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Noble Lords: Lord Jenkins of Hillhead!

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I beg the pardon of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, because of course mention of Hillhead may be rather a sensitive matter for him. I certainly beg his pardon. It is indeed Hillhead, with all that did involve for him. I am therefore all the happier that we should reject his proposal quite firmly.

I think these contributions should be essentially voluntary and that those of us who want to should subscribe to the support of the political party of our choice, give it the full financial support which we can afford and see to it that it succeeds as a result of that and, perhaps still more, as a result of the work that we put in. Therefore the idea of a formal inquiry, with all the public expense, all the trouble and all the fuss which is involved, seems to me to be one which we should reject. Is it likely in fact that such an inquiry would get at any real facts which are not normally available anyhow to any of us with any public or political experience? What is it intended to discover? What is it intended to do which would be of any real practical help to the working of our democracy?

If there is a doubt about that—and I suggest to your Lordships that there is at least a doubt about it—then surely to goodness in this day and age, when so many committees of inquiry have been sitting and spending public money in a very substantial way in the course of their work, it really would be the greatest mistake for us to take this step and to suggest to the Government that they should appoint a committee of inquiry.

These political contributions are essentially voluntary. They are given because the individual concerned wants to see the party to whom he is subscribing effective and victorious, because he or she believes that it is in the national interest that that party should gain strength and should obtain a majority. That is the whole basis on which our democracy works; and to go setting up further inquiries of this sort where there is no real subject matter of essential public importance to investigate seems to me

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not only a waste of time but also a waste of money. Therefore, it seems to me that we in this House should not, particularly in view of what I have already said about our relations with another place, spend a great deal of time discussing or considering this proposal, but we should say politely to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, "No, thank you".

4.13 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: My Lords, I will begin with two propositions. One is that far too high a proportion of the funding of political parties in Britain today is tarnished money coming from sources which are serving a self interest, sectional or collective, of one kind or another. I will also assert that the undue dependence of the two major political parties in Britain upon the traditional sources of support for funds has done them both a great deal of harm in the estimation of the public about the purity of their intentions and the disinterested approach to political affairs that is desirable.

There is not the slightest doubt about it—I speak from personal knowledge of 30 years—that the Labour Party has suffered from being tied too closely to the trade unions and being dependent upon the political levy for 80 per cent. of its funds. I believe Labour would have come to office years ago had it been freer of dependence on the trade unions. I am glad of the references that have been made to the report of a committee of which I was chairman. I should have liked to hear more about the committees, both of them in their way an important addition to this inquiry made in 1975-76. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Blake, is in his place. Surely he was chairman of a committee that went into this matter at great length on behalf of voluntary organisations.

Why am I so far in advance of my time? Here it all is. Why are we worried about a further inquiry? All the spadework has been done and the basic facts and philosophy of the matter under discussion were fully examined in this report. What do you think is in this?—18 months of very hard work and study, interviews with people, travel abroad, looking at the effect of the funding of political parties in other countries. I can tell your Lordships a few things about the evidence we heard on this committee. Some of it was from representatives of the Conservative agents in the Conservative movement. They were tired of the amount of time they had to spend in money raising. That was the note they struck when they came to see us, and they were very much in favour of some degree of public funds going into the working of our parliamentary and democratic system.

However, we are not proposing to fund politics; we are not proposing to fund political parties for their party political purpose. We are funding the system to enable the democratic process to function properly and to give those engaged in active work the opportunity, free from some of the worries of their present activities, to look at national and political issues from a more detached point of view.

This report had one simple aim—a modest aim indeed: to reduce the dependence of the two major political parties upon their traditional sources of money. That is what it started with, and it finished with that. There was, however, special aid for parliamentary candidates, for those of any political party or of none, standing for

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Parliament so that they should get reimbursement of some part of their expenses if their poll was a respectable one and they saved their deposit.

When we first published our report in August 1976, the Labour Party was a bit afraid of that suggestion because it feared that the candidates of the British Union might arrive at Westminster having been funded in part by state money. When we went to Sweden as a committee to look at what was happening there, we found an extraordinary phenomenon: that 19 members of the Communist Party were members of the Swedish Riksdag. We asked, "What are you doing in this galley?" They said, "We are here because we are working the system; we are prepared to work the system and we are going to use what facilities are offered for us to come into parliament". That was how they saw it there, but apparently we were still afraid of British Union candidates in this country.

What does it matter? If they go to the electorate, they will do the sorting out, and if the candidates get a certain minimum measure of public support at the ballot box, then I think we are entitled to reimburse them for part of the expenditure in order that politics shall not be a rich man's playground. However, the report made little impression, as is the case with many reports. I have been chairman of other committees and a member of other committees which have helped to frame reports. Usually those committees are appointed at a time of rising public interest; but by the time the committee reports, that interest has passed. Something else has caught the public ear or interest and the report is neglected.

All that is now required is to consider what the authoritative reports which have already been produced look like in the context of the current situation. Is what we proposed relevant today? Is it desirable to study the matter further having regard to the fact that 20 years have passed since that report and that there is no reason why that experience should not guide us for the future? That is the proposition that I put forward on the Motion today. Noble Lords will be surprised how relevant much of the report is today. That is my message to your Lordships' House. All noble Lords have to do is read the report. If they cannot be bothered to read the evidence, just look at the summary of recommendations. I think that our decisions and recommendations are wise.

I conclude on this note. We travelled throughout Europe and Scandinavia, and sent representatives to Canada and the United States, to see what other people were doing about state aid to political parties. They were all providing it. I submit that, irrefutably, ours is the only country still relying on what we call the voluntary effort. I may be wrong. However, some curious forms of corruption were replaced by state aid in some of the countries we visited. We found in Austria, for instance, that it had long been the tradition that the ruling party in Parliament should have a rake off on all government contracts. That was the way political parties were helped. In Germany, gifts to political parties were tax free. That was the way the parties were helped in Germany. However, all the countries came round to the view that it was better to have the injection of a reasonable amount of public funds in order to enable the party political and parliamentary process to be continued free of any

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suggestion of corruption by money. That is the proposition that I leave with noble Lords. I have left a few minutes for other people to take it up.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, in view of the sternness of the instruction of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to read his report, I hasten to say that I have read it. The reason for that will become apparent in a moment. Perhaps I may say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord and to hear in this House the clear, principled voice of youthful radicalism coming from him which we all so much appreciate.

I was struck by the robust debating speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She made an extremely important point on the disrepute into which public organisations and institutions have fallen. It is a matter to which my noble friend Lord Rodgers, referred. However, I put this point to her. Is not one of the reasons that public institutions have fallen into disrepute in this country that we find it peculiarly difficult to find a position of public interest as opposed to partisan interest on which to advance some of those great issues? Although the issue has partisan implications for each party, it should be accepted that in the end it is a matter of the public interest, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, reminded us. It is a sensitive issue throughout the world, not particularly in Britain. Democratic parliaments are elected everywhere. Wherever there are democratic institutions, sensitive issues arise as to whether people seek to use money to acquire special influence or special access to those democratic institutions. We should not be defensive about that; we should recognise that it is a proper sensitivity. As parliamentarians, we are bound to take the issue seriously.

The reason that I read the Houghton Report—although not alone, I suspect that I am among a select number to have done so—is that I was a member of the Hansard Society to which several noble Lords have referred. That body looked into the matter in 1981. I note with interest the vigour with which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, considered that inquiries of this kind were a waste of time. I recall the outstandingly valuable contribution that his daughter, the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, made to that commission, and how much pleasure we had in her contribution to the unanimous report that we were able to achieve on that occasion.


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