My Lords, on 5 May the Government announced a consultation on safeguarding UK elections. Recommendations for closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections and preventing shell companies sidestepping the current rules on political finance could be addressed in the consultation. The Government will take the views of interested groups such as the Parliamentary Parties Panel and the Electoral Commission to better understand the problems that we could seek to address in the consultation.
I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. He is highly respected in this House and, more importantly in this case, in his party. The Government often come out with consultations but we really have a problem in this country with our electoral law, with law governing political parties, with donations, loans and everything else in this area. Can he give an assurance to the House that, despite other problems, he will do everything in his power to make sure that we address this urgently?
I am grateful for the consensual approach adopted by the noble Lord. Quite recently he attended a meeting with me, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, my noble friend Lord Hayward, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, at which we sought to see whether there was a consensus on some of the challenges facing the electoral system. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the Electoral Commission. I would be more than happy to contact the Minister for the Constitution, who was also at that meeting, to see whether it would be helpful to have another round-table discussion to identify areas of consensus and to see whether we can make progress in developing a rigid and credible electoral system.
My Lords, if we are to re-establish trust in where money for politics comes from, we need to have answers to challenges fairly quickly. It is now nearly three years since the last referendum and we still do not have any indication of where the largest donation to the Vote Leave campaign came from and whether it was legitimate or illegitimate. Should we not somehow provide extra resources immediately for the Electoral Commission and all those investigating what are potentially criminal acts to make sure that we have answers as quickly as possible, if not during the campaign then at least soon afterwards?
The noble Lord will be aware that some cases concerning the Leave.EU campaign have been referred to the police. On his question about resources for the Electoral Commission, the last time he asked me that I pointed out that there had been an underspend. Since then, the Electoral Commission has put in an increased bid for next year of, I think, 11% for resource expenditure and 18% for capital expenditure. That has been approved by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, because it is that committee that finances the Electoral Commission, not the Government. It has yet to be ratified by the other place but I hope that it will be. That would give the Electoral Commission the resources that it needs, to which the noble Lord referred.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a Law Commission Bill on electoral reform which is, as they say, shovel-ready? It has many important changes in it and, being a Law Commission Bill, is relatively uncontroversial. Could we not find time to bring it forward to remedy some of the deficiencies in our electoral law?
As I said on Monday, there appears to be some headroom in the Government’s legislative programme at the moment. Sitting beside me are two members of the relevant Cabinet sub-committee that processes bids for legislation and they will have heard my noble friend’s suggestion. Were there to be such a Bill, I hope that it would be taken through by law officers and not by me.
My Lords, given that the largest ever political donation to the Liberal Democrats was given by a convicted fraudster, Mr Michael Brown, and that they refuse to return that money to the people who have been defrauded, will my noble friend look at the law to see whether we should require political parties who have been given money by convicted criminals to return it on behalf of those who have lost out?
That was a slightly less consensual approach from my noble friend than that from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. If we did go down that road, I doubt whether any legislation would be retrospective. I suspect my noble friend would agree. It would be for the Electoral Commission in the first place to put proposals forward for such legislation.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as a senior treasurer of the Conservative Party. Does my noble friend the highly respected Minister agree that, unless we want political parties funded by taxpayers, there needs to be a sea change in the way that donors to all political parties are treated and respected? There should be no discrimination against them, and they should stop being vilified in the national press.
I agree. Political parties are an essential part of our democratic system. They give people choice at election time; they incubate and nurture the politicians who will run the country; and they provide a forum for political discussion and policy development. If they were not going to be funded by volunteers, they would be funded by the taxpayer, which would be a deeply unpopular suggestion. I applaud all those who, out of their post-tax income, subscribe to the political party that most accurately reflects their values. They should be applauded rather than denigrated. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend for the generosity that he has shown to my party.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, ever since the report of the CSPL some eight years ago, I have been putting forward draft legislation to deal with the problem that is now before us. Does he recognise that his colleagues in the Conservative Party will get a drubbing tomorrow precisely because, for so many years, they thought that this particular system was working to their advantage and have done nothing about it?