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Lord Norton of Louth moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 14, Amendment No. 14A:

("( ) The Commission may seek the advice of the panel on matters affecting political parties as the Commission thinks fit.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government have tabled Amendment No. 14. As the Minister said, it has been brought forward to meet the point made in Committee on 11th May that members of the commission will have no grounding--certainly no recent grounding--in party political activity. I and several other noble Lords made that point and I welcome the amendment brought forward by the Government.

My amendment to the Minister's amendment is, I think, self-explanatory. Under the Minister's amendment, the parliamentary parties panel will be empowered to submit representations or information to the commission about matters affecting political parties as the panel thinks fit. My amendment confers upon the commission the power to seek the advice of the panel on matters affecting political parties.

One can see the case for members of the panel wishing to make representations to the commission, but the commission itself may wish to consult on proposals that it is considering. Although the commission is empowered to make reports and to provide advice to different bodies, it is not--at least, not explicitly--empowered to consult other bodies. Contrary to what the Minister said, I believe that it is appropriate to confer such a power, certainly in this case. There may be occasions when members of the commission are considering a proposal on which they would welcome some input from those with knowledge of parties and of fighting elections. The important point is that it may be best for that input to come at the formative stage.

As I say, my amendment is self-explanatory. The case for it is fairly obvious. I do not recognise the Minister's objection as a compelling one. I do not believe that the commission should be constrained in this way or that it would be in any way tainted by being given the power that I suggest. Such a power is necessary to allow the commission, should it so choose, to consult the panel that is being set up. This is a fairly straightforward and sensible amendment. I beg to move.

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6 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I concur completely with my noble friend. I found the Minister's explanation of why the Government do not like the amendment distinctly unconvincing. Subsection (2) of the Government's new clause states:

    "The function of the panel shall be to submit representations or information to the Commission about such matters affecting political parties as the panel think fit".

There is nothing wrong with the commission saying to itself, "I wonder what the political parties think". The panel would be the right body to ask the political parties what they think. Frankly, I cannot see why the panel should be able to discuss a matter possibly raised by one of the parties and make a view known to the commission, and yet, amazingly, be unable to ask the panel what it thinks.

I welcome the fact that the panel is to be set up. As the Minister said, the government amendment reflects the concern expressed in Committee over the fact that the commission would not have anyone who was actively involved in politics. It was felt by many noble Lords that there was a vacancy in the information gathering and advice. That has largely been filled by the Government's new clause, and I welcome it. But I do not see why we should stop short of allowing the commission to ask the panel its view. I am convinced by my noble friend's argument.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I, too, am slightly puzzled. It would be perfectly sensible for the commission to be able to seek advice. Surely that is its role. It will not have all the answers. Therefore, I do not understand the objection to Amendment No. 14A. I am sure that the commission will seek advice from all kinds of directions, but this is a particular one in respect of political parties. It answers all the points that were made at Second Reading about the fact that the commission might not be sufficiently experienced in the ways of political parties. I hope that the Minister will give a little more thought to the amendment and perhaps return to the matter at Third Reading.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, Amendment No. 14A seems at worst harmless and at best extremely useful. The whole purpose of the debate that we had at an early stage of the Bill was that there was a need to involve the parties more in guiding the commission. It was suggested that there was a danger that the commission, working in isolation from the parties, would not know how they worked. I fail to see how the Government can have any real objection to the amendment. As the Minister said, from time to time the Government find it necessary to consult the political parties on matters of election law. Indeed, after every general election the Home Office conducts a consultation among the political parties in relation to lessons that might be learnt from the recent election campaign. I see no reason why the Government should not support the amendment.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Norton in his amendment. There is a

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curious assumption through whole rafts of this Government's legislation that there are some sort of Platonic guardians up there who are repositories of all wisdom and who, by definition, are not only experts but whose views are infinitely preferable and more respectable than the views of the elected representatives in Parliament. It is not difficult to move from that assumption to another curious assumption; namely, that such people are wise almost by birth--dare I say it, in this half-reformed Chamber?--and that they somehow distil their wisdom from cerebration and from air.

I suspect that the accumulated wisdom of this House, while it is of course the result of your Lordships' intellect, is substantially the result of your Lordships' accumulated experience. If the logic of the Government's new clause is that party representatives should volunteer their views based on their own political experience to a body which, by definition, has been accepted to be one of little political experience, the reverse must also logically be the case; namely, that when the commission is deliberating, it may wish to take an initiative and find out what people at the political coal-face feel and what is their experience. As my noble friend said, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, also pointed out, the good sense in my noble friend's amendment is self-evident. The Government's logic has escaped me, as it seems to have escaped other noble Lords who have spoken to the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, when the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, speaks of distilled wisdom, I worry. Distilled wisdom usually comes in a bottle late at night and judgments made thereafter do not necessarily improve.

Turning to the points made during the debate, I do not think that there is a great deal between us. The Government's view is that the panel will be a consultative body. It is not necessary to give the commission a general power to consult it. Consultation will, of course, take place. It will take place not just with the panel but outside the confines of the panel.

However, I have heard the words of wisdom--distilled or otherwise--from various quarters of the House. While I am not prepared at this point to give way, as I am urged from the Benches opposite, I am more than happy at least to give some further consideration to the point that is made in the amendment. It may well be that it needs to be further thought through and broadened slightly. As I read the amendment, it is a bit "top down" and too instructive. What we are attempting to do in the clause is not to confine the process of consultation but to broaden it and to provide for the panel to have a role in that.

I am grateful to those noble Lords who have offered support and comfort in regard to Amendment No. 14. I hope that, particularly in view of what I have just said, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, will feel able to withdraw his Amendment No. 14A.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for having gone

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somewhat further than he did in his earlier remarks. I am gratified by the comments of other noble Lords. As they made clear, there is no reason why the amendment should not be on the face of the Bill. In the context of the new clause, it is logical and sensible.

However, the Minister has indicated that he will reflect on this matter and perhaps return to it at Third Reading. On that specific understanding, I shall not pursue it at the moment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 14, Amendment No. 15:

    Line 29, after ("belong") insert (", who have made and subscribed to the oath required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 (or the corresponding affirmation) and are not disqualified from sitting or voting in the House").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a further amendment to Amendment No. 14. Before speaking to the amendment, it may be for the convenience of the House and the Minister if I ask one question about Amendment No. 14.

I note that in every case the person who is to be appointed is to be decided by the treasurer of the party. When we consider what this panel will do, I wonder whether the treasurer is the best person. I should have thought that the leader of the party would be the best person to make the appointment, not the treasurer. Perhaps the Minister could explain in his response why the Government have decided to make the treasurer the person who nominates an individual to sit on the parliamentary parties panel.

Amendment No. 15 relates to the parties that will qualify to appoint members to the panel. The Minister drew attention to the contradictions in the Bill that form the very centre of my amendment. Looking at Amendment No. 14, it would appear that the panel could have a nomination from Sinn Fein, as there is no disqualification for members who have not subscribed to the House of Commons Oath. However, in other parts of the Bill Sinn Fein would not be considered because they have not taken the Oath and they would, therefore, be disqualified. As the noble Lord pointed out, there is a disqualification in Clause 3(6) which refers back to subsection (2)(b)--

    "the registered leader of each registered party to which two or more Members of the House of Commons then belong",

and deals with the question of the appointment of the electoral commissioners. Subsection (6) says that,

    "reference to Members of the House of Commons does not include any Member of that House who at the time in question ... has not made and subscribed the oath required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866".

Similarly, we find exactly the same provision in Clause 11(1)(b) with regard to policy development grants; namely,

    "a registered party is 'represented' if there are at least two Members of the House of Commons belonging to the party who ... have made and subscribed the oath required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866".

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The Minister drew our attention to those two parts in the Bill, but he did not seem to give any justification as to why such a provision should be swept aside when considering the parliamentary parties panel. Indeed, parties that would be considered unsuitable to be consulted under other parts of the Bill would be consulted and allowed to have members on this panel. That seems to me to be both inconsistent and strange.

There can be no party that this provision is aimed at other than Sinn Fein. I do not believe that anyone else has declined to take the oath for membership of the other place. My question is a simple one, and one which I shall no doubt repeat tomorrow: why is an exception being made for Sinn Fein? If its members wish to take part in the parliamentary parties panel, they should subscribe to the House of Commons oath like everyone else. If Clauses 3 and 11 both contain that debar, why should not this new clause have such a provision? I beg to move.

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