HC Deb 14 February 2000 vol 344 cc699-709
Mr. Linton

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 7, line 16, leave out from 'party' to end of line 20.

Having achieved almost embarrassing consensus on the previous amendment, with the agreement of all three parties—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—I now intend to throw it all away with an amendment that is essentially about Sinn Fein. The amendment would allow any party with at least two Members in the House of Commons to qualify for policy development grants.

The Bill stipulates that the two Members should have taken the Oath and should not be disqualified from voting or sitting. Of the nine parties with more than two sitting Members, that excludes only Sinn Fein, and I do not think that we have any right to do that. It is one thing to deny House of Commons facilities to a party whose representatives do not attend the House, but quite another to maintain that a party whose members do not take the Oath does not need policy development.

I speak not from any sympathy with Sinn Fein, but first because Sinn Fein is in great need of policy development, and secondly because we have no right to deny it the grants that will go to the rest of us. We are talking about state funding, even if at a very low level. In Germany, state funding was started in 1959 by Konrad Adenauer, a Christian Democrat. It is a great shame that the Christian Democrats' sister party in this country has taken so long to see the benefits of that courageous decision.

Political education was funded in Germany in 1959, and research institute funding began in 1962. Soon after, the constitutional court in Karlsruhe found that state funding cannot be restricted to parties in Parliament, as that would be like a conspiracy between those parties to keep the others out, behaving classically like the first pigs at the trough.

It is widely believed that the Neill report came out against state funding, but it did not, not only because there is state funding in kind in the Neill report—and already extant—and not only because policy development grants were promised, but because the committee said: We can envisage circumstances in which substantially increased state funding of the political parties—including the funding of their general activities—might become imperative. But we do not believe that that time has come yet. The committee was saying that policy development grants should be the first step and that it would be for another Parliament to decide whether we should go further.

We need to ensure from the beginning that any state funding is constitutionally fair to all the parties. The notion that one cannot have a grant if one has not sworn allegiance to the Queen would be laughed out of any court. Would a republican party be denied policy development grants because it did not believe in the monarchy? What about a secessionist party that did not want to swear allegiance to the British Crown?

Amendment No. 5 would simply increase the upper limit on the grants from £2 million to £10 million. I thank—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are dealing only with amendment No. 4. Amendment No. 5 will be considered in a separate debate.

Mr. Linton

Thank you, Mr. Lord. I have finished my remarks on amendment No. 4.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Rather surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman, for two reasons. The first is his rather frivolous point that the parties to which the amendment refers, albeit obliquely, are much in need of policy development. The second is more substantive—I do not agree with my Front Benchers on this, and have not done so for years—and concerns the Oath.

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I do not myself believe that the Oath in its present form should be used as the defining test for anything. It does not fully or properly reflect the obligations that we as Members of Parliament owe to the House of Commons or to the country. The time is coming when we should reassess the nature of the Oath so that it does fully and properly reflect those obligations. It does not at the moment, and therefore I do not wish to see it used as a precondition for the making available of public moneys.

Mr. Stunell

The amendment is interesting and it challenges the Committee to consider the deeper issues. We believe that there should be easier and less controversial routes into the House for those who have been legitimately elected by their constituents. However, I am not persuaded that the amendment should be used to prosecute that point of view. The matter should be dealt with by changing the basis of the legislation concerning the entrance of Members to the House.

The essence of the Neill committee's report on the issue was not about state funding for political parties, as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) sought to persuade us, but about support for political parties in the House in their policy development work of testing legislation and bringing forward alternatives. The committee did not propose more widespread support for political parties in general with their policy development. The hon. Gentleman was a little over-generous in his interpretation of the Neill committee's recommendations, and the opportunity he seeks to take to change the basis of qualification for the use of facilities in the House—while I am sympathetic to it in principle—is probably out of place in the Bill. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the amendment, because there is a wider issue to do with the eligibility of elected Members to take their places in the House; but the amendment is not the way to secure change.

Mr. Tipping

As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said, amendment No. 4 would allow any party to which two or more Members of the House of Commons belonged to be allocated a policy development grant, irrespective of whether those Members had taken the Oath or were disqualified from sitting. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the beneficiary of the amendment would be Sinn Fein.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) commented on the wider issue of the Oath, but I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that the wider issues should be debated at another time. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments, but I do not share his view that the Neill committee advocated universal state funding. Some funding will be available under the Bill, but it will be provided for political parties that operate in the House of Commons.

Mr. Hogg

Why has the Minister fixed the threshold at two Members? As he knows, there is one party that is represented by one Member, and while I have been a Member of Parliament there have been several occasions when a party has been represented by a single Member. Perhaps therefore the threshold should be a single Member.

Mr. Tipping

There is not an awful lot of difference between one Member and two Members. [HoN. MEMBERS: "100 per cent."] They may make up in quality what they lack in quantity. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks why we chose two Members. My recollection is that it was because we use that benchmark for allocating Short money. I do not think that the issue amounts to a great deal.

What is important is that the Neill committee recommended that policy development funding should be available for parties working in the House of Commons. It took the view that the day-to-day hurly-burly of the political agenda prevented House of Commons parties from developing long-term policies that they could include in their manifesto and put to the voters.

Mr. Hogg

Would the hon. Gentleman confirm my belief that the Labour party was first represented by a single person in the House?

Mr. Tipping

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should look at the party's progress since then. I am constantly told that the majority party—the Labour party, in this case—has been extremely generous to the Opposition parties when it comes to Short money. That is a direct result of the efforts of the shadow Leader of the House; he pushed long and hard for that to happen, and achieved a good result.

If we argue that money should be available for policy development for parties which are mainstream and take part in the House of Commons, it must apply only to those parties that are represented here. That is how we have arrived at our position. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea says about the need for Sinn Fein to develop its policies. In a sense, it is in the hands of Sinn Fein to resolve this matter. I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect on that.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I saw the debate on the television set upstairs, and was drawn down by the arguments that I heard, so I ask the Minister to forgive me. I have two difficulties with his argument. One is that the House should decide the political faith of people who seek to be represented. I am a republican, and I have to tell a lie to sit in Parliament. I greatly resent having to pretend that I am a monarchist in order to vote. Now that proceedings are televised, I have a little video clip of the words that I used. I said, "As a dedicated republican, and under protest, and solely to serve my constituents, I use the words of the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866", and then I had to repeat the words of the Oath. It is offensive that no Member of Parliament who believes that his electors should have the right to elect a head of state is allowed to sit in Parliament.

Secondly, the Oath is meaningless. A Privy Councillor takes a worse oath than the Oath of Allegiance. He has to swear to protect the Crown from foreign prelates, potentates and powers. If, by any chance, a Privy Councillor becomes a Commissioner in Brussels, he takes another oath that he will take no notice whatever of any national Government. So Privy Councillors who go to Brussels, such as Neil Kinnock, Leon Brittan or Ivor Richard, break their oath in order to sit there.

There is no oath in Brussels; there is no oath in the Northern Ireland Assembly that was. Nobody said that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness could not be Ministers there without taking an oath. It is nonsense; it has nothing to do with the wider question of whether they should come here. I have talked to them, and they do not want to come here. They were elected on the basis that they would not. However, they are denied the facilities, and now we are told that other facilities, namely public funding—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman goes too wide of the mark, I remind him that the amendment is specifically about policy development grants.

Mr. Benn

In addition to being denied salary and expenses, they are denied the facilities, and they are now to be denied the money to develop their policies in a way that is relevant. So the House of Commons determines who is to serve in Parliament. That is wholly undemocratic. I can imagine the central committee of the Communist party saying, "You can stand for the Supreme Soviet, so long as you believe in the class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat." If that had happened, we would all have gathered to denounce it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) is a moderate man who has made a passionate speech, but his passion has been quietened by the Minister's reply, so I cannot go into the Division Lobby on this point.

Mr. Hogg

You could divide us.

Mr. Benn

One Member is not enough, as the right hon. Gentleman has just proved.

If one represents a point of view, and is a member of a party that has a couple of Members of Parliament, why on earth should one not enjoy the same rights as anyone else? It is the same as saying that they should not be allowed free distribution of envelopes in an election because they had not taken the Oath. The principle under discussion is wholly offensive, and I apologise for having come in so late to make that argument.

Mr. Linton

When I became the Member for Battersea, I never expected to be part of a troika involving my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). If we three are the only ones on the right side of the argument, that does not devalue the argument one bit.

I shall not press the amendment to a vote, but common sense or the law will eventually find that it is beyond the powers and rights of Parliament to deny money to parties or set preconditions on any political party represented here before it can enjoy the same rights as others. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Linton

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 8, line 5, leave out '2' and insert '10'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 39, in page 8, line 7, leave out subsection (9).

Mr. Linton

I am pushing my luck with this amendment, but I wish to make one further point on policy development grants, which the Neill committee proposed, with a convincing argument about why they should be paid. However, the committee also suggested that the eight parties that would qualify should share a £2 million kitty. I believe that that sum devalues the committee's argument. When it has been divided among that many parties, they will have little money with which to achieve the stated objective.

The Neill report argued—Members on both sides will agree—that: political parties … concentrate their resources on campaigning … at the expense of long-term policy development … Ministers become preoccupied with current crises and the sheer volume of government business … opposition parties … are also in continuous danger of being deflected from one of their principal tasks, which is to prepare for government in policy terms. The political parties themselves should be one of the major sources of ideas in British politics. They are not always so at present. The clarity of Neill's argument is matched by his understatement.

I have a great interest in long-term policy development. I set up a long-term policy discussion group among new-intake Labour Members in 1997, and we have just produced a book on long-term policies for Labour with chapters by 14 Back Benchers. I am glad that the book is this month's bestseller at Politico's bookshop, which I can mention because I have no financial interest and because it is not a commercial proposition.

The importance of long-term development is the reason for our putting so much effort into the book. We all know that for most Ministers the medium term is next week and the long term next month. It is difficult for Ministers, or political parties in power, to raise their sights to long-term policy development. However, the national policy forum has been created and is doing a lot of development work.

Neill's logic breaks down on the sum of money that the report is prepared to give to long-term policy development. The report argues that the parties spent only £1.5 or £2 million on policy development in 1997. However, that was an election year, when one would not expect parties to spend much on policy development. In addition, no one believes that as little money as that was spent. The cost of the national policy forum and other such developments is far higher.

If Neill really wants parties to spend more on long-term policy development, we should look not at offsetting what is currently spent, but at giving more money, ring-fencing it and forcing the parties to spend it on long-term policy development.

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In its evidence to Neill, the Labour party argued strongly that money should be made available for political education and policy development. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the House already votes millions of pounds every year for training and long-term policy development in Ukraine, Uganda and every other country in the world apart from the United Kingdom. My plea is that we should give the same priority to policy development in political parties in this country.

Several hon. Members


The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. [Interruption.] Order. I appreciate the help from the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Tony Benn

The issue is more important than the amount of money that is available and what it is used for. Last summer, my wife and I were in the United States, celebrating our golden wedding in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had breakfast with the World Affairs Council, where I met a retired Democratic governor from Ohio—an old Democrat, as opposed to a new one. He said, "In America, all political parties are bought". That was most significant. He said that big business gave money to both parties and expected returns from whoever won.

There is a danger that that may happen in this country. Big business—Monsanto and all those others—will pay parties. I do not know whether they pay the Opposition or whether they pay the Labour party, but I should be surprised if they did not do so. It pays businesses to invest in both parties so that they will get a return from the one that wins.

I have always had grave doubts about state funding, because of the restrictions that could be put on it—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) when he spoke on the previous amendment. However, if we are to move away from the danger of collective corruption on a huge scale, we must realise that democracy needs funding. If a party wants to spend such funding on policy development, so much the better.

However, most parties regard policy development as maintaining contact with their members to find out what they want. It is not so much to do with theoretical studies by think tanks—bodies of which I have some suspicion. Once, when the Cabinet was discussing public expenditure, I suggested that we cancel the think tank and think for ourselves. The joke was not considered funny.

Parties need to maintain contact with their supporters and with everybody else. They need contact with their supporters to work out what should be in their policy statements, and with the public at large to try to persuade them to go along with those policies. If public funding is made available for that, so much the better.

Given the amount of money involved in parties' public policy development, the idea that one could take a small sum and divide it between eight parties is laughable. The last thing that I want to do is to embarrass my hon. Friend by supporting him, but if he will make such persuasive speeches, he will have to forgive me for being drawn to support him, even though I have a horrible feeling that he is going to withdraw this amendment too.

Mr. Hogg

I am sorry to break up the troika. I enjoyed its formation during the debate on the previous amendment, but on this occasion, there are at least two objections.

First, if we followed the advice of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), we should find ourselves voting more and more money to that purpose. That is a most unpleasing prospect.

Secondly—more to the point—we would be making money available for a particular political purpose; whether that money is granted to a political party is dependent on the decision of both the Secretary of State and the commission. That is an inherently corrupt way forward.

I do not see why public money should be made available to political parties for policy development, if the making of such a grant is dependent on the decision of other politicians. That is a bad way forward.

Mr. Stunell

I am willing to join the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) on this one, even if only as a substitute for the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). We should ask ourselves what lessons may be learned from the variety of evils that confront the political process in this country. The Bill as a whole tries to tackle the perceived evil—in the eyes of many of us, the real evil—of money coming from commercial and overseas interests without let or hindrance and without transparency. The amendment goes some way to providing an alternative legitimate mechanism, not without defects, but with serious and obvious benefits.

The Liberal Democrats, in their evidence to the Neill committee, advocated a measure of state funding for political parties.

Mr. Hogg

Is there not a difference between state funding for a political party—I have some sympathy with that—and the quite different proposition of funding for a policy development grant, because the latter depends on one's assessment of the policy?

Mr. Stunell

We could have a wide-ranging debate on sensible priorities for a political party in the United Kingdom in developing its all-round vision of its strategy. Some of that would undoubtedly focus on developing policies that the party considered to be appropriate to lay before the electorate, and which an Opposition party could use to challenge the Government, or which a party could use to develop its ideas for the future if it was seeking a replacement manifesto. That would seem to be an entirely legitimate role and a legitimate area for support, which is exactly what the Neill committee proposed.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right that, as reflected in our evidence to the Neill committee, we should have liked something wider. However, we are debating a specific proposal in the Bill and a specific amendment. I am arguing that the original proposition in the Bill is appropriate, and reflects what the Neill committee had to say, but the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Battersea takes it further, in the direction that I prefer.

Those who do not want policy development grants, or who wish them to be restricted, must face up to what national parties' alternative sources of funding are. Some of them may prefer to retain the existing position, where sources of funding from overseas are not restricted; where sources of donations and funding from inside the United Kingdom are completely unrestricted; and where none of those donations is made transparent to the public. I do not believe that that is what a majority of hon. Members want and, judging by the comments of Conservative Members in the Standing Committee, they now do not want that either.

If one turns off that source and addresses the parallel issue that confronts us in the United Kingdom—reduced voter interest in participating in the democratic process at all levels—one has a triangle with two corners missing: no external funding, reduced participation by the general public in the democratic process and no alternative way of supporting the political parties' policy development and other activities. That is serious.

This may be a comparatively small-scale amendment to a comparatively small part of the Bill, but if we do not address the overall shape of the funding of political parties in this country, we shall leave a legacy that will have to be revisited time and again.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I oppose the amendment because I have a deal of sympathy with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who questions the need for policy development grants. If one looks at this from the viewpoint of the people who put us here, the electorate or the taxpayers, they might well think that it is a preposterous proposition that because they elect to Parliament people who have little idea of what they want to do, taxpayers must stump up further money to enable them to develop ideas—as if there was any shortage of ideas in politics anyway. A whole raft of lobbyists outside Parliament continually makes proposals and politicians do not even entertain the idea of considering many of them. Why are such proposals not considered? I submit that it is because we are generating an ever-growing class of professional politicians who are totally devoid of the common sense with which their electorate are imbued. The electorate regard this provision as untoward, unfortunate and unnecessary. We have been elected to the House, and if we do not have ideas from which we can develop policies for our parties, we do not deserve to be here in the first place.

I return to my original point: it is preposterous for taxpayers, having elected us, to be expected to put their hands in their pockets so that we can develop policies. That is what they thought they had voted us here to do. For that reason, I oppose the amendment.

Mr. Tipping

The Committee has been asked to judge the straightforward question of whether the figure for policy development grants should be £2 million, as set out in the Bill, or £10 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) suggested. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) did us a service by pointing out that that idea is an important step forward, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) have their reservations.

The figures has been pitched at £2 million in part to reflect the anxiety that taxpayers and electors might have. However, more particularly, it was pitched at that level because that is the figure that the Neill committee recommended. However, what it should be is a matter of judgment.

Mr. Hogg

I want to be sure that I clearly understand the clause. Am I right in thinking that the commission has a discretion as to whether to recommend the making of a policy grant? As far as I can see from the Bill's language, the commission is not under a duty. If that is correct, the commission has a discretion as to whether to support a particular party or a particular policy. That is profoundly undemocratic.

Mr. Tipping

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that partisan elements do not enter into the matter. If he examines the clause carefully, he will see that the commission will be asked to draw up a schedule—a scheme for the distribution of moneys.

Mr. Hogg

It is a discretion.

Mr. Tipping

It is a discretionary matter for the commission. It will have to draw up a scheme, consult and come forward with proposals.

Earlier, the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked what would be the role of the Secretary of State. He will receive the report from the commission and lay it before Parliament. It is not our intention that politicians per se should have an influence on decisions about grants. I acknowledge that such decisions should be kept value free and, if possible, totally away from Members of Parliament and political influence.

Whether the figure of £2 million or £10 million is right is a matter of judgment. I support the Neill committee's recommendation. It is right, because we are able to justify that sum of money. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred to the cost of developing policies, but opposition parties have had the benefit of extra funding and that is important to enable them to draw up and develop policies. That is why I was delighted that the money available through the Short scheme was increased significantly.

With that, I hope that the Committee will reflect carefully on the amendment and agree that £2 million is the right amount and £10 million is excessive. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

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Mr. Linton

I am sorry to see this troika break up so soon after it got started. I understood that no discretion is allowed about whether a particular party should have the grant, and I welcome my hon. Friend's assurance.

I shall not press the case for £10 million, because I doubt that it is in my hon. Friend's gift to come up with another £8 million tonight. However, if we want to turn our back on a situation in which political parties are dependent on millionaires for their funding, this is the road that we should follow, and it starts, as it has in every European country, with grants for research and development or political education. I am glad that we are starting down that road; I only wish that we were doing so more confidently.

I impress on the Committee the irony of Conservative Members complaining bitterly about the very notion of taxpayers' money going towards policy development when the first politician in this country to benefit from taxpayers' money to develop her policies was the first recipient of Short money—Baroness Thatcher, who always said that she was against state funding. The ideas that we now know as Thatcherism were developed largely with public funds.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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