HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc122-4

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

That, at this day's sitting, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Touhig.]

Question agreed to.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Stunell

The examples provided in Committee can be seen in the Committee record. The Minister was present and is familiar with them. It is a little disappointing not to see at this stage an amendment reflecting that discussion. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how the problem is to be tackled and give us some advice about the way ahead.

I am not persuaded by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, which he said was largely exploratory. We explored the issue twice in Committee and left Ministers baffled. It has been raised again, and I understand the difficulties, but progress needs to be made.

Mr. Syms

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). There are many problems—for example, when someone with a professional background works as a volunteer for a political party and uses that professional background to give the party a valuation, legal advice, a bookie's advice or whatever it may be.

My hon. Friend mentioned the problem of party conferences, especially the stalls at party conferences. Companies sometimes use them for advertising because they know that many members of the press are there, but it is debatable whether that is of great benefit to the party, or whether a service is being provided. Guidance is required.

We all know that national organisations such as newspapers sponsor debates and events at party conferences. There may be a spin-off for the media, rather than for the political party. All that needs to be clarified.

Tickets for events are another example. If a company takes a table, should that be declared, and will the political party necessarily know who buys tickets for events? Real difficulties arise in the management of such events. If a ball is arranged to which there are 1,000 tickets, and a company buys 20 tickets in the name of Mr. Jones, who happens to work for Shell, how does one know whether that should be declared?

We need guidelines. Everyone wants to make the measure work, but we all want to ensure that everyone is operating the same system. That is the point that the Opposition are making.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

We have had a useful debate, which highlighted a difficult area. The view of the Neill committee was clear and firm. It recommended that the definition of a donation should include sponsorship. The Bill gives effect directly to that recommendation. However, the debate has brought out a number of issues on which hon. Members are unclear and which merit further dialogue with the Neill committee.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful to the Minister. It is clear from the Neill report that the committee thinks that sponsorship should be part of the total picture, but did the committee understand what sponsorship was?

Mr. O'Brien

We have received assurances from the Neill committee that it did understand that. The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who spoke earlier in the debate, was a member of the committee, and there were representatives on the committee from other political parties, including the Government party, so there were committee members with experience of such matters.

It is not difficult to understand the reasons for the committee's recommendation. The committee took the view that even if the motive for providing sponsorship is different in a company's eyes from the motive for making a simple donation, the effect on the receiving political party's finances is not substantially different.

It is difficult to draw a clear line legally between sponsorship and a simple donation. That is part of the problem. It would not take a great deal of imagination to make a substantial donation in the form of sponsorship. If there is a boundary, it lies not between sponsorship and a donation, but between sponsorship and purely commercial activity. We raised that matter in the White Paper that was published last July and, more recently, in a letter that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sent to Lord Neill. A copy of that letter and Lord Neill's reply are in the Library.

The Government are sympathetic to the proposition that the cost of renting stands, especially at party conferences, should not be regarded as a form of sponsorship or donation. Lord Neill's reply to the Home Secretary's letter suggests a method of providing more certainty about what constitutes a donation: for example, payments for dinner plates at premium prices; and what does not: for example payment for an advertisement at commercial rates. We are closely considering that further advice from the Neill committee, with a view to introducing a clarifying amendment in another place.

However, the hon. Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made pertinent points. Despite Lord Neill's reply, some issues require further clarification. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove pointed out, political parties are often organised by part-time volunteers. They need clarity, especially if they are at risk of breaking a law that is not sufficiently clear. The implementation of the law also needs to be practical.

We also believed it right to consult Lord Neill on the suggestion that companies might be allowed to spend a de minimis amount on sponsorship without shareholder consent. That matter properly belongs under part IX. Clearly, that idea does not find favour with the Neill committee.

We believe that it is not necessary to define sponsorship, and that any attempt to define it would be more likely to create confusion and, possibly, loopholes than it would greater certainty. As clause 45 stands, a party would do well to regard any money passed to it—other than payment for goods or services provided on a commercial basis—as a donation. That is the position under the Bill, and the result that the Neill committee intended. I can understand the logic of that; it is straightforward.

We have yet to be convinced of the necessity of removing paragraph (f) of clause 45(2). We do not support the amendment. However, we are listening, and we are anxious to have further dialogue with other parties. Parties need to discuss the issue and ascertain what would happen about the painting or the rugby or Wimbledon tickets that were mentioned. As the Bill stands, and according to the Neill committee's view, they are donations, and would have to be declared. Consequences would flow from that.

We are thus providing for a complex accounting system, which political parties would have to undertake. Holding appropriate discussions, taking a view and discussing it with the Neill committee might be a way forward, but that is for another time. In view of the points that I have made, I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will withdraw the amendment, which he described as a probing amendment.

Mr. Evans

All hon. Members acknowledge that there is a problem and a grey area. I suspect that there will always be grey areas, despite our attempts to define them clearly. Amendment No. 156 would remove paragraph (f) of clause 45(2). As the Minister knows, we did not intend to do that; we simply wanted clarification. Members of political parties will have to try and work through the muddle as best we can. Some grey areas will remain even after that.

We should ensure that there is a proper mechanism so that if a problem arises about a grey area at the time of the party conferences, parties may approach the Electoral Commission for an adjudication. However, we might not want to wait two or three months for that adjudication because companies may want immediate answers before deciding whether to exhibit or organise other functions at our conferences.

I welcome what the Minister said, but understand that the matter has been discussed a number of times as the Bill has progressed through the House. I hope that we can make speedier progress before it becomes law.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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