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(" . A statement of accounts from an accounting unit which is not received by the Commission by virtue of the fact that the provisions of paragraph 6 do not apply shall be made available on request to any person by the registered treasurer of the accounting unit on payment of a fee which shall be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State on the recommendation of the Commission.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment brings us back to the nitty gritty of the Bill, the bureaucratic and cumbersome parts of it. My honourable friend Dominic Grieve, on 25th January in the other place raised the question of constituency parties whose expenditure was above £25,000 and the fact that their accounts would have to be reported to the commission and be made public. But the other political parties in that constituency, or indeed a political party in another constituency with a turnover of £24,999 would be able to keep its accounts confidential. Therefore, the party with the lower turnover would have access to its rival's accounts and that could be politically useful. But the largest local party in an area with a £25,000 or over account would not be able to see the accounts of its opponents. That cannot be fair.

My noble friend suggested dropping the limit and there followed the most amazing correspondence on this issue. In a letter dated 21st February from Mr Charles Goldie of the Party Funding Unit, the Home Office canvassed my amendment as "a suggestion". It seems to me that if the Government themselves were canvassing my compromise, it is certainly worth while for your Lordships to suggest that the Government take it on board.

It is not the ideal. My ideal position would be that the accounts of all local parties should be open to inspection. But the amendment suggests the much more modest proposal that if a local constituency party with income and expenditure under £25,000 receives a request from any person to see those accounts, then they should be allowed to see them on the payment of a fee which will be set by the Secretary of State and recommended by the electoral commissioner. Political parties with modest turnovers would not be asked to make their accounts public and have to bear the costs themselves; they would be able to recoup some or all of the costs.

Amendment No. 87 is a modest amendment consistent with the proposal put forward by the Home Office on 21st February. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, in that case, said that there was not consensus. But I believe it was the main point of the debate on which there was no consensus; I am not sure that many people addressed the alternative issue.

Earlier this afternoon, when opposing my noble friend's Amendment No. 56A, the Minister said that it would not be right for a party to report in a year when it was over £5,000 and not report in a year when it was

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under £5,000; that we could not move in and out of regulations like that. But the situation here is exactly that. We are talking about a party hovering around the £25,000 limit which would have to report to the commission when it went over that amount--perhaps once every three or four years--and in the other years it would not need to. That too seems to be inconsistent.

I suggest that Amendment No. 87 is a reasonable compromise which I hope the Government will accept. As the officials who wrote this letter are probably the same officials who wrote the Minister's brief, perhaps he will see on it the words, "accept if pressed". I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is a better debater than he is a crystal ball gazer.

Schedule 5 of the Bill applies the accounting requirements in Part II to accounting units. Paragraph 6 of the schedule makes equivalent provision to Clause 43 in respect of the submission of annual statements of account to the electoral commission. Whereas the central organisation of a party must always send its annual statements of account to the commission, irrespective of the level of its income or expenditure, an accounting unit is only required to do so where, in a specific year, its income or expenditure exceeds £25,000.

This provision received some attention during the Commons Committee stage, where it was argued by the Opposition Front Bench that the operation of the threshold could lead to unfairness in circumstances where a local association in a given constituency was required to submit its statement of accounts to the commission but rival associations were not. The Government consulted further on that point but did not find any consensus among the main parties for a change in the provisions of the Bill.

That is not entirely surprising since Schedule 5, as it stands, deliberately places a light touch on the smaller local branches. If there is any doubt about a specific small local branch's activities, there is provision under paragraph (6)(2) of Schedule 5 for the commission to require the submission of a statement of accounts. Against that background I am not convinced that it would be right to place all accounting units under a duty to hand over a copy of their statements of account to any person where the commission itself has not requested one. If individual local associations want to make their annual statements of account publicly available, that is entirely a matter for them. But I do not see a pressing need to impose a statutory duty of this kind. For those reasons, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. I cannot pretend otherwise.

When this Bill is enacted it will become a source of irritation locally where, say, the Labour Party has a good constituency which takes it above the £25,000

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limit and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties--or, even worse, in Scotland the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party--are able to look at the accounts and try to glean whatever political advantage they can from them, yet local Labour Parties will not be able to do so with the accounts of their opponents because they will be below the £25,000 limit.

That will be a source of irritation, and when the second, third or fourth party in a constituency begins to try to make political capital in the local paper at the expense of the Labour Party because of what is in its account, members of the Labour Party will rightly suffer a feeling of indignation. When they do that, I hope that they will realise that we on this side attempted to make the playing field--if I dare use that term--a bit more balanced. I am sorry that the Minister did not accept my suggestion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 88 not moved.]

Clause 52 [Permissible donors]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 89:

    Page 38, line 19, at end insert--

("( ) an individual registered in the register maintained by the Commission under section (Commission to maintain register of eligible voters for the purpose of donations);").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this group of amendments deals with two relatively distinct issues and I shall speak to them separately.

Amendments Nos. 89 and 90 return to the issue of individuals who decide not to register on the electoral register for reasons of personal safety. In Committee I cited the example of police officers, those afraid of stalkers, perhaps students who inadvertently failed to register or even some Members of your Lordships' House or the other place who, because of the positions they have held in government, are fearful of attacks from terrorists.

Because the Government ignored the recommendation of the Neill committee and decided to allow people to donate to a political party only if they actually registered on an electoral register rather than if they were simply eligible to be registered, then those people who choose, for legitimate reasons, not to register will be barred from donating to a political party. On 12th January in the other place, the Government recognised that something needed to be done about that. Despite cross-party support and assurances given by the Minister, Mr O'Brien, nothing has been done. In Committee I asked the Minister to comment on progress and he did not do so. The Government should have been able to think up something in the 10 months since this issue was raised in January in the other place. If they had, then my amendments would be unnecessary.

It is important to accept these amendments because they concede, as I have tried to do all day, those parts of the Government's case on which the Government

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are not going to move--not because I particularly want to concede the point, but because I live in the real world. I have conceded therefore that the Government will not do as Neill suggested and make eligibility to register, not just registering, a condition for allowing donations. However, those people who do not go on the register for their own security would be able to register with the commission under my amendment; in other words, their eligibility to register would be established by the commission and they would then be able to donate to political parties.

In Committee (at col. 551), I asked the Minister to comment on the implications of parts of the Bill for the Human Rights Act. The anomaly with which I was concerned was that members of the Armed Forces resident in the UK are not legally required to vote here and do not have to register here anyway. They would therefore not be allowed to make a political donation. One wondered whether under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the convention, as well as under Article 3 of the First Protocol, all the provisions were consistent. The Minister did not address that matter but I hope that he can give an indication today--and not merely with the blanket assurance that he has signed the Bill.

Amendment No. 100 deals with another issue we discussed on a previous occasion. In Committee, I rehearsed the great problem which will be created when parts of the Bill come into force; namely, that there will be no central electoral register. The problem would hit all political parties at both national and local level, all the electoral registration officers and the commission--I shall not go into detail. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Rennard, were equally concerned about the issues.

The Minister said that the Home Office was examining an interim solution--perhaps a CD-ROM regular update--until the central register goes online next October. I tabled my amendment today in order to receive an update from the Minister. It is important to have a central register so that, when donations are received, the political parties will be able to check that the person is on the register. Surely, if the Government, with our support, are to say that political parties must ensure that they take their cash from eligible donors, there must be a way in which the parties can discover who are eligible donors.

The Government might say that political parties can send billets-doux to the electoral registration officer in the area in which they believe the person to be living. Perhaps the electoral registration officers will thank noble Lords for such an extra burden! However, there are time limits, especially during an election period when political parties must report every week. The electoral registration officers will at that time be particularly busy issuing polling cards and so forth, which are of greater importance to the electorate. They will have too much to do to be bothered with going through the registers and answering e-mails, faxes and letters from all the political parties asking whether Joe Bloggs is on the register at a certain address and is therefore a qualified donor.

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It is a difficult problem which the Government have attempted to brush to one side. It could hit all the parties on the back of the head next April. If, when we have an election on the first Thursday in May, such a central register is not in place, the task of the political parties will be made difficult and an unnecessary workload will be placed on the electoral registration officers. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and I beg to move.

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