HC Deb 23 January 1985 vol 71 cc1097-103 11.45 pm
The Lord Privy Seal 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 1985 with the substitution of the following paragraphs for paragraphs 2 and 7 of that Resolution: '(2) That for the purpose of determining the annual maxima of such assistance the following formula shall apply: £1,500 for each seat won by the party concerned plus £3 for every 200 votes cast for it at the preceding General Election, provided that the maximum payable to any party shall not exceed £450,000.'; and '(7) That claims under these arrangements shall be made monthly, and that the annual maxima shall be applicable to claims made in respect of expenses incurred during any one calendar year.'. I think it is appropriate if I open this debate by briefly reminding hon. Members of the background to these proposals.

This scheme, was first introduced in 1975 by Mr. Edward Short, now Lord Glenamara. It was deliberately strictly limited in its scope. It was, and is, related solely to financial support for the parliamentary work of the Opposition parties here at Westminster. Historically, it has been mainly used towards the costs of running the offices of the leaders of the Opposition parties and also research support for Opposition spokesmen.

There are, I suppose, two well-defined views on state financial aid for political parties. A number of hon. Members are opposed to any such assistance, whether it be for activities at Westminster or beyond. On the other hand the opposing view was expressed by the majority of the Committee set up by the Government in 1975 under the chairmanship of Lord Houghton. This view argued that the state aid to political parties should extend widely, and include general activities at and between general elections, as well as work at Westminster.

The proposals now before the House are a compromise between the positions I have indicated. As I have said essentially it is confined to activity at Westminster, and to Opposition parties.

The House will wish to know a little more about the financial structure of the proposals in the motion. The formula used has always been based on a combination of seats won by the party at the preceding general election plus a sum for every 200 votes then cast for it. The entitlement has, from the beginning, rested on a minimum qualification of a party having had one Member of Parliament elected at the preceding general election and having secured at least 150,000 votes: and there has always been a maximum payment, which was originally £150,000 a year.

The sums and the maxima used in the formula have, however, been raised three times since the scheme was first introduced. Since 1 January 1983 the maximum has been £323,000 and the formula has been £1,080 for each seat plus £2.16 for every 200 votes. The present proposal would, if approved, raise the sums payable under the formula to £1,500 per seat and £3 for every 200 votes: subject to an annual maximum of £450,000. It is intended that those figures should apply for at least the remainder of this Parliament.

The Labour party would accordingly receive, under the proposed new formula of £1,500 a seat plus £3 for every 200 votes, just over £440,000; the Liberal party about £88,000; the SDP about £62,000; and the remaining smaller parties about £40,000 between them. This means that each party will receive the same proportionate increase in the amount of assistance that it receives.

A further, minor, change proposed is that, in future, claims by the parties for amounts due under these arrangements should be made monthly, rather than quarterly as at present. This is primarily a matter of administrative convenience.

These increases are substantial; almost 39 per cent. greater than the amounts that have been payable since January 1983. I can assure the House, however that the proposals result from a consideration of the current present costs of the services which the scheme is meant to cover. Furthermore, the new levels are meant to last at least for the duration of the present Parliament.

The House will recognise that the cost of other aspects of support services has also increased very considerably in recent years. For example, if these arrangements are approved, the maximum amount of financial assistance given to the Opposition parties will have risen threefold since 1975. During the same period the operating costs of the House of Commons Library increased fivefold.

Moreover, the amount paid to hon. Members in secretarial and research allowances over the same period has increased by eight times. I do not think, therefore, that the proposals can be said to represent a significant increase in the patronage available to the Opposition parties.

Nevertheless, it is essential that this important parliamentary issue, involving, as it does, an aspect of a significant political principle, should stand and be decided on its own merits. This present motion does at least enable this to be done.

My personal view is that it is right to treat any increase in state aid for political parties with the utmost caution. But I do not believe that the proposed increases depart from this tradition of measured agnosticism.

In the final analysis, however, it is not for Ministers alone to lay down what is a proper level of support for Opposition parties. The amounts in question are presented to the House for an open and explicit expression of opinion.

I have accordingly merely attempted to set out the general background. It is now for the House to decide.

11.51 pm
Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The Leader of the House was right to remind us of the background of these proposals, and we are all indebted to him for his very clear exposition.

The motion is concerned only with the continuity of those arrangements first made in March 1975 and which have been endorsed and re-endorsed in 1978, 1980 and 1983. Tonight, as on all previous occasions, the aim of the motion is to update the cash formula to take account of increased costs, principally the earnings and numbers of those employed by the Opposition parties, to assist them in the performance of their parliamentary duties.

As the Leader of the House has reminded us, there are, of course, those who believe that there should be no state funding whatever for parliamentary Opposition parties, and there are those who are convinced that, if Opposition parties are to be both more effective and less dependent on their institutional backers, then state financing should be greatly extended. But neither of these viewpoints is reflected in the motion before us tonight.

It is, as I say, simply an updating of the original proposal of 20 March 1975 which, as the then Leader of the House said, is concerned solely with the question of whether a measure of financial assistance should be made available to Opposition parties to assist them in their parliamentary work here at Westminster".—[Official Report, 20 March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 1869–70.] The House decided then that such financial assistance should be made available, and it was, of course, the Conservative party, then in Opposition, which was the principal beneficiary.

There is no reason to believe that assistance with parliamentary work is required less in 1985 than it was a decade ago. Indeed, most would accept that the volume and complexity of business coming before Parliament and the pressures upon Parliament from outside are all still increasing.

The need for the Leader of the Opposition to have an office and a staff, the need for the parliamentary party collectively to have a small staff to service its meetings and its various committees and the need for shadow Ministers to have some assistance in their continued scrutiny of ministerial measures—these needs are not, I think, seriously challenged. Nor, although it is outside the terms of the motion, is the need for Back-Bench Members of Parliament to have a measure of research assistance too.

What is open to question is the adequacy of the cash amount that is to be made available. In the 1983 Top Salaries Review Board No. 20, the Plowden committee concluded: Although the adequacy of the financial assistance involved under the 1975 arrangements is a matter for the House and Government to decide, we believe that it should be based on a realistic assessment of need; and the sums involved should be regularly up-dated". The Plowden committee did not lay down what was a realistic assessment of need, but it is at least relevant to draw attention to the findings of the management consultants whom the Plowden committee employed that a full-time research assistant, which, in their view, all shadow Ministers required, would need to be paid about £10,600 per annum at November 1982 prices. I assure the House that nothing like that sum has been made available to shadow Ministers and the present increase, helpful as it is, will have only a small effect.

We also have to note the words of the Leader of the House that the new levels are meant to last at least for the rest of this Parliament. Nevertheless, I welcome the motion and commend it to the House.

11.55 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

If we are to save the Labour party from its impending demise—I speak out of a concern for the future of the party—we must assist it to retain its place as a major political party. Therefore, we must find the best way by which the Labour party can raise funds for itself and its cause. Clearly the best way would be to raise money from its individual members and thereby enable those who support the party to demonstrate that fact by their subscriptions, and give them an interest in what happens to their money after they have contributed it.

It could be said that the existing system, under which the Labour party depends on assistance from trade union funds, is satisfactory for it, but it seems from recent history that it is proving unsatisfactory. I commend a more democratic system, based on the principle of one man, one vote.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if political parties drew their primary financial support from their supporters in the country the alliance parties would be able to expect a large amount of financial assistance from the support that they claim to have in the country? That would strengthen my hon. Friend's argument that parties should provide their finances from that direction.

Mr. Stanbrook

I will not go down that path. because the principle applies to every political party. It could be said that the Conservative party derives too low a proportion of its funds from individual membership subscriptions and too much from donations. We should all learn that a democratic party, functioning well, should, as far as possible, raise funds from individual members through donations and subscriptions. Best of all, the money should be raised through personal contact on the doorstep between members of the party—even up to the level of Members of Parliament—and those who give the money.

The one way of financing political parties that should not be encouraged is financing by the taxpayers. There are great dangers in that system.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As the hon. Gentleman says that Opposition parties should not be financed in the way proposed, do I take it that he opposed and voted against the original proposal in 1975, which resulted in his party being financed in that way?

Mr. Stanbrook

It is a cheap argument to ask someone who proposes an argument on its merits, "What did you do when the scheme was brought into existence?" I do not think that there is much to be said about the consistency argument. If we are to judge an issue on its merits, we must allow for the fact that sometimes our knowledge and experience increases, which leads us to change our opinions. There is nothing wrong in changing one's opinions. It so happens that I have always been opposed to the public funding of political parties.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend voted against the proposition when it was last before the House.

Mr. Stanbrook

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. To raise funds for political parties through the financial support of individual members of the parties is the healthiest way of proceeding. Unless political parties at least have that as their objective, we should not consider any means of assistance such as that which is before us. I am talking about all parties. I am not confining my remarks to Opposition parties.

All Opposition parties are labouring under considerable financial difficulties, especially in financing their research work in this House. I understand that that is the basis of the compromise settlement which has passed successfully through the House in the past few years. I accept that there is a stronger argument for providing assistance to the research offices of the parliamentary parties and for providing assistance for the staffing of the leadership of the parties. That assistance provides a service to Parliament itself because it enables us all the better to perform our functions as members of parties rather than as individual Members. Although I am against the principle of public funding of political parties, I recognise that there is a stronger argument for servicing the party leaderships' offices in this place by public funds.

It is undesirable that by passing a motion of the sort that is before us every so often we should get into the habit of agreeing that public funds should be used to finance political parties. It is with that in view that I make my contribution to the debate. If we fail to look forward to the time when all political parties can rely on the support of their members, we shall be travelling in the opposite direction and the parties will become dependent upon public funds.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for the third time in what I hoped would be a short speech. It seems that the premise of his argument is wrong. We are not talking primarily about funding political parties. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the Government should run the country's business on what the Tory party can raise as a political party. Surely that is a total misconception. We are discussing the Opposition parties in constitutional terms and not as political parties. If the hon. Gentleman is advancing the narrow argument that I understand, he must apply it to the Government of the day. The Government of the day are a Tory Government and, according to the hon. Gentleman's argument, the Tory party should raise the Government's money. That is clearly preposterous. The Government of the day have millions of pounds at their disposal, and rightly so. Surely it is incorrect to say that the Opposition should be limited to what the individual parties can raise.

Mr. Stanbrook

I do not accept that argument. The party that provides the Government of the day is in a different and separate constitutional position from the parties that make up the rest of the House. It is not possible to say that when a Government are in power—they are vested with executive responsibility for the government of the nation—they should rely upon sources that are privately available to them. That would be wrong. The power to tax all the people is one that is vested in the party which wins a general election, and only because of that, under our democratic system. It follows that the parties that do not have the endorsement of a parliamentary election so as to obtain a majority of the seats in the House are in a different position. They do not have responsibility for the government of the country but they have a responsibility to provide good and effective opposition. If the word "constitutional" were changed to "parliamentary" relating to the functions of a political party in the House, there would be an argument. I would disagree with that argument, because I believe that there is a dangerous tendency to rely on public funds. Those who are strongly opposed to support for political parties other than their own strongly object to providing money from their pockets through taxation to support political parties. What an individual does by way of donation is a matter for him.

I suppose that there is an argument for saying that individual taxpayers may, if they wish, agree to be taxed at the rate of 1p above the normal standard rate and that the revenue received should be devoted to the party of their choice, endorsed in their income tax return. I believe that that solution has been adopted in some countries.

I used to be connected with Nigeria which found itself in difficulties when it had regional self-government in the 1950s.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Where do the points now raised by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) arise in the context of this debate? The debate is about funding Opposition parties, not funding of political parties.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) is not out of order. I shall tell him if he is out of order.

Mr. Stanbrook

I thought that the House might be interested in this point because it is relevant. This will be my last point.

When people in Nigeria began political parties for the purposes of regional self-government, they found it difficult to raise funds. As members of the various assemblies were elected, they were obliged to contribute 10 per cent. of their salaries to the national party funds. For some years, political parties in Nigeria were financed in that way. The money came ultimately from the taxpayer, and therefore I believe that scheme was highly objectionable.

That system is understandable in a young, new democracy with a Government and Opposition starting from scratch, but we are not in that position. Britain is a mature democracy which believes in one man, one vote.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

One person.

Mr. Stanbrook

It believes in one person, one vote. I am obliged to the hon. Lady. That means that we should all try to raise political funds for political parties —including for their parliamentary activities — from individual subscriptions from the membership of the party.

I do not oppose the motion, but we should bear in mind that the objective should be to do without this money from public funds and to rely upon individual subscription.

12.8 am

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I feel that I am in a reasonably comfortable position to rebut In a few sentences some of the points made by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). My party has to raise most of its funds from individual donations and has sought to contest much of the institutional funding of British politics which is carried out without the consent of trade union members or shareholders. I agree with the direction of support for political parties which the hon. Gentleman seeks, but I do not agree with him in opposing any kind of state assistance. That is not the issue for debate tonight. We are discussing whether the parliamentary activities of parties represented in the House should continue to be supported and whether that support should take account of increasing costs in recent years. That is all we are about.

I was reminded of the late Keith Wickenden who, when a Member, did not merely oppose the funds we are discussing but said that the Conservative party should repay the £615,000 which it had extracted from those funds while an Opposition party. He admitted that that was the logic of the case and that if the Conservative party changed its mind it would have to give the money back.

I was also intrigued to hear the hon. Member for Orpington advocating the Militant Tendency policy of political activists tithing their incomes to support their parties. Supporters of the Militant Tendency have clearly found a new friend in that respect.

We are debating whether reasonable cost increases should be made in the amounts paid under the formula originally devised by Lord Glenamara, then Mr. Short, to assist parties in this House. It is not, of course, the only form of assistance. The official Opposition have long had other forms of direct support—civil servants employed in the Opposition Whips office, for example, the salaries of some of its members, and so on—which do not apply to other Opposition parties. This is the one aspect of assistance that is applied to all the Opposition parties according to a formula.

As Lord Glenamara said when he introduced the formula, the burdens on Opposition funds are not in direct proportion to the number of Members that they have in the House. They are more likely to reflect the number of votes that they have in the country, which is why that factor was included in the formula.

Each Opposition party may set out its own claim for an alternative system, but the fact remains that costs have risen and staff have to be considered. We are talking about the salaries of people who work in this place alongside other staff whose salaries are protected by other arrangements, whether by increases in Members' allowances or by Civil Service linked salaries as in the case of Clerks and other staff of the House. Those who work for the parties represented here deserve some recognition of their needs. The object of the increase is to provide for that end and for other cost increases to be met through one increase which is meant to serve for several years.

I welcome the Government's proposal. I think that it is reasonable and I hope that it will be supported not just by Opposition Members but by the whole House in a spirit of recognition that the democratic process depends upon the work of the parties in this House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Resolution of the House of 20th March 1975 shall have effect from 1st January 1985 with the substitution of the following paragraphs for paragraphs 2 and 7 of that Resolution: '(2) That for the purpose of determining the annual maxima of such assistance the following formula shall apply: £1,500 for each seat won by the party concerned plus £3 for every 200 votes cast for it at the preceding General Election, provided that the maximum payable to any party shall not exceed £450,000.'; and '(7) That claims under these arrangements shall be made monthly, and that the annual maxima shall be applicable to claims made in respect of expenses incurred during that one calendar year.'.