HL Deb 04 November 2002 vol 640 cc475-8

2.49 p.m.

Lord Goodhart asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their views on the report Keeping it Clean—The Way Forward for State Funding of Political Parties, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, while the Government welcome the contribution that the I PPR's report has made to the current lively debate on state funding, it is clear that there remains no consensus as yet about the way forward. The independent Electoral Commission, which is charged with a statutory obligation to review and report on matters relating to the regulation and funding of political parties, has already begun its review of the arguments for and against state funding and a cap on donations. The Government await its recommendations with interest.

Lord Good hart

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The IPPR has close links with the Labour Party. Does she agree that there is now a great deal to be said for caps on large donations, for a lower limit on election spending at national level and for increased public funding of the political process, particularly through matching funding, or possibly tax relief, for small donations?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord has rightly identified a number of issues of real importance. He will know that there are wide-ranging and differing views about them. I am sure that the commission will fully consider all those issues. That is why I say that we anxiously await the outcome of its deliberations. I am sure the noble Lord will make good use of the procedure for consultation in relation to that report.

Lord Neill of Bladen

My Lords, can the Minister shed any light on this matter? In their 1999 response to the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—of which I had the honour then to be chairman—the Government said: The Neill Committee, whilst recognising the essential role played by political parties in our parliamentary democracy, came down against any general system of support from public funds for their general activities. The Government agrees with this conclusion.

Has there been any shift in that position?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, your Lordships will know that there has been an active and anxious debate. It was thought right that the commission should now look at this issue again. It will report in 2004. Your Lordships will know that the debate goes backwards and forwards. Those who are in favour of state funding say that it gives transparency, security and a fair playing field. Those who are against ask why the public should pay for political parties that they do not support. These are all deeply interesting and lively issues, which, I am sure, will delight the commission when it considers its report in the final days in 2004.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness has said that she awaits the commission's report with interest. Can she also give an indication that the Government will not change their mind and will not support state funding of political parties?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot give any such assurance, as the noble Earl knows The whole point of having the commission is allowing it to do its work and then doing it the courtesy of listening to what it has to say. Once we hear what it says, we shall make an informed decision.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, although there is much useful analysis in the IPPR report, and there is a case for increased funding on research for political parties, when it comes to trade union contributions, there is a fallacy in supposing that when you have a political fund, a larger union with many thousands of members does not have to give pound for pound a lot more as a contribution than a small union with only a few hundred members?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, these are all valid points. The IPPR says in the back of its report that it does not offer a detailed route, but a basic path to be followed. Its suggestions are only a contribution. It does not pretend to have all the answers. I am sure that that is another issue that will need to be carefully scrutinised by the commission.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, if she cannot speak for the Government, will the Minister at least comment for herself on the fact that the current problem with under-funding of political parties is the simple fact that the public do not identify with politics in Westminster and Whitehall? If we were seen to take more interest in the public and in their hopes and fears—and I am not sure that last night's film did much in that direction—might not they in turn take more interest in politics and be willing to fund it out of their own resources?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, no one can say of anyone sitting in this House that we do not have an active and deep interest in the public. My deliberations in participating with your Lordships have made it clear that we seem to think about nothing else. Your Lordships will know that I cannot but speak for the Government. It is my privilege and pleasure so to do.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it sounds as though the Government have changed their mind since their 1999 response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, on state funding. Does the noble Baroness agree that most people would find it abhorrent if all political parties were paid for 100 per cent out of taxpayers' money? Is not a slightly more rounded way of looking at the issue to consider the case for tax deductions for the noble service of supporting those political parties that must be a necessary evil in our political environment?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we certainly have not changed our minds. We have remained open to the evidence that we may be given. That is not changing our minds, it is making informed, proper choices. The noble Lord will know that there were a number of reasons why the Government felt unable to accept the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on tax relief. We recognise that a certain level of focused financial support in the form of policy development grant should be made available, but we considered that tax relief as then suggested amounted to general state aid by another route. A tax relief scheme would be expensive for both the Inland Revenue and the political parties to administer. The loss of revenue would have to be balanced against other spending priorities. As I have already said, we will be interested to see the Electoral Commission's view on the matter, as on others. Our minds are not closed in the way that the noble Lord would like. We remain open and we remain able and willing to do that which is in the best interests of our country.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is it not true that in the minds of the political activists on the ground, particularly in the Labour Party, there is deep concern about these large political contributions? Is it not also true that for many people in both Houses, the position taken on this issue by the Committee on Standards in Public Life only a few years ago was utterly wrong?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, this interchange demonstrates the breadth of disagreement on the issue. There is much force in what the noble Lord says and in the argument that political parties—particularly the more aberrant nature of certain aspects of some political parties—should not be funded by taxpayers' money. This is a very important, complex, difficult issue. We need a broad and deep discussion about it. I hope that the commission will be able to do just that.

Earl Russell

My Lords, did the noble Baroness notice, in responses from those who were asked why they did not vote in the last election, numerous people complaining that they had received no visit from any political party, nor any literature from them? If, as the noble Baroness says, there is no consensus, is this perhaps because, not for the first time, voters expect more than they are prepared to pay for? Will the Government join the other political parties in making clear to the voters that they cannot have it both ways?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I think the noble Earl has just done that.