Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock
197: After Clause 59, insert the following new Clause—“Unincorporated associations and permissible donors(1) An unincorporated association required to notify the Electoral Commission of political contributions by paragraph 1 of Schedule 19A to PPERA must make permissibility checks on donations to the unincorporated association in accordance with subsection (2).(2) An unincorporated association must take all reasonable steps to establish whether the donor of a relevant donation is a permissible donor under section 54 of PPERA.(3) In this section, a “relevant donation” is any donation which is either intended for political purposes or might reasonably be assumed to be for political purposes.(4) An unincorporated association must not accept a relevant donation from a person who is not a permissible donor.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause requires unincorporated associations to establish whether a person making a donation for political purposes is a permissible donor and, if not, reject that donation.
My Lords, there are quite a number of amendments in this group, of which Amendment 197 is mine. I want to pay attention to amendments specifically looking at foreign interference in our elections and some of the consequences of the provisions to extend the overseas elector franchise. Under the previous group of amendments tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, we discussed foreign interference, but looked specifically at digital materials, whereas this is wider.
By way of introduction, I say that voters deserve to know that elections in the UK are free and fair, and that laws are in place to safeguard them from unlawful influence. The Bill is an opportunity to make that tighter and better. The Electoral Commission recommended introducing new duties on parties, based on existing money laundering regulations, to enhance the due diligence and risk assessment of donations. The reasons behind this are to protect parties further and to build confidence among voters that sources of party funding are thoroughly scrutinised.
Unfortunately, we do not believe that the Bill takes this into account or does enough, as the Electoral Commission recommends. We need an effective regulatory and enforcement regime that ensures that foreign and dark money cannot enter our political system through donations to political parties. We believe there is the risk not only of money coming into the system that should not be there but of losing the level playing field that we have always striven to achieve in our election law. It is disappointing that the Bill so far does not address these problems. Our amendments and those of other noble Lords aim to address this.
As it stands, the Bill creates a paradox, because it opens the floodgates for a potentially large influx of foreign-based money into our democracy while making it harder for civil society organisations, charities and trade unions to have their say—as we heard during the debates on previous days on Clauses 24, 25 and 27—despite the massive contribution they make to British life. We have tabled amendments that would protect our democracy from this foreign money that is already impacting our politics. We believe that this Bill threatens to make the situation much worse.
Concerns about how our democracy is being affected by malign foreign influences have been highlighted in the Russia report and were mentioned in the previous debate. I am sure we will hear more about this from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, when he speaks to his amendment on this specifically, so I will not go into any more details about the Russia report.
Why are we concerned that the Bill will allow even more foreign interference in our democracy? The system created by the Bill is more vulnerable to overseas interference. It allows a person to call up any and every local authority to say that they were resident in the area 30 or 40 years ago and provide what we think is fairly flimsy proof; I am sure that it will not be a photographic identification, as would be the case for other electors. Having done that, they would then be able to donate enormous sums of money, if they wished. I am sure that the Minister will say that that is not the intention but, if he accepts our amendments, he can be sure that the possibility of this happening is strictly safeguarded.
We have a number of amendments. Amendment 197 specifically looks at whether a person making a donation for political purposes is a “permissible donor”—if not, that is then rejected. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon has an amendment that would require donors to be based in the UK, and one that would prevent overseas electors from donating. My noble friend Lord Collins has an amendment about the Secretary of State publishing
“draft legislation to regulate expenditure deriving from donations by non-UK nationals.”
We also support other amendments in this group that have been tabled to provide better security against overseas donations. If the Minister has understood our genuine concerns and intends to close this loophole that will weaken our democracy, he can choose from plenty of amendments that will greatly improve the Bill. We believe that this is a serious matter and that these amendments bring proportionate safeguards.
However, if the Government do not accept these amendments or commit to introducing their own in a similar vein, it will look as if the real motivation behind these changes to overseas voting is to create a loophole in donation law that would allow donors to bankroll Conservative Party campaigns from their offshore tax havens. What other justification is there for changing the law in this way, without closing this loophole?
Let us look at some of the evidence. Research from the Times shows that, through existing methods, the Conservative Party was able to accept about £1 million from UK citizens living in tax havens ahead of the 2017 general election. The Bill takes away the barriers that kept this at just £1 million. With the situation in Ukraine, it is more important than ever to end the flow of dirty Russian money flooding into our country—and that must include political donations, to block the threat of foreign interference in our politics.
We appreciate that it is impossible for someone with only Russian nationality, however rich they are, to donate legally to a UK political party. But what has undoubtedly happened is that a series of people with dual UK-Russian nationality or with significant business links with Russia have donated heavily to the Conservative Party in recent years. Questions about Russian donors that warrant further investigation have been raised in the media during the current Prime Minister’s tenure. For example, Lubov Chernukhin has given the Conservative Party over £2 million, £1.9 million of which was given after her husband, Vladimir, received money from Suleiman Kerimov, a man who was later sanctioned by the United States Treasury, not only for being a Russian government official: he was arrested in France for smuggling in hundreds of millions of euros in suitcases.
Then there is Mr Temerko, who has donated £1.2 million to the Conservative Party. The problem is that he used to operate at the very top of the Russian arms industry, with connections high up in the Kremlin. He works with Mr Fedotov, who is a key shareholder in Aquind Ltd, which the Guardian reports has donated £700,000 to the Conservative Party, along with another firm. This is unfortunately the same Mr Fedotov who, according to the Pandora papers, has revealed that his fortune was made through an offshore financial structure in the mid-2000s, at about the time that he was allegedly siphoning funds from the Russian state pipeline company, Transneft.
Another big Tory donor in the Johnson era is the businessman Mohamed Amersi, who has given £258,000 over the period. He advised on a lucrative telecom deal in Russia in 2005, with a company that a Swiss tribunal subsequently found to be controlled by an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. We consider this extremely concerning. One reason for this is that the Sunday Times recently reported that high-value Conservative donors were invited to participate in an “advisory” group, during which they were allowed to bend the ear of the Prime Minister, senior Ministers and officials.
Members of the public have a pretty low opinion of politicians much of the time. Reports of outside influence that threatens to undermine our democracy serve only to further drive down trust. The Bill provides an opportunity to increase trust in our political system, but, unless this loophole is closed and political donations are cleaned up and given proper scrutiny, trust will continue to fall. If we are to open up our system by allowing far more overseas electors to vote, we must at the same time ban them from making donations to individual politicians and parties. That is the only way to ensure that our system does not receive unwarranted donations and influence from outside. I beg to move.
My Lords, my name is on several of the amendments in this group, and I will therefore speak to some of them.
Amendment 197 would tighten the rules on permissible donors and incorporated associations. Amendments 198 and 199 would limit permissible donations to companies and individuals resident in the UK, as would Amendments 204, 212D and 212E. Amendments 200 and 212G, the longest in this group, offer different language on the need for much more careful scrutiny of donations. Amendments 212A, 212B and 212DA, with the reference to the CSPL, would put caps on donations. The Minister will have noticed that, among other things, we are concerned that people who do not live in the United Kingdom should not be allowed to donate to political parties, even if they are on the electoral register.
In a facetious moment, I wondered whether I might table a separate amendment banning British citizens who live in Monaco or the Channel Islands from donating to political parties. Since the major motive of British citizens moving to those places is to avoid tax, that would be a way of saying that we do not want people who are deliberately avoiding paying tax in Britain to be funding political parties here, which we know happens. Some people believe that the main factor in extending overseas voting in the slipshod way it is being done is to make it easier for tax exiles to make major donations to the Conservative Party. “Perish the thought”, the Minister may say—but not everyone in the Conservative Party is as honest as he is.
I will talk mainly about Amendment 200, which some noble Lords may have noticed makes a reference to the ISC report on Russia. I remind the Minister that the Intelligence and Security Committee specifically recommended that the evidence it had collected on foreign interference in British politics should be published as fully as possible, and that the Government have said that they see no need to do so because, in their opinion, foreign interference has not been successful. That seems to be a mistake, and I hope that the Government will come to their senses and publish that evidence. So long as it remains unpublished, it will look as though the Government have something embarrassing that they are trying to hide.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, mentioned a number of major donors. One has to say in passing that it is astounding that we are now six years after the 2016 referendum and we still do not know where the largest single donation to the Brexit campaign came from. I was told by a senior figure in the City that everyone in the City knew exactly where it came from and that it had come from a foreign state. I do not know that—but we ought to be informed and we ought to have had some ability to discover where that £8 million came from.
Amendment 200 therefore includes, as do one or two others, the insistence that a
“company or limited liability partnership’s profits generated and taxable within the United Kingdom over the previous 12 months are greater than the value of the donation given.”
That is a clear reference to AQUIND and others, and the ability to create, in effect, fake companies that conduct almost no business in the United Kingdom but which serve as vehicles to provide large funds to one party or another—unfortunately, it is almost entirely one party. Restrictions on donations, foreign-influenced or foreign, must include stricter limits on unincorporated associations, limited liability partnerships and companies within the United Kingdom, and the amendment sets out various conditions and how to satisfy them.
It then moves on to the issue of donations which provide, or are thought to provide, a potential national security risk—the subject of several paragraphs of the ISC Russia report, which the Government appear not to have taken sufficiently seriously. On the risks to national security, it talks about those that may be linked
“to entities which may seek to undermine or threaten the interests of the”
UK, or have a distant and hostile ultimate controller, or are involved in criminal or illicit activities, and states that all donations above £25,000 should be treated in this way.
I will leave it to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who kindly rolled Amendments 201 to 203 into this amendment, to talk about the fit and proper test, which it goes on to cover. I suggest to the Government that we need to strengthen this part of the Bill substantially and that it would do their reputation a great deal of good if they accepted that. I also support Amendment 210 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on public contracts, because there is a not entirely unjustified fear that a nexus between external contractors and the Government could also quite easily become a corrupt two-way street.
At a slight tangent, I will add that I am also concerned by foreign influence on think tanks and contractors funding them. I was asked by a think tank to contribute not that long ago on the question of the future of public service. It was very unhappy with what I wrote for it. I discovered that it at least published on its website its major donors, which were almost entirely outsourcing companies. I thought it was very difficult to be a neutral think tank writing about the future of public service if you are funded by outsourcing companies. I had the same worry about Policy Exchange when I read its papers on freedom of speech and universities, which had a large number of footnotes to American rather than British sources, and to publications of some extremely right-wing foundations in the United States. Policy Exchange does not publish its sources of income, and there is no way, therefore, that we can discover whether it received money from those right-wing American foundations for that sort of publication. That would also be improper—but I leave that to one side.
We need to strengthen controls over public finance in the Bill: involving both major domestic donors and, much more importantly, donors with foreign influence. It is already a problem; it has contributed to a loss of confidence in public life. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be willing to accept, in some revised form or other, some of the overlapping language that appears in several of these amendments, including the ones which have my name on them.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 212. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I also fully support the position taken by my noble friend Lady Hayman on this Bill. There are a number of amendments here which all have a common concern with preventing abuse and ensuring that there is a level playing field, and my amendment is a contribution to that. Amendment 212 seeks to end abuse of “permissible donors” and prevent the flow of foreign money into UK political parties.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was really shaped by the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s fifth report, which was published in October 1998 under the chairmanship of Lord Neill of Bladen. In developing its recommendations, the committee invited evidence and considered the issue of foreign donations at some considerable length—chapter 5 of the report covers that. In its evidence to the committee, the Conversative Party stated:
“in the future we will not accept foreign donations.”
That appears on page 69 of the report. There was concern about abuse, and on page 74 the Neill committee report said:
“It is possible to imagine that a foreign corporation wishing to evade the underlying purpose of the provisions which we advocate might cause to be brought into being a UK subsidiary, the sole function of which would be to receive money from the foreign corporation and then channel it to the political party of its choice. This would clearly be an abuse of the system”.
That is a very powerful statement. The committee recommended that the legislation should consider:
“making it a criminal offence to attempt to evade or to render nugatory the statutory provisions limiting donations to those coming from ‘permissible sources’. It would, for example, be a crime for an individual in the United Kingdom, who did not, himself or herself, have the resources to make a large donation, to become a mere conduit pipe through which foreign money was channeled to a particular party.”
The legislation has been grossly circumvented and exploited. I will give a couple of examples of this—that is all I will have time for, although I am sure that the Ministers may be able to add more examples, given their experience and knowledge of the party. The first example relates to Lord Ashcroft, who was once upon a time a treasurer of the party. Around 2008 and 2009, I was asked by a number of media outlets to investigate his donations to the Conservative Party, which added up to £5,137,785. These donations were made by a company called Bearwood Corporate Services, a limited company registered in the UK. However, it never had sufficient profits to be able to pay the donations. My investigations uncovered a complex network of corporations behind it, and the aim of this network was to obfuscate the money trail.
The trail of money began with a company called Stargate Holdings Ltd, which was based in Belize and controlled by Lord Ashcroft. The moneys went in various packages from there to a UK-based company called Astraporta (UK) Ltd. From there, the moneys went to another company called Bearwood Holdings Ltd, and then from there to Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd, and then from there to the Conservative Party. The attempt was to disguise the origins. None of the companies disclosed the payment of political donations. They were all carefully constructed to ensure that they met the definition of a small company, because small companies do not need to disclose political donations. The UK companies involved in this chain either did not trade at all or had insufficient profits to enable them to make the donations. For all practical purposes, the moneys came from Belize and were finally handed over to the Conversative Party. I am sure that a lot of legal advice would have been taken in order to complete that particular route. Clearly, the moneys originated from abroad.
I reported the matter to the Electoral Commission. I told the commission that I was investigating it and what I had initially found. At the minutes of a meeting, the commission noted that it had heard from me. However, in the end, no action was taken by the Electoral Commission.
The second example, which has already been cited, relates to the company called Aquind. This company was incorporated in the UK in 2008, and over many years it remained dormant, but it has paid large sums of money to the Conservative Party. As recently as 2019-20—I have looked at its accounts—the company had no turnover. Indeed, it had no turnover at all at any time in its life. It never made any profit. So, the donations made by the company to the Conservative Party did not originate from any trade or profit in the UK; they obviously came from abroad. The company says that it is ultimately controlled from Luxembourg. I have not looked into who controls the Luxembourg entity, because there is not sufficient time, but I would be happy to take that assignment for the Conservative Party if it wished.
These two examples show how determined donors have been able to play our legal system and bypass it by carefully constructing transactions, and that is not helpful. My suggestion is that companies that make political donations should be able to make them only if they have sufficient realised profits. The term “realised profits” is well understood in the Companies Act. It is nothing new, so I am connecting to it. It generally means the company must generate profits that must result in cash or cash equivalent. If it is not trading, it cannot generate realised profits. This is a way of ensuring our legal system is not abused.
My Lords, I put my name to Amendment 200 of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I have Amendment 210 of my own. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has done most of the heavy lifting on Amendment 200, as he explained. I joined with him because I thought that, where we dealt with donations and national security risk, an additional power for the Electoral Commission—the fit and proper test—might be helpful. I tabled the amendment separately, and then, as the noble Lord explained, we wound them together so they are now one amendment.
The concept of a fit and proper test is well developed. Importantly, it lies at the heart of the powers of the Financial Conduct Authority and other financial regulators. It is important because it can put under the microscope the behaviour of individuals, not just a company itself. It has been found that, when people find that they themselves are going to go under the microscope as opposed to the company they work for, that tends to concentrate the mind rather wonderfully. The fit and proper test has a number of aspects to it that might usefully form part of the Electoral Commission’s armoury: honesty, integrity, reputation, competence and capability and financial soundness, all of which would be helpful for the Electoral Commission to have.
What I was seeking to do with the amendments here was propose a similar arrangement in respect of donations from overseas where there was a security risk. This amendment is not going to try and lay down what the fit and proper test should be in respect of this area, because that will need to be done specifically. I just gave the examples from the financial regulator to show the sorts of areas I think the Electoral Commission could usefully focus its activities on. This amendment, along with the broader amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, tabled, will give the Electoral Commission a full set of tools to police this important part of our national life.
I briefly turn to Amendment 210, which is also in this group. It is a probing amendment—it is not in a final form by any manner of means—but it would prohibit individuals or companies donating to registered political parties where they have been awarded government contracts of more than £100,000. The broad purposes would be to prevent conflicts of interest, to mitigate any appearance of impropriety relating to the awarding of an individual contract, and to contribute towards maintaining public trust and confidence after a number of scandals—Greensill springs to mind.
The amendment would also bring the UK into line with some foreign jurisdictions, in particular the United States, where it is prohibited for any person who enters into a contract with a US department or agency directly or indirectly to contribute to any political party, committee or candidate for public office, or to any person for a political purpose. Importantly, it is also unlawful to solicit any such donation, so it stretches both ways.
As I said, I do not suggest that these amendments in their present form cover all aspects of the issue, but when my noble friend comes to reply I would be grateful if he could tell the Committee whether this is an area of policy that could usefully be explored further with a view to stopping the sort of impropriety that I think we all agree disfigures our national scene.
My Lords, I will say a few words about Amendment 212G, which is in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. It concerns risk assessment and due diligence policies, controls and procedures by political parties. This would be a major change for political parties, and is very strongly suggested by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, particularly in chapter 4 of its report published in July last year. This contains several recommendations and is a very powerful case for anti-money laundering style checks. Like others, it specifically cites the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report at paragraph 4.24. I shall give some examples later.
Dirty money in UK political finance leaves parties exposed to malign influence, fosters dependence on the proceeds of crime and other dubious sources as a source of party finance, and, as my noble friend said, risks undermining the integrity of the electoral system. Under PPERA 2000, political parties are not required to run anti-money laundering checks on donors. There is no indication that UK political parties do robust checks on the source of donations, nor that parties ever reject donations after such checks have been made. I would very much welcome being contradicted on this.
As the UK’s anti-money laundering framework has progressively tightened over the last decade—I applaud the Government for the changes they have made—the checks that political parties should undertake have stayed largely unchanged since 2001. Examples from the media suggest that if parties check the source of donations at all they are woefully inadequate and fail to prevent the flow of tainted money into UK politics, with damaging effects on the health of our democracy.
The Electoral Commission, which the Government clearly do not like, has argued since 2018 that risk management principles from anti-money laundering checks by business could apply to election finance. This would greatly increase transparency for voters. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has also recommended that.
As I was listening to a CD in the car the other week, the present system reminded me of the song “Money, Money, Money”. I will misquote Tim Rice’s lyrics from “Evita”; I have changed only one word, and I will not try to sing it: “When the money keeps rolling in, you don’t keep books. You can tell you’ve done well by the happy, grateful looks. Accountants only slow things down, figures get in the way”. That is the reality of our political parties at present: they do not do the checks.
So how does this amendment address the problem? It would update PPERA to require political parties to develop and publish a reasonable and proportionate risk-based policy for identifying the true source of donations above the figure of £7,500. Parties would need to have reasonable and proportionate risk assessment and due diligence controls and procedures in respect of those policies; the framework of the policies could be set out in statutory instruments.
For any donation or aggregated amount within a year exceeding that figure, parties would need to
“undertake enhanced risk assessment and due diligence checks” to identify
“the donor’s principal place of business if different from its registered office … the nature of the donor’s business … the people with significant control of the donor’s business, and … the names of the donor’s directors or senior persons responsible for its operations.”
Donors giving more than £7,500 would need to give a written declaration as to whether their business is in a high-risk sector—these are listed in proposed new Section 54C(13) of PPERA—and whether they have been
“under formal investigation by a regulator or law enforcement body for, or convicted of,” a range of offences; these offences broadly reflect the mandatory grounds of exclusion in the Public Contracts Regulations. Further, a political party would need to
“include a statement of risk management in its annual accounts that identifies how risks relating to the true source of funds have been managed.”
All major UK political parties have accepted potentially suspect donations, including from individuals and companies that have later been found to be involved in economic crimes.
I want be fair and clear on this; I will give one example from the Labour Party. However, as the party in government since 2010—although it constantly forgets this—the Conservative Party has accepted the majority of such donations in recent years. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has increased scrutiny on the large sums that the Conservative Party has received from donors with links to the Russian state. I will deal not just with links to the Russian state but with those who have been involved in criminal activity and economic crime, and I will use media and official sources to do so.
My noble friend referred to the £1.9 million from Lubov Chernukhin so I will not go into detail on that, but my source for the following example is the Guardian. Between May 2018 and May 2021, the Conservative Party accepted £366,765 from Aquind. It was first reported in January 2021 that Aquind’s major shareholder, Viktor Fedotov—a Russian-born oil tycoon—was alleged to have been involved in a major fraud in Russia during the 2000s involving the siphoning of funds from the Russian state pipeline monopoly Transneft.
My source for this example is the Financial Times. Between September 2018 and January 2021, the Conservative Party accepted £484,570 from Mohammed Amersi; he figures in a lot of examples but this one is worth going over, even though my noble friend alluded to it. In 2006—well before that time—a Swiss tribunal found that Amersi was closely involved in a business deal involving one of Russia’s largest telecommunications companies, which was later revealed to have been controlled via Cyprus by Leonid Reiman, then Vladimir Putin’s telecoms Minister. Reports in the press claim that Amersi acted as an adviser for a Swedish telecoms company on a transaction that was later accepted by the company as a bribe to the first daughter of Uzbekistan’s ruler, Islam Karimov. Despite the existence of an internal Conservative Party memo circulating in late 2020 warning of Amersi’s business dealings circulating, the party accepted an additional £50,000 in January 2021. Naturally, Mr Amersi has denied any wrongdoing.
“an extensive list of state-connected Russian clients.”
Whichever way you check, it is basically a Russian front organisation. These clients include the Firtash Foundation, which is run by Dmitri Firtash,
“a Ukrainian gas and chemicals oligarch wanted by the US for bribery”.
He still is wanted; I think he is locked away in Austria. Of course, as I said in a recent speech, Ministers at the Ministry of Defence did business with him regarding the selling of a property to him while he hides from the United States.
New Century Media’s £900,000 a year contract with Firtash includes reputational management, personal introductions to individuals within politics, and support for his passport application. The firm has other notable—or should we say, in its terms, successful—dealings, introducing figures close to the Putin regime to Conservative politicians via donations. This included the introduction of Russian MP Vasily Shestakov and billionaire oligarch Andrei Klyamko, both close friends of Putin, to then Prime Minister David Cameron at a donors’ ball in 2014. New Century’s owner had already arranged for Shestakov to meet Prime Minister Cameron at the previous year’s ball in 2013. New Century also arranged for Sergey Nalobin, a senior diplomat at the Russian embassy, to meet Prime Minister Cameron at a Tory donor dinner in 2012. Nalobin, the son of a senior FSB spy, was expelled from the UK by the Home Office in 2015.
These Russian meetings with Cameron when he was Prime Minister take on a really new shape after the astonishing letter in the Financial Times last Wednesday,
The Independent noted in 2014 that:
“Unlike the vast majority of lobbying firms, New Century fails to provide details of its clients to the industry’s voluntary register of interests.”
While New Century Media did subsequently register with the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists in November 2019, it has still never declared a single client.
As I was preparing to speak when I thought this might come up last Thursday, I was casting around with respect to my own party. All I had to do was open the Times last Wednesday,
“One of Europe’s most wanted men was welcomed as a donor by the Conservatives and Labour despite being under investigation for bribery and fraud.”
Even after his arrest by the NCA, both parties continued to take his money. It does appear from the figures given in the Times that he favoured Labour somewhat less than the Conservatives, but we still took the money. He lied about his membership of charity trusts, the ENO and NSPCC. It is not a good story for Labour, and even less so for the Conservatives.
There are other dubious donations from sources not connected necessarily to the Russian state. I will just give one, because of time: £726,300 from Javad Marandi, an Iranian businessman with close links to the kleptocratic Azeri regime. Marandi’s business relationship with individuals reportedly connected to the Azerbaijani laundromat was first identified in 2017, after which the Conservative Party accepted the majority of his total donations of £520,000. The source there was the Guardian and the OCCRP, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
These are just a few examples. There are more I am not going to use, and other Members of the Committee will have their own. It is a simple process: political parties and other voluntary organisations—I fully accept that they are voluntary, but they are not charities—are more regulated now than they used to be, and it is just as well. Given the importance of the money, I cannot see any reason why the approach of anti-money laundering regulations that the Government have used over the last decade for other companies cannot be used for political parties. I would be interested in due course to know the views of the Government.
My Lords, I put my name to the amendment that has just been introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, because this is an important subject. The disinterested recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life need to be taken seriously, and this is probably the last opportunity to do so before the general election. By the way, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for missing the first few sentences of her speech.
The amendments in this group seem to have three common themes. The first and most important is integrity. Political parties need finance to support their operations, but money should be given to meet their expenses because the donor believes in our electoral system and in the principles of a particular party, not because he or she has an ulterior motive of self-interest. The second theme is transparency. The integrity of a donation can be judged only if its source is known. If its source is unknown—and, more especially, if it is disguised—it is very likely that the motive for the donation is an ulterior one. The third theme is to ensure that the money is clean and does not derive from activities contrary to the public interest or even criminal—what is often called dirty money. Those themes are interwoven. Dirty money can be detected only if there is transparency so that the source of the donation is known, and dirty money will almost always have an ulterior motive.
Some of the previous amendments spoken to in this group have been concerned with transparency, and in general I support them. Amendment 212G, to which I have put my name, is principally concerned with the third theme, the detection and prevention of dirty money discrediting our electoral politics. The amendment, which is very long—I did not draft it myself; I owe it to the organisation Spotlight on Corruption—can be best summed up by its opening words: it would impose a duty on political parties to
“develop and publish a reasonable and proportionate risk-based policy for identifying the true source of donations” above £7,500.
The point that I want to emphasise is that this amendment should be pushing at an open door. All political parties want and need financial support for their activities, but all political parties are discredited if it turns out that in one way or another the money is tainted. The amendment might be described as helping political parties to protect themselves—not least to prevent the embarrassment that comes later, on a scale that very often entirely undoes the benefit of the donations that they have received.
All parties have fallen on their faces over this issue. A great deal of reference has been made to the Conservative Party but I remember, as will many noble Lords, the fuss in the early days of the 1997 Labour Government about a donation of £1 million that the party had received from Bernie Ecclestone. He had a vested interest in the use of tobacco advertising on Formula 1 cars, while the Government were thinking of banning such advertisements. Mr Ecclestone had given the Labour Party one substantial donation and was offering a further one.
Prime Minister Blair asked Sir Patrick Neill, then chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, whether the party could accept the further donation. Sir Patrick Neill advised that, not only should the party decline the further donation, but that it should give back the earlier one. To his credit, I believe Mr Blair accepted that. Nevertheless, there was a great fuss and Tony Blair was severely embarrassed. Some may remember that he had to give a television interview in which he defended himself by saying that most people thought that he was a “pretty straight guy”. I think most people did think that. I am sure he wished he had not been put in that position.
I can see no conceivable reason why political parties should be opposed to having a protective machinery of the sort proposed in Amendment 212G. It implements, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said, three specific recommendations in the July 2021 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It reduces the risk of damage to the reputations of all political parties. Above all, it helps to protect our country’s electoral system and safeguard the integrity of our political life.
My Lords, Amendment 212E, in my name, seeks to draw attention to a principle Parliament has previously agreed and that should now be brought into force. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was discussed, and agreed, in much more consensual debates than is the case with the current Elections Bill. Parliament then agreed that donations and loans from an individual that are worth over £7,500—either individually or in aggregate over a calendar year—would have to be accompanied by a new declaration confirming that the donor is resident and domiciled in the UK for income tax purposes.
The Electoral Commission explained that donors would have to make the new declarations, and that those it regulates would have to ensure that they receive a declaration in respect of each relevant donation and add up donations they receive below £7,500 to check whether a declaration is needed. But this provision was not subsequently introduced. The consequences of this failure, and the real reasons for it, soon became clear. All the main parties have received donations from people who are not domiciled here and do not pay taxes here. The scale of the funding involved seriously distorts our democracy. After the 2015 general election, the Guardian reported:
“The Conservatives have raised more than £18m from wealthy donors who were domiciled abroad for tax purposes, research shows. Labour have also benefited from non-dom donors and accepted gifts of at least £8.55m. The family that controls the Lib Dem’s biggest corporate donor is also domiciled abroad”.
The provisions of the 2009 legislation should probably have been brought in before the 2010 general election, because the relative sums raised indicate why Governments since 2010 have not seen it as being in their interest to introduce these provisions. Ministers since then have tried to maintain that that the 2009 legislation approved by Parliament is unworkable, which is very convenient. But this is not the case as the Electoral Commission produced proposals nine years ago to make it workable. It is time that we insisted that all the parties—and simultaneously—are unable to take donations from those who are abroad simply to avoid paying taxes here. Only when no party can accept donations from people who may be tax exiles can all parties be expected to adhere to this principle. This amendment would bring that 2009 legislation into effect. We should not have a political system which might be described as “the best that money can buy”.
My Lords, I agree with much of what has been said so far, although I think an obvious connection—an obvious debate that we still need to have—between this question of donations from overseas and the massive extension of the electorate living overseas has been missing. The two issues are related and they raise matters of very similar principle. This extension of the franchise would be a massive change: it is an increase in the potential electorate of around 2.5 million people over a couple of years.
Of course, it will be argued that, in practice, most of those who could register as electors would not. In 2019, when the rule was that only people who had been domiciled abroad for 15 years could vote, I think about 204,000 people actually voted, which represents a turnout of about 17%, but there is absolutely no guarantee that that low turnout will persist. I say this particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who argued about the importance of connecting different aspects of the Bill, which I agree with. If we move to a system of automatic voter registration—which I am personally in favour of, but I do not expect it to come about as a result of this Bill—you have a potential additional electorate of 2.5 million people.
Once you concede the argument that it is okay for people with virtually no practical connection with this country who have lived abroad for 40, 50 or 60 years to get on the register by “attestation”—that is the word—if there is no way in which you can establish as a matter of fact that they once lived or voted in a particular constituency, albeit 50 years ago, they can get on the register by means of someone else who does qualify attesting on their behalf that they are in fact the person who lived there and they are entitled to vote. It is much easier to get on the electoral register from abroad in many respects than it is at home, particularly when we have voter ID established in the way being proposed.
But, to me, the principle at stake is about individual constituencies. To remind the House, at the last election the figures for the proportion of overseas electors in some constituencies were small. The figures are small at the moment. For example, in London and Westminster it was 2.43%, in Hammersmith it was 2.12%, and in Islington it was 2.36%. They are relatively low figures, but, of course, if you increase the electorate by potentially 2 million, even if the turnout is low, you could end up with 5,000 or 6,000 people in individual constituencies who have no connection with the area worth speaking of at all being able to vote. This could result in particular decisions being made, as they can be at elections, of crucial importance to the people living there. The most dramatic example would be a proposed hospital closure, involving very strong views on either side of the debate. The 5,000 or 6,000 people who have never lived in the constituency and who will never have to cope with the circumstance of the hospital closing could be the determining factor in the election. I am opposed to that; I just think it is wrong. It damages our democracy if there is no residence, no contact and, in truth, no responsibility for the decisions that are made.
I think what is true of voting is also true of money: if you have a situation where people who are on the register are also permitted donors, there can be a totally distorting effect—I am not going to go into the various figures that have already been given—possibly on the outcome of the election itself. If huge sums of money come from a potentially very large number of overseas electors—or even someone who is not particularly interested in voting but thinks “Well, as soon as I become someone on the electoral register, I’ll be able to donate with impunity and I’ve only got get someone to attest that I once lived in a particular area and away we go”—you have a situation where it is now money that might determine the outcome of an election. This is money from people with nothing but a slender and tenuous connection with the country, in this case, in which they are not going to be living with the consequences of their money having a significant effect on the outcome of a general election.
Simply put, if you think as I do—let us leave all the specific allegations about specific donors at specific times—there is surely no argument but that these two issues of ability to vote and ability to donate are closely related issues that, in their different ways, can distort the outcome of a general election. I certainly, for one, think that something needs to be done about it.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I remind him of the third link in this, which is that campaigning for overseas voters is going to be very expensive and the advantage will go to the party that has the most money, in terms of contacting them and soliciting their vote. So, in terms of a level playing field, the addition of another 2.5 million overseas voters tips the balance even further in favour of the richest party.
My Lords, this has been a hugely interesting and terribly important debate. I am now going to take what you might describe as the traditional Green role of going much further than anyone has gone before in seeking to deliver what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, called for in introducing this group: free and fair elections. That is what I think we are all aiming for. Before I do that, I think perhaps I should—given the direction the debate in group one today took—declare in retrospect my position as vice-president of the LGA, and apologise for not doing that earlier.
Given the hour, I am going to restrict myself to commenting on Amendments 212A and 212B, which appear in my name. They do bear some relationship to Amendment 212DA in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which goes in a similar direction but in a more limited way. Like many noble Lords, I am drawing particularly on the 13th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life entitled Political Party Finance: Ending the Big Donor Culture—which is what my amendment seeks to do.
Amendment 212A amends the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act to set a donation cap of £500 from any individual donor or corporation to each party or candidate, either with a single donation or cumulatively by multiple donations through a calendar year. Clause 1(2) specifically excludes trade unions from that cap, which I think deserves some explanation. One of the Green Party’s policies for a sustainable society states:
“Donations from democratic membership organisations (such as trade unions) provide a useful method for ordinary people to pool resources in order to exert influence”.
It could be argued that there may be other organisations similar to that—I think of the RSPB, perhaps, as an example—that might choose, as a group, to give a larger donation. But the practical reality is that most of those are charities, and our charity law means that is not practically going to be an issue.
I would like to acknowledge that there is potential flaw in the way this amendment is written—and it certainly needs some more work—in that it does allow a donor to give £500 to potentially every single candidate, which would obviously come to a very large sum of money, which is not the intention of the amendment. This was done because the donation rules apply separately to parties and to individual candidates—but this is something I will work on in terms of this amendment.
With that proviso, this is an amendment that could truly revolutionise our elections. Indeed, it could go a long way to making the United Kingdom a democracy. Currently, very large donations are a major factor, perhaps a deciding factor, in our elections and other votes. The dictionary definition of an oligarchy is “a small group of people having control of a country or organisation”. I might add “party”. There is a strong case for saying that that fits the UK better than the definition of a democracy. Perhaps that has always been the case, but certainly now, since we have a situation where technology allows huge online spending to reach voters in a targeted way—far more than anyone using up their shoe leather to knock on doors and deliver leaflets possibly could.
I am not really expecting the Government to say, “Yes, we want to transform our elections and make them wonderfully democratic and set a £500 maximum donation limit in a year”. But I have a real question which I would very much appreciate an answer to from the Minister. I note that, responding to the Committee on Standards in Public Life report in 2011, the then coalition Government said:
“The amount any one individual, organisation or institution can give in political donations should be limited.”
So I ask the Minister: do the Government accept that there should be a limit, whatever that limit is, on how much one organisation or individual can give? Should it really be the case, as it is now, that there is no limit?
I note that a political party’s spending is capped at £30,000 for each constituency that it contests in a general election. So if a party stood a candidate in each of 650 UK constituencies, its maximum spend would total £19.5 million. Indeed, I am indebted to the Library for some very rapid research this afternoon. The figures have not yet been fully published, but it would appear that the Conservatives spent not very far off £16.5 million in the 2019 election and about the same in 2017, according to the published figures.
That might seem to be a kind of limit. One donor could fund an entire general election campaign. But, of course, that spending covers only the regulated period and only the regulated spending, which is far from everything that political parties spend. Funding outside election periods would, so far as I can see, be utterly unlimited.
If you think I am talking in terms of theoretical possibilities here, you might want to look across the channel to the United States of America whose political direction, for many ills, we very often follow. A useful report produced last year by Issue One, a non-partisan group that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics, totalled some of the contributions from what it called “megadonors”—multiple Wall Street billionaires and investors, a Facebook cofounder, a shipping magnate and an heir to a family fortune dating back more than a century. If you look at those figures, you see that at the top of the list is Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who spent $1.3 billion, which is about £1 billion. Of that, $1 billion went towards his own failed campaign for president in 2020.
This is a pattern that we are increasingly seeing around the world, where money can buy you the politics you want—or at least you can make a very effort at it. It seems that the natural conclusion is to buy yourself, or the party created or reshaped in your own image, office. In my native land, the United Australia Party has said that in the forthcoming federal election it plans to spend more than it did in 2019, when the figure topped 80 million Australian dollars, which is about £45 million. It was previously known as Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and the Palmer United Party, and it was formed and overwhelmingly funded by the mining magnate Clive Palmer.
I would be very interested in anyone’s answer to the question of why people should be able to buy the politics they want and why people can make serious efforts to buy control of the whole country. That is what is happening and we have nothing in our law to stop it. A lot of our discussion in this group has focused on foreign money in politics and we have heard many powerful accounts of why that should be so. For example, the wife of President Putin’s former deputy Finance Minister, a British citizen acting legally, has donated almost £2 million to the Conservative Party since 2012, making her the largest female donor in history, but if we focus on foreign donors, that only partially addresses this issue.
Why should anybody, whatever their residence, status or citizenship history, be able to buy our politics? If they are a businessperson or an inheritor of family wealth, surely they are likely to influence politics in the direction of maintaining that wealth. Why should they be able to do that? I am sure there is many a nurse tonight, struggling hard to do his best for his patients in the NHS, who would love to influence our politics to improve its resourcing. A farmer might have very strong thoughts about the direction of UK trade policy and its impact on food, health and environmental standards. A family carer, struggling along on an allowance of £87 a week, might have strong views on the adequacy of that. Why should their voice be any less than anyone else’s?
I was discussing this amendment with a Member of your Lordships’ House who I will not identify, because it was a private conversation. They exclaimed in a tone that I think could best be described as horror, “But we couldn’t run an election on that!”—noble Lords might guess that they were not from the Green Party. I invite your Lordships’ House to consider a different kind of election, one based on passion, ideas, commitment and genuine engagement with the public, rather than a continual bombardment of slogans—which would probably consist of three words—endlessly, from every media source, as a replacement for actual politics and policies.
I understand that there are some ways of reaching voters that quite reasonably cost money, such as leaflet or video production, so I agree that Amendment 212A implies state funding for political parties. We collectively get the politics that we fund. If we all paid for politics, it would be our politics—what a refreshing idea. I think we will get to those points in the ninth group, with the very interesting amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, so I will leave my comments on that till then.
Amendment 212B is rather more technical. There will be people in your Lordships’ House who know a great deal more about this than I do, and I would be very interested in any comments. This amendment would revive Section 68 of PPERA, requiring declaration of multiple small donations by an individual which total £5,000 or more in any year. The figure of £5,000 is what was used in Section 68 of PPERA originally. I have tabled this amendment because, when I had some experts look at the donation rules for Amendment 212A, we realised that Section 68 of PPERA had been repealed, but neither our team, nor the House of Lords Library, could find any justification recorded for the repeal. It does not seem to have been discussed in any parliamentary debates.
It ought to be revived because of the online nature of many political donations now. It is possible and easy to make many small donations that could total a very large figure. This perhaps sounds theoretical, but a person could donate £1 billion by making 1 billion donations of £1. None of those donations would have to be declared to the Electoral Commission and none of the verification that is done with larger donations would have to be made. That is obviously wrong. Questions have been asked about recent election donations. I will not go into those, but I have identified a clear risk here. Indeed, both of my amendments identify very clear risks that have to be addressed.
My Lords, I support the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Hayman.
In view of the lateness of the hour, the Committee will not welcome my repeating the arguments that have already been made, but the noble Lord, Lord Butler, correctly identifies the qualities which are needed for what we all want: an electoral process that has integrity. Whatever our differences around the Chamber, none of us would want to live in a world where you can, to put it bluntly, buy an election. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, referred to the United States. In its constitution, under the definition of “free speech”, people can spend as much money as they like in furtherance of their own beliefs, which is why billionaires can buy their way into public office. We do not want that system here.
Amendment 212C has not been moved yet, but I want to refer to it because it seeks to make it an offence for anyone who
“makes false statements about the integrity of the electoral process.”
I would call that the Donald J Trump amendment, because I cannot think of a single person in history who has made more false statements about the integrity of any political process than the former President of the United States. However superficially attractive Amendment 212C may be, the better safeguard to protect the integrity of our system is that outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Butler.
My Lords, I think that I am now the 11th Peer to tell the Minister that the legislation is not strong enough when it comes to protecting our elections from the financial bigwigs. Indeed, there was a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life last July. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord True, is back with us for the next stage of this Bill, but we have had some discussions with him about how many of those recommendations in last year’s report the Government believe that they have incorporated in this Bill. He has been a little bit coy about that; I might perhaps try to tempt the noble Baroness or the noble Earl to try a little harder on which of the 47 recommendations in last July’s report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life the Government believe that they have incorporated in this Bill, and which ones they are positively rejecting.
However, I want to speak about a preceding report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2011. I thought that maybe if it had a 10-year run-in, there might be a better chance that we would achieve success in this Bill from some of its recommendations. Noble Lords will know that I am a member of CSPL, but I certainly was not in 2011—I was fulfilling a different role then. That report reviewed the case for having any kind of financial limits on elections. The top risk is the risk of capture of a political party by donors, capture of its policy, its practice and its personnel. Regarding policy, some of us have been frustrated for a long time by the inability of successive Governments to get to grips with tax havens around the world. I am sure that it is completely unconnected that a number of donors live in tax havens, but it could be something which the public would be suspicious about, even if we are far too knowing to believe that a party might be influenced by that.
What about the difficulty in bringing offshore banking onshore? Could that have anything to do with where donors are starting from and where they are banking? What about getting a beneficial ownership register of all companies and making Companies House work properly? Again, we find very little progress, which is very much in the interests of people who make big donations to political parties.
So policy can be affected, perhaps by slowing it down or perhaps by driving it slowly into the sand. Some of us think that this Bill is a victim of that, with so many proposals not grasped but avoided. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones gave some powerful evidence about the way in which there has been a failure, in this Bill, to confront electronic campaigning, as has been recommended to the Government by many bodies and persons.
There is a risk of capture of policy and of practice, and that is in how government acts and what happens. I point to the free market for high-end property purchasing in London, which has suddenly come to a grinding halt, at least as far as some purchasers are concerned. Obviously, it serves the economy of the UK fine to sell hugely overpriced houses and leave them empty, while various dictators in the former Soviet Union sit on their extracted wealth, but it is not all about foreign donors.
I bring to your Lordships another situation where government practice has been distorted by motives that are not necessarily in the best interests of public service. I refer to the company PPE Medpro, reported in the Guardian this morning as having secured a contract for the supply of 25 million sterilised surgical gowns during the pandemic. Those gowns were bought by PPE Medpro for £46 million and sold to the Government for £122 million. In this case, the money is going in the opposite direction to the one we have been talking about for most of this group of amendments. According to the Guardian report, it turns out that those sterilised surgical gowns were, in fact, unsterilised; they were not double-wrapped and they a had false or misleading BSI test number on them. I understand the Department of Health is trying to get its money back, but the mindset that led to that fiasco unfolding is part of the capture, by big donors and big-donor thinking, of a political party.
Then there is personnel—policy, practice and personnel. It is almost embarrassing to say it, but recommendation 19 of the 2011 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was that there should be full publication of the criteria for political appointments to the House of Lords. I plead guilty as a political appointment to the House of Lords, as probably should a number of other noble Lords here, but it makes the point that there is an unhealthy connection between money, donations and preferment. It is not simply the House of Lords that is in scope.
Amendment 212DA in my name repeats two of the recommendations from that 2011 CSPL report. In fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, quoted from it but, for the purposes of time, left out some words beyond the end of that quote. Recommendation 1 states that there should be a limit of £10,000, which is the figure I have included in this amendment. There should be a democracy of donors, as was spelled out by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
Recommendation 6 of that report figures in the second part of my amendment, in that there should be a reduction in national election spending limits of 15%. That was from the CSPL in 2011; the election spending limits had been in place for five years, at that time, and the committee thought they should be reduced by 15%. Fair enough—they have not been increased, but it has now been proposed that they should be increased by over 60%. Far from the 15% reduction that the CSPL thought was sensible 10 years ago, the Government now propose that they are increased by 60%.
I would put in a case for CSPL’s proposals and recommendations and therefore for my amendment. I also strongly support the other amendments that have been put forward. Perhaps the most powerful—not to decry any of the others—is what I have chosen to call the Rooker-Butler amendment, Amendment 212G, which should put the wind up every political party if it comes into force. It proposes that there should be a “risk assessment” for all donations over £7,500. It seems to me that, as a basis for proceeding further, it can hardly be beaten. But I cannot leave out the amendment of my noble friend Lord Wallace and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that would capture “unincorporated associations” as well—this is recommendation 10 of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report of 2011.
I finish by simply saying that the Government may or not be ready to take on the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report from last year, but, for goodness’ sake, will they please agree to take on those that it made 10 years ago and that have still not been implemented?
My Lords, this group of amendments brings us to the subject of political donations, and I am grateful for the contributions from all sides of the House on this topic. I have listened carefully and noted the strength of feeling that clearly exists around it.
I will start with a word of general reassurance: the integrity of our political system is of the utmost importance to Her Majesty’s Government and, without doubt, all parliamentarians—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, was quite right in what he said on that score. Therefore, it is vital that the rules on political donations are kept continually under review. We must ensure that they continue to provide an effective safeguard to protect that system integrity.
Therefore, it is right that, as a matter of principle and practice, UK electoral law already sets out a stringent regime of controls on political donations to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations—and that political donations are transparent. This includes registered UK electors, registered overseas electors, UK-registered companies that are carrying out business in the UK, trade unions and other UK-based entities. Donations from individuals not on the UK electoral register, such as foreign donors, are not permitted. There is only a very limited exception to this, whereby, for political parties registered in Northern Ireland, permissible donors also include Irish citizens and organisations, provided that they meet prescribed conditions. This special arrangement reflects the specific context in Northern Ireland.
In order to address the tabled amendments and contributions as fully as I can, I propose to frame my response thematically. I turn first to Amendments 198,199, 204, 212D and 212E, all of which make reference to alleged “foreign donations”. I am afraid that this group of amendments does not find favour with the Government because they seek to remove the rights of overseas electors to make political donations as well as to remove the right to make donations from non-UK nationals who are registered to vote in the UK. Overseas electors are British citizens who have the right to vote; they are important participants in our democracy, as are non-UK nationals on the electoral register. We intend to uphold the long-standing principle that, if you are eligible to vote for a party, you are also eligible to donate to that party. Amendments 198, 199, 204 and 212D would ignore that principle by removing the rights of overseas electors entirely.
I must repudiate the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, that this is all about increasing political donations to the Conservative Party. The Bill delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment to remove the arbitrary 15-year limit on the voting rights of British expatriates, broadening their participation in our democracy.
The issues at stake here are matters of principle. Supporters of many parties back votes for life. The Liberal Democrats pledged in their two most recent manifestos to scrap the 15-year rule. In addition, one of the most passionate and high-profile campaigns for votes for life has been led by Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy and is 100 years old, a World War II veteran and the longest serving member of the Labour Party. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, that this measure will not open the floodgates to foreign political donations. Registered overseas electors are eligible to make political donations as important participants in our democracy. It is only right that they should be able to donate in the same way as other UK citizens registered on the electoral roll. I say again: the changes within this Bill will simply scrap the arbitrary 15-year limit on these rights.
I will come to the subject of caps on donations in a moment.
On Amendment 212E, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, recently tabled a Question for Written Answer about the uncommenced provision in the 2009 Act. This provision, Section 10, refers to residence and domicile for income tax purposes as a criterion for permissible political donations. Although a response was issued to him by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh on
The Government have no current plans to bring into force the uncommenced provision, Section 10 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, regarding donations from non-resident donors. There is a very good reason for this: the provision is not workable given that an individual’s tax status is subject to confidentiality. It may therefore be difficult or even impossible for the Electoral Commission, political parties and other campaigners to accurately determine whether a donor meets the test set out in Section 10.
Furthermore, as a matter of principle, taxation is not connected to enfranchisement in the UK. If a British citizen is able to vote in an election for a political party, they should be able to donate to that political party subject to the requirements for transparency on donations. There is clear precedent here. Full-time students are legally exempt from paying council tax but still have the right to vote. Likewise, those who do not pay income tax rightly remain entitled to vote. For these reasons, the Government cannot support these amendments.
The other key theme that this debate has focused on is that of donations made by companies or other entities such as unincorporated associations. I will address Amendments 197, 198, 200, 210, 212 and 212G in the remarks that follow. As I have said before, only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations, such as UK-registered companies which are carrying out business in the UK, trade unions and other UK-based entities. There is only a very limited exception to this, whereby, as I indicated earlier, for political parties registered in Northern Ireland permissible donors are a wider category.
The law is already clear that, if a company wants to donate to a party or fund a campaign, it must be a permissible donor. The recipient of a donation is responsible for checking that the donor is eligible; that is to say that it is registered in the UK and carrying out business in the UK. The recipient must also report the relevant donations to the Electoral Commission quarterly, and weekly during election periods. To ensure transparency about party funding, donation reports are published by the Electoral Commission on its online database.
Unincorporated associations are permissible donors only where they carry on business or other activities wholly or mainly in the United Kingdom and where their main office is in the UK. Further to this, any unincorporated associations making political contributions of more than £25,000 in a calendar year must notify the Electoral Commission and are subsequently subject to various reporting requirements relating to their own funding. Members’ associations, many of which are unincorporated associations, are separately regulated as regulated donees and must report on donations and loans that they receive.
Amendment 197 would introduce a new obligation on unincorporated associations to take all reasonable steps to check whether donations they receive intended for political purposes come from a permissible donor. At first glance, “all reasonable steps” appears perfectly reasonable. However, this would represent a significant change for unincorporated associations which, as I outlined previously, are already subject to significant reporting requirements. It singles them out from other types of donors and puts them instead closer to the level of political parties in their due diligence obligations. This could mean many voluntary groups and local sports clubs and societies all facing a significant extra due diligence cost simply because they fall into an unlucky category. That does not strike me as fair, and I would be concerned about the possible chilling effect on democratic participation of those groups.
Amendment 198 is an attempt to restrict donations from organisations. As drafted, it would exclude UK-based companies with fewer than five employees from making donations. Furthermore, it is unclear how one would determine who has “significant control” of an unincorporated association, as their governance structures are not regulated in the same way as other legal entities. Although I am sure this was not the intention, it demonstrates quite well the risk of serious unintended consequences if amendments which place restrictions on who can participate in our democracy are made with haste and without consultation. Furthermore, Amendment 198 would make it an offence for an ineligible company to even offer a donation, regardless of whether it is accepted and regardless of whether it was aware the donation it was offering is impermissible. This is unnecessary.
Donations from impermissible donors are already illegal, and it is the political parties and campaign groups receiving the money, the ones which better know and understand this area of law, which are accountable and responsible for checking, returning and reporting impermissible donations. In addition—this point has been highlighted previously—it is an offence for a donor knowingly to facilitate the making of an impermissible donation.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for his Amendment 210, which would prohibit donations from individuals or companies that hold public contracts with a value equal to or exceeding £100,000. The complexities of procurement frameworks are slightly beyond the scope of this debate, but let me say that, while well-intentioned, it is not clear how this amendment would operate in practice. Seemingly, there is no limitation on a person making a donation to a party prior to entering into a contract with a public body, and it is unclear whether the prohibition extends beyond the lifetime of the contract and, if so, for how long. It is important to note that the existing legislation already provides for publication of donations to political parties, regulated donees and recognised third-party campaigners, therefore enabling any discerning citizen and our free press to scrutinise any large donations.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for his Amendment 212. As he explained, the intention of this amendment is to prevent shell companies being used to make large donations. Similar concerns on source of donations underpin Amendment 200 and the substantial Amendment 212G from the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Butler, which would introduce requirements for registered parties to carry out risk assessments and due diligence checks on donations.
However, as I have already outlined, there are strict rules requiring companies making donations to be incorporated and carrying out business in the UK. Existing rules also prohibit circumventing the rules through proxy donors. That is on top of a legal requirement for political parties and other recipients to conduct permissibility checks and report to the Electoral Commission.
The principle of strengthening the system to provide greater levels of assurance on the sources of donations to ensure they are permissible and legitimate is important. We take seriously the risk of donors seeking to evade the rules. Indeed, the Government recently set out their final position on the reforms to the corporate registration framework, ahead of introducing legislation, in the Corporate Transparency and Register Reform White Paper.
The introduction of mandatory identity verification for those incorporating and filing with Companies House will be essential for making information on the companies register more reliable. It will mean that those with the intention of fraudulently misusing the UK corporate registration framework will have their activities traced and challenged. For example, all directors of UK limited companies will be required to verify their identity in order to be registered, and overseas companies will be required to verify the identity of all their directors. This, in combination with a new power for the Companies House registrar to proactively pass on relevant information to law enforcement and other public and regulatory bodies, including the Electoral Commission, will help ensure that any company making political donations is properly trading in the United Kingdom.
However, we do not want to impose disproportionate legal obligations that hinder the ability of parties and other campaigners to generate funds against the cost of carrying out checks on donations to ensure that they come from permissible sources. To do so would risk it not being cost effective for parties to accept smaller donations and therefore exclude some people from being able to participate in our democracy in this way. The current rules are proportionate and achieve this balance.
I am listening carefully to the Minister. Going back, say, a decade before the Government started to tighten up the anti-money laundering rules, companies, accountants, company secretaries and company lawyers all said, “Our professional obligations and institutions require us to do all these checks.” But they were not doing them, hence the Government had to bring in some anti-money laundering rules. Why are political parties any different?
My Lords, I hope I have already explained how the Government intend to legislate in the future to create greater transparency of companies. As I said at the beginning, all we can do is keep the rules under review. I am suggesting that in this particular area, the balance is about right.
I will answer the noble Lord’s point about the Committee on Standards in Public Life in a moment, if he will allow. First, I turn to Amendment 200, jointly tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and my noble friend Lord Hodgson, which seeks to introduce new restrictions on donations. The amendment seeks to confer additional powers on the Electoral Commission to identify donations that the commission considers to be a risk to national security or that do not meet a “fit and proper test”, to be determined by the Secretary of State.
This is not the commission’s role or area of expertise, and it would therefore be entirely inappropriate to give it this responsibility to assess risks to national security. The commission is simply not equipped to make some of the judgments proposed by this amendment. The commission has said of this proposal that it
“would be a significant change to our current remit and is not a role we are seeking, as the benefits of this proposal over and above the work of the established security agencies are not clear”.
Put simply, countering foreign interference is the responsibility of the Government, the appropriate law enforcement agencies and the intelligence services, not the Electoral Commission.
The Government already work closely with a range of partners, including the Electoral Commission, to maintain the integrity of democratic processes and take the necessary steps to tackle the risk of foreign interference. The cross-government Defending Democracy programme brings together capabilities and expertise from across departments, security and intelligence agencies and other partners to ensure that democracy remains open, vibrant and secure. In support of this, the Government have set out their intention to bring forward separate legislation to counter state threats. This will give our security services and law enforcement agencies the additional tools they need to tackle the evolving and full range of state threats.
The amendment would also require the Electoral Commission to determine whether a donor meets a “fit and proper” test in respect of the integrity and reputation of the person, based on criteria set out by the Secretary of State. It is our view that the rules are already clear about who is a permissible donor. Beyond this, any further judgments about the appropriateness of receiving a particular legal donation are for the recipient of the donation to judge, and for those recipients to justify their decision through scrutiny enabled by the transparency in our system. It should not be for the Electoral Commission to make these judgments on behalf of others.
Transparency of electoral funding is a key cornerstone of the UK’s electoral system. As drafted, the amendment would add unnecessary complexity to electoral regulation and task the Electoral Commission with national security responsibilities beyond its regulatory remit.
Finally, I will address the series of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, relating to the values of donations. Amendment 212A, from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, seeks to cap donations that any one individual or organisation can make to a party or candidate at £500 a year. It provides for one exception: donations from trade unions. If this measure was adopted, it would mean that trade unions would be the only donor group capable of making significant contributions to political parties and campaigners. It seems quite an uneven approach, to say the least, to restrict everyone except trade unions from making political contributions.
Would the noble Earl acknowledge that trade unions are different? They are highly regulated and the law was changed to ensure that every individual who makes a contribution to a political fund has to approve it. It is contracting in now—a change this Government made without consultation with other parties. So to put trade unions in the category of a millionaire or a corporate company is totally wrong.
I have explained why they are a unique case: you have already changed the law without consultation with any party. You changed the rules, forcing individual trade union members to contract in to their political funds. Their political funds are highly regulated and highly controlled, and were subject to a change in the law—so they are different.
I do not contradict the noble Lord in any respect as to what he said about trade unions. I say again that I cast no aspersions on trade unions or their practices at all. I am simply saying that it seems unfair and undemocratic to have this distinction made in the way the noble Baroness seeks to do in her amendment.
Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. There is no cap on political donations because parties, candidates and other types of campaigner have strict limits on what they can spend on regulated campaign activities during elections.
The other amendment in the noble Baroness’s name—
Before the Minister goes on to the next amendment, I asked whether he agreed that there should be any limit. If we imagine an election campaign, one party’s spending limit is about £20 million. Does the Minister think it appropriate that one person can donate £20 million for an entire election campaign? What does he think that would do to our democracy?
My Lords, there are two issues there: one is the question that the noble Baroness seems to be asking, which is whether there should be a limit on donations, and the other is whether there should be a limit on spending. There is a limit on spending in general elections, as she well knows. If she is asking whether I think there should be a cap on donations, I have to say that I do not.
Sorry, perhaps I was not clear. To put it another way, should there be a maximum percentage that one person can donate to one party’s campaign? If a campaign is funded to the maximum spending limit by one person, it is one person’s campaign. Does the Minister think that would be appropriate?
That is a highly hypothetical question. I would be happy to give it consideration. For the moment I have to say that the answer is no, but I will reflect on it.
The other amendment in the noble Baroness’s name, Amendment 212B, seeks to place new obligations on donors to report donations to the Electoral Commission where the aggregate total for the year is over £5,000. Yes, there should be transparency around any significant amount of money funding parties and election campaigns, but that does not mean putting the burden on donors. It is for political parties and candidates—the recipients of the donations, who are familiar with the rules—to keep accounting records and report donations over the relevant thresholds to the Electoral Commission. Placing any unnecessarily bureaucratic responsibility on donors such as individual citizens could lead to a chilling effect and discourage people from making donations.
Amendment 212DA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, seeks to cap donations to political parties at £10,000 per calendar year. Perhaps inadvertently, it would require that every penny in a collection box be recorded and attributed to someone, effectively spelling an end to small donations. Even more significantly, the Government cannot, on principle, support caps on donations as this would only lead to taxpayers footing the bill for the inevitable funding shortfall. There is absolutely no public support for expanding the level of public funding already available to political parties. Public funds should be focused on delivering world-class public services and levelling up communities across our country.
The noble Lord asked about the recommendations in the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Government responded to the report published by the CSPL on regulating election finance in September last year. The Elections Bill already contains measures that closely link to recommendations made in that report, such as the new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third- party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners. However, as the Government response stated, the recommendations in the report deserve full consideration, and more work must be done to consider the implications and practicalities, which, I hope the noble Lord will acknowledge, are very considerable.
In conclusion, controls on electoral funding and transparency of electoral funding are a key cornerstone of the UK’s electoral system and contribute to a healthy democracy. UK electoral law sets out a stringent regime of donations controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can make political donations and that political donations are transparent. The Government absolutely recognise the risk posed by those who wish to evade the rules on donations. That is why there are existing provisions which explicitly prohibit money being funnelled through permissible donors by impermissible donors, and why it is an offence for donors and campaigners to purposefully evade the rules.
It is right that voters and organisations with a legitimate interest in UK elections be able to donate to political parties, candidates and campaigns. Our democracy is strengthened by people donating to campaigns that they believe in. I am, of course, aware that stories about political donations are never far from the newspapers, but rather than being indicative of a broken system, I firmly believe that this is a sign of the system working. The checks that parties and other campaigners are required to carry out and the reports published by the Electoral Commission allow the press and the public to scrutinise political donations. It is very important to balance the need for parties and other campaigners to generate funds against the cost of actually carrying out checks on donations to ensure they come from permissible sources. The current rules are proportionate and achieve that balance. I hope that, on that basis, noble Lords will feel able not to move their amendments when they are reached, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, feels able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this large group of amendments. In responding to my amendment, he said that there was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to extend the franchise for overseas electors. My amendment was not about that manifesto commitment; it was about the donations that could then come in through that action. I was not saying that that should not happen. The amendment was specifically related to donations, and that is what I want to come back to now.
I think we can say that we disagree as to whether excessive foreign donations being allowed to come into our politics is a good thing and whether there should be a cap on them. If the Government feel that stopping overseas donations is not an option, in my opinion, we should certainly look at whether we can cap the amounts.
I agree strongly with the first thing the Minister said: the integrity of our electoral law is of the utmost importance. This is why there has been so much concern in this debate over whether that integrity is being undermined by the way in which political donations currently work. I know that the Minister said that the current laws manage this, but it is really disappointing that he does not accept the great concerns that have been raised about how donations can ultimately buy political influence. We must be very careful in our country that we do not tip into the way in which other countries have operated when donations get very large. I just wish that the Government would accept that there is a problem and that it needs to be nipped in the bud. This is an opportunity to legislate for that.
I will finish by saying that a lot of strength of feeling on this issue has been expressed in Committee today. I am sure that we will return to this on Report but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 197 withdrawn.
Amendments 198 to 200 not moved.
Amendments 201 to 203 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendment 204 not moved.