Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs, Spokesperson for Scotland 5:47 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I very much welcome the spirit in which the Minister opened this debate, indicating, understandably, that the Government are seeking consensus as a way in which to bring about political reform of the election system. That is an ideal for which we should all strive, although it is not always possible. In those circumstances, Governments are placed in a difficult position, but they have to provide leadership and be transparent about what the best arguments are, so that the public may buy in to the case.

In this House, we should endeavour to see whether we cannot broaden the consensus from that agreed in another place. The process of this Bill has indicated some widening of the Government's horizons, at least in the discussions in that place, most notably in respect of individual registration, and the welcome development from the original Bill to provide for it, albeit at a rather slow pace. I listened with great attention to what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has to say about the timing of this, as she has great experience. No doubt in Committee we will be able to look at this issue in greater detail.

The political reform of this country is a necessary condition for delivering a more successful Britain and a Britain at peace with itself. It is not a secondary consideration at this time of financial crisis. There is currently much evidence of disquiet in this country about our political system. I believe that imports a danger. When the public is under pressure for economic and external reasons and it is not content with the system that we have, it is more likely to listen with greater attention to the voices of populist extremists. That extremely important point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, in opening for the Opposition.

We must therefore ask ourselves whether the Bill has gone far enough to meet the concerns of the public. It is unquestionable that it has gone further and in many respects it is an improvement on the 2000 Act, but I am surprised that the Government have not felt it possible to grasp the nettle of expenditure in elections. They recognised that this was a grave concern and that the fear that votes could be bought has not evaporated since the Government asked Sir Hayden Phillips to consider these matters. It is reasonable, and therefore it should be possible, for the parties to assemble and consider how they would address these issues even now.

I know that an election is in the offing for the Westminster Parliament, but even now we should attempt to remove this anxiety. We should look again openly and particularly at the principles that underlie the report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and that of Sir Hayden Phillips. Those principles were well enunciated and they are not addressed in the Bill. One principle that Sir Hayden enunciated was that the status quo in which there are no caps on donations is unsustainable and therefore donations to parties should be limited. That is an extremely important principle and it needs to be particularly addressed in our debates.

Another principle was that expenditure on general election campaigns was progressively growing and should be reduced. I do not see anything in this Bill that goes in that direction. That worries me, particularly because we do not have the sort of controls over expenditure in this country that the United States has and which my noble friend Lord Tyler, in his detailed and helpful speech, enunciated. We cannot congratulate ourselves on getting this right if we do not address that general point.

A further related point is that if we were to affect the incomes of political parties, there is a potentiality for inequitable consequences and the loss of stability. I need not remind the House that Sir Hayden Phillips advocated some increase in public funding of political parties. It is important to espouse the view that political parties are an absolutely key part of the working of our democracy. They are responsible for the sophisticated development of policies by parties not in government and the success with which they propound those developed policies will enable the public to have a sense of its involvement in the political process. More than anything, it will have the potential of encouraging people not to take a backseat, not to listen to the cheap points which are being scored by the populists and even to participate directly in seeking to formulate these attitudes. Hayden Phillips drew attention to the fact that, in this country, membership of political parties has dropped from one in 11, 50 years ago, to one person in 88 today. To me, that is retrograde and unfortunate. If parties cease to play a part, what is to take their place? Is it to be individuals? I cannot imagine anything more dangerous.

I hope that in addressing these considerations in Committee, we will consider these wider considerations in putting forward our individual proposals, which I do not propose to touch on today, and I hope that we will not simply consider how they affect one or other political party. All political parties are required to be funded properly—not excessively funded—with sufficient income to enable the serious work of political thinking and political education to be advanced.