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6.15 pm

Mr. Bercow: I was rather perturbed by the Minister's unsubtle attempt at censorship of the views of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr Spring). In the context of the funding and operation of political parties,

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may I put it on record for the House that in the event of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) becoming leader of my party, I for one intend to express my views about European political parties as forcefully in the future as I have in the past?

Peter Hain: And a jolly good thing too. I do not imagine that the hon. Gentleman will be doing so from the Front Bench.

Mr. Bercow: No.

Peter Hain: Exactly. I am anxious to see the hon. Member for West Suffolk—a very able Front Bencher—continue to sit on the Opposition Front Bench for as long as possible; I am concerned about his career.

There is a problem with the situation as it has developed over the years. The political groups within the European Parliament receive money from that Parliament's budget for their day-to-day organisation, and that can leak through to the European political parties. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, who knows what he is talking about because he has been in the European Parliament.

To put it in simple terms—as is often necessary for Conservative Members—it is as if some of the so-called Short money in the House of Commons leaked from the parliamentary Labour party to the Labour party, or from the parliamentary Conservative party to the Conservative party. We do not allow that, and with the new procedures, we want to build in exactly the same bars in the European Parliament as we have here.

We must regulate to ensure that the funding of European political parties is fully transparent and properly audited, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly argued so convincingly. That is why the regulations recommended by the European Court of Auditors will combat financial mismanagement. I would have thought that we would have the wholehearted support of Conservative Members in that. That is why the principle of such regulation is supported by the PES and the ELDR, to which the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats respectively belong. It is also supported by the EPP, to which the Conservative party is allied—and to which, if the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe becomes leader, it will become affiliated. That is why member states are negotiating suitable regulation that will stop financial abuse. They are doing so under the provisions in article 308 of the EC treaty. We support that, and we want action as soon as possible to clean up such funding.

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister come to the question of the definition and the criteria that enable people to qualify for those arrangements? The key question is what one stands for; if one stands for something outside European integration, one is clearly at risk.

The Minister shakes his head, but that is the burden of the Schleicher report.

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman is erecting false phantoms. A report is a report; in the end, this is a matter for negotiation between Governments. The Nice treaty, by means of amended article 191 of the EC treaty,

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provides a specific new treaty base for such measures. Qualified majority voting will ensure that the provisions governing European political parties' funding are agreed, or, as necessary, updated speedily. No single member state will be able to block much needed reforms. That is important.

The Opposition have made various charges, and I shall demolish them one by one.

Mr. Francois: Does the Minister agree that it is possible to summarise the way in which parties would qualify for the money by saying that although it is not necessary to be fully in favour of European integration, it certainly helps?

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman is new, so I shall be charitable to him—but the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Stone applies to his question, too.

The Opposition claimed that the measure would finance national parties. It will not. We secured at Nice, in explicit language, the condition that no European Community money going to European political parties would be transferred, directly or indirectly, to national political parties. Not a penny will go to the Labour party or to any other domestic British political party.

The hon. Members for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Stone implied that the measure amounted to "funds for federalism". It does not. There will be no discrimination against parties on the grounds of their attitude to European Union integration. European political parties that oppose the EU, or its further integration, will be just as eligible as those that think the opposite. In the Nice treaty negotiations, the Government secured explicit language covering that matter too. We protected the interests of Opposition Members, and we ought to get a bit of credit for that for a change.

The Nice treaty and the proposed regulation will not, as was suggested, give the EU the power to ban political parties. That is a ridiculous suggestion. It will not transfer power to the Community. The declaration that we agreed at Nice states:

Opposition Members have claimed that the treaty would discriminate against the Conservative party. It will not. The measure is to do with funding European political parties, not national ones. I am sorry that the Conservatives have not found a European political party that shares their agenda on Europe. That may change after the leadership election. The French Gaullists' decision to join will leave the Tories as the only major right wing party outside the group of the European People's party. That is their choice, and we do not quarrel with it. They can choose to join a European political party, or to form a new one that meets the objective criteria which will be laid down in the measures to be agreed. It is up to them. They can form their own party and qualify in exactly the same way that other parties do. There is no discrimination in that.

The measure will improve financial accountability and rigour, and end abuses in the financing of European political parties. That is something that we would have expected the Opposition to welcome. The proposal to

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regulate European political parties is another plank in our European Union reform strategy. That is why we support it, and reject the amendments.


The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have now to announce the result of the Divisions deferred from a previous day.

On the motion on section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, the Ayes were 318, the Noes were 179, so the motion was agreed to.

On the motion on Social Security, the Ayes were 324, the Noes were 178, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

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European Communities (Amendment) Bill

Further considered.

Mr. Spring: First, I thank the Minister of State for his kind words about my political future. He is a shining and living example of life after death as a Foreign Office Minister, and I congratulate him on his ability to survive.

The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) spoke about the funding of political parties. In practice and by definition, the prejudice will be against a national political party that does not wish to subscribe to an integrationist agenda and which thus escapes being cemented to a political grouping. The Minister understands that perfectly well.

I can tell the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) that we accept that there has been leakage. The idea that article 191 must be extended to deal with that leakage is absurd overreaction. There are very simple ways of dealing with leakage, and we would support them entirely. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we encourage debate among all political groupings in the EU.

Sadly, the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) is not here, but he made some interesting contributions to the debate. He said that 7 million euros was a piffling amount of money, yet what is at stake is not the amount of money but the principle. In any case, the amount of money can be increased.

I can tell the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) that we have no objection to the formation of political groupings. People have a democratic right to form such groupings. We are anxious to ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny of this important matter, which has been such a flashpoint in the EU. I am happy to pay tribute to the European Scrutiny Committee and all its members, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong to think that the Committee will be adequate when it comes to studying the measure. There should be total transparency with regard to finances, and nothing should be opaque.

On scrutiny, I believe that, given the difficulties in the EU and the controversial aspects of the proposal, the debate about the measure should take place on the Floor of the House of Commons. I remind the House that new clause 4 states:

The House exists to debate exactly such matters. Hon. Members should debate the difficulties that exist with regard to the public's attitude to the financing of political parties, and to the money associated with Members of Parliament and with Members of the European Parliament. The House is the place for that debate, and I am dismayed that the Minister has not supported such a non-controversial proposal.

The new clause would strengthen the clarity of the EU. It would abolish the opacity that to a large extent causes the disconnection between the peoples of Europe and the institutions of the EU.

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I shall unhesitatingly press the new clause to a Division.

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