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Political Party Funding

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 15 December 2011

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will respond to the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on party funding.

My Lords, the Government are grateful to the committee for its report and will consider its recommendations before providing a formal response. The Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government’s proposed approach to party funding reform in his Written Ministerial Statement of 23 November.

Can my noble friend give us an assurance that unlike under the previous Administration, the most reluctant and recalcitrant participants in this process will not be allowed to delay everything, and will not be given a complete veto on progress? In particular, may I suggest that we should start with immediate action to stop the arms race in expenditure, both at the constituency level—targeting constituencies as well as national constituencies—and before, as well as during, campaigns? This could achieve some cross-party agreement, and of course would be very popular with the long-suffering public.

My Lords, I welcome those suggestions from my noble friend, which I will pass on to the Deputy Prime Minister. In his Statement that I referred to, he said:

“The Government believe that the case cannot be made for greater state funding of political parties at a time when budgets are being squeezed and economic recovery remains the highest priority. But there is a case for looking carefully at whether existing levels of support could be used more effectively”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/11/11; col. 25WS.]

I would have thought that some of the suggestions that my noble friend made could be brought into that general consultation with all political parties.

My Lords, will my noble friend indicate whether the advice that has been given will be followed in time to influence elections that are going to be pending quite soon? In particular, having borne in mind that the Government have been speedy in altering the structure of constituencies, will they also take into account the importance of fair dos in spending to affect these forthcoming elections?

My Lords, even this report recommends that nothing that it suggests should come in before 2015, but the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated that all political parties are welcome to have broad discussions with him, and these matters could form part of those discussions.

My Lords, I feel a little light-headed because I think I may agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Obviously, to make elections fairer it is not just a question of where competing candidates and parties raise their money from, it is also how much they spend. This has long been acknowledged at the level of constituency party campaigning. Surely, whatever else we may disagree on, none of us would want elections to take the form, in terms of expenditure, that is the case in the United States, where the most obscene levels of expenditure are required even to begin to get off the ground. Can the Government focus their attention on looking at the ways in which total expenditure can be minimised, particularly at a national level? At least we could make some progress on that, even if the other side of the equation is more difficult.

My Lords, not only do I feel light-headed, I think I am going to swoon away: I think I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Yes, I fully agree with him. As the Deputy Prime Minister has rightly said, this is obviously not the time to try the fundamental reforms that this report, and indeed the Hayden Phillips report before it, recommended. However, there is an opportunity to engage in discussions to see if we can do things within current frameworks to address some of the issues he raised. That would be a very fruitful use of time in this Parliament.

My Lords, while I too agree with a good deal of what has been said, does my noble friend not agree that it would be very dangerous if we were to set maximum levels of expenditure for the parties which were convenient for a party which could attract less than 10 per cent of the electorate, as opposed to major parties which attract somewhere around 40 per cent of the electorate? Perhaps it was a little dangerous for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to leave this matter in the care of his deputy, who does not seem quite to be on song with the rest of the Government.

For a party that has pretty consistently polled over 20 per cent of the vote in recent general elections, there is certainly no self-interest about the 10 per cent figure. Indeed, we should all wait for the next election, which as we all know, usefully, is in 2015. Four years is a long time in politics.

Given that we are all in agreement, maybe I should say that I agree with Nick.

Given that the Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to get big money out of politics by capping donations at £10,000, would not the best way of ending the big donor culture perhaps be for the Minister’s party to return Michael Brown’s money—money that was not his to give and should never have been accepted?

That was a good growl of approval. It is not for me, as a member of the party of Lloyd George, to lecture anybody on party political funding. However, I have been pressing for party political funding reform all my political life, and I can assure the noble Baroness that this affects all parties. The problem about this culture of forcing our parties to raise big money from big donors, as I have said many times from those Benches and I say now from this Bench, is that the regime is corrupting of our political system, and the sooner we can get rid of it the better.