With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on party funding.
As set out in the coalition Government’s programme, party funding in Britain needs to be reformed. The last major attempt at reform came in the cross-party talks between 2006 and 2008, chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips, which I led for the Conservative party. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) led for the Labour party and the present Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), led for the Liberal Democrats. The origin of those talks was a genuine desire on the part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “ Where is he?”]—and Tony Blair and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) to resolve these issues, which were disfiguring the face of British politics. The expectation was that there could be some increase in state funding if there were a cap on donations, but crucially a cap applying to all donations, whatever their source. Those talks came agonisingly close to securing agreement for long-term reform, but in the event agreement proved impossible. That was a serious missed opportunity. Since then, the need for change has become more, not less, pressing. Accordingly, at the last election, all three main parties promised in their manifestos to make progress.
This Government have an explicit commitment in the coalition agreement to
“pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”.
It was helpful when, in the early months of the coalition Government—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is ploughing on manfully—perhaps I should say “personfully”—through his statement, but he should not have to put up with this level of noise. It is not acceptable. We do not want this sort of noise from either side of the House. Let us hear the statement and the response. The House can rely on me to ensure that there will then be a full opportunity for Members in all parts of the House to question the Minister, but let us listen to his statement with courtesy.
I am not particularly surprised that the Labour party wants to drown out this statement, because its role in this saga is a shameful one.
It was helpful when, in the early months of the coalition Government, the Committee on Standards in Public Life launched a review. That Committee reported last November. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with support from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, leads for the Government and, in that capacity, responded to the report. He welcomed the recommendations and confirmed that the report contained a useful guide to the principles and areas that are essential for party funding agreement.
However, the Government could not see a case, at that time of austerity, for additional state funding for political parties. The Committee’s view that an increase in state funding was required meant that its recommendations could not be adopted in full. Instead, as he told the House last month, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to party leaders asking for nominations to take part in cross-party discussions. Nominations have been received from all three parties. With Lord Feldman, I will lead for the Conservative party. The talks will begin shortly. Events over the last weekend have demonstrated the importance of making progress.
What Peter Cruddas said was completely unacceptable and wrong, and much of what he said was simply not true, as he himself has since stated. As the House will know, all donations to any party headquarters above £7,500 have to be declared to the Electoral Commission and comply with detailed electoral law. These requirements are rightly extremely detailed and demanding, and should be meticulously complied with by all parties. This Government have already gone much further than any previous Government in revealing details of Ministers’ meetings with outside organisations and individuals. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out this morning that the Conservative party will now go much further. I hope that all other parties—[Interruption.] As the Leader of the Opposition has taken the trouble to come to the House today, I hope that he will set out what his party will do.
What we are now doing builds on the major improvements to transparency in public life that this Government have introduced. We are the first Government to introduce such transparency and the first Government to tackle the problem of lobbying, with our proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists currently out to consultation. We have published more data than any other Government in history about the activities of Ministers and Government Departments.
Let me return to the forthcoming party funding talks. There is a way of solving this problem. Across the House, we broadly know the issues we need to address. We need to look at donations and how to limit them, and we need to look at affiliate bodies. The Prime Minister has once again said that he is ready to cap donations, but only if it is agreed that the cap applies to all donations, whatever their source. We could also look at how to boost small donations and broaden the support base for parties, at the way in which existing state funding works, and at how we might further increase transparency around fundraising activities. The challenge for us all across the House is to make this process work, to reach agreement across all sides, and to deal with the problem of party funding once and for all. I look forward to the enthusiastic support of all parties for this course.
Let me say first to the Minister for the Cabinet Office that it should not be him at the Dispatch Box today; it should have been the Prime Minister who came to the House, because the revelations this weekend concern his office, his policy unit and his judgment. It shows utter contempt for this House that the Prime Minister could make a statement to the media just three hours ago but refuse to come here to face Members of Parliament. I think we all know why: he has something to hide.
I will come to the wider party funding issues that the Minister raises, but let us be clear that the reason why he has come to the House today is not the long-standing debate about party funding, but this weekend’s revelations. Let me remind the House that this is about the Prime Minister’s chief fundraiser seeking cash for access. What did he say? He said:
“The first thing we do… is get you at the Cameron and Osborne dinners, and in fact some of our bigger donors have been for dinner in No. 10 Downing Street”.
It is about seeking cash for influence. [Interruption.] I think that hon. Members should listen and hear about the seeking of cash for influence. He said:
“We get a chance to ask the Prime Minister questions… What do you think we are going to do about the top rate of tax… Everything is confidential”.
And it is about seeking cash for policy. I quote:
“If you’re… unhappy about something… we’ll listen to you and we’ll put it into the policy committee at No. 10.”
These represent grave allegations about the way access is gained and policy is made. They are about a breaking down of the lines between support for a political party and Government policy.
First, will the Minster accept that it is completely inadequate, given the scale of these allegations, for an investigation into what happened to be conducted by the Conservative party? A Conservative peer, appointed by the Prime Minister, an inquiry into the Conservative party, by the Conservative party and for the Conservative party—it is a whitewash and everyone knows it. We need a proper, independent inquiry appropriate to the gravity of what is at stake. Will the Minister now agree to an inquiry conducted by the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan?
On cash for access, the inquiry should specifically cover all the donors the Prime Minister has met in Government buildings—Downing street and Chequers—since May 2010; whether any of those meetings were in response to promises of cash for access; and whether other senior Ministers, including the Chancellor, have held such meetings.
On cash for influence, the inquiry should cover whether Conservative party donors were offered the chance, as Peter Cruddas said, to put forward policy ideas in exchange for donations; whether any of these ideas were forwarded to the No. 10 policy unit; which of them found their way into the Chancellor’s Budget; and whether Government Departments have been asked by Downing street to facilitate ministerial and official meetings with donors. Above all, the inquiry needs to investigate the breaking down of the boundary between the Prime Minister as leader of his party and the Prime Minister as Head of the Government.
Yesterday we were told that the only people who had been to dinner in Downing street were a few “long-standing friends” invited to the private flat. Today Downing street has admitted that some of them were not invited because they were long-standing friends at all and that it was not in the private flat; it was a thank-you dinner for donors to the Conservative party held inside Downing street. In total, £18 million came from 12 donors. It was not the premier league, but the champions league of Tory donors—I bet they did all right in the Budget. And even that is not a complete list, because the Prime Minister has refused to name donors he met on Government property who donated less than £50,000. What is the excuse? It is that only donations of £50,000 are significant donations. Only this Prime Minister would think a donation of £49,000, twice the average salary, was not significant.
Next, does the Minister for the Cabinet Office agree that the rules on party political funding are clear? It is illegal to solicit donations—[Interruption.] I would have thought he would like to hear about this; it is about illegality and allegations of illegality. It is illegal to solicit donations through overseas companies and illegal to disguise those donations, yet there are allegations that this was exactly what Mr Cruddas was suggesting. Will the Minister now undertake to recommend to the Prime Minister that he refer the Conservative party to the Electoral Commission to investigate this practice by Mr Cruddas and whether it has been practised by other Conservative party donors?
Thirdly, on the issue of party funding, I am somewhat surprised by the Minister suddenly now saying that he wants to restart talks. Let me provide the House with some background. The Deputy Prime Minister wrote to me and the Prime Minister on 8 February, seeking cross-party talks with heads of terms to be decided by Easter—very soon. I replied with my suggested nominees 12 days later. Such was the Government’s enthusiasm for reform, that in the five weeks since then I have heard precisely nothing about those talks, and neither has either of my nominees.
What are we to make of the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for reform? What a coincidence—the day after the Tory treasurer seeks cash for access. And who have they nominated for those talks? The Minister, and another great reformer, the Conservative party chairman, Lord Feldman. He is the man who fatally undermined the Kelly inquiry by writing at the eleventh hour to say that a £10,000 cap on donations was unacceptable because it would
“hugely inhibit the ability of political parties to engage with the electorate.”
Perhaps he should have said, “hugely inhibit the power of rich individuals to influence policy in Downing street.” We are happy to have proper talks about funding, but it is ridiculous for the Government to seek to use them as a smokescreen for the revelations this weekend.
The problem is that these people, as we saw with last week’s Budget, think they can get away with anything—and they have been found out. The weekend’s revelations show this Government cannot deliver the change we need. They promised transparency, they promised to clean up politics; now they will not even agree to a proper inquiry, and the Prime Minister is too ashamed to come to this House to explain his conduct.
This scandal speaks to the conduct and character of the Prime Minister and the Government. Anything short of an independent inquiry will leave a permanent stain on this Government and this Prime Minister.
For 13 years the Leader of the Opposition was at the heart of the Labour Government. For 13 years they had the chance to make government transparent. For 13 years they had the chance to reform party funding. For 13 years they did nothing—nothing. And, worse than nothing, they blocked reform, because who was it who stopped the Hayden Phillips reforms going through? It was Labour. The House need not rely on me for that; it can rely on Peter Watt, the then general secretary of the Labour party, who said:
“My primary emotion during the process was intense frustration, because my own party”—
“was the biggest block to reform.”
So the right hon. Gentleman should not come here, grandstand and claim the moral high ground. His party has a shameful role in the past. He should come here to say sorry for blocking the reform that was there to be had.
Labour in office gave us the cash for honours affair and a police investigation into proxy donations, and I remind the right hon. Gentleman, lest he forget in his new-found enthusiasm for independent investigation, that the investigation into the David Abrahams affair was conducted not by some independent person but by Lord Whitty, a former general secretary of the Labour party. And now that Labour is in opposition, its donors do not just buy policy—they elect the leader. That is why, after the right hon. Gentleman was elected Leader of the Opposition, the first thing he did was to go up to the leaders of Unite, put an arm round their shoulders, and say a warm, heartfelt “Thank you.”
We have heard about cash for policy, and cash can buy policy, but not on this side of the House. It was shocking recently to discover that votes can be decided on the basis of money paid and a cheque cashed. In fact, Labour, back in 2004 in the Warwick agreement, drew up its election programme on the back of an agreement to have union donations that would fund its campaign, so the right hon. Gentleman should not come here and lecture us about cash for policy, because Labour Members are the past masters at it—and look where it has got them. The shadow Health Secretary—he is over there—tabled amendments pushed by his union backers. [Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary could not confirm Labour’s own—[Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Order. [Interruption.] The Minister should resume his seat, which he has done. First of all, there is far too much noise, a lot of it, but not all, from a sedentary position; and, secondly, I simply say—[Interruption.] Order. I simply say to the Minister that the terms are inevitably wide, but I know that he will want to respond to the questions asked in conformity with the convention governing ministerial statements and that he will want to make a statement of the policy of the Government.
It is the policy of the Government that there should be cross-party discussions about reform to party funding. It is very important, as we go into this, that we understand the basis on which those important discussions are going to take place, and each party’s background in that respect.
I was just commenting on the shadow Justice Secretary’s inability to confirm Labour’s policy because he was “checking with the GMB”, which, by the way, gave the Labour party over £1.5 million while the Leader of the Opposition was its leader—and we know that when he pulled a sickie saying that he was too ill to attend an NHS rally, he was in fact meeting his very own six-figure donor at Hull City.
We have heard a lot about Labour and Mr Andrew Rosenfeld. I know Mr Rosenfeld; I met him when I was party chairman, and I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that we did not take his money. The Prime Minister has said what the Conservative party is doing to put its house in order. We have already been far more open than Labour ever was when it was in office. I hope that in the course of these discussions the Leader of the Opposition will tell us what he is doing to open up the Labour party. Will he commit to publishing details of every single meal that he has had with donors? Is he going to own up about the dinner with Roland Rudd, whose attendees he promised to reveal months ago but still has not? Will he reveal details of all the meetings with Labour donors in No. 10 that Tony Blair and the previous Prime Minister had when in office? Will he commit to publishing any shadow Cabinet contact with Labour’s union donors? It is no good expecting a list from the Leader of the Opposition. We know that there would be one name on it again and again: Len McCluskey, Len McCluskey and Len McCluskey.
Order. I am keen to hear questions from Members of the House. I hope that there will be appropriately brief replies from the Minister, because the purpose of the exercise is for Members to question the Minister, rather than for accusations to be flung across the House from both sides.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what all political parties need is for more people to join them? If we had a lot more members of political parties, Labour would not be so dependent on the trade unions and other parties would not be dependent on significant donors. We all have an incentive to encourage more people to join all of us, rather than to engage in this yah-boo politics, which simply puts people off joining political parties.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It was a pity that the opportunity was not taken in the Hayden Phillips discussions to go ahead with the reforms that were so close to agreement, because one of the proposals was to have more state funding to match smaller donations. That would have achieved exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about, which is increasing the spread of those who support political parties. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that it is good for people to support political parties. Democracy depends on it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman first confirm that the only legislation on party funding of any significance was put through by the previous Government in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009?
Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House what is wrong with having Sir Alex Allan, a distinguished civil servant who has served Labour and Conservative Governments, including the Thatcher Administration, so well, hold an inquiry into this scandal, which differs wholly in its character from those that have gone before, because it goes to the role of the Prime Minister?
Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman, who was at the talks in 2007, as was I and as was the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), is right to recall that we came “agonisingly close” to an agreement—so close that we almost initialled the agreement in June 2007. However, to use not my words but those of the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the Conservative party walked away, and he described the right hon. Gentleman’s approach as “bogus”. What guarantee can we have that if new talks take place, the right hon. Gentleman will not operate in the same way?
The investigation is not fundamentally about ministerial propriety, but about party funding. No money changed hands, nor was it ever likely to, because what was suggested by Mr Cruddas was fantasy and could never have come to fruition. If it was good enough for a former general secretary of the Labour party to investigate the Labour party’s scandal over donations by proxy, it is good enough for a distinguished lawyer to conduct the investigation into this matter.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the breakdown of the talks with Sir Hayden Phillips, I refer him to what was said by Peter Watt, the then general secretary of the Labour party, who represented the Labour party with the right hon. Gentleman. He said in absolutely clear terms how frustrated he was that it was the Labour party that was blocking reform. Those are not my words, but those of Peter Watt.
Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister has voluntarily disclosed far more information about his meetings and meetings held by his Ministers than any previous Prime Minister? Will he tell the House what the Government’s policy is in this matter and explain how it compares with the policy of previous Governments?
I simply confirm what my hon. Friend says, and what I said earlier. This Government have by a quantum leap disclosed more information about Ministers’ activities and their meetings with outside organisations and individuals than the last Government ever contemplated. They operated behind closed doors; we have let the sunlight in.
I agree that it is essential that there should be a cap on donations, and we agreed in the previous discussions that an appropriate level—[Interruption.] Actually, all three parties agreed that the appropriate level was £50,000. There is room for discussion about that, which is fine. Sir Christopher Kelly also said, absolutely unequivocally, that the other side of the coin of a cap on donations was an increase in state funding, and I doubt whether anyone in the House wishes to go out to hard-pressed taxpayers at the moment and claim that the first call on their funds should be additional funding for political parties.
Is it not a fact that before the election the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), now a member of the Government, complained to the Standards and Privileges Committee that the Leader of the Opposition—the leader of the Conservative party—was using his office in the House of Commons to meet the members of The Leader's Group, and that the Committee upheld the complaint? It stated:
“Mr Cameron was in our view ill-advised to link directly…the issues of access to his office and party fund-raising.”
If that was an offence for the Leader of the Opposition, how much worse an offence is it for the Prime Minister to use No. 10 Downing street? He is the leader of a Government who are incompetent, arrogant, extreme right-wing and corrupt.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that progress on party funding requires co-operation and transparency from all the main political parties? Will he join me in asking the leaders of all parties to publish the list of donors they have met recently?
The revelations that Peter Cruddas and the Prime Minister have spoken about Scotland and its referendum in rude and pejorative terms mean that Westminster can have no part in Scotland’s referendum, but does the Minister agree that if any law has been broken it is a matter not for politicians but for the police?
The Deputy Prime Minister, for whom I know my hon. Friend has particular affection, has said on behalf of the Government that we think it is inappropriate at this stage, in this age of austerity, to contemplate another call on taxpayers’ funds being made to fill the pockets of political parties.
In the past 12 months, there has been the most intensive lobby by the aviation industry of the Government to reverse their policy on the third runway at Heathrow. This weekend, senior members of the Conservative party briefed the media that they were reconsidering their position, and now we have the cash for access scandal. To dispel any doubt that that is anything other than a coincidence, will the Minister ensure that details of all meetings between aviation industry representatives, the Prime Minister, Ministers, civil servants, policy advisers and party officials are published on the register?
When will we learn from the crisis that engulfed the House three years ago that the response to such situations is not simply to point fingers at one another, but to address with renewed urgency the need to deal with the source, which in this case is the continuing escalation in the political party funding arms race? Will the Minister therefore apply a renewed sense of urgency to tackling that very point?
I can only say yes, that is exactly what we are doing. It is important that we look at all the issues involved in party funding. As I have said—the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) confirmed this—we came very close to reaching agreement. I am sorry only that the Labour party last time blocked the reforms.
In the context of these revelations, the public will be concerned not only about policy change but about policy absence. Will the Minister confirm whether any donors related to the legal loan sharking industry have made representations on the Government’s absence of a cap on the cost of credit?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great sadnesses of the last 24 hours is that our politics is in the news again for all the wrong reasons? Does he further agree that any settlement on the funding of political parties must include the trade union movement? Lastly, does he agree that as well as a cap on donations, we should be looking at a national cap on spending that will bring to an end silly spending for pointless reasons?
Why has the Prime Minister not turned up to answer questions? Is it because there is not enough money on offer? Is it not a fact that the Prime Minister has been surrounded by sleaze ever since he walked through the doors of No. 10, a public property that he has been using for his own and his party’s ends? The truth is that it is time this matter was cleaned up in a proper manner. It is time it went to the police.
I hope the Minister will stick to his resolve not to pick the public’s pocket on raising any levy for political parties, just as constituents of mine have expressed annoyance that the unions pick their pockets and all the funding is used to support the Labour party, despite their political allegiance.
Should The Sunday Times not be congratulated on exposing this story? Is it not clear that had The Sunday Times story not shown the squalid way in which the Tory party raises money, the Minister would not be making this statement today?
How many private dinners with the Prime Minister or the Chancellor that involved party fundraising have there been since the election? What was the total sum raised? Will the Minister require in future that all private dinners or meetings with Ministers involving party fundraising will be officially recorded on the official register?
The Prime Minister announced this morning that, as leader of the Conservative party, he is committing the Conservative party to going to an unparalleled degree of openness about engagement with the major donors. We look forward to hearing the same commitment from the leader of the right hon. Gentleman’s party.
The Minister mentioned the cross-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips five years ago. Will he confirm that early in those talks the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, accepted the need for the cap to apply to trade unions as well, but that ultimately the rest of the Labour party was a roadblock to such reform?
My hon. Friend is completely right. There was a concern that if the Conservative party was to get over its deep-seated opposition to increasing the amount of state funding for political parties, the other side of the coin had to be that the Labour party would give up its addiction to trade union funding. Sadly, the latter part did not come through.
Any claim that the Minister made earlier to openness and transparency is ruined by the Prime Minister's not coming to the House today. That is a key point. He made a partial statement outside the House about some of his dinners with significant donors, but that will not do. We need an independent inquiry and the fullest list imaginable not just of dinners but of breakfasts, lunches, teas, drinks and any other occasions involving Ministers as well as the Prime Minister.
The hon. Lady fulminates about the absence of the Prime Minister being the key point, but she knows that that is not the case. She knows that that is not what this is about. She should address the substantial issues, and I look forward to hearing her say that she will support genuine reform of party funding, which will have to address the issue of donations from the trade union movement to the Labour party. Will she do that?
If the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), ever turns up again to the House of Commons, will my right hon. Friend discuss this matter with him to ensure that members of the previous Government publish details of all their dinners, breakfasts and meetings with donors over the past 15 years?
It appears that the cost of a meal with the Prime Minister is about a quarter of a million quid. We can only imagine what the cost would be for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is just leaving the Chamber, in “Dodgy Dave’s Downing Street Diner”. Does the Minister understand that when stories such as this emerge, it only confirms what we in Liverpool already know—the Tories are not interested in ordinary people; they are interested only in buying favour and making their rich friends even richer?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no such policy committee as described by Mr Cruddas exists at No. 10 and that there is no evidence that any policy has been changed by private lobbying, unlike the shameful record of the last Government?
It is completely impossible for any policy to be changed in that way. Policy in the coalition Government has to be agreed not just by Conservative Ministers but collectively with Conservative and Lib Dem Ministers, so the idea that there is a direct route from Conservative party donors to policy change is absolutely absurd.
In the Budget, the Chancellor announced a number of tax changes to the regimes for gambling and financial services. Can the Minister tell the House whether Peter Cruddas, in his role of treasurer—he is also the market leader in internet spread betting—had any influence at all?
I very much doubt it, but I suspect—[Interruption.] As I have said repeatedly, anyone who has been in government knows that in the run-up to a Budget, we get representations from all sorts of people, in favour of everything and against everything. I have no doubt that the Chancellor received lots of representations from all directions on this and other subjects.
Given the acrimonious, childish and partisan shouting, jeering and accusations that have accompanied this statement—[Interruption.]—such as that! Does the Minister agree that we should set a short time scale—perhaps by the next Queen’s Speech—for when politicians can be expected to sort this out for themselves, and that if that has not worked by then, we should simply accept the recommendations of the independent Kelly inquiry, which has already met?
The problem with what my hon. Friend suggests is that, as the Deputy Prime Minister has set out, it is simply not realistic at the moment to propose that we should significantly increase the amount of state funding for political parties. Having a set of reforms of the nature set out by Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee is absolutely dependent on increasing state funding, which I do not think anyone in this House will feel comfortable proposing to their constituents.
If this is not about cash for access, could I bring a pensioner and a working parent from Exeter to see the Prime Minister, at Downing street or Chequers, so that he can explain why he cut taxes for millionaires but clobbered them with a granny tax and a cut in family tax credits?
What was in The Sunday Times was woeful. All Members, from all parts of the House, agree on that, and it has a history, in all parts of the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all political leaders should give explicit instructions to those charged with raising funds that this should never happen again?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need much greater transparency in the way political donations are solicited, including the £1 million in cash that Labour solicited from Andrew Rosenfeld, a former tax exile and a man whose firm left Allders pensioners high and dry?
Shortly before the general election, the Bribery Act 2010 was passed with all-party support. Under certain circumstances the Act requires the director of the Serious Fraud Office to seek permission from the Attorney-General before investigating or prosecuting. Can the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that neither the Attorney-General nor the Solicitor-General will exercise a veto over an investigation or prosecution, if that is what the director of the SFO believes is in order?
I declare an interest as a former registered treasurer of the Conservative party. Does not this affair, like the similar affairs under the previous Government, damage this whole House and all political parties? Is not the answer complete transparency about whom those on the Front Bench and the shadow Front Bench meet, and a cap on all political donations—individual, company and trade union?
I completely agree. We approached the previous discussions absolutely in that spirit, and we will approach the new discussions in that same spirit, too. [Interruption.] I make the point again to the Labour Chief Whip, who is muttering from a sedentary position, that it was Labour’s own general secretary who said that it was Labour that blocked the last reforms.
It affects the mysterious matter of affiliation fees. Theoretically, union members have the right to opt out of paying the political levy, except that people have to be very persistent to find out A—that there is a right to do it; B—how to do it; and C—that they will not save any money even if they do so.
A compliance officer has, by law, to be appointed by every single political party under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Conservative party compliance officer and deputy treasurer, Mike Chattey, is given specific responsibility to ensure that donations are kept legal. In view of what The Sunday Times has reported Mr Chattey to have said, does the Minister agree that that is without question a breach of section 61 of the Act, which states that “any concealment or disguise” of a foreign donation is illegal? Why is Chattey still in his job?
As has been made abundantly clear, the treasurer’s department at CCHQ—Conservative campaign headquarters—did not know that this meeting was taking place. No donation was advanced, and nor could it possibly have been, for exactly the reason that the hon. Gentleman sets out—that it would have been illegal.
All political parties have donor clubs. It is one way to raise money. I am delighted that the Labour party is extending its reach and trying to raise money from others than simply the trade unions, which we should remember have provided 87% of the entirety of Labour’s finances since the Leader of the Opposition has been in his post.
I was elected 18 years ago, almost to the month, and the Conservative party then was convulsed by sleaze. As a Minister in the last Government, I urged major reform, but I failed to convince colleagues. Again, we are where we are today. Every parliament in the Commonwealth and Europe has had to accept that democracy pays for democracy. Believe me—even if I am alone in wanting this—if we do not reform this completely and utterly, this issue will return to haunt this Government and possibly my own party.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. We did reluctantly accept, in the context of the previous discussions, that there could be a long-term settlement for a generation that would involve an increase in state funding. It went against the grain, I freely say, for the Conservative party, but we thought that that sacrifice might need to be made. Sadly, the Labour party felt unable to make the equivalent sacrifice of getting rid of its addiction to trade union funding.
The Paymaster General talks of transparency, yet casually dismisses out of hand the prospects of an independent inquiry. Given that we have heard some very serious allegations about donors’ access to the No. 10 policy unit, which the Minister admitted a few moments ago is staffed by career civil servants, he is obviously confident as the Minister for the Cabinet Office that nothing untoward has gone on. Why not have an independent inquiry so that we can all be reassured and share his confidence?
Because this is not about access to the policy unit, which is staffed—[Hon. Members: “Yes, it is!” ] If there has been the slightest suggestion anywhere that that has happened, I should like to hear it. However, it has not happened; nor could it happen, so the hon. Gentleman should calm down a bit.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the bedrock of our constituency party funding is provided by the hundreds of thousands of individual men and women who join our party because they believe in our values of responsibility. Will the Minister confirm that as long as he is involved in the Conservative party, we will continue to enjoy one person, one vote?
The Prime Minister, as Leader of the Opposition, responded to the report mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), entitled “Conduct of Mr David Cameron” and relating to the 2006-07 Session, by saying:
“I would like to assure the Committee”
—in relation to lunches for donors held in his parliamentary office—
“that this will not happen again. I will not hold lunches for members of the Leader’s Group in my Parliamentary office in the future, nor will my office be mentioned in any promotional literature.”
Having had to make that apology to the House, should not the Prime Minister have been extra careful to obey the ministerial code and ensure that there could not even be any possible perception of impropriety in the dinners that he held on public property at No. 10 Downing street?
Is it not a bit shabby of the Prime Minister to engineer a situation in which he will not have to answer a single question in the House on his unfair Budget for four weeks, and has not had to answer a single question in the House this afternoon because he has sent his marionette along instead? It is particularly important that this is about the Prime Minister’s judgment. When we look at Coulson, Brooks, Werritty and, now, the Cruddas scandal, it is clear that it is a question of his judgment. How did this Government become so casually corrupt so fast?
Having had the pleasure of listening to my right hon. Friend for almost an hour, may I ask whether he has drawn the same conclusions as me? Has he, too, concluded that there is a lot of synthetic nonsense about this, that the Labour party has its snout in the trough to a far worse extent than we ever did, and that the Prime Minister is to be commended for his honesty, straightforwardness and transparency in revealing the names of all the people whom he has met?
My constituents have been absolutely shocked by what they have seen on the video footage of Peter Cruddas this weekend. Can the Minister explain to them why there will not be a fully independent inquiry? Does he think that there is any way in which the Prime Minister can now convince my constituents that he has a grain of responsible judgment left?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has already had an opportunity to consult all her constituents on this matter. I merely point out, however, that this Prime Minister has been more transparent and has disclosed more about his engagements with donors than any other Prime Minister—and certainly much, much more than either of the two Labour Prime Ministers who led the previous Government for 13 woeful years.
No one will be enjoying this knockabout as to who has been stopping who by blocking reform over the years. The public instinctively know what is right, and we know what is right, too. Does the Minister agree that the time has come for reform, because if we wait for agreement, we will wait for ever? Surely, we should get the job done, put in place a limit of £10,000 per annum, and get some legislation on to the statute book?
If my hon. Friend is willing to go to her constituents and say, “Actually we’re going to spend more of your taxpayers’ money on filling the pockets of political parties—”[Interruption.] Well, if we are going to do what Sir Christopher Kelly recommended, then that is part of the deal, but, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said, it is not on offer at the moment.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 banned donations from foreign nationals. There is, however, an anomaly, in that political parties in Northern Ireland are permitted to be funded by citizens and organisations from another state. As that is not the practice anywhere else in the United Kingdom, when will it end in Northern Ireland?
Does the Minister agree that for the last two decades all major parties in this House have been affected by donor scandals of one sort or another, and that, rather than more hammering and rock throwing, we should in the next Session get on and legislate to bring in a donor cap, without state funding for political parties?
I would be delighted if we were to do that. It is a long-established convention that reform of party funding proceeds by way of consensus. That was definitely the view that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and I took when we conducted previous discussions on this topic. We need to have another try at that. It is unsatisfactory for the party in power to legislate unilaterally to change the party funding system. If at all possible, we must proceed by consensus, as before, so we will strain every fibre to try to achieve consensus.
A number of Government Members, including the Minister in almost every other answer, have cited trade union funding of the Labour party as if it is a defence for what The Sunday Times has exposed. I am a former trade union official, and I am sure that the Minister is aware that trade union funding comes not from one person, but from, not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of members, but millions of members who pay small contributions and happily affiliate to the Labour party. The Minister proposes putting a cap on funding as if it is some sort of threat. I am sure that the unions would happily give the names of all those funders.
This connection is not hard to understand. If we had had a cap in place, which was on offer, the events at the weekend would not have taken place; they would have been out of court. The simple point is that the individual union member who pays the political levy and affiliation fees cannot choose which party that funds. The fees are given to the Labour party at the whim of the leadership of the union, not based on the choice of individual union members.
We have heard terms used such as “casual corruption” and “shocking”. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that the rot set in when Bernie Ecclestone was able to change policy by paying £1 million? Does he also agree that that is the only example of a policy change having been bought?
If the Minister is right that the bankers, insurers, property developers and private health companies get nothing at all for the millions of pounds they give the Tory party, will he publish details of not only when they have met the Prime Minister and how much they have given, but what policies were discussed at those meetings?
I was, for a long time, a member of the Unite union and I found it exceptionally hard to opt out of the political levy—money that was used to fund the campaign against my colleague in the seat of Pudsey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a step forward on affiliation fees would be for people to opt in and to indicate which party they would like the money to go to?
Access to the policy unit goes to the heart of this cash-for-access scandal. The Budget took from pensioners to give to millionaires, and this weekend’s revelations show that millionaires were paying to change Government policy for personal gain. So can the Minister tell us which millionaires paid for meetings with the Prime Minister and then benefited from last week’s Budget?
The hon. Gentleman should not believe and read out everything he is handed outside the Chamber. This was a fair Budget, which actually increased the state pension for pensioners more than has ever been done by any Government previously. The very richest in our society will pay five times more as a result of these tax changes than the tiny amount lost through the change to the top rate of tax, so he really needs to revisit his script.
I am a newly elected Member of Parliament and I have been listening to what has been going on today. I must say that listening to all the banter from those on both Benches has been shameful for the whole of democracy; people out there are watching this and we should not be bickering. Instead, in the spirit of what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), may I implore the Minister to set up a commission to iron out party funding once and for all, independently, so we do not have to do this time and time again?
The shelves of the libraries groan with unimplemented reports on the reform of party funding. We take the view that this should be done by consensus between the parties, if at all possible. That is the spirit in which we undertook these discussions previously—four or five years ago—and that is the spirit in which we shall approach the matter this time.
When he was the Leader of the Opposition, this Prime Minister said:
“We can’t go on like this. I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.”
I agree with that absolutely. The Minister has been suggesting that this can be resolved just by publishing a list of who gave what and how much they gave, but this is about buying access to buy influence. That is the key difference here and it is why only an independent inquiry into what has gone on will satisfy the public. No matter what the Minister says at the Dispatch Box, it is an independent inquiry that is needed.
It ought to be a matter of regret for every Member of this House that the reputation of party politicians has never been lower. Does my right hon. Friend agree that true defenders of democracy would come to the table, debate this and sort it out maturely, instead of playing party politics with this issue?
Given the Minister’s comments on transparency, is he aware that my office has been trying to get details from the Department for Communities and Local Government about who Ministers have been meeting in the run-up to the national planning policy framework? We have been told consistently that that information is not available and has not been since June 2011. In the light of what has happened in the past few days, will the Minister undertake to ensure that all details of DCLG’s ministerial meetings are made available before the NPPF is published tomorrow?
Along with other members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, I met Christopher Kelly after he published his independent report on party funding. He made it quite clear to us that it was a package of measures from which no political party should cherry-pick. Should not the onus be on the Government and other party leaders to implement the Kelly report, which does have a £10,000 donation limit, which would be compensated for with modest state funding of 50p per elector?
I refer my hon. Friend to what our mutual right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in response to the Kelly report: at this time of great financial stringency, we do not think it would be acceptable for the Government to put forward an increase in state funding to make up for a deficiency caused by such a low cap. We think that a cap above that level could be sustainable without additional state funding and would give great comfort that the system was incapable of being abused.
I do not detect an appetite among the public for increased public funding of political parties. Does not that make it more imperative that we should have cross-party agreement on the future funding of political parties?
When the Committee on Standards in Public Life was finalising its report on party funding last November, the Prime Minister leaned on the Conservative member of that Committee to withdraw his support for the report on the grounds that there should be no cap on donations, but now we hear that the Prime Minister proposes a £50,000 cap on donations. Can the Minister conjecture whether any recent events might have influenced the Prime Minister in deciding to change his mind?
The hon. Gentleman should know that we have proposed a £50,000 limit on donations going back quite some way to before the Hayden Phillips talks began. We have consistently thought that was the right level because that could be implemented without the sort of increase in state funding that would be unlikely to be welcome to our constituents at this time.
I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend and his commitment to progress on having transparency in greater detail on these matters. Does he agree that it would be in the spirit of transparency if the Leader of the Opposition stuck to the commitment he made last October to publish the list of attendees at a private dinner organised by Mr Rudd, a City lobbyist?
Is the Minister aware of the failure of one of his Secretaries of State to register a meal he had with the lobbyist Bell Pottinger this year on the basis that on the day in question he was digesting with his private stomach and not his ministerial stomach? Is not the distinction a false one? Nobody would give £250,000 for a social, private chat with the Prime Minister, but they would pay it if they were seeking access and influence.
I have to make a declaration of interest as a former trade union representative in Yorkshire. The Unite union has just announced that tanker drivers have voted to go on strike. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Members in this House should be able to condemn such actions without fear of losing a donation?
Can the Minister give us details of any private health companies that were trying to influence the Health and Social Care Bill that met in Downing street for lunch, in particular Alpha Healthcare, which gave £500,000 to the Liberal party?
The Minister has repeatedly stated that this Government are more transparent than previous Governments. Is what he proposes—a Conservative investigating this Conservative party act—sufficiently transparent to satisfy public concern, and should not that be the test that is applied?
It will certainly be a great deal more transparent than the former Labour general secretary’s investigation of Labour’s donations scandal. I believe it will be a very thorough investigation—it needs to be—and people will be able to judge whether it goes far enough.
Order. May I remind Members that they are expected to use their mobile devices discreetly and without impairing the decorum of the Chamber? I say gently to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) that he should not stand up, seeking to catch my eye, while fiddling with his device.
I promise not to fiddle with my device, Mr Speaker.
Peter Cruddas was reported yesterday giving, as an example of how to influence policy, discussion of the Tobin tax with the Prime Minister the day before he met Angela Merkel. Is that true? Did that conversation take place and, if it did, what role was Peter Cruddas playing—treasurer of the party or private business man?
Does not this whole sorry episode reveal something very rotten right at the core of the Conservative party? Does the Minister agree with me that it stretches credulity to breaking point to argue that Peter Cruddas, a senior—the most senior—fundraiser for the Conservative party, did not understand the law relating to donations to political parties?
Pensioners in Swansea on £135 a week now face an £11 second bedroom tax, so that if they did want to be able to afford a £250,000 lobby lunch, they would have to invest all their money for 40 years. Is this not just the same old Tory story of feeding the rich and robbing the poor?
It is certainly the same tired old question. I have to make the point that we could avoid all this and move forward if the Labour party gritted its teeth and realised that the days of a serious grown-up party being totally dependent on donations from a trade union movement that elects its leader and dictates its policy should be gone.
Will the Minister recognise that attack is not the best form of defence, and that the House and the country deserve a full explanation of the serious allegations that were made this weekend? Now that we have made him aware that the allegations are about buying influence on policies, can he not see that we need an independent investigation into what happened?
I have nothing to add to what I have said many times before. The hon. Lady talks about buying influence and buying policy. It was not the Conservative party that sat in Warwick and formed the Warwick agreement with the trade union movement; it was her party, year after year. It was not the Justice Secretary who said that he could not decide his policy until he had phoned up the trade union to receive instructions; it is the shadow Justice Secretary who was found out doing that. The hon. Lady should think about taking the beam out of her own party’s eye before she starts looking for motes in others’.
Given this weekend’s revelations and the way in which they have been received in the country, does the Minister really think it is credible that the people out there will think it acceptable for the Conservative party to investigate itself?
The investigation will be conducted by a very distinguished senior lawyer who will—[Interruption.] I have to say again in response to the synthetic indignation from the Opposition Front Bench, particularly from the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who was the spokesman for the previous Prime Minister who presided over some of the worst scandals this country has ever seen, that we are not taking any lessons from him. He was in the Labour party in No. 10 when the leader of the Labour party appointed a former general secretary of the Labour party to conduct a so-called independent investigation into its donor scandal.
I believe that the Minister will ultimately come to rue the tone in which he is conducting the statement. At no point will a member of the public listening to the Minister this afternoon have the remotest confidence that he is taking these allegations as seriously as he should. Can he point out one thing from the statement today that will give members of the public watching this the slightest shred of confidence in him to sort this out?
The Minister has talked a lot today about transparency and at one point, in answer to a previous question, he seemed to dismiss any suggestion of cash for access as fantasy. Does he agree that perhaps there is just a scintilla of doubt when the leaders group is invited to pay £50,000 for the privilege of having post-PMQ lunches with the Prime Minister? For the avoidance of any doubt, can he say today that none of those lunches involved the use of taxpayer-funded offices or other facilities by Government?
All contacts with donors along the lines that were set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this morning are going to be published. I did talk about unparalleled transparency, and it is. We would love to hear the same degree or even a scintilla of the same transparency from the two Labour leaders who were Prime Minister for those 13 years, and indeed from the current Labour leader.
Despite what the Minister said earlier, it is clear from the discussions that went on that Mr Cruddas did link lobbying and the reduction of the 50p tax rate, so this goes beyond access to the Prime Minister and includes access to the Chancellor. Will the Minister therefore publish a list of all those Tory donors who met the Chancellor and discussed taxation rates? Does not this explain exactly why we need an independent investigation and not one set up by the Conservative party?
It is hard to know what the hon. Gentleman is on about. We have disclosed what conversations and meetings there were in Downing street. That has never been done before. People know who the donors are. We have disclosed for the first time what conversations there have been. Honestly, if we could have a flicker of this amount of openness and transparency from his party, we would be better off.