HC Deb 08 March 1983 vol 38 cc804-11 10.16 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I beg to move, That the Resolution of the House of 20th March 1975 shall have effect from 1st January 1983 with the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph 2 of that Resolution:— 'That for the purpose of determining the annual maxima of such assistance the following formular shall apply: £1,080 for each seat won by the party concerned plus £2.16 for every 200 votes cast for it at the preceding General Election, provided that the maximum payable to any party shall not exceed £325,000.'.

Mr. Speaker

I have not selected the amendment on the Order Paper.

Mr. Biffen

It may be for the convenience of the House if I just, very briefly, outline the general background to the motion and its effect.

No new principle is being established. As hon. Members will recall, financial assistance to Opposition parties to help them in carrying out their parliamentary business was first confirmed by the House in 1975. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have been beneficiaries of such a provision. The maximum amount payable to an Opposition party was initially fixed at £150,000. Since 1975 there have been two rises in the annual amounts payable. The first was in February 1978,when the maximum was raised by 10 per cent. to £165,000, with corresponding changes in the cash amounts related to seats and votes won, by which entitlements falling short of the maximum are calculated.

The second and latest rise was approved by the House in November 1980, with retrospective effect to July 1980, when the maximum amount payable to any party was raised to £290,000, with similar proportionate rises for the smaller Opposition parties. These provide for the Liberal party to be entitled to about £52,000 a year and the other Opposition parties some £20,000 between them.

The effect of the present motion would be to raise, as from the beginning of this year, the maximum amount payable annually to any Opposition party from £290,000 to £325,000. This represents an increase since July 1980 of just over 12 per cent., together with similar proportionate rises in the formula by which the amounts payable to parties getting less than the maximum are calculated. The Liberal party would thus become entitled to something over £58,000, and the other Opposition parties together to about £23,000.

As the House is aware, this scheme is designed to help Opposition parties in carrying out their work here at Westminster. The purposes for which these sums may be used are accordingly confined by the original 1975 resolution to paying for expenses incurred with regard to a party's "parliamentary business". With that qualification, however, its allocation is entirely at the discretion of the parties themselves. I understand that the principal purpose to which the money is in fact allocated is for office expenses, staffing costs and research assistance.

The reason for the present proposal to raise the amounts payable by approximately 12 per cent. is the increased cost of support services since the present rates took effect in July 1980. One of the principal purposes of this scheme is to provide for Opposition parties some counterbalancing support to that provided for the Government by the Civil Service. It would, therefore, seem appropriate that the amount of the increase now proposed should be generally in line with increases in Civil Service Staff costs since 1980.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House in what way this expenditure is controlled and monitored, so that the money is actually spent for the purposes to which he referred, bearing in mind that a former treasurer of the Labour party said that the money should be paid direct to the Labour party itself, and not to the Labour party parliamentary section?

Mr. Biffen

It is available for investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. I hope that the Comptroller and Auditor General will be considered by the House to be a reasonable authority as to the propriety with which the money is spent.

As the House will be aware, in order to qualify for this financial assistance, a party must have at least two Members elected to the House as members of that party at the preceding general election, or have one such member and have received at least 150,000 votes at that election.

Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)

Will my right hon. Friend say whether he sees any purpose in that particular qualification?

Mr. Biffen

Yes. The reason for having it was to strike a balance in the demands that are made on the resources of a party, having regard to the number of seats that it had in the House and the number of votes that it had in the country. These points were argued when the moneys were first made available, and I see no reason to suppose that it is not a reasonable working arrangement to have a broad assessment of the demands that are made on the parties in this House.

Mr. Proctor

I wanted to know whether my right hon. Friend thought it possible that one Member of Parliament might gain financial assistance by getting the 150,000 votes.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The right hon. Gentleman does not say that. Why does the hon. Gentleman not read it?

Mr. Biffen

It is perfectly possible for there to be one Member of Parliament and support for the party represented by that Member in excess of 150,000 votes. I am not sure, but I think that that was true of the SDLP in the last Parliament. If my hon. Friend is agonising about the matter, he need not peer into the crystal-if I might plagiarise-he can study the book.

These qualifications do not vary between Parliaments, nor do they take account of the formation of parties whose memberships did not contest the previous general election as members of that party. This basis has stood since the scheme was first approved by the House. I would not propose any change.

Nor, in conclusion, does this proposed uprating alter in any way the Government's stated opposition to the general financing of political parties that has been proposed in the past by Lord Houghton's committee and others. The present scheme does not provide state aid for the general activities of political parties in the country but only in this strictly limited area of Opposition parliamentary work here at Westminster. The cost of this necessary support has, however, undoubtedly risen substantially in recent years, and I believe the increase now proposed to be generally equitable.

10.24 pm
Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

I should declare what may be termed a collective interest on behalf of the Opposition and perhaps also an indirect subjective interest, because, as a member of the parliamentary Labour party and as a Front Bench spokesman, clearly I am bound to benefit from the financial assistance given to the Opposition.

The Leader of the House has clearly told us the history and the principle of the measure. It may be for the convenience of the House, and perhaps of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), if I explain how the allocation of funds in the Labour party is made. The Leader of the House is right to say that it must be related to the work of the parliamentary Labour party in the House of Commons. That is what it is about. The allocation of funds is made by four trustees—the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand), the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) and by two of my hon. Friends, elected as the occasion arises to the parliamentary Labour party. The secretary of the parliamentary Labour part} acts as secretary. That is all clear, open and available for discussion and consideration inside the parliamentary Labour party, and, as the Leader of the House has said, the accounts are also open and above board.

I believe that I am right in saying that when the Conservative party was in opposition the funds were solely at the discretion of the leader of the Conservative party—the Prime Minister. As far as I know, she no doubt acted in the best possible interests of work in the House. What she did with the money was a matter for her party but not, I suspect, for anybody else, provided that it was within the framework of work in Westminster.

The Leader of the House has told us that the funds available for the Labour party fall into the maximum provision, and therefore our funds go up from £290,000 to £325,000. My arithmetic was never very good, but I make that an increase of about 12.5 per cent. Borrowing, if I may, from the wise words that I took the precaution of looking up of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) when he stood at the Dispatch Box on behalf of the parliamentary Labour party in the debate in July 1980, the uprating then was about 87 per cent. of the increase in costs. However, I understand that the increase in costs has been 17 per cent. I always follow the dictum of the late lain Macleod. I do not believe in shutting out a one-legged Father Christmas. I ant glad to have Father Christmas and I am not in any way complaining. That would be ungracious and wrong. What I am trying to say is that the uprating is not an absolute maximum.

As to the principle, the question of our performance in the House depends on our being as well informed as we can be and as able to take as independent and experienced point of view as we possibly can. That is why the salary of Members of Parliament was introduced 74 years ago. I believe that we were the first assembly in the world to do that. That step was taken by David Lloyd George when £400 a year was given to Members of Parliament. We have moved a long way since then. The Leader of the Opposition was paid and I do not think there has ever been any dispute or anxiety about that. Two Whips were paid, and so it has gone on. Hon. Members have their parliamentary salaries. We have our disputes and discussions about that, but all of us accept that there must be payment for research, secretarial assistance, and so on, so that we can do our job.

The Leader of the House is right. The Government, particularly in a very technical and complex society, invariably get greater advantage as time goes by. It is right that an Opposition should also be given the means by which they may carry out the duties that the constitution imposes on them, that of challenging, of opposing, and of representing the other point of view. I am glad to be able to second the motion.

10.30 pm
Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)

The last occasion on which I rose to try to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, on the subject of financial assistance to opposition parties was at 11.49 pm on the evening of 7 August 1980, and I resumed my seat at 5.35 pm on 12 November 1980. That was a lengthy contribution, with a parliamentary summer recess in between, because of an adjourned debate. I assure the House that I shall not try its patience for so long on this occasion.

However, I should like to place on record my opposition to aid for political parties, both in principle and in detail, whichever political parties may be involved. I did not sit in previous Parliaments, but had I done so, on each of the occasions when this subject came before the House, my view would have been the same, even if I were sitting on the Opposition side of the House.

I note that the debate tonight is about detail rather than principle. Therefore, I shall try to address most of my remarks to the detail of the increase. Notwithstanding the modest manner in which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House proposed the motion, we are still considering quite considerable sums of taxpayers' money. My right hon. Friend very kindly gave me answers in yesterday's Hansard about the sums of money that have been paid in recent years to the various Opposition parties represented in the House.

The tables of the amounts show clearly the quantity of the increases. There is £35,000 for the Labour party, giving it an increase from £290,000 to £325,000, an extra £6,361 for the Liberal party, an extra £827 for the Scottish National party, an extra £886 for the Ulster Unionist party, for Plaid Cymru another £390, and for the Democratic Unionist party £435. In total, the increase proposed, if I understand it correctly, is an increase from the 1980 provision of £362,915 to an estimated £406,816. We are talking not in terms of small sums, but of reasonably substantial sums that the taxpayer is being asked to contribute towards the parliamentary business of Opposition parties.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Will the hon. Gentleman translate the size of the increase into the number of assisted places that this would pay for?

Mr. Proctor

I have not made that estimate, but no doubt I can do so at a later date, although not without notice.

The increases come in three sections. The maximum increase has been referred to by both my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin). That went up since 1 January 1975 from £150,000 by 10 per cent. on 1 January 1978. One of the things that caused considerable concern on Conservative Benches was that on 1 July 1980 it went up by 75 per cent. to £290,000. Now it will go up to £325,000

The amount per seat that each Opposition party could receive has similarly increased over the years. On 1 January 1975 each party could receive £500 per seat. That was increased by 10 per cent. on 1 January 1978 to £550, and went up on 1 July 1980 to £962.50, an increase of 75 per cent. There is now a 12 per cent. increase from 1 January 1983 to £1,080. The amount per 200 votes cast was fixed at £1 on 1 January 1975. It went up by 10 per cent. on 1 January 1978 to £1.10. Again it went up on 1 July 1980 to £1.92, an increase of 75 per cent. It is now proposed to go up to £2.16, an increase of about 12 per cent.

Those increases are substantial. The House should not support or agree to them. Last time that we debated those increases I and other hon. Members questioned the extent to which indexation of the increases to inflation should take place. I am opposed in principle to indexation to inflation because I believe that as long as politicians continue to index things to inflation, the motive force for getting rid of inflation is taken away. I am glad that my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Deptford said that the link with inflation has been broken.

It is because of the Conservative Government that we have such low rates of inflation. Inflation worried many Conservative Members in 1980. Therefore, the debate is taking place in a different atmosphere. However, the credit for the reduction in the rate of inflation lies not with the Opposition parties, which seem to be benefiting tonight, but with the Treasury Bench and Treasury economic policies.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

The hon. Gentleman said that he opposed the increases in principle partly because of indexation to inflation. If that is so, would it not be appropriate for him to vote against the resolution outright? Why is he seeking to promote an amendment to postpone it to another date?

Mr. Proctor

As the House will know, hon. Members frequently table amendments that get half or a quarter, but not the full, loaf. I in no way criticise you, Mr. Speaker, for not selecting my amendment. Had the amendment been called I would have spoken to it. I shall say a few words about it, if that is in order.

My argument is one of total opposition in principle to the idea of the taxpayer funding Opposition political parties in their work as Opposition political parties. It is different for the taxpayer to contribute sums of money to individual Members of Parliament for their constituency and parliamentary duties. If they wish to pool their collective funds to aid the political party that they represent, so be it. That is my suggestion for the way to go about it. Taxpayers' money should not be given to the political party. I am glad that my right hon. Friend underlined some of my suspicions that this might be the thin end of the wedge. He said that the Government had set their face against increasing the funding of political parties-those outside the country, for example.

With regard to whether the funds are necessary, I understand what my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) said. However, one cannot consider the subject in isolation from what other sources of funds might be available to political parties. Funds are available from voluntary fund raising, industry, trade unions and so on. I wonder whether the Labour party is so short of funds. I am merely a disinterested spectator. I have noted that it has recently concluded a fairly expensive and lengthy legal action in the courts about boundary changes.

Mr. Rooker

Get your facts right.

Mr. Proctor

I understand what Opposition Members feel, and I shall qualify my statement shortly. The leaders of the Labour party have just concluded an expensive and lengthy legal battle.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Not the Labour party leaders.

Mr. Proctor

Perhaps the leader of the Labour party does not represent the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) as our leader represents Conservative Members. The legal action cannot have cost much less than £80,000 to £90,000. I am sorry that some hon. Members are touchy about the issue.

Could not that money have been used more wisely on some other form of parliamentary activity by the Labour party than denying my constituents' wish for boundary reform? I represent one of those large constituencies that have more than 120,000 electors. Why do we need to give the Labour party an extra £35,000 when its leaders obviously have access to large sums of money? The House should consider that before it passes the motion.

I noted that nearly every time my right hon. Friend referred to the resolutions, there was an element of retrospective legislation in them. Some people want to give extra money to Opposition parties. Why cannot our affairs be organised more tidily so that we decide one year what will take effect the next? Better still, would it not be a good idea for Parliament to decide how much should be given to Opposition parties, if that is its decision, at the end of one Parliament, to take effect in the next? That would get away from the problem of which party will form the Opposition. Some of the minority parties will sit on those Benches for ever, but for the Labour and Conservative parties that may be a better way to proceed. Therefore, I tabled a small amendment suggesting that the increases should not come into effect until 1 January 1984, which will probably be after the next general election.

My right hon. Friend said that there were two qualifications in the original legislation—[Interruption.] I might be tempted to speak for a little longer if Opposition Members continue to heckle me from a sedentary position instead of contributing something meaningful to the debate. The qualifications mentioned by my right hon. Friend stem from the original resolution. The one in which I am interested is that which mentions two or more Members of Parliament. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would clarify the position regarding one Member of Parliament who receives more than 150,000 votes at the election. Is that qualification superfluous? Has consideration been given to the fact that this legislation is narrow with regard to increasing the amounts payable to Opposition parties? Have the Government considered whether the qualifications should be revised in the light of the past eight years and of the new political parties that have been established?

I could not allow this legislation and this evening to go by without putting on record my objection to what we are doing.

10.47 pm
Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I am chairman of the trustees of the Labour party, who administer the funds for Opposition parties, so I have some knowledge of how those funds are distributed, and the difficulties that the Opposition face because of a shortage of funds.

I was most surprised by the opposition of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) to the motion, because I believed that he was a great supporter of parliamentary democracy and wished to give every facility to its continuation and development. I remind him that the British constitution is based on Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Opposition. Her Majesty is entitled to have an efficient, well-serviced Opposition as well as an efficient, well-serviced Government. Therefore, we must provide the Opposition parties with the wherewithal to provide that efficent and searching opposition.

Mr. Proctor

I do not disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but does he believe that the Opposition were any less efficient before 1975?

Mr. Stoddart

I do not know about that. What I do know is that we are living in a highly complex industrial and technological society in which Opposition parties, in the same way as the Government, need information and research into developments. Without that information at their fingertips, they cannot properly carry out the role of Opposition.

Therefore, it is right that the Opposition parties should be financed by the people so that the Government of the country can properly proceed under the constitution. Until 1975, when funds for Opposition parties were introduced, the political parties subsidised our constitutional processes and the work of the House. That was corrected in 1975. I am glad that it was corrected and it is right that the House should ensure that the Opposition parties are properly financed so that they can assist in the efficient government of this country.

Before I sit down, I should like to say a few words about the disbursement of the funds. The amount available is little enough for the Front Bench spokesmen of Opposition parties to be able properly to carry out their work. Even now, with these funds available, Opposition Front Bench spokesmen have to subsidise their work from their own allowances and indeed, in some cases, from their own private pockets. The amount under discussion tonight is little enough. I hope, therefore, that in the light of all the circumstances, and because of the need for Opposition parties to be efficient and well serviced, the House will agree to the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Resolution of the House of 20th March 1975 shall have effect from 1st January 1983 with the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph 2 of that Resolution:— `That for the purpose of determining the annual maxima of such assistance the following formula shall apply: £1,080 for each seat won by the party concerned plus £2.16 for every 200 votes cast for it at the preceding General Election, provided that the maximum payable to any party shall not exceed £325,000.'.

Forward to