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Political Parties (Subsidies)

Volume 895: debated on Monday 7 July 1975

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asked the Lord President of the Council when he expects to receive the report of Lord Houghton's committee on the proposal that Government subsidies should be made available to political parties for their work outside Parliament.

The terms of reference of Lord Houghton's committee are:

To consider whether, in the interests of parliamentary democracy, provision should be made from public funds to assist political parties in carrying out their functions outside Parliament: to examine the practice of other parliamentary democracies in this field, and to make recommendations as to the scope of political activities to which any such provision should relate and the method of its allocation.
The committee met for the first time on 19th June. It is too early to say how long it is likely to take.

Will the right hon. Gentleman please look at this again in the present situation? At a time when so many voluntary organisations are fighting for their lives against inflation, would it not be a scandalous abuse of power if political parties were to give themselves special protection by voting themselves subsidies from the public purse?

That is a point of view, but it is not the only one. I believe that political parties are an essential part of the machinery of democracy. Many parliamentary democracies have done this, including such countries as New Zealand, Sweden and so on, and all that this committee is doing is inquiring into this and making recommendations to us. It has no recommendation before it, and it is open to anybody to submit evidence. The committee has welcomed this. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has submitted evidence to it, and any other hon. Members may do so.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that this matter must be treated with the greatest of care because many hon. Members on this side of the House, and on the other side too, believe that unless we are very careful this could undermine the type of democratic system that we have? The idea of payments to political parties could lead to the sort of situation that exists in some of the European parties where there are lists of candidates, kept members who have little independence. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend note that many of us who passionately believe in the democratic process feel that in certain circumstances this could undermine the democratic process?

That, too, is a point of view, and it is the kind of consideration that Lord Houghton's committee, which is a balanced one, will take into account.