HC Deb 16 November 1983 vol 48 cc845-6
17. Mr. John Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he has any plans to amend the law relating to donations to political parties from public companies.

Mr. Tebbit

I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Evans

Is the Secretary of State prepared to acknowledge that if the Tory Cabinet in general—and especially the right hon. Gentleman—is to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, the Government should withdraw part III of the Trade Union Bill and introduce legislation to ensure that donations to the Tory party from big business are subject to a ballot of shareholders.

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. The Bill that was recently introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and the talks that my right hon. Friend is having with the Trades Union Congress deal not so much with how parties are financed or who should finance them, but with how the rights of individuals, which are set out in the 1913 Act, are implemented in honour. I am not aware of any widespread dissatisfaction among shareholders at the manner in which their rights are upheld by the Companies Acts and allied legislation.

Mr. Leigh

Will my right hon. Friend advise Opposition Members that if they want to set the financial affairs of the Labour party in order they should stop bleating about the democratic right of shareholders to make political donations. They should instead take a leaf out of the Conservative party's book, whereby 90 per cent. of our funds are raised by the hard work and individual efforts of ordinary members.

Mr. Tebbit

It would be wrong for me to offer such good advice to the Opposition. It might be taken by them, and they would be a much stronger party in opposition to us.

Mr. Crowther

Is the right hon. Gentleman overlooking the fact that the Secretary of State for Employment is intending to require trade unions to hold a ballot of their members on whether they should have a political fund? Why, therefore, does the Secretary of State not introduce legislation to require companies to hold a ballot of shareholders before they give the funds from which contributions are made to parties?

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman persists in seeing companies as mirror images of trade unions. They are not. I warn him that if the law governing the conduct of trade unions were as tightly drawn and had penalties as severe as that governing the conduct of companies, a good many trade union leaders would be in gaol.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if shareholders feel aggrieved about a decision to make a political donation to the Conservative party, that decision can always be overturned at an annual general meeting? If there were a similar procedure in the trade union movement for people who want to opt out of supporting the Labour party, that movement would not be in its present scandalous position.

Mr. Tebbit

Although I understand the passion and conviction with which my hon. Friend puts that point, he falls into the trap of assuming that trade unions and companies are mirror images of each other. We do not legislate in the same way for them. The trade unions would be the first to protest if we imposed on them the legal sanctions that are imposed on companies.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

If it is wrong for Ministers to make decisions about companies in which they are shareholders or from which they receive remuneration, in relation to references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, or, in the case of the Stock Exchange, a decision whether a case is considered under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, is it not equally wrong that companies that have made political donations to the Conservative party should be judged by those Ministers?

Mr. Tebbit

The hon. Gentleman asked a convoluted question. I thought for a moment that he was about to suggest that those who benefit, as the hon. Gentleman did in the past, from trade union funds should not make any judgment on trade unions.

Mr. Shore

The Secretary of State knows very well that the Conservative party receives well over £2 million a year from company donations. Therefore, there is clearly a relationship between, and a symmetry of arrangements made for, the trade unions when they contribute to the Labour party and for companies when they make contributions to the Conservative party. Is the Secretary of State not aware that it is 16 years since the first disclosure requirement was placed upon companies when making such donations? Does the right hon. Gentleman not believe, since his colleagues are now busily preparing amendments to the trade union legislation, that we ought to reconsider the matter, make it possible for individual shareholders to opt out of any arrangement and for companies to make a formal resolution to establish a political fund under supervision? If the right hon. Gentleman did that he might add to his reputation for evenhandedness and fairness.

Mr. Tebbit

I was unaware of any need to add to my reputation in that regard. The purpose of the Bill that is being put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is to ensure that those rights that were given to trade unionists under the 1913 Act are fully carried through. In recent years, they have not been. This is a response to the demands not of Conservative Central Office, but of trade unionists. I am unaware of any similar demand for protection by shareholders.