My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. We first shared a platform in 1951, when I was chairman and she came along bringing a delegated representation. Ever since, our paths have crossed and it is a joy and a pleasure to see her here and in such good spirits, although I did not agree with her censures-but she would expect that.
I was moved to put my name down to speak in this debate because, in general, I sense as a former Chief Whip in this place that the Government will have a difficult job. The Minister, in introducing the Bill to us today, pointed out that he felt that some bits would be supported by all parties but that some would not be. I rest content that the outcome of the wash-up will be that all the parties will be satisfied with what comes out, because nothing will get through unless it has the agreement of all the parties.
We have had paraded before us aspects of the Bill that do not find favour with Members here. I do not quibble with them at all, but, as the Minister said, Parliament is in the middle of a crisis of confidence, in both system and persons. I use as a peg for what I want to say the fact that the spotlight of publicity has been shone on the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft. We know that, in abusing the systems, he has sought to introduce a fantastic amount of money into constituencies that he has chosen as being possible to win. He hopes that, by buying the votes and the seats, he will be able to help to form a Government who are different from mine. He may be right; we will have to wait and see. I say simply that the practices that he is carefully nurturing-they do not seem to be condemned as much on the other side of the House as on this side-are not the only ones.
League tables have become part of the lexicon of politics. The league table that I am most proud of is football's Championship League, because at the top is the team of my home town, Newcastle United. The team won again last night and I believe that it will be promoted. That is not the only league table that is of interest, though. The Electoral Commission publishes a quarterly league table of constituency parties, showing the amount of cash and kind received. For the three months ending
I hope that the Minister will be able to talk about the activities of Mr Ashcroft, which are turning back the clock. I thought, from my history, that rotten boroughs had been done away with years ago, but they have not if a man or woman can come into any town or city and, in effect, buy the wherewithal-a practice, as we know, that is rife in American politics-to hire people to do the canvassing and so on. There is a growing tendency to do this; we hear about Mr Ashcroft but there are others.
When I spoke to a colleague at a meeting today and told her what I was going to say, she said, "Well, in a constituency where I worked, an attempt was made to do that. Over £300,000 was calculated to have gone into the coffers of one candidate, but they did not succeed". Money will not always be the answer.
I do not say that the present or the past are right and that things cannot be changed. We are in the middle of change in lots of things and, in the Bill, there will be attempts to change even more. However, we need to be alerted to the fact that if the Government, of whatever colour, do not deal with the kind of thing that I am talking about, our democracy will be diminished. I hope that the Minister is able to say something kind about this idea.
We all know, as experienced politicians, what is going to happen to the Bill. I could enter into arguments about the Government's programme and their priorities and the fact that the election is going to be held and Parliament will end at Easter, whereas normally it goes right through to November. There are all sorts of reasons and miscalculations. I shall simply say, however, that we need to be aware of the fact that the practice of buying constituencies, which in effect means buying Governments, is here to stay and is successful. I am ashamed that it is happening in Edmonton.