Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord some questions on points that puzzle me. First, why the figure of £50,000? Why not £25,000 or £40,000? Is there some criterion on which the figure of £50,000 is based? Secondly, if one has quarterly reports and there is a general election at the beginning of the quarter, it will be some considerable time after the election before those donations are made public. That seems to me to reduce the whole point of the new report and the question of transparency. I am a little worried about the timing. I should like to know how the noble Lord sees quarterly reports fitting into a general election period.

I am also a little concerned about the idea that there should be no reports at all during the period of a general election. I cannot believe that that would be right.

Perhaps I may make one other point about the figure of £50,000. In their evidence to the Neill committee, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party both agreed that the amount should be £5,000 and, as far as I am aware, have been disclosing that ever since. If we were then to move to £50,000, would it not look as if some kind of fiddle was going on?

21 Nov 2000 : Column 742

9.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I have two amendments in this group. However, I should like to speak first to my noble friend's amendment. The real point here, if I may say so to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is not the point she has just made. The real point is that, with the lack of a register for the whole of the United Kingdom, as we exposed earlier on today, the system will not be easy to operate during the rather frantic weeks leading up to a general election.

We have discussed this issue before. I fully accept that the whole clause would knock out one of the Neill recommendations. I have to say to my noble friend that I am trying to be consistent. As I shall be calling later on this evening for Neill recommendations to be implemented, I do not think that I can support my noble friend in going against the recommendation. My noble friend can answer for himself. I suspect that £50,000 is something of a "guesstimate" of the level at which the number of donations may become manageable. To be honest, I have a good deal of sympathy regarding the complexity of the organisation that will be required. We shall have to look in rather more depth at how to get round that problem. It will certainly not be helped if there is not a register to which the political parties can refer.

My noble friend mentioned as one of the spin-offs of his amendment that we would get round the point of someone trying to stitch up a political party. I raised the issue in Committee but I did not receive a very satisfactory answer. The issue will not go away. During normal times--like just now if the Bill were enacted--the political parties would have to report quarterly and they would report on the donations they had received and accepted. Therefore, they would have checked them out, established that they had come from eligible donors and then reported them. However, during an election campaign they have to report the donations they have received. If they report at the end of the week the donations they receive on Monday, with a little luck and as long as the electoral returning officer is not snowed under, they may well establish whether they are from eligible donors. For donations received on Tuesday the position might be slightly more difficult. But, by Thursday, it would be almost impossible to have checked the position. Therefore, some donations from ineligible donors will be reported and made public.

Political parties will have no intention of accepting those donations once they check that. The great danger is that that will then be used by the opponents of that political party. I cannot see political parties resisting the temptation. I should like to think that they might, but I cannot see them doing it. Those facts will be used by the opponents of the political party to make a fuss in Monday's and Tuesday's newspapers. It would be nice if I could have confidence that all the political parties would agree that what they have had reported publicly to the commission were the donations received and that they might or might not be accepted. But I tend to live in the real world. We have watched what happens with Mrs Filkin, who receives

21 Nov 2000 : Column 743

tit-for-tat reports from our colleagues down the corridor in a way that has hugely damaged the operations at the other end. I fear that that might be a consequence of what is proposed in the Bill.

I have tabled two amendments. I am not sure that they are effective amendments. There may well be defects in them. I am not necessarily bothered about my wording but I do think that there is a problem. I should like the Government to be able to convince me either that I am totally wrong or that there is a way to prevent the problem happening. It bothers me. Perhaps the reporting could be done by the political parties weekly, on the basis of "received and accepted the following" and then "the following received but not yet checked". Perhaps the commission could publish just the first and hold the second to itself and ensure that it was checked in the following week. That may be a way around the problem.

I accept that my amendments do not do that. The point occurred to me when I was listening to the debate. We should all try to find some way to prevent what has happened in the Commons with regard to Mrs Filkin and the tit-for-tat that goes on there.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, we have discussed at length the burdens facing political parties. However, I have to say that the burden of receiving cheques of between £5,000 and £50,000 is not one that personally I find all that arduous to bear. Indeed, I wish that I could face such a burden rather more frequently than I do within my party. I doubt whether there will be huge numbers of donations of that size made to any of the parties. For that reason, against the great mass of legislation with which we are faced, I do not think that this is a particularly difficult problem.

Since the Neill committee made the suggestion that donations of £5,000 or more should be transparent, it is even more important that such donations are readily declared during an election campaign, when the begging bowl may be brought out rather more frequently than at any other point. It is likely that someone seeking improperly to influence future public policy might be more inclined to give money to a party or to a politician at election time. That should be made known rapidly. Giving notice within one week is not an unreasonable period of time.

As regards the suggestion made about the use of the word "accepted" rather than "received", I believe that there is a possibility that an abuse could occur, but that such a possibility would be fairly remote. The greater danger would be that sizeable donations might be received and the party could say, "OK, if the definition is now 'accepted' rather than 'received', we shall simply put all these cheques in a pile and leave them alone until after the election. We can spend the money now because we will not have to pay the bills for a few weeks. No one will know where that money came from until after the election". For that reason, I believe that the word "received" is more appropriate on this occasion.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that we have a common understanding of what Clause 61

21 Nov 2000 : Column 744

provides for in terms of weekly reporting during the period of a general election. However, in contrast to quarterly reports, this reporting requirement applies to donations received rather than accepted by a registered party. This reflects the fact that during the shorter time period, the recipient will not necessarily have sufficient time to determine whether a particular donation may or may not be accepted. Rather ironically, in view of some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, this provision is intended to ease the administrative burden on political parties in complying with the weekly reporting criteria.

I listened carefully to the argument as regards mischief making put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, when we debated this in Committee. I take the point that it might be possible for those hostile to a party to arrange for the transmission of a donation from an embarrassing source. They would know that the party in question would be required to disclose it, even though it had no intention of accepting the money. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, pointed out, that is only a remote possibility. I accept that perhaps someone seeking cheap publicity from such a stunt might try this, but if the money came from one of the other parties involved in the general election campaign, quite frankly, the stunt would be seen for what it was and would have more damaging consequences for the party attempting to pull it off as a scam. All donors will need to make clear their identity because that is a requirement of the Bill. If a party is unable to identify the source in order to return the donation, it simply needs to forward the money to the commission. In short, the principle of transparency probably makes the potential for a successful ruse of that kind less rather than more likely.

In any event, changing the term "received" to "accepted" would undermine the purpose of the provision; namely, to put information about donors quickly into the public domain during an election campaign. Parties will have up to 30 days to decide whether to accept a donation. If they were to wait until the end of the 30-day period, they could in effect delay disclosure until after the election has passed.

That brings me on neatly to Amendment No. 108A. The argument put forward by the Neill committee in support of a weekly reporting requirement during a general election campaign was that the need for up-to-date information is all the more pressing during such a campaign. I do not think that the point can be argued. The Government accept that there are certain constraints on what it is practicable for a party to deliver within such a timeframe. Clause 61 is not concerned with donations to accounting units or even donations which, in aggregate, exceed £5,000.

Having said that, I do not believe that Amendment No. 108A, which seeks to apply the weekly reporting requirement only to donations of more than £50,000, is at all in the spirit of the Neill committee recommendations. I am urged from time to time to be flexible about the Neill committee and not to stick absolutely to its recommendations at all times. While

21 Nov 2000 : Column 745

it is true to say that we have not stuck absolutely to them at all times, we have attempted wherever possible to use them as the main framework for the Bill.

Within the constraints of the best available information, there is no reason why political parties should not provide the same information as they would normally provide on a quarterly basis during this most critical period when the whole question of funding is surely at its most important.

The committee clearly did not intend that a donation of £49,000 should only come to light two months after a general election had taken place. As a Government we support that concern. I know that the noble Lord believes that transparency is the best way to regulate political parties. I do not accept that. The history of political parties in the United Kingdom during the past few years--not least that of the noble Lord's party--suggests that transparency of itself is not enough. That is why we have been obliged to regulate and legislate in this way.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page