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Political Parties and Elections Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Volume 487: debated on Monday 9 February 2009

Motion made and Question proposed,

That the Order of 20 October 2008 (Political Parties and Elections Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows—

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be concluded in two days.

3. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.

4. Each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in relation to it in the second column of the Table.

First day


Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 1 to 3 and Schedules 1 and 2; new Clauses and amendments relating to compliance officers for holders of elective office.

Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or 8.30 pm, whichever is the earlier.

New Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 4 to 7; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 10 to 12.

The moment of interruption.

Second day


Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and amendments relating to thresholds in relation to political donations and loans; new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to political donations by unincorporated associations; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 8 and 9 and Schedule 3; other new Clauses relating to political donations and spending.

Three hours before the moment of interruption.

New Clauses and amendments relating to schemes for the transfer of data to registration officers; new Clauses and amendments relating to Clauses 13 to 17; other new Clauses relating to elections; remaining proceedings on consideration.

One hour before the moment of interruption.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the second day.—(Mr. Wills.)

This legislation has been by far the most poorly structured moving beast of a Bill that I and, I think, many other hon. Members will have worked on in this place. Although the Secretary of State and the Minister have never been less than courteous to me and my right hon. and hon. Friends during the Bill’s passage to date, the contents of the Bill have changed dramatically—and, I have to say, thankfully—from being initially overly partisan and technically deficient to something rather more acceptable.

As a result of the Government amendments tabled for consideration today and those proposed for the second day of Report, we are moving the Bill towards what we consider a more acceptable position. Our Report amendments, however, show that we still think that the Bill still has some way to go and that, despite the progress, it represents a missed opportunity to deal with the crisis in public confidence in the political system.

We accept that the Committee stage succeeded in bringing many concerns to light and helped to establish important common ground, and since then discussions have continued. It is clear that the Government have done some serious thinking on the Bill, as is clear from their amendments and the proposed timetable that we now debating. We note that the Government have provided a second day for Report, which, given the significant number of Government amendments, let alone ours, is appropriate. I note that, as with the lateness of everything else to do with this Bill, the amendments under discussion today were only tabled about a week ago. That is hardly timely, given that the Committee finished on 13 November last year. Moreover, the fact that the second day for Report is not scheduled until March is typical of how this Bill has progressed—or not—and is revealing of a Government who are struggling to deliver the legislation, which, it must be said, they originally intended to rush through this place in a very short time. Although that may be indicative of a Government in their death throes, we shall not, for the reasons given, oppose the programme motion.

I rather think that that was a churlish speech from the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), so I will start with the part of the programme motion with which I agree and appreciate—that which states that the second day will start with a debate on amending provisions connected with restricting the donations that can be made to political parties. That is welcome and necessary because it goes back to something entirely reprehensible that happened in Committee—the fact that the Committee never reached the new clauses and amendments that the Liberal Democrats tabled on the important matter of capping donations to political parties—[Interruption.] I hear some tutting on the Conservative Benches, but it was Conservative Members who were largely responsible for the fact that the Committee did not reach those provisions.

I am, however, disappointed in one aspect of the second day allotted under the programme motion. We have always said that our proposals on capping donations to parties at the £50,000 level are part of a package deal that was negotiated between the parties by Sir Hayden Phillips. What has happened in the programming is that that aspect of the package deal—the donation cap—has been separated from the other aspects of the deal, namely the global or all-Parliament limit on spending. As a result, the debate has become slightly fragmented, yet Sir Hayden was clear that the proposals were combined, both on the spending side and the donation side, and that all the parties should unite around them.

It is also disappointing and unwelcome that, as a result of the structuring of the second day, the new clauses to cap spending are liable to fall to the knife. That is particularly the case because politically, if not technically within the Bill, our proposals for capping expenditure, particularly local expenditure of all types, are an alternative to the Government’s apparent new and innovative suggestion for replacing what has become known as the trigger. Our criticisms of the trigger and of what the Government are proposing today have to be seen in the light of what we are proposing as an alternative —local spending caps. It is disappointing that the discussion on the Bill will not be structured in a way that makes those alternatives clear.

I hope that we can move rapidly to agreeing the programme motion so that we can get on to the substance of the Bill, but I want, if I may, to pick up a couple of points. What the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) called a poorly structured approach to the Bill has actually been a painstaking search for consensus. Over and over again—on Second Reading and throughout consideration in Committee—we have made it clear that when we are dealing with matters of such constitutional importance, it is crucial that we should do so on the basis of consensus.

I hope that the Opposition parties will agree that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor have both gone to great trouble to try to consult them. We have not always been able to agree, but we have listened and, wherever possible, responded. That is exactly why we have tabled so many amendments. We have genuinely approached this with an open mind, and where we have been persuaded by the arguments made by the Opposition parties we have changed our proposals. That is why we have made them in the way that we have.

I do not think that that is poorly structured; it is a proper search for consensus on an important bit of political structuring and constitutional proposals that should be approached in exactly that way. I utterly reject what the hon. Gentleman has said about that.

On tabling the amendments late, most were tabled two weeks ago and the rest a week ago. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that that is not typical of how Governments always do business. We have done our best to give hon. Members, as we always said we would, time to engage with those new amendments. As he well knows, we briefed Opposition Members in advance as well.

Hon. Members requested two days for consideration on Report. They have got two days. There is a delay between those two days because, as Opposition Members are well aware, the House is going into recess. That is why. I do not see anything wrong with that. It seems to me to be a proper way to behave.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made some important points about donation caps. I absolutely understand his concerns, but his remarks missed out something very important, if I may say so. Sir Hayden Phillips made it clear that it is not possible to consider the question of donation caps without enhanced public funding. That is the nub of his proposals. I notice that all the discussions initiated by the Liberal Democrats on that particular point somehow slide over the fact of that crucial link with state funding.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are open to having that discussion. We agree that it is important and that, for the long term, Sir Hayden Phillips’s proposals represent fundamental constitutional change, but I return to the fundamental point: we cannot proceed unless there is a reasonable degree of cross-party support. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, that is simply not possible at the moment.

We will come back to the issue of what Sir Hayden Phillips said and whether any state funding is necessary as a consequence of introducing a donation cap, because I am far from convinced that that is the case. I return to an important point of process: only Ministers of the Crown are entitled to propose expenditure in the House. I am against that, but it is the fact. If the Minister wants to propose expenditure, he can.

As I say, I am sure that we will come back to those proposals at a future date. At the moment, we have a set of proposals before us—amendments that genuinely try to take account of all the concerns raised in all parts of the House about these important measures. I hope that we can now proceed and spend the rest of the time that we have today debating them.

Question put and agreed to.