Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Shadow Minister, Cabinet Office, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government, Shadow Minister, Energy and Climate Change, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 4:40 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, in speaking to the Bill I place on record my interest as deputy chairman—and, as such, an officer—of the Conservative Party. My starting point is that the party political process in this country is something that we have nothing to be ashamed about. It is a system that has secured the orderly transition of power, determined by the people of this country. Political parties are the glue that holds the political system together. They are the means by which legislators communicate with the electors, and the means by which the electorate is given a choice of competing visions of Britain's future and alternative teams of political leaders.

Moreover, political parties are made up of hundreds and thousands of dedicated volunteers, who canvass in all weathers, and leaflet and fundraise in all circumstances in, and very much for, their local communities. In many constituencies the political parties are the largest voluntary organisations outside of churches in membership and, certainly, in terms of work in the community. This is a tradition of which we can rightly be proud. It is also a vital part of the social capital of this country, which we wish to retain and develop.

On donors to political parties, we should regard as laudable the fact that organisations and individuals are free to make properly disclosed donations to political parties with which they share aims and aspirations; or in order legitimately to minimise the risk of another party attaining power. People donate to charities and religious organisations and we call it philanthropy, derived from Greek and meaning "love of people". Yet somehow, when people donate to party political organisations, which are part of the fabric of our society, they are termed "lovers of power". This cannot be true and is unfair. People who make properly disclosed donations to a party are very much strengthening, not weakening, the fabric of our democracy. We ought to defend them.

Our political system is one to be proud of. All those involved in making the machinery work are rightly deserving of praise. Nevertheless, many of these people are being let down. There is a serious problem and it impacts on the legitimacy of our political process. The Bill is, therefore, of the utmost necessity and we welcome it. We welcome it to this place, on this day and in this form slightly more than we welcomed it in the other place when it was introduced in October. There have certainly been many concessions that we welcome, and which the Minister has outlined to us this afternoon.

We need to remember that this political process has been under way for some time. The Bill is welcome. It is of the utmost necessity and we only want to move it further and faster. It is necessary because of a series of high profile cases, such as the "loans for honours" inquiry, in which, for the first time in history, a serving Prime Minister was interviewed three times by the police. For the record, in this case no prosecution resulted from that. I do not want to be too partisan in making this point because the Liberal Democrats have also had problems, in accepting a donation for £2.4 million from a convicted fraudster, Michael Brown. Again, for the record, the Electoral Commission found that the party had been reasonable in regarding it as a seemingly extremely generous donation, though one that has still not been repaid.

For these purposes, a White Paper was produced and the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, used a key phrase in the foreword:

"When political parties are brought into disrepute, the reputation of the entire political process is tarnished. It is therefore important that action is taken to strengthen and sustain the standing of political parties within the political process in the eyes of the British public".

That is why the Bill is both urgent and necessary. We should not limit the examination of weaknesses in the electoral system to the issue of party political funding alone. Whatever the ambiguities about the rules governing cases of donations, there is no ambiguity about one thing. In the last seven years there have been 42—