§ 8.30 p.m.
§ House again in Committee.
§ Clause 20 [Parties to be registered in order to field candidates at elections]:
Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 56:
Page 12, line 6, leave out ("party registered under this Part") and insert ("qualifying registered party").
§ The noble Lord said: We now return to a group of amendments relating to the separate registration of political parties in Northern Ireland, which we considered at some length on 11th May. The mood of the Committee on that occasion was that these important amendments were deserving of a further airing before the question was put.
§ As I explained to the Committee on 11th May, this group of amendments is concerned with two issues: first, what constitutes a Northern Ireland party for the purpose of Clause 65. The second issue is what I shall refer to as the "Scottish Green Party" question. For the time being I shall put the second of these issues to one side and concentrate on the Northern Ireland aspects of the amendments. It is fair to say that it was these aspects which caused the Committee most difficulties when we last considered these matters. I shall also put the detail of the amendments to one side while I address the key question of why we should make special provision for Northern Ireland.
§ This Bill extends throughout the United Kingdom. In an ideal world, therefore, we would not need to make special provision for Northern Ireland parties. However, like it or not, we must recognise, as the Neill committee recognised, that politics in Northern Ireland is not yet conducted on quite the same basis as it is in Great Britain. Political developments in Northern Ireland have undoubtedly taken an important step forward since the Neill committee report was published, but there remain special factors which cannot be lightly dismissed.
§ Thankfully, the level of political violence in Northern Ireland has greatly diminished since the onset of the peace process, but, as we see from time to time, it has not yet been wholly eradicated. The Neill committee heard evidence that, notwithstanding the Good Friday agreement, it would still be unsafe in Northern Ireland to disclose the names of those who had made gifts to a particular political party there. There is a very real risk, therefore, that if donations made to parties in Northern Ireland were subject to 247 disclosure in the normal way, there would be one of two possible consequences. The first is that donors would suffer discrimination, intimidation or worse. The second and perhaps more likely consequence is that people would simply refuse to give to a political party for fear of the consequences to them personally if the fact of the donation was made known.
§ It was these considerations which led the Neill committee to conclude that there should be a temporary exemption from the reporting requirements for donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland.
§ The Neill committee separately considered the effect of the ban on foreign funding on parties in Northern Ireland. Here they concluded that the terms of the Good Friday agreement argued for an exception to be made to the definition of a permissible donor in order to allow a citizen of the Republic of Ireland to make a donation to a Northern Ireland political party, provided that the donor complied with the provisions of the Republic of Ireland's Electoral Act 1997.
§ The Government have accepted in relation to both these recommendations that the case has been made for exempting political parties in Northern Ireland from the application of the relevant provision of Part IV of the Bill on a temporary basis. Clause 65 is the result.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, George Howarth, met with representatives of the main Northern Ireland parties earlier this year. Although opinions were divided, there was a strongly held view in some quarters that exemptions from the disclosure requirements of Part IV remain essential. Given this view, it remains the Government's current intention to exercise the order making power in Clause 65 so as to disapply the provisions of Part IV in respect of Northern Ireland parties. Amendment No. 177A to Clause 65 and the corresponding Amendment No. 189C to Schedule 6 would make it explicitly clear that an order can be made exempting Northern Ireland parties, wholly or in any specified particular, from the provisions of Part IV.
§ It is intended that any order made under this clause should apply for an initial period of four years only and be reviewed thereafter. We shall, however, review the position afresh before a final decision is taken early next year on the commencement of these provisions.
§ In disapplying Part IV as a whole in respect of Northern Ireland parties, I make no bones about the fact that we are not following the letter of the Neill committee recommendation 29. We have considered the recommendation very carefully but have reluctantly concluded that an extension of the definition of a permissible donor along the lines proposed—that is, to include citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the republic—is impractical.
§ The Neill committee recognised that under its formula there would exist the possibility of overseas donations—for example, from the United States—reaching the Republic of Ireland, where there is no ban on foreign funding, and then being re-routed to the 248 north by an individual or via one of the parties' offices in Dublin. The Committee fully acknowledged that it had not been able to devise anything that would prevent this, other than statutory provisions which would arguably be incompatible with the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.
§ In these circumstances, extending the definition of a permissible source in the manner proposed by the Neill committee would, in practice, leave a Northern Ireland party free to accept donations from any source. We believe it preferable simply to acknowledge this fact and to legislate accordingly.
§ Having concluded that the Neill committee was right to recommend special provisions for Northern Ireland parties, we need to define what constitutes a Northern Ireland party for these purposes. Clause 65(2) currently defines a Northern Ireland party as a party with one or more Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or a party with one or more Members of the House of Commons elected for constituencies in Northern Ireland.
§ This definition has been called into question by the Neill committee. In its comments on the draft Bill the committee raised two concerns. First, the existing definition implies that a political party which, for example, achieves only one seat in an election and loses it in the next will, in losing that seat, lose the Clause 65 protection. The second concern was that the definition placed those parties which have, so far, unsuccessfully fielded candidates at elections in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage. We fully accept these points.
§ We have to be fair to all Northern Ireland parties and treat them equally. Consequently we must come up with a new definition of a Northern Ireland party. I put it to the Committee that the only equitable definition is one that embraces all parties which contest elections in Northern Ireland. This leads us inexorably to a separate register of Northern Ireland parties, and hence to this group of amendments.
§ The new clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 63 provides for the existing register of political parties to be replaced by two new registers—namely, the Great Britain register and the Northern Ireland register. Later on in the Committee stage proceedings we will come to government amendments which set out the transitional arrangements for existing registered parties. Under those arrangements a party will need to decide whether it wishes to be registered in the Great Britain register, in the Northern Ireland register, or in both. I recognise that these provisions will impose a rather uncomfortable set of arrangements on parties that organise throughout the United Kingdom. In particular, any such party will need to ensure that the financial affairs of the party in Great Britain are conducted separately from those of the party in Northern Ireland. Such a separation will not be welcome but it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of making special provision for Northern Ireland parties. Without such separation it would be open to a party operating on a UK-wide basis to escape the ban on foreign funding by channelling donations through its Northern Ireland branches.249
It has been suggested that the proposed exemption for Northern Ireland parties is nothing more than a sop to Sinn Fein. That is quite simply false. In fact, Sinn Fein has indicated that it supports the disclosure of donations. The truth of the matter can be found in the oral evidence given to the Neill committee. During the committee's hearings in Belfast, John Stephenson of the SDLP said at paragraph 6548 of Volume 2 of the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom:
You should be aware that already many potential donors to political parties here do not donate due to fear. Even with the huge endorsement … of the Good Friday Agreement, the problem with public declaration will still exist".
Such sentiments were not confined to the nationalist community. This is what Jack Allen of the Ulster Unionist Council had to say (at paragraphs 6667 and 6717):
Over a number of years, because of the political situation in Northern Ireland, people did not want to be identified with political parties … because of the risk factor in Northern Ireland … We are happy enough to put forward those people who give us donations of £5,000 or more but it would be important for them that it was kept private or confidential to an electoral committee or something like that, rather than be made public in the press".
This view was reinforced by Lynn Sheridan, speaking for the United Kingdom Unionist Party. In her evidence to the Neill committee she said (at paragraph 6848):
On the security issue, when someone was having to declare a donor and the amount, there would be problems in Northern Ireland in that people would not want to be seen".
Nor is it the case that only Sinn Fein has benefited from funding from abroad and, in particular, from the United States. Perhaps I may again quote from the evidence given on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Council, this time by the late Josias Cunningham, who said (at paragraph 6676):
Taking the American example again, we have several well-heeled sympathisers. It would be very embarrassing if one of them said, 'I would like to support your election campaign or party machine generally. Here is a cheque for $10,000'. And we had to say, 'Sorry. We're not allowed to accept it'".
§ I hope that the Committee will accept, having heard these extracts from the evidence given to the Neill committee, that there is no republican agenda here. What we are concerned about is the personal safety of the people of Northern Ireland who want to support democratic politics by contributing to the party of their choice. We all dearly hope that in a few years' time we shall not need to repeat this debate. But until the supporters of political parties in Northern Ireland have nothing more to fear from the appearance of their name on a list of donors than the knockabout jibes and groans that one might receive in Great Britain, I urge the Committee to back these amendments and to support Clause 65 standing part of the Bill.
§ I said that I would move on from Northern Ireland parties and discuss briefly with the Committee the position of the Scottish Green Party—perhaps henceforth to be known as the "Scottish Green Party question". The Scottish Green Party is aggrieved, we believe justifiably, that under the terms of the 250 Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 and the associated subordinate legislation it has been prevented registering as a political party. The Scottish Green Party is a quite separate political party from the Green Party in England and Wales. There are, no doubt, some fraternal links between the two parties but there are no constitutional links between them as is the case between, for example, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the English Liberal Democrats.
§ For the limited purposes of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, the Scottish Green Party has come to a pragmatic accommodation with the Green Party in order that Scottish Green Party candidates can stand for election in Scotland under the Scottish Green Party banner. These arrangements will not, however, withstand the onset of the controls on parties' income and expenditure. We must, therefore, find an alternative solution.
§ The approach we have adopted, in Amendment No. 77, is to enable a party registered in the Great Britain register to confine its registration to one or two parts of Great Britain. Thus, it would be open to the Green Party to limit its registration in England and Wales. This would then allow the Scottish Green Party to register in respect of Scotland. This aspect of these amendments was, I believe, welcomed by the Committee when they were discussed on 11th May.
§ The amendments also touch on the registration of minor parties. A minor party is a party that contests only parish council elections in England or community council elections in Wales. Clause 36(2) already provides that the controls in Parts III and IV do not apply to minor parties, but this provision does not quite go far enough in disapplying provisions of the Bill in respect of such parties. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, argued persuasively on 11th May that we should go even further by not applying the restrictions on candidates' descriptions to minor parties. The noble Lord argued his point well and it is one that we are ready to accept.
§ Finally, I turn to the amendments to government amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. These are quite simply wrecking amendments. They seek to undo the two main changes to the registration scheme that I have set out. The noble Lord's amendments would preserve a UK-wide register with UK-wide registration. I am surprised that the noble Lord is seeking to undo the changes to the scheme which will facilitate the registration of the Scottish Green Party. Perhaps that is not his intention, but that is certainly what would come about. In Committee on 11th May, the noble Lord said (at col. 1814) that he was "pleased to hear" that the government amendments resolved this problem. I suspect that he has not changed his view, but that would be the effect of his amendments.
§ I welcome this opportunity to debate this group of amendments again. It is important that the Committee is clear about their purpose and effect. Since we last considered these issues, events have moved on in Northern Ireland. The system of devolved government has been restored. That is very much to be welcomed, 251 but it does not, of itself, remove the need for special provisions for Northern Ireland parties. We need to ensure that those special provisions work effectively, and to that end I commend the amendments to the Committee. I beg to move.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
The grouping of these amendments is wholly unsatisfactory. There are three totally different issues bundled up in the same group of amendments, and that allows the Minister to make the cheap jibe that I am not interested in the Scottish Green Party provision because I have tabled amendments to other parts of this section. There should be three separate groupings: one relating to concessions being made to Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland; the second relating to the whole issue of minor parties—the noble Lord Goodhart explained exactly what this was all about when we debated this issue previously, in the absence of any explanation at all from the Minister; and the third should deal with the smaller point about the Scottish Green Party.
Of course, I welcome the provision relating to the Scottish Green Party. But why could not some effort have been made between 11th May and today to disentangle these amendments so that we were able to deal with those three issues separately? We could have spent 10 seconds on the Scottish Green Party amendments, which I would have welcomed, as, I have no doubt, would noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and that would have been that; we could have had an interesting debate on the minor parties, which we shall probably have to have later on; and we could have concentrated on Northern Ireland.
I tried to see whether the amendments could be disentangled, but it seemed to me that the determination of the Government to keep Amendment No. 63 in its current form rather than to break it up meant that we could not disentangle the three groups of amendments. I want to express my dismay that, after an hour and a half debating the matter on the first day in Committee, no one had the presence of mind to go away and try to sort out that small technical problem. Indeed, I am so annoyed that I think that, entirely on a procedural basis, when we come to Amendment No. 63 I may seek to divide the Committee against it—because I do not believe that governments should get away with entwining two totally separate issues in one amendment.
Later on—and it will be later on—I may wish to turn to the question of minor parties. However, for the moment, I want to talk entirely about the Northern Ireland amendments. We have had an explanation from the Minister as to why he wants these amendments. Well, at least we got quicker to the burden of the amendments that we did on the first day of Committee. After some time on that day, we actually managed to get out of the Minister the following response:The question that has been asked is whether a person in the USA can give money to a Northern Ireland party. Fairly and honestly, I believe that, yes, he probably can".—[Official Report, 11/5/00; col. 1823.]252 How many caveats are there in that?
Under this Bill, such a person will be able to give money to a Northern Ireland party and, in particular, to one Northern Ireland party. That privilege will be denied to any other citizen who lives abroad and who wishes to give a donation to a British political party. I shall return to that issue. I understand the argument that the Minister went over at some length—in fact, at greater length than the question of exemptions to foreign donations—namely, the exemption from reporting. I should like to know how many donations over £5,000 are given to Northern Ireland parties. That seems to be quite relevant. I do not know whether many are, but I wonder just how important it is. If I could clearly see the amendments that do this, I might have a great deal of sympathy with them and understand them in the present climate—although I should like to take advice.
When it comes to the question of the exemption for people from abroad donating to Northern Ireland parties, we are in a different ball game. The Minister fairly said that the Neill committee did not recommend that Northern Ireland parties should be allowed to receive donations from abroad. That may save me from going through the report and quoting from the Neill committee in that regard. However, in relation to donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, the report said at page 77 that,the definition of a 'permissible source' should also include a citizen of the Republic of Ireland resident in the Republic subject to compliance with the Republic's Electoral Act of 1997".I understand the argument that Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP operate on both sides of the border and that, therefore, their affairs are intertwined, which makes it very difficult to put Chinese walls between them. However, I do not understand why that takes us in a great leap away from what the Neill committee had to say. It is especially not convincing when I read a press release put out by a Labour spokesman in this place today, stating:Any disruption to business in the Lords is due to unelected Tory peers".We are all unelected. It is not just the Tories who are unelected: we are all unelected. Therefore, I do not know what this is about. It goes on to say that Tory Peers are,delaying Bills they don't like".I do not particularly like this Bill, but I have not delayed it: the Government have delayed it. Indeed, some of us do not like the Freedom of Information Bill. Again, I have not delayed it. The Government have done so. It has not even had one day in Committee, despite the fact that the Second Reading was on Maundy Thursday, which is so long ago that I have forgotten the actual date. I mean Maundy Thursday of this year, not of last year. But perhaps we will not get to it until I can say that the Second Reading was on Maundy Thursday last year—who knows! I really object to that.
253 The press release goes on:The Tories are completely wrong to play politics with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The provisions in this Bill arc in line with Lord Neill's recommendations".Yet the two major amendments we have dealt with today are not in line with his recommendations. I know that the Minister is not responsible for that, but perhaps he can rap the knuckles of those who were responsible and tell them that all they do by putting out such misinformation is cause him even more trouble in Committee than might otherwise be the case. Let us return to Neill. We are agreed that the Government have gone far beyond what the Neill committee recommended. It merely said that something must he done about the Republic. The Government have gone beyond that and are saying that Northern Ireland parties are something special. They can receive money from abroad, but the iniquitous Liberal Democrats—I suppose the more iniquitous Tories—the blessed Labour Party, the Scottish Nationalists, although they are not blessed in the view of the Government, the Welsh Nationalists and the Scottish Greens cannot receive any money from abroad. Indeed, somehow or other, there is something wrong with mainland political parties that is right with the Northern Ireland parties. The noble Lord knows that it is the other way round. There is something wrong with one or two Northern Ireland parties but that is not the case with the majority of parties in this country.
In the Explanatory Notes the Government say—this is what annoys me, especially as regards that press release—that the proposals for Northern Ireland are,along the lines recommended in the Neill Committee report".I am sorry to say that they are not, unless one extends the definition of "along the lines" very considerably. Interestingly enough, in a letter of 23rd June to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, the Minister said:We have always had some difficulty with these recommendations".They might have brought that to bear on the Explanatory Notes.
The Government have deviated from Neill and have done so in a way that, frankly, makes many of us very suspicious about the reason why. What have they got in return? Indeed, have they got anything in return? Have they got some weapons decommissioning? I do not know. I could understand making this exception if they had received something in return. But I do not suppose that the Minister will tell me whether they have received anything in return. It might help his argument if that were the case. I took note of the fact that he said there would be a review next year before deciding on the issue. Does the Minister expect something to change between now and the beginning of next year? Perhaps he can help me on that point when he concludes the debate.
I turn to the idea of following Neill and saying that citizens of the Republic are excluded. If the Government wished to do so, I would say that citizens of the Republic could donate to anyone's political party. That would seem reasonable. I believe that the 254 noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was kind enough to help me by referring to Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949, which says that,notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of [Her] Majesty's dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom".That is a good start. We could use that provision.
I find the idea that there is leakage hard to understand. If it is possible that someone abroad who is not allowed to donate to a United Kingdom party can slip money into the Republic of Ireland which is subsequently passed on to a UK party, surely it would be equally possible for that donor to slip money to an elector in England or Scotland who could then pass that money to a political party claiming that it was his own. If the loophole exists as far as concerns the Republic, then it exists in exactly the same way as regards Great Britain.
Perhaps the Minister can explain what would stop me, for example, taking a large donation from a chum of mine in America, if I had such a rich friend, would that I had—
§ Lord Goodhart
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he accept that there is a significant difference here; namely, that if there was a suspicion—perhaps a well-founded suspicion—that he was accepting donations in this country from supporters in the US, it would be possible for the authorities in this country to get the police to investigate such an allegation? The problem in the Republic of Ireland would be that the only authorities which could investigate such a matter would be the Garda and that might prove to be a less effective form of investigation.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
As I understand the Republic of Ireland to be a friendly country, I do not see why it would be so difficult for an investigation to be undertaken. If there was doubt, and even if it could not be proved, it seems to me that the electoral commission could instruct the political party not to take the donation unless it could prove to the commission that it was a genuine donation from, for example, myself and not money that I had received from someone else. I do not accept that there is not a way round the problem. It is a good deal less damaging to the principle than the way that the Government have chosen, which is to exempt Northern Irish parties.
The noble Lord implied that other parties in Northern Ireland were keen on the measure. I am not entirely sure how up to date he is because I have a letter of 13th October 1999 addressed to Mr Varney, the head of the Party Funding Unit at the Home Office. The letter is from David Boyd, the General Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council. The letter states, with regard to overseas donations:We are disappointed that the proposals for restrictions on donations from overseas differ in Northern Ireland from Great Britain. This is the one area in which legislation for Northern Ireland should be at least as strong as that in Great Britain. We recognise that certain highly publicised cases have led to the proposal to prohibit overseas funding to England. Scotland and 255 Wales. However, we question the lack of balance which offers an exemption to Northern Ireland parties when the consequences of that exemption could have connotations beyond democratic politics. It is wrong that the practice will constitute a criminal offence in Britain when the same practice will allow the Republican Movement (IRA/Sinn Fein) to raise funds. It is not acceptable to argue that Northern Ireland must be treated differently because Sinn Fein are organised on an all-island basis. The same law should apply to all parties, which stand for election in the United Kingdom".Therefore, the Government cannot pray in aid the Ulster Unionist Party, which is the largest party on the loyalist side of the divide in Northern Ireland.
Everyone knows what the measure seeks to do; namely, to allow Sinn Fein/IRA to continue to obtain large amounts of money from the United States. We know that it obtains that money because the political parties in Ireland must reveal large donations. The Irish Times of 17th May reveals the donations that emanate from the United States. Fianna Fail seems to do rather well in terms of donations from the United States. The Labour Party, the Green Party and Fine Gael do not do at all well; they score "blanks" in terms of declarable donations. However, Sinn Fein does extraordinarily well. Of the three declarations, two are from overseas, one from the United States and the other from Australia.
On the previous occasion we discussed the matter, the Minister failed to address the distinction that is being made here between Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales. I shall mention Scotland, but exactly the same is true of Wales. However, to avoid repeating myself, I shall encapsulate them both.
In Ireland some people think that the status of Northern Ireland should be changed and that Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic. Some people in Scotland—I am not one of them—believe that the status of Scotland should be changed and that Scotland should become an independent country separate from the United Kingdom. I suspect that that belief is more prevalent today than it was two or three years ago, but that is a discussion for another day. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party advocates that policy at the ballot box and has done so for many years. While the odd nut at the edge of the nationalist movement has indulged in a little violence, the Scottish National Party itself has never been related to, connected with, or in any way supported violence.
In the Republic of Ireland the main party advocating a link up with the South has, as we all know, close links with violence. Much of the money which has come from America may have contributed to political party funding but has also contributed to the funding of arms. We all know that is the case and there is no point in pretending otherwise. All of a sudden, the Scottish National Party will not be able to obtain money from abroad. If an American citizen of Scottish descent becomes besotted with the "old country" and thinks that we all want independence and decides to give some of his money to the Scottish National Party, he will not be allowed to do that. However, his Irish American neighbour will be 256 allowed to do that. I just do not understand the fairness of that proposition. It is not at all fair; in fact, it constitutes a reward for violence and a penalty for being non-violent. That cannot be right. That is the situation that the Minister will achieve. I understand that he is doing so with good intent but that is what he will achieve. He really ought to rethink this whole proposition with regard to excluding the parties we are discussing.
These amendments make Northern Ireland look quite separate from the rest of the United Kingdom by setting up a separate register. I do not know what kind of signal the noble Lord thinks that gives to the unionist community. Goodness knows, the signals it gets are all negative; hence the problems that David Trimble is experiencing. This is yet another negative signal. I strongly urge the Minister to think carefully before pursuing the measure. Even if the measure is passed, I hope that the Government will think carefully before they decide to implement it. If they say that they have not decided whether to implement the provision, but they will decide next year, is there anything in the Bill which would then remove the clauses we are discussing automatically to prevent them lingering on in the statute book? I believe that the Minister said that the Government hoped not to use the measure for more than four years. Is there a sunset clause with regard to the proposition so that at the end of four years it falls? Some such measure would certainly go some way to help to allay the fears of many of us that this is but another piece of appeasement to one particular party which, I regret to say, is bringing the peace process into severe difficulty at the present time. As I say, the Government should think carefully about this matter.
I shall leave the minor parties point until later as I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will explain far better than I the defects of the Government's proposals in that regard.
§ 9 P.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
There seems to be a rather surprising lack of enthusiasm from other speakers in this debate. I had intended to speak a little later but there appears to be a pause and therefore I shall speak now.
I should make clear my position. As I think most Members of the Committee know, I am a member of the Neill committee and was a member of that committee at the time it prepared its fifth report on party political funding. I do not speak from my party's Front Bench on this occasion as I have taken the view that I cannot speak or vote against proposals that were contained in the Neill committee report even if my party takes a different view—as it does on a number of issues, although not, I think, on this one. I am mainly concerned here with the position of the Neill committee.
I can certify a number of matters. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that we have too much tacked together in this group of amendments. The question of the Scottish Green Party 257 should present no difficulties. On the question of the minor parties, I am encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said but it is a matter which can better be discussed on later amendments which stand in my name.
The real question relates to Northern Ireland: the reporting of donations, and who is a permissible donor. At the centre of the group of amendments is Clause 65, which is intended to provide exemption from disclosure requirements and enable the Government to extend the list of permissible donors.
As regards the disclosure requirement, I believe that there is an overwhelming case for allowing an exemption from that for a limited period of time. The Government having said that they intended their regulations to continue only for a period of four years, I ask them to consider providing in the Bill that any regulations made under Clause 65 would require renewal at intervals of not more than four years so that they could be reconsidered within the normal life of each parliament.
When the Neill committee went to Belfast and talked to representatives of most of the Irish parties, although neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP, the overwhelming evidence—it was not quite unanimous—was that there was a strong case on personal security grounds for non-disclosure of substantial gifts. Also, businesses which in this country might wish to make substantial donations to a political party would find it impossible to do so in Northern Ireland because making a donation might alienate their customers or clients.
I welcome the Government's proposal to extend the application of the special rules from those parties which are represented either in the assembly or in the UK Parliament to all parties putting forward candidates. That is necessary. There is an absolute case for equal treatment. However, the nub of the question is the extension of the list of permissible donors to enable donations to Northern Ireland parties to be made from parties in countries other than the United Kingdom.
The Neill committee came to the conclusion that there was a strong case for extending to citizens of the Republic of Ireland the right to give donations. As were virtually all the recommendations of the Neill Committee, this was a unanimous recommendation which was endorsed by the right honourable friend of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, Mr John MacGregor. It seemed to us that the citizens of the Republic have a genuine and legitimate interest in the political situation in Northern Ireland. After all, some 40 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland vote for parties which seek the reunification of the North and South. Many of those 40 per cent are citizens of Ireland as well as of the United Kingdom. In this country, John Major, for example, recognised that, if a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland were to vote in a referendum for reunification, that would occur.
The situation in Scotland is entirely different. There is no proposal by the Scottish National Party that Scotland should become part of some other country.
258 Those members of the Scottish diaspora who live in the USA and, because of their emotional and historic links with Scotland, wish to donate to the Scottish National Party seem to us to have no more justification to give to that party than they would have to give to one of the three main parties of Great Britain. We took the view, which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, did not argue strongly against, that citizens of the Republic should be entitled to make donations to parties in Northern Ireland. We have to recognise that there are exceptional links between Northern Ireland and the South. For example, the Good Friday agreement provides for cross-border bodies.
The question is whether the definition of permissible donors should be extended to include citizens of the Republic of Ireland, as the Neill committee proposed, knowing that that would open a loophole for donations from the USA which could be laundered through friendly members of political parties in the South, or whether, as the Government propose, the ban on foreign donors should be lifted altogether.
The Government have taken a different view from the Neill committee and it is not for me to say that they are right to do so, but their proposals are nearer 10 the Neill committee's than are the Conservative amendments, which would simply apply to Northern Ireland the same rules as apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, making donations from the Republic of Ireland illegal on the grounds that citizens of the Republic were impermissible donors.
I am not entirely happy with the Government's proposals, but they are more acceptable than those in the Conservative amendments. There is no amendment that proposes a return to the original Neill committee proposals.
That is all that I feel able to say on the issue.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
Before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to ask him a question. I have listened to him with interest and I agree with a lot of what he has said, but I think that he dismissed the Scottish diaspora too briefly, comparing them with the citizens of the Republic. He should address the issue of two next door neighbours in America, one a member of the Scottish diaspora and the other a member of the Irish diaspora. Why should one be allowed to donate to a political party back in the old country while the other is not?
§ Lord Goodhart
That is a fair question. In principle, I would not wish members of either diaspora to be able to contribute. The problem is that a ban on donations from the Irish diaspora could be achieved only by making any contributions from the Republic of Ireland impermissible. As well as being difficult to achieve in practice, that would be wrong.
There is no equivalent problem with the Scottish diaspora. Perhaps that is the misfortune of the Scottish National Party. I accept that the SNP may well feel aggrieved that a party that has been as closely linked 259 with violence as Sinn Fein can profit from the Irish diaspora when the SNP cannot profit from the Scottish diaspora.
There is no perfect solution. We thought that the most important issue was that the parties in Northern Ireland should not be cut off from funding in the Republic. If that meant that it became difficult, or even virtually impossible, to block funding from outside the Republic, then that consequence, although profoundly undesirable, would be unavoidable.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may say that I am very much enjoying watching him wriggling on this hook. It is a fine sight and he is wriggling extremely well. However, I should like to put one simple question to him. Why should we go out of our way to make life easier for Sinn Fein in the, I believe forlorn, hope that it might give us something in return, which it shows very little sign of doing?
§ Lord Goodhart
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention. However, this is a perfectly fair question to ask. First, from the debate that we have had this evening, it sounds as though Sinn Fein is the only party which represents those in Northern Ireland who seek reunification. Of course, as we all know, that is untrue. It is not even the largest party. Throughout, the SDLP has renounced violence but it depends, perhaps not to the extent that Sinn Fein does but to a considerable extent, on funding from the Republic. I believe that, again, it is a perfectly legitimate point that what has been yielded so far by Sinn Fein is inadequate and there is not a very encouraging prospect that it will yield more.
Nevertheless, we are looking at what will happen in the longer term and I do not believe that it would be right to ban the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland by citizens in the South simply on the basis that one of the two main parties seeking reunification has been guilty of extremely serious acts of violence for many years.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
I wish to make two points. First, a cardinal part of the Belfast agreement is that the country chose by a majority to stay in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I find it difficult to understand why it should be treated differently from any other part of the United Kingdom. That sends a message that we already accept that it is floating off into the sea, and I suspect that some people would like to give it a hearty push.
Secondly, I do not understand why we cannot insist that foreign donors' names will be made public. I take the point that it is perfectly possible for them to give money through the Republic. However, there is no reason why donors in the Republic should not be named. They are not at risk and Mr Galvin in New York is not at risk. I am wholly unimpressed by the idea that those poor creatures who give money might he at risk because they have done so.
260 Surely we should be considering the following broad points: first, that we are talking about a part of the United Kingdom; secondly, that we are undoubtedly giving comfort to the enemies of that part of the United Kingdom; and, thirdly, that there is absolutely no reason that I can see why the identity of foreign donors should be kept secret. It is very interesting that we seem to be so concerned about protecting them. Let us suppose that Mr Galvin—that splendid character who appeared in Dundalk the day after Omagh with money for the Real IRA—sends money to the Republic. Surely the identity of the person to whom he sends it will give us—and not only us but the world at large—a clue as to where the money came from.
Therefore, I accept the fact that the Republic is in a particular situation and in a particular relationship to Nationalists. However, I do not accept that there is any reason whatever to protect the identity of major foreign donors from abroad; nor do I accept that we should make special rules for a part of the United Kingdom which North and South accepted would be SO.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
This has been a rather better-tempered debate than that which we had on 11th May and I am grateful for the generally constructive tone which has been adopted since that time.
I struggle to see that we can make progress with this other than in the way which the Government have set out. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that we should think very seriously about the position that we have set out in relation to Northern Ireland. I thought about it very seriously before 11th May and have been doing so ever since. As I believe I made plain then—and perhaps this was part of my discomfort—no one says that this is a perfect solution to the problems which undoubtedly remain with politics in Northern Ireland.
There is one allegation which I must answer and refute; that is, that somehow the arrangements that we have set out in these amendments are a form of concession to Sinn Fein. They are not. That is not the intention behind what the Government are attempting to achieve.
We are trying to deal in a practical way with a very difficult set of problems. The close relationship in politics between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been fairly acknowledged and admitted on all sides of the Committee. That situation was acknowledged in the Neill report to the point that it was accepted that it seemed reasonable, or at least not unreasonable, that people living in the Republic of Ireland should be able to donate to political parties that operate across the boundary and which operate within Northern Ireland itself.
That is, perhaps, the kernel of the problem. That is why it is so difficult for us somehow hermetically to seal the whole situation and prevent donations coming into Northern Ireland from other parts of the world. I believe that that is an insurmountable problem in the current situation. It is for that reason that we have adopted the course we have.
261 The other point which is extremely important is that, of all of the parties which are concerned in the politics of that part of the United Kingdom, the only party which says that it favours disclosure is Sinn Fein. All the other parties have said that disclosure would place them, their members, the donors and potential donors in a position of considerable risk. That places a very large question mark over our ability to apply to Northern Ireland the rigorous regime which we intend to have in place for the rest of the United Kingdom. That is an extremely important issue. That is why I went as carefully over the testimonies as I did.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asked me whether there is a sunset clause; there is not. If no order is in force under Clause 65, there would still be a separate register for Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland parties would be subject to the totality of the controls on donations. The changes to the register will work whether or not an order is in force.
I hope that I made plain in my comments in opening this debate that we continue, and will continue, to review matters in relation to Northern Ireland. We shall certainly want to review them within four years. I listened very carefully to the extremely constructive contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I shall give very careful consideration to the points that he made. They were very constructive indeed.
I do not want to see us in government rewarding acts of violence in any way, shape or form. I do not see, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, does, that somehow, we have come up with a set of arrangements which supports, as it were, the approach adopted by Sinn Fein in the past. That is not what we are intending to do.
This is a difficult problem, not an easy one to solve. If there were easy solutions to hand, I am confident we would have found them thus far. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, acknowledged, I have tried to set out the position in some length. I believe that that position is the best we can do in the circumstances. It is workable, and we shall have constantly to review it. Obviously, we shall continue to listen to other points of view so that we get it right. I hope that our amendments will be accepted by the Committee.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
We have dealt with the amendments in this group which concern Ireland. We have still to deal with the minor party, to which I shall turn in a moment.
The Minister said that this was a better tempered debate. Perhaps I may say that that is because he has come clean at the start and has not had to have things dragged out, like the dentists whom your Lordships discussed during the dinner break. He has admitted what this is about. I do not believe that the Minister finds it in the least surprising that Sinn Fein does not favour disclosure, whereas all the other parties do. There is a self-evident truth there which, if the Minister does not understand it, makes me even more depressed about the Government's reading of the situation in Northern Ireland.
262 The other political parties in Northern Ireland —I quoted the Ulster Unionists—think that foreign donations should be stopped.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I misheard him. I thought I had made it plain that the other parties in Northern Ireland do not favour disclosure, and that it was Sinn Fein that favoured it. Does the noble Lord accept the point?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
Of course I accept the point. I understand why Sinn Fein does not favour disclosure—
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I apologise; does favour disclosure. However, if the Minister does not understand why Sinn Fein favours disclosure, he lives in Cloud-cuckoo-land. Everybody else in the Chamber will know why Sinn Fein wants to see disclosure. If I was slightly mixed up, I apologise. However, the point is that Sinn Fein will not want to stop donations from abroad. As I indicated when I quoted the Ulster Unionists, the other political parties in Northern Ireland are content to have donations from abroad stopped. They have no problem with that. I believe that the SDLP will be a very small player in terms of receiving donations from the United States.
My noble friend suggested that perhaps the Government might consider a half-way house. Why should not donations from people abroad be made public? I do not see any problem with that. They are coming to only one political party. Therefore, why should we not know? We know what happens in the Republic. I have a press cutting here. If I wanted to spend time, I could read out who Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein receive money from. However, the information on Sinn Fein is rather easier to read out: the Friends of Sinn Fein in the USA (Park Road, New York) contributed £3,700 and $117,000. The Friends of Sinn Fein in Australia are also mentioned.
Perhaps between now and Report the Minister could consider the question of disclosure of donations from abroad of over £5,000. That might go some way towards helping us with our difficulty with this. However, I do not think it would go very far.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, at least attempted to address my question regarding the Scottish National Party. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord that it was a good attempt but it did not satisfy me. The Minister has always ignored this real point. Why should an Irish American be able to pay money to Sinn Fein/IRA when his next-door neighbour cannot pay any money to his old country party, the SNP? I fail to understand how the Government can justify that. Indeed, they do not attempt to justify it. 'The "justification" is in the violent nature of Sinn Fein and the deal they are doing to try to get it on side. However, I can see that I shall not make progress tonight, so we shall have to consider what to do on this issue on Report.
263 I turn to Amendment No. 63 and to the amendments concerning minor parties. I particularly want to ask the Government about Amendments Nos. 132 and 93. I do not think that the Minister went into great detail on minor parties, which is a pity. We shall shortly deal with the principle, but I should like to deal now with a technical point with regard to those two amendments.
Amendment No. 132 provides that the restrictions on accepting donations will not apply to minor parties; that is, to those that only contest parish council elections. Let us take an unscrupulous and devious politician—none in your Lordships' Chamber of course but there may be some outside—who creates and registers a minor party, pledging with the utmost sincerity to the electoral commission that it will only contest parish elections. Then, using the exemptions in Amendment No. 132, it takes large sums of money from abroad and sources of funding that may be denied to the main political parties.
What is there then to stop that politician, having taken all that foreign cash, from amending that party's registration to allow it to contest national elections? He would be allowed to do so under new subsection (7) of Amendment No. 93, and there would be no reason for the commission to refuse such an application, not only because there would be no record of the foreign donations, but even if there were there would be no grounds under the provisions in those amendments for the electoral commission to refuse to allow registration.
The Minister may say that that is far-fetched; but that is not an impossible scenario. The Minister being entirely an innocent abroad of course will not have seen that. But if I can devise such a scenario without too much trouble, then I suspect that others, less scrupulous than myself, might not only devise it, but might also use it. That could drive a coach and horses through the ban on foreign funding.
If that analysis is correct, then a flaw exists in this provision which I suggest the Government ought to consider before we finish with this Bill. The Minister may tell me I am wrong or that I have misread the amendments and interrelated them wrongly. If so, I shall be happy to accept his assurance. If not, perhaps between now and Report he will consider the issue and we can return to it, if necessary.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am not confident that I can give the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, the reassurance in the terms he seeks. However, I shall take away the point and consider it as he asks. My reading of the amendment does not suggest the construction that the noble Lord puts on it. But I want to be certain that that is the case. The noble Lord is being fair in suggesting that we give him an assurance before or on Report.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 57:
Page 12, line 9, after ("a") insert ("qualifying").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.264
Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 58:
Page 12, line 10, at end insert—
("(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1) a party (other than a minor party) is a "qualifying registered party" in relation to a relevant election if—
(a) the constituency, local government area or electoral region in which the election is held—
(b) the constituency, district electoral area or electoral region in which the election is held—
(1B) For the purposes of subsection (1) a minor party is a "qualifying registered party" in relation to a relevant election if—
§ [Amendments Nos. 58A to 58H, as amendments to Amendment No. 58, not moved.]
§ On Question, Amendment No. 58 agreed to.
Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 59:
Page 12, line 14, at end insert—
("(ii) where the candidate is the Speaker of the House of Commons seeking re-election, "The Speaker seeking re-election": or").
§ The noble Lord said: On behalf of my noble friend, in moving Amendment No. 59 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 111. I hope to address the Committee at short length on this matter.
§ As I shall explain at greater length when we come to opposition Amendment No. 60, the purpose of Clause 20 is to bring all organisations which put up candidates at an election within the controls on parties' income and expenditure. To achieve that end it prevents candidates using any description other than that of "Independent", unless they are standing on behalf of a registered party.
§ Madam Speaker pointed out that the Speaker of the House of Commons has traditionally used the description, "The Speaker seeking re-election". The purpose of Clause 20 would not be undermined by allowing the holder of that office to continue to use such a description. Amendment No. 59 effects that simple modification. Amendment No. 111 makes a consequential amendment to Clause 34.
§ Although, as the Committee will know well, Madam Speaker has announced her intention to resign her seat later this year and will not therefore need to avail 265 herself of the position, we believe that it should be open to her successors to make use of such a description on the ballot paper. I beg to move.
§ Viscount Astor
The amendment is extraordinary because it exemplifies the muddle which the Bill was in when it went through the Commons. It went through all its stages in the other place but no one realised that there was a problem with the re-election of the Speaker. It was not picked up until the Bill came to this House. That shows how rushed and ill-thought-out were some of its arrangements. I do not want to press the point and obviously we support the amendments, but it is surprising that the Government never thought of them previously.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 60:
Page 12, line 15, at end insert (", or
(c) the description of the candidate given in his nomination paper includes the word "Independent" and no more than five other words which do not contravene the restrictions laid down in section 25(2)(a), (c), (d), (e) and (f)").
§ The noble Lord said: The Bill proposes that a person standing as an independent candidate is allowed to use only the word "independent". That description is extraordinarily narrow and most unfair on such people. I do not believe for one minute that the electorate become confused over Labour candidates and independent Labour candidates, or Conservative candidates and independent Conservative candidates. I do not believe that the electorate become confused at all. The issue is clear. I understand that certain playing around with names may confuse the electorate but I do not believe that adding words such as "Conservative" or "Labour" to the word "independent" confuses the electorate one little bit.
§ Most people who stand as independent candidates are not widely known and it is not fair that they should be restricted to only the word "independent". Some independent candidates need no other description. That was certainly the case with Dennis Canavan when he stood as an independent candidate for the Scottish Parliament and so thoroughly trounced the Labour candidate. And Mr Canavan deservedly trounced the Labour candidate because of the appalling way in which he was treated by the Labour Party. He was not even allowed back in and now he is to precipitate a by-election. I would advise Members opposite not to put their shirts on at the bookies that their party will hold on to the seat. I believe that many Labour voters in that constituency are still aggrieved by the way their party behaved towards Dennis Canavan.
§ He did not need to explain what he was about; "independent" was enough. He was extraordinarily well known and popular, as the final election results 266 showed. However, most independent candidates are not. They may be being difficult, rebelling against their party or in disagreement but I do not see why their description should be narrowed down to only the word "independent". It is part and parcel of the Government's control freakery and it seems to me to inhibit the freedom of the individual. I believe that, provided the title that is used is clear, no confusion is caused. "Independent Conservative" or "Independent Labour" is perfectly clear and understood by the electorate and I see no reason for the Government to retain the restriction. In order to be fair to those people who want to exercise their democratic rights and stand for Parliament the Government should accept my amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. Not only is it a question of the right of people to stand as candidates, it is the right of the electorate to have an indication of what they are standing for. There should be on the ballot paper a brief indication of the kind of independent a particular animal is. I believe that the proposal that they should be described only as "independent" is bad and I oppose it.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Lord Rennard
I understand the legitimate concern of the Government in this matter, but perhaps there is an alternative way to address the problem. For example, 600 candidates who stand in a general election as independents may all have the description "Independent Against Europe". Effectively, those candidates are acting as a political party without any of the constraints imposed in this Bill.
I too am concerned that someone who stands as a genuine independent will be denied the opportunity to give himself an adequate description. There must be some means by which candidates who stand as independents cannot circumvent the provisions of the Bill but are allowed more than the very basic description "independent". There are some parts of the country where it is still not uncommon to find two or three independent candidates standing in local elections. Some description on the ballot paper may be necessary to enable electors to distinguish between particular platforms. Currently, there is provision in electoral law to prevent candidates in local elections from pretending to stand independently of or e another in order to circumvent spending limits imposed in council elections.
Where there is a three-member ward in local council elections, three candidates from one party can spend double the normal election expenses limit. That applies to one candidate who stands in that ward. However, candidates are not allowed to have triple the normal election expenses limit. Each candidate can potentially pretend to stand as an independent and, therefore, claim three times the normal limit. However, the law says that, if candidates have a common agent or are deemed to be campaigning together on a common platform, they are to be treated as common candidates and cannot have three times the normal election 267 expenses limit. One wonders whether some provision can be made to avoid the possibility of independent candidates ganging up and circumventing the legislation. If they behave as a party they should be subject to the provisions of the Bill. Will the Government give this further consideration before adopting a fairly draconian measure which prevents someone from standing as, say, an independent in support of the local bypass, or some other such description?
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
I apologise to my noble friend for failing to give him notice that I intended to raise one small query. I very much agree with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and disagree with those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, about the use of a semi-political description; that is, "Independent Labour" or "Independent Conservative". I am a little surprised that the noble Lord's own party has not told him that at times it causes confusion and is not a satisfactory method. Nor do I believe it right that people should identify their names by what they believe in, because that is to put over a political message with their description, which they can do in other ways.
My query about "independent" is that it has been known—it may happen again—for people to use the names of others. Therefore, one may have Joe Bloggs Independent fighting Joe Bloggs Independent. I should like to know whether there is some way to ensure that individuals are distinguished perhaps by occupation and certainly not by political persuasion.
§ Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
I was not a Member of this House on 3rd April when the Bill was given its Second Reading and so did not have the privilege of participating then. However, I have read with care the report of that debate in Hansard. I note how many noble Lords reflected on the changes involved in moving from what might appear to be unobjectionable, and perhaps desirable, strategic objectives to their practical implications on the ground. In a way, it is the difference between viewing topography in an aircraft at 20,000 feet and walking across it on the ground. A good part of Clause 22 as currently drafted contains a classic example of that particular danger, and for that reason I strongly support my noble friend's amendment.
The strategy to reinvigorate local democracy is entirely praiseworthy, but the practical tactic of wiping out all small parties unless they call themselves "independent" or register is dead against the practical implications of that objective at constituency level.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider the case of Mr Bill Boaks and tell me how he would fare under the clause as presently drafted. Twenty-four years ago I was a candidate in a by-election in Walsall North. It was a by-election that had a certain high profile because the sitting Member had disappeared in Miami and reappeared in Australia. A considerable number of candidates put themselves forward. Among them was a Mr Bill Boaks. He stood as an "Air and Road 268 Safety" candidate. His policy was to segregate motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. That is a very worthy objective, if a little narrow in focus for someone seeking a parliamentary career.
Neither that objective nor his campaigning methods carried any great danger to the democratic process. His campaigning methods mostly consisted of climbing inside a large cardboard box, on the outside of which were painted his slogans, renting a bicycle and slowly cycling around the constituency. It cannot be said that he obtained great public support. I think that 30 votes were cast in his favour. Perhaps Mr Boaks was what one might call a one club golfer. But he was not sexist; he was not racist; he was not ageist; he was not any other "ist". He was in effect a slightly eccentric elderly gentleman.
As presently drafted, Clause 20(2) will bring an end to Mr Boaks and his kind. To stand as an independent is not the same kind of thing, because part of Mr Boaks's description was his policy. It seems a strange way to reinvigorate local democracy by preventing the Mr Boakses of the world from participating.
When the Minister replies, he may say that Mr Boaks can register his party. I hope he will not say that because that would show conclusively that the Minister is at 20,000 feet and not on the ground. The kind of person that Mr Boaks was will never be able to cope with the bureaucracy, form-filling or indeed the cost of complying with the commission. Therefore, if the purpose of Clause 20(2) is to reinvigorate democracy, it will have the reverse effect of making politics the preserve of the professional.
I venture the thought that politics are too important to be left entirely to the professionals. Candidates like Mr Boaks perform two valuable services. Professionals take their politics very seriously. That is quite right and proper. But Mr Boaks reminds professional politicians of the transitory nature of their work. He performs a function not dissimilar to that of the medieval jester who could tell the king home truths that others in the court were frightened to tell him. He also reminds our countrymen that it is possible for any man or woman with a cause, however local, in which they believe passionately, to put it before their fellow citizens with the minimum level of bureaucracy and administration. In so doing, they perform an invaluable and reinvigorating role in our local democracy. Therefore, I strongly support the amendment that my noble friend has moved.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
I also rise to support my noble friend's amendment. I do so briefly because the point I wish to make has been made already by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. My noble friend in moving the amendment has stressed the need to be fair to candidates. But I think the noble Lord made the more important point that one should be looking at the issue from the perspective of the electors. Therefore, while there is a need for regulation, one should not regulate in such a way that it unduly limits the amount of information available to the elector. One should put the elector first in considering 269 that. It also relates to a later amendment. We should not consider the matter from the perspective of the candidate—however important that clearly is—but from the point of view of electors and we should make sure that they have enough information on which to make an informed judgment.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I thought that this issue would raise such concerns and I have not been disappointed. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made his usual heartfelt plea—I think it was heartfelt—on behalf of independent candidates so that they might continue to have some description of themselves against their name on the ballot paper. I entirely agree that the politics of this country should not be the preserve of registered parties. That point was amply made by a number of noble Lords. I am sure that there will continue to be, under the provisions of the Bill, a role for the genuine independents—the Bill Boakses of this world.
The purpose of Clause 20 is to bring all organisations which put up candidates at an election within the controls on parties' income and expenditure. With due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I have to say that Amendment No. 60 would serve to undermine that desirable objective. The key identifying feature of a political party is that it puts up candidates for election under a common banner. We know that a Labour candidate in London is part of the same party as a Labour candidate in Brighton. If the amendments were accepted, who is to say that an "Independent Against Europe" candidate standing in one constituency is not in some form of an alliance with a similarly described candidate standing in another? Indeed, the "Independent Against Europe Party" could easily field candidates across the country. Under these amendments, it could secure all of the advantages of having that description on the ballot paper but attract none of the controls on parties' income and expenditure set out in Parts III to V of the Bill.
If that seems fanciful, one has only to take a look at the list of existing registered parties.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I am trying to follow the noble Lord's argument. If in every constituency, or jolly nearly every constituency, someone wearing the title "Independent Against Europe" came forward and was nominated, is the noble Lord telling me that that would not breach the law that he is beginning to set out in this Bill and that somehow the electoral commission would not be able to say, "We think this is a political party"? If he is telling me that, what is to prevent one of the other parties putting its name on the ballot paper and trying to pretend that it is not a political party? What is to stop it breaking itself up into individual constituency organisations? I am a little puzzled that an organisation could circumvent the rules as readily as the noble Lord is suggesting.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I was describing what would be the position if the noble Lord's amendment were successful. If it were successful, the so-called 270 "Independent Against Europe" candidate in each and every constituency would be able completely to circumvent the regulations.
If that seems fanciful, let us look at the list of existing registered parties. Among the parties currently registered are the Christian Independent Alliance, the Independent Alliance, the Morecambe Bay Independents, the Newham Independents Association, and the North Devon Independent Group. I know nothing of those parties, but from their names the final three at least are probably residents' groups. Although they may put up candidates who describe themselves as independents, they clearly act as a coherent group showing a common set of values and pursuing broadly similar policies and should therefore be regarded quite properly as political parties.
I do not pretend that we have put this provision in to the Bill without a single qualm or without recognising its consequences for a number of individuals and perhaps—who knows?—-for their electoral prospects. If a person standing as someone independent of any political party cannot describe in a few words the main point that he intends to pursue if elected, that is undeniably a loss. Some people might, however, think that it is not a very large loss. The nomination form and the ballot paper are places for the candidates to identify themselves, not to expound their policies. A candidate has already to have at least two supporters to back his nomination, and if they feel strongly that he wants a description against his name, it is open to them to form a new party.
In any event, if this provision does impose some costs, it is a price worth paying. We cannot contemplate a situation in which two or more candidates are in effect operating as a group, but are able to avoid the need to register. The amendment as drafted would drive a coach and horses through the scheme set out in the Bill.
Before I sit down, I shall deal in turn with the points that were raised in our debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, thought that he had designed a simple answer to the problem. I listened to his comments and I agree that his proposal sounded simple enough. However, a substitute would prove to be an onerous and contentious procedure to meet a simple rule. It would require an extremely detailed set of provisions to be added to the Bill, thus introducing even more complexity. There lies the problem: this matter is not as simple as perhaps the noble Lord first thought. The question of whether people comprise a group is difficult to disentangle.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made a valiant plea on behalf of the Bill Boaks of this world. I have some sympathy with his point of view; I can well remember many selections where Bill Boaks was the candidate. However, it is the duty of the candidate to explain his platform to the electorate. He should not be able to rely on a candidate's description, a point I made plain earlier. If we are to have an informed democracy, then candidates—however lacking they may be in professionalism—have a duty to explain clearly themselves, their policies and why people should vote for them other than on the ballot paper.
271 My noble friend Lady Gould raised an important point. Candidates with the same first and family names can be distinguished by their second, third or even fourth names and by their addresses. That is already provided for in current electoral law. If candidates wish to use a description, it is open to them to register as a political party and to comply with the provisions of the Bill.
I recognise that this may seem somewhat heavy handed, but in order to ensure that the scheme works effectively in its totality, I am afraid that we cannot accept the amendment. As I said earlier, it would drive a coach and horses through the scheme as it has been set out in the Bill. For that reason, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 10 p.m.
§ Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots
Desirable though this may be in the Minister's view, does he accept that this will mean that the bigger political parties will inevitably enjoy an inbuilt advantage over local individuals who, because they lack resources, wish to use their slogan as a part of their policy?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
The answer to the noble Lord's question is that only time will tell. The bigger political parties already have such an advantage.
§ Lord Rennard
Before the Minister sits down, would he at least undertake to look a little further into this issue? This system does work in local government and on a number of occasions we have been able to prevent candidates from abusing the system. We on these Benches will find it rather hard to deny independent candidates the right to construct a short description. Perhaps the Minister could agree to examine this problem a little more deeply and thus come up with a solution that would avoid the problem which concerns us all.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I always try to be as helpful as I can, and not only to the Liberal Democrat Members of your Lordships' House. I shall be happy to explore the matter a little further without making a commitment. As I hinted in my response, designing a system that would accommodate the noble Lord's proposal would result in a method that was perhaps rather more cumbersome and bureaucratic than would be desirable. Furthermore, it would not help the cause of those independents who seek a more expansive use of the title.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
Before the noble Lord finally sits down, perhaps I may put one further point to him. When arguing against my noble friend's amendment, the Minister said that candidates may call themselves "Independent" against X or Y and that several candidates might come forward under that label, thus forming a de facto grouping. However, as I read it, could not those same candidates call themselves "Independent", omit any description on the ballot paper and yet still campaign against X or Y so that 272 they would become more hidden under the existing clause than would be the case if they were allowed to expand the description? Perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong about this.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
It is quite likely that a number of candidates, whether or not they use "Independent", may jointly campaign, or separately campaign and have a joint effect, on a particular issue. That is perfectly possible. It is perfectly possible at the moment.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
This has not been a satisfactory debate. It is a contradiction for the Minister to say that he wants an informed democracy and yet have a closed mind so far as concerns the electorate being informed on the ballot paper. I chortled when he complained that perhaps the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was cumbersome and bureaucratic. The whole Bill is cumbersome and bureaucratic; another little bit will not make any great difference.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
What an admission! I was not even trying to catch that particular fish.
I remain unhappy about this. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth made a very good point. If the independents against Europe all decide to stand and put "Independent" on their ballot papers but "Independent against Europe" on their leaflets and so on, will they be caught by the provisions of the Bill or will they get away with it? That is what the Minister seemed to be saying was the defence against allowing independents to have five names. If independents do not put that on their ballot paper but put it on their literature, what will happen to them?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
Obviously, within the bounds of legislation restricting what people can say in writing and going along with the usual formats and so on, when people enter into an election, whatever their party, they are entitled to campaign on the subjects they find most important to them or their particular party, or even if they are not a party at all.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
If they are not a party at all and put "Independent" on the ballot paper but issue leaflets saying that they are independents against the euro, what is the difference between that and allowing them to put it on the ballot paper if they continue to be "not a party at all" and they are not caught by the legislation? I am now extraordinarily puzzled, a condition I find quite usual when it comes to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, explaining matters to me.
I am tempted to divide the Committee. I earnestly hope that the Government will listen to the suggestions from their allies on the Liberal Democrat Benches and give this matter a little more thought. Perhaps they will think about the trap they have sprung on themselves.
273 If a group of people—-maybe 600 in all—decide to act together as the -Independents against the euro" but put down only "Independent" on their ballot papers, I think we are entitled to know whether they will be caught by the Bill as it stands. If they are not caught by the Bill as it stands, and the noble Lord is going to do nothing about it, I see no reason why they should not put "independent against the euro" on their ballot papers.
The noble Lord used the words "an informed democracy". Democracy is not for the sake of the political parties but for the sake of the electorate. One of the things the electorate can do if they wish—if they are daft enough to want to do it—is to stand as an independent for or against something or other. Even if they are disaffected with our great parties and want to stand as an Independent Liberal or an Independent Tory, why should they not do that? It is their right. If you begin to take away that right, you are starting down a very slippery road—a road I am not happy about.
We will return to this issue at Report stage. I hope that by then the Minister will have given some thought to the issues that have arisen, which he has been totally unable to answer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 61:
Page 12, line 23, after ("elections") insert ("other than elections to a local authority in England or Wales which is not a principal authority within the meaning of the Local Government Act 1972").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 61, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 62. I can be quite brief because the Government have made sympathetic noises. I raised this issue on the first day of the Committee stage because it seemed to me that this was an unnecessary piece of bureaucracy.
§ The Government's definition of a party that needs registration is one that puts up candidates at a "relevant election", and relevant elections include local government elections. Local government elections include not only those for county and district councils and unitary authorities but also for town councils, parish councils and, in Wales, community councils.
§ The Government's proposals as they stood in the Bill when it originally came before this place were that any group of people who wished to put up a slate in any local election, including a parish election, should have to register as a political party in order to be able to do so. If they wished to stand only in parish or community elections, they would be considered a minor party and would be exempted from a number of the obligations of other registered parties. However, they would still have to register, and no doubt pay fees for registration; they would have to have a leader, a nominating officer, a treasurer and so on. That seemed quite unnecessary in the case of, let us say, a group who wished to stand in a parish election where the great issue was whether or not there should be a new village 274 hall for the parish and who wished to stand under the name of, let us say, "Ambridge Residents Against the Village Hall".
§ This problem could be dealt with quite simply by restricting the definition of "relevant elections" to elections to principal local authorities—that is, district and county councils and unitary authorities or metropolitan boroughs—and by excluding parish councils and community councils, and, according to my amendment, town councils as well. I agree that town councils are perhaps a borderline case. Certainly, in the constituency that I fought in 1992, Oxford West and Abingdon, there is an Abingdon town council which is fought by political parties, but parish and community councils are by and large not.
§ It seemed to me that one could do this quite easily, simply by excluding parish and community councils from the definition so that they would not have to register. All that would be necessary would be to make regulations which would enable the returning officer to refuse to accept nominations of candidates from a slate who were proposing to give themselves a description which could be confusing in relation to another political party, or whose name was more than six words long, obscene, or whatever the problem might be.
§ I understand that the Government recognise that they have gone further than is necessary in this case. I am not entirely sure what their proposals are. When they are put down for consideration on Report, I shall examine them with great interest. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I agree with the noble Lord. I shall not make a long speech; I shall not read out all my briefing. I simply say that I was persuaded by the noble Lord's argument last time round, and we think that this is a real issue. If the noble Lord is happy to withdraw his amendment this evening, I shall undertake to bring forward our own amendments on Report so that we can disapply Clause 20 in relation to parish and community councils.
I do not think that we can do the same for town councils. The noble Lord explained the reason. But we think there is a very good point there and I am more than happy to make the concession and bring back a proposal which we can no doubt discuss and agree with the noble Lord through the usual channels.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Viscount Astor
I had intended to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, but I had a feeling that the Minister might be sympathetic towards the amendment so I listened to his response. We sympathise with the noble Lord and agree with much of what he said. However, if the Minister was sympathetic and agreed to this on 11th May of this year, I am rather surprised that he did not use the summer months to add one small amendment to the 96 pages of amendments that he has tabled this evening.
§ Lord Goodhart
I am most grateful to the Minister for his reply. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 61A to 62 not moved.]
§ Clause 20, as amended, agreed to.
Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 63:
After Clause 20. insert the following new clause—
§ ("The registers of political parties