble friend has alighted on a very serious point. The system could be abused, perhaps not by any of our great parties but by other parties which might well indulge in that kind of practice against a bigger competitor. The Minister should give this a little more thought and ask his clever officials to put their minds to it, otherwise we might be opening the way to abuse.
If I can think of it--I should not say that my noble friend could think of it; he is much cleverer than I and he is an academic--then others with minds far more twisted than mine will also think of it. This is a serious point and is worthy of consideration. Having said that, I am at least grateful to the noble Lord for adding his name to my amendment.
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