|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have been round this particular course before. When I tried to persuade the Minister to accept a limit of £15 million instead of £20 million I failed fairly comprehensively. I am interested that my noble friend now returns to the matter but looks at it from the constituency upwards. I much prefer to look at it from the national limit already set downwards.
I am concerned by what the Government intend to do if there is to be an election in May. When will they tell the world at what level total expenditure is to be set? Obviously, it cannot be the whole £20 million because the period will be far shorter than 365 days. I am concerned that it should not be front-loaded. I seek an assurance from the Government that they will talk to the political parties so that they will know as soon as possible the figure that has been arrived at in conversations, I hope by consensus. It would be wrong if, following the new year, two or three months elapsed before the political parties had any idea of what they might be permitted to spend in an election to be held in May. I do not know how the Government will deal with that without committing themselves to a May election. But, frankly, they will have to do it because it is their Bill and they have wished this ludicrous situation on themselves as well as the other political parties. The people who run the Labour Party will want to know, as will the rest of us, how much they will be allowed to spend between whenever the Bill is enacted and the next election. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his answer.
Lord McNally: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question. At the moment the Labour Party is festooning towns with this "Thank you" campaign. Will that be in its general election expenditure?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in Scotland we have an expression about coming up the Clyde in a banana boat. The noble Lord has been doing that. I am not joining him. I can assure him that that will not be part of the Labour Party's expenditure for the next election. That is probably why the Government are doing it--because the race will not start until the Bill has been enacted and the announcement about the money has been made. So I think they are trying to jump the gun. It perhaps shows that all the pious stuff we have heard from them about
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we return again to the level of the limit on campaign expenditure. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said that he was not convinced by what I had said at an earlier stage on this matter. I was not entirely convinced. I was not entirely convinced because as I saw it there was something of a volte face from noble Lords on the Opposition Benches.
I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has joined us because it was the noble Lord who advised us in Committee that we should stick with what was in the Bill. The noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches were suggesting a lower limit. On Report we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, an argument for reducing the limit by one-quarter. The noble Lord said that the position had changed because the list of qualifying expenses in Schedule 8 had been pared back to make it more manageable for the parties. That is indeed the case. But the noble Lord, Lord Cope, knew that when he spoke so enthusiastically of the £20 million limit. It would be very nice to know exactly where the Opposition now stand and exactly what lies behind their sudden change of heart. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is sitting very comfortably next to the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, who I suppose gave some admiring glances during his peroration. I am not sure why that was the case. Perhaps it is because he is the party treasurer and is concerned about the quantum of money that might be available for a forthcoming general election.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I hear mirth from those in a sedentary position, but a responsible government--this is an entirely responsible government--do not chop and change their policy. I do not wish to hide the fact that the Labour Party argued in its evidence to the Neill committee for a £15 million limit. But it falls to the Government, and not to the Labour Party, to respond to and implement the Neill report. That is exactly what we are seeking to do. We have consistently taken the view that once the matter had been carefully considered by an independent advisory body, the proper course was to accept its recommendation. That is exactly what we have done.
The level of the limit should be altered only after full consideration by another independent body; namely, the electoral commission. Before coming to a view, there should be full consultation with other registered parties, not just the big three. We should remember that separate limits apply in each of the four parts of the United Kingdom. I put it to the House that it would be presumptuous of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, which are well
Nor can we simply change the figure in paragraph 3(2) of Schedule 9 on its own. The limits in paragraphs 3(3) and (4) of that Schedule and the third party limits in paragraph 3 of Schedule 10 are all linked to the £30,000 "allowance". If one changes that figure, one has to change the others. The Neill committee set the expenditure limits for elections to the European Parliament and devolved legislatures by reference to the £20 million for a parliamentary general election. We need to consider whether there should be a pro rata reduction in those other limits. These are considerations to be carefully made, not made late in the day when a Bill is reaching its concluding stages.
So, whatever the merits of the amendments, we should not be changing course in this way, at this late stage and without full and proper justification, and full consideration of, and consultation over, the other related matters. The right way forward--the only way forward--is to apply the £20 million limit, or an appropriate proportion of it, to the next general election. We should then ask the electoral commission properly to review the matter. If then there is a new consensus in favour of a lower limit, which is endorsed by the commission, it would be open to the Home Secretary to vary all the relevant sums by means of an order under Clause 155.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asked a fair question about the transitional limit. That transitional limit must be in place by 16th February 2001 when Part V comes into force. We shall be very carefully consulting during December with regard to what that limit might be. That is the proper course of action for us to follow. We shall fulfil that responsibility.
We have a late, half-baked and poorly thought-through amendment which does not do the job that it is designed to do. The amendment still puzzles me. Why is it that the Conservatives--some of them at least--seek to change their position on this many months after the Bill has been published and after many debates on these matters when just a matter of 10 days ago they had a clear policy position and statement of intent in this regard? I am puzzled by that. Perhaps it relates to funding within the Conservative Party; I know not. The proper course for the noble Lord to take is to withdraw his amendment and put his case to the electoral commission in due course.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, the Minister has not taken us much further than on Report. We engaged in some political knockabout on the premise that if one is short of arguments, one should engage in some political banter. That is fair enough. I am not sure that as a very new Member of the House it is in order for me to say this, but I think
The Minister's substantive arguments came down to two. First, he suggested that there should be a review after the general election, which does not answer the point I was trying to make at all. Secondly, consequential amendments would be required if the amendment were accepted. The amendment is nothing to do with the detail he is talking about; it is about restoring a balance. It is not about any individual political party seeking to gain or lose a funding advantage; it is about a vote for decentralisation, for the small battalions and for local democracy. I propose to test the opinion of the House on this matter.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.