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Viscount Astor: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he did not cover my question in relation to referendums. I would be grateful if he could quickly cover that.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Viscount is quite right. It is my error for overlooking that. As always, a referendum Bill will need to be authorised by Parliament, and it is for Parliament to decide on the nature of the question. The noble Viscount asked a further question and I ought to have answered this as well. I apologise to him personally as well as to the House. The question concerned what would happen to referendums before this Bill came into effect. We do

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not envisage that there will be any referendums to be held before this Bill comes into effect. I can certainly say that if there was to be such a referendum, it would be only right in the discussions on that Bill to give full consideration to the sort of questions we have discussed briefly today and which are more fully discussed in the White Paper.

6.7 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before the noble Lord's halo of innocence disappears, which came about during his last few remarks, can he say whether the Government have checked that the differentiation made between what the people in the south of Ireland can do and what other people in the European Union can do is in order according to European legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe it is. If I am wrong, I shall write to the noble Baroness and put a copy in the Library. It is well known that the relationships we have electorally with those who come from the Republic of Ireland have always been different from those in the rest of the European Union. That is relevant in response to her question.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend not only on repeating the Statement, which he had to do anyway, but also on his responses to the two Front-Benchers.

Perhaps I have this wrong, but is it right that donations which come from Ireland will still be allowed to be uncapped and be regarded purely as personal donations? If so, what justification is there for that situation? Having embarked upon a programme of ensuring that we have much more clarity and openness about the situation which has been hidden for years by the Conservative Party, why have that situation relating to Ireland? Money could still be filtered through rather furtively and to the disadvantage of our political system.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we are dealing with a different relationship, first, between the Republic and the United Kingdom generally and also in particular in the context of Northern Ireland. No donations of any sort will be capped. The question of disclosability in the Northern Ireland context is that donations will have to be reported to the commission but will not then need to be published. At the moment people are genuinely fearful that, if their donations are attributable to them as individuals, they may be under justified fear of physical attack or other reprisals.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I speak as a member of the Neill committee, although I do not of course speak on behalf of the committee, except perhaps in one respect--which is to say how much all the members of the committee owe to the personal efforts of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, which were crucial in achieving the success that the report has had. He is not here today, but I am very glad to see that two other members of the Committee are present.

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The Neill committee will of course consider the draft Bill and submit its comments to the Government. It would therefore be inappropriate for me today to say anything on the specific issues. However, I am delighted that the Government have accepted so much of the committee's report. The committee strongly believed that it was a matter of the greatest importance to encourage participation in politics by as many people as possible, and the Government have accepted that principle. At a time of concern about a small number of individuals giving very large donations, I wonder whether the Government also agree that it is more than ever important to do everything possible to get a larger proportion of funds from more small donations.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord on at least two bases. He has given me the opportunity, which I did not earlier have, to express everyone's gratitude for the work done by the committee. I absolutely agree with him that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, if I may say so without appearing patronising, is in a distinguished, long line of public servants--one thinks also of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, for instance--who have contributed an extraordinary amount to the quality of public life and to public discussion of these issues, which should be taken out of the political, partisan arena.

I very much look forward to the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has indicated will be forthcoming by 15th October, because I am sure that there is a useful continuing dialogue to be had. I agree with his proposition that it is welcome that individuals are personally involved, and that they personally demonstrate that commitment by what might be quite small donations--but which are important to the individual--as that is a significant part of a functioning democracy.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I very much welcome the White Paper and the Statement, and I apologise if some of the points I raise are covered in the White Paper, but I have not had time to look at it. I was interested that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, did not refer to the question of provision being made for shareholder approval for donations when he said that he supported the recommendations, because in the evidence that the Conservative Party gave to the Neill committee it said that it was opposed to the idea of getting shareholder approval for making political donations. I very much look forward to that debate.

I should like to raise two specific points: one on referendums and one on the electoral commission. On referendums, I assume that the restrictions and criteria laid down in paragraphs 8 and 16, in relation to elections and donations, would also apply to referendums and that they would be overseen by the electoral commission. Little is said about local referendums, which will be on the increase, and I wonder whether the same restrictions would apply pro rata.

I have long been an advocate of an electoral commission and I especially welcome that section. It is crucial that there is an independent election watchdog.

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At the moment, we seem to have a mish-mash of responsibilities, with too many bodies and too much left to the vagaries of custom and practice, and to the courts if one can afford that. I especially welcome the reference to the Parliamentary Boundary Commission and the Local Government Boundary Commission. There has always been a conflict, with the two things happening at different times and creating confusion. To try to co-ordinate those two functions is very important.

Last week, we had the recommendations of the Howarth committee. How will those proposals, for postal votes, electoral registration and so on, fit into the proposals before us, in relation to timing? Will the commission be responsible for overseeing the conduct of elections, not merely for considering electoral law and finances? At some point, is it envisaged that it will take on the registration of political parties?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's welcome. I share her view on shareholder approval. It has always struck me as a nonsense and, indeed, rather insulting to those who have shares in companies that their money could be disposed of without the necessity for shareholder approval.

The answers to my noble friend's central questions are to be found in Part VI of the draft Bill which follows on from page 85 of the White Paper. Clause 77 of the draft Bill describes a referendum as one held in the United Kingdom, in one or more of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or in any region in England specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. The reference to "a referendum" relates to any of that type of referendum.

The electoral commission will take on the function of the registration of political parties. It would be helpful to have submissions by 15th October and then to have a wide-ranging debate about how we see the functions of the electoral commission as it should develop in the future. My noble friend is right about the boundary commissions. Our general approach to that issue has always seemed to lack symmetry.

On the proposals by Mr Howarth's group, I am not in a position to anticipate what might be in the Queen's Speech. I can only repeat that in the context of this draft Bill we intend to treat it as a matter of importance. Jack Straw's Statement says, "We intend to get on with this as quickly as possible".

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Astor said, we welcome many points in the Statement. As an ex-treasurer of the Conservative Party, I can confirm that under no circumstances was policy affected by any donation.

I ask about the election expenses cap. When will elections expenses start? The annual report of the Labour Government is really an election address. Will that happen every year? The Minister said that the document was educative and that it was available to the Opposition, but it was taxpayers' money that produced it. What will be the position of expatriates of British extraction?


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