HC Deb 27 April 2004 vol 420 cc747-8
24. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

What plans the Department has to introduce state funding for political parties. [168407]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The Electoral Commission is currently undertaking a review of all aspects of party funding. It is due to report this summer, and we will consider its recommendations carefully, including those relating to state funding of political parties.

Julie Morgan

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that it is important for democracy that political parties thrive, reach out to people, educate people politically and work with their members? Does he see the state funding of political parties as one way to achieve those aims, with donations being used for electoral campaigning?

Mr. Leslie

I agree that we need healthy political parties—the foundation of our democratic system—to communicate political issues and to engage the public on a wider level. A consensus on state funding has not yet been reached, so the Electoral Commission report, which is due in the summer, will be quite interesting, and we will obviously respond to its recommendations. This Administration adopted the principles of transparency and openness on donations, which is the best way to raise confidence in the funding of political parties.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

Will the Minister look at this Sunday's Belfast edition of Sunday World, which contains a piece confirming what many have suspected for a long time: payments—substantial sums of money—are coming from organised crime to a certain political party in Northern Ireland as a result of pressure from a paramilitary organisation? Is that not a much more serious corruption of our democracy than some of the other problems that are frequently referred to; and is there any way in which the Government can ensure that such dirty money is kept out of politics?

Mr. Leslie

I am afraid that I did not see the article to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. However, there are indeed serious issues that require regulation, largely under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which sets out a framework for ensuring that registered parties have to disclose donations and so forth. I will look at the article to see what action might be appropriate.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

I hope that action will be taken on that important point.

Returning to state funding, does the Minister accept that many hon. Members believe that it would be the kiss of death for parties to be funded other than indirectly, as they are at the moment?

Mr. Leslie

There is an argument that state funding might cause parties to become lazy, neglect their memberships or not wish to raise resources from the grass roots. At the same time, there are already ways in which the state supports certain elements of party policy development. For example, Short money has been useful to Opposition parties throughout the ages—mostly to the Conservative party in recent years, sadly. The Electoral Commission's report on the matter will be most interesting.