My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in this Bill in that I am trying to raise money for UKIP, the UK Independence Party. I have only two brief points to make. The first is to support the Electoral Commission, as other noble Lords have done, in its recent briefing paper, which is nervous about increased thresholds for donations that do not need to be declared. As the commission has said, the proposal to increase the declarable threshold to £500 may mean that any cumulative series of donations which are individually worth less than £500 will be legal, regardless of where they come from, and will not need to be reported to the commission for publication.
As a fundraiser, I confess that I find this a rather attractive proposition, but it cannot be right if we wish to identify substantial donors to our political parties. I fear that the commission must be right when it suggests that this proposition may result in large donors making regular donations of just below £500, perhaps even by standing order. I should have thought that that must defeat the object of the present Act and of this Bill. I submit that this may be an area to which we may wish to return in Committee. One could of course require the cumulative totals of small gifts to be declared when they reach £7,500.
My other suggestion is that we should perhaps revisit the requirement for a large donor to be on the electoral roll. I have to tread rather delicately here, which noble Lords may think is not my strongest suit, because my party is in dispute with the commission about this area. However, I welcome the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, when she referred to the burdens placed on amateur activists and donors, who may make technical and sometimes innocent mistakes.
In the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, which gave rise to the present Act, he suggested that a party should have been able to accept a donation from someone who was on the electoral roll, or who was known to be eligible to be on the roll. A Conservative amendment to include the latter category was lost in your Lordships' House after the Government argued that:
"It would be no easy matter for a registered party to establish whether a donor whose name did not appear on an electoral register was nevertheless entitled to register".—[Hansard, 21/11/00; col. 695.]
That might be so, or it might not. People may not want to be on the electoral roll for a perfectly respectable reason, such as not wanting to reveal their address for security reasons, but a party might be satisfied that they were bona fide resident taxpayers in this country. If so, I suggest that the party should be able to accept a donation, perhaps while informing the commission in each case. There will not be many such cases.
I appreciate that the present rule gives certainty and clarity, but the Bill does allow in Clause 17 for candidates to withhold their addresses from general scrutiny, and therefore moves in the direction that I suggest, although I appreciate that the clause is somewhat controversial for some of your Lordships. The object of the exercise is to prevent foreign and anonymous donations; if we can achieve that without penalising even a small number of people, perhaps we should try to do so. I look forward to the Government's views on my two suggestions.