Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:56 pm on 18th March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour 5:56 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Labour Party for more than 30 years and as the chair of the Labour Party in 2000 when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act came into being. I can still remember the challenges that we faced: on the one hand, quite rightly, we were trying to implement our manifesto commitment to clean up political party funding and, on the other hand, we were struggling with the practical operation of what became a complex and, to my mind, unwieldy piece of legislation. From my perspective, this Bill is a welcome opportunity to iron out some of the unnecessary local burdens, while tightening up on the big funding issues, which continue to threaten the integrity of our political parties and, therefore, the reputation of our democratic system.

I am sure that there will be some robust discussions during the passage of the Bill through the Lords, as is absolutely right, but, as has been said, there have been considerable efforts in the other place to try to reach a cross-party consensus on issues that should transcend individual interests in favour of the more compelling objective of renewing faith in our political party system. I hope that we are able to keep that goal in our sights as the debate progresses.

In that context, I would like to make the following points. My main concern about the 2000 Act was that it placed daunting new accounting burdens and draconian sanctions on the rather scarce and precious local volunteers on whom we all rely to keep our local democracy alive. Those individuals, often elderly, provide an essential presence in local communities and act as the recruiting sergeants of the next generation of political activists. As a number of noble Lords have said, we expect too much of them and often exploit their good will. At the time, I was concerned—it was borne out by some evidence—that the new responsibilities of the Act would prove to be the final straw and they would step down from office. To be honest, it felt like the people drafting the legislation had never run a jumble sale or passed a hat around to get enough money to pay for the hire of the room.

That is why I am pleased that the provisions in the Bill have begun to address that issue by introducing a more proportionate regime for local accounting. It is helpful that the basic level of recordable donation has been increased to a more justifiable figure. More important, the concept of a local compliance officer who could be appointed to make the returns to the Electoral Commission on behalf of other local officers could provide some welcome relief to our overburdened volunteers.

I am also pleased that the thresholds for other recordable and reportable donations have been increased to more sensible levels. More fundamentally, I very much welcome the shift in the nature of sanctions that can be applied to breaches of the law at a local level. If our activists were put off by the bureaucracy of the previous recording procedures, they were terrified of the penalties for default that threatened them with criminal proceedings. Again, it seemed as though there was no real understanding of the slightly chaotic and unstructured nature of local activism. It is absolutely right that, where honest mistakes are made, there should be flexibility in the application of sanctions.

Secondly, I very much welcome the move to extend the size of the commission to enable four commissioners with political experience to be appointed. Clearly it is important that the political appointees are not in the majority, but in its early days the commission felt that it was struggling to understand the real world of political parties on the ground. It was making policies for an idealised concept of super-organised local activists who did not exist and it was less effective for that. There is a role for knowledge and experience in a regulator and I am sure that the new appointments will enhance the status of, and respect for, the commission.

Thirdly, it has to be right that, in the longer term, we move to individual electoral registration. The concept of a head of household taking charge is increasingly an anachronism, which takes no account of the changing nature of households and relationships and subtly downgrades the status of those passively being registered. It is also, as we are painfully aware, more open to fraud. There is a real opportunity now to use an electoral registration campaign to reach out to the next generation of voters and persuade them that their right to vote has significance and value. It should mark their transition into the adult world and bring with it other advantages and benefits.

That is easy to say and more difficult to deliver. It would be a disaster if the result of this initiative was fewer people being registered and fewer individuals voting. That is why we need to proceed carefully. The full and enthusiastic support for the initiative from local electoral registration officers is crucial and they need to be guaranteed the extra resources to roll out this programme. It is also vital that the verification proposals have broad popular support and do not become an excuse for a registration boycott. This is a difficult challenge. We are right to proceed with it, as it is long overdue, but it is also right that we should learn the lessons as we proceed and not put the whole registration process at risk.

Fourthly, I have a couple of comments about the trade union political funds, which some people have suggested should be included in the Bill. Already, the political activities of trade unions are massively regulated by both trade union and electoral law. Already, donations, affiliation fees and donations in kind have to be clearly recorded and made public. Trade unions also have the draconian duty to reballot their members on continuing these activities every 10 years. These funds are then used to affiliate individual members to the party in the form of a membership fee. This is very different from the large-scale individual donations that the Bill attempts to regulate, and the two should not be confused.

Finally, I turn to what are now described as unincorporated associations but which most people would describe as front organisations. Of course, political organisations, like all other parts of our lives, have become more complicated. It is also true that an organisation set up for one purpose can easily become a convenient vehicle for an entirely different purpose. The key to unlocking these complex relationships has to be transparency. This was the spirit and intention of the 2000 Act. It is vital that we take the opportunity in the Bill to close any remaining anomalies that have drawn a cloak of secrecy over millions of pounds in hidden donations. That is why I welcome the measures in the Bill, which will require unincorporated associations that make donations to political parties in excess of £25,000 a year to report the names of individual donors to their funds. It is right that the public should know who funds our parties; people should be reassured that opportunities for foreign nationals to fund our parties via this route are now being blocked.

I am aware that I have touched on only a few aspects of the Bill. I look forward to opportunities to debate the issues as the Bill progresses through this House. There is always a temptation when dealing with issues in which many of us take a close interest to become rather partisan. I hope and believe that we will manage to avoid that trap and to craft a Bill that has at its heart renewed transparency and renewed public faith in our political system.