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Lord Rennard: My Lords, I suspect that many of us have an interest in this issue; I certainly do. Does the Minister agree in principle that the relatively modest amounts paid to political parties through state funding in this schemewhich is currently accepted by the Labour Party, Conservative Party, the nationalist parties and the Liberal Democrat Partyis a better way of financing aspects of our democracy than for some political parties to be heavily dependent on a few big donations from a few very rich millionaires? Such donations may sometimes be seen to influence public policy or appointments or indeed, occasionally, government transactions.
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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in a sense, the noble Lord indicates the point I made earlier that one is trying to seek balance in the way political parties are funded. The Government's position is clear. We introduced a policy development grant to support the development of policy by major political parties for very good reasons. There is a much broader debate, which is not for now, about state funding.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, since I am not a member of a political party, I will not declare an interest. Bearing in mind that we are told that people have lost interest in political parties and do not trust all of them, should people who stand for Parliament as individuals and independents also be includedafter all, our system is still based on electing people and not parties? Is there not a case, on the grounds of equity, for seeing that taxpayers' money is also available to individuals to develop their policies to put before the electorate?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord takes a novel approach to the issue of state fundingfor individuals to develop policies. I am not entirely certain that I agree with his analysis; nor do I agree with his statement that people have lost interest. If the noble Lord reads the Electoral Commission's report, he will see that it mentions that we have a vibrant democracy, which we shall see if and when we have a general election.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Northern Ireland political parties are a special interest group? They are exempt from most of the rules and regulations that apply to political parties in the rest of the United Kingdom. I believe that state funding for themI in no way disagree with my noble friend Lord Strathclyde on the overall situationcould go a long way to helping the situation, which the Lord President understands very well.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I understand the noble Lord's question, for which I apologise. I will write to the noble Lord to indicate our view with greater clarity.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, although I support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will the Government also give serious consideration to some of the other suggestions in the Electoral Commission's report, in particular the proposal to lower the cap on national expenditure in general elections and give tax relief to small donations to political parties?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I indicated, the Government will indeed be considering the report carefully. It is important to note that the commission is not proposing any radical new systems and was at pains to point that out. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, there are a number of different ideas within the report, which we shall of course consider with great care.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister do something to help my noble friend Lord Glentoran?
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The point of his question was that the Northern Irish parties are allowed to fundraise overseas, which is not allowed for any of the parties on the mainland. That really ought to stop. Indeed, neither is it appropriate for Sinn Fein to organise bank robberies to finance itself.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not sure that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for the clarification. However, I accept that these are complicated issues and, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, knows, we are consulting.
There is a strong case for helping political parties to organise and recruit as well as develop policy. We should have no more hypocrisy from the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Parties because we have all been taking state funding for years.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not believe that any noble Lords in their contributions were suggesting any form of hypocrisy. There is an important issue to be debated, relating to balance and the relationship between state funding, public money and the role of political parties, which I described in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am sure that we will discuss that issue further, both in your Lordships' House and in another place.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, Mrs Angela Cannings did not meet the criteria set out within the provisions of Section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 for a statutory payment of compensation; nor did she meet the criteria for an ex gratia payment of compensation under the terms of the then Home Secretary's Statement to the House of Commons on 29 November 1985 (Official Report, cols. 691-2).
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that it would be nonsense to argue, as it has been hinted in certain newspapers that the Home Office has argued, that an independent expert witness does not come within the ambit of a public body when it is the Crown Prosecution Service that decides whether to prosecute and decides the selection of an expert witness?
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Does the Minister agree that the situation is obviously wrong, given the fact that the Home Office has given tens of thousands of pounds to a fraudster who fell over in a prison shower? We are talking about a woman who has been wrongly accused of smothering her two children, waited two years to go on trial, spent 18 months in prison, lost her house and nearly lost her other child to the social services. Then her conviction was quashed on the grounds that the evidence of the expert witness chosen by the Crown Prosecution Service was flawed, and the Attorney-General had to investigate nearly 300 cases based on the evidence of the same expert witness. If ever there was a case that deserved compensation, surely it is this.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I should say straightaway that there is very obvious sympathy for Mrs Cannings' position. But the noble Lord will know, and remember well, from the days whenalbeit a while ago nowhe was in government, that these are very difficult decisions to make. It is for those reasons that we have the statutory scheme and the ex gratia scheme, which was alluded to and set out in 1985 by the then Home Secretary's Statement. We have applied those rules, and the noble Lord will know that although the circumstances may affect the quantum, they do not affect whether a person falls within that exceptional category. There are often very difficult decisions to be made, and this was clearly one of them.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, with permission, a Statement will be repeated later today. It will come at some convenient time around 6.45 p.m., will be entitled "Homes for All: Five-year Plan", and will be repeated by my noble friend Lord Rooker.
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