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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 144:

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 144, I should like to speak also to a number of other amendments, all of which deal with the same problem. I hope that in this case the Minister's brief says "Accept". Although it is not a very important matter, in a way it has significance.

I deal with the first amendment. The existing provision reads:

    "for the purposes of this Part each individual contribution by a person falling within paragraph (a) or (b) of not less than £200".

That is repeated in other places. One then sees a reference to £5,000, which is to be reported to the electoral commissioner. Again, the wording is "not less than £5,000".

When I go shopping I do not like to receive change of a penny. Lady Mackay would probably say that I do not like going shopping--full stop. I referred to this matter at Second Reading. Although it is a serious point, it is slightly amusing. All of us have seen items in shops marked £9.99 or £99.99. It is not a tribute to mathematics teaching; rather, it is a poor reflection on it. Clearly, we have not taught children to round up. Consequently, they do not realise that £9.99 is really £10 and £99.99 is £100.

The wording "not less than £200" means that any donation of £200 or above falls within the scope of the Bill. It also means that when donations are reported any amount of £5,000 and above must be reported. Following the trail of the noble and learned Lord,

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Lord Simon of Glaisdale, "more than" saves a couple of words. As this expression appears a number of times in the Bill, it adds up to quite a saving of words. It may reduce the Bill perhaps by only half a page, but every half-page counts.

The more important point for all parties is that someone may want to give some money but does not see why it should be made public. If he signs a cheque for £5,000, fine; it is not reported. If he signs a cheque for any amount above £5,000, it will be reported. To be realistic, I do not believe that his donation would be £5,001; perhaps it would be £5,100. People who can afford to give £5,000 will not make a distinction between that and £5,001. I believe that the next step would be a little above £5,000; and the same would apply to £200.

I believe that those who want to maintain their privacy should be allowed to write a cheque for £5,000 instead of £4,999.99. It is so much easier to say that the sum should be "up to and including £5,000", except that I do not suggest that it should be expressed in the Bill in that way; otherwise, it would require more words and so infringe my principles. I believe that it would be easier for all of us if we said that someone could sign a cheque for £200 or £5,000. There would then be no hassle. It is daft to invite us to indulge in amounts such as £199.99 and £4,999.99. I do hope the Minister's brief says "Accept". If that word does not appear on it, may I suggest to Ministers that I do not think the world will fall in on the Home Office if they ignore "Reject", if that is what is written on it?

Lord McNally: If it helps the Minister come to a decision, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches support the amendment.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My noble friend has an important point here. Nowadays the buzz word is making things "accessible". Arts must be accessible; literature must be accessible; our political system should be accessible. By accessible I think we mean comprehensible.

This piece of legislation, as we discussed the other night, will drive down into the very roots of our democracy at the humblest constituency level. People who carry the flag for our various parties at constituency level often do so in the face of insurmountable odds. They deserve our encouragement. They are volunteers; they are not lawyers. We owe it to them to make their task as comprehensible and easy as possible.

The use of the words "not less than" as opposed to "more" is Whitehallspeak. There is only £2 in it. It is easier for the everyday political supporter in the constituency to understand the word "more" rather than "not less than". We should use everyday language wherever we can to make our deliberations and our results as easily comprehensible as possible. I cannot for the life of me see why we cannot have this amendment now.

Lord Bach: It is a relief to turn from some of the important and controversial issues we have discussed

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to what I think even the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, would concede is the slightly less vexed question of whether the Bill requires the disclosure of donations of "more than £5,000" or "£5,000 and above". We were warned at Second Reading that the noble Lord had a bee in his bonnet about this issue. I am afraid we still see some difficulty with it. There is one real difficulty. I shall now tell the noble Lord the difficulty that is not so real.

He divided the Committee a few minutes before dinner tonight on the basis that the Government were not adopting the Neill proposals. I want to remind the noble Lord of what the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee said about that. I particularly want to remind the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, of what was said. He probably does not need reminding as he may have been responsible for the wording I am about to outline.

The Bill simply follows the formula used by Neill, which recommended the disclosure of donations of £5,000 or more. I give way.

Lord Goodhart: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have to say that had this point been considered by the Neill committee in this degree of detail, I am by no means sure that we would not have agreed with the proposals of this amendment.

Lord Bach: I was going to ask the noble Lord whether that was a majority view or one that the whole Neill committee agreed. If the noble Lord can divide on this issue when we go against Neill, I wonder whether we can do the same when we go with Neill. I do not consider that a particularly serious argument in this context.

There is a problem with the noble Lord's amendments, particularly Amendments Nos. 144, 145, 184, 185, 219, 220, 240 and 241. There is a problem with those amendments in that the provisions with which they are concerned derive from the de minimis limit fixed by Clause 47(2)(b). It is not proposed in these amendments to amend the latter. As a consequence, the amendments to which I have just referred will be flawed.

What I suggest is--I hope the noble Lord is agreeable to this--that we take the matter away, look at it again--no promises--and we will meet again at Report.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful for the support of the Liberal Democrats. I do not want in any way to annoy the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, after his support by saying that perhaps there were not any nit-picking mathematicians on the Neill committee. But I am afraid that nothing annoys me more than this obsession with phrasing things the way they are phrased here and ending up in the kind of position I have explained. I have made my point. I fully accept that perhaps all my amendments are not quite right, but I hope the Government think carefully about the

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matter. It would be a sensible way to deal with it and would make life easier for all our parties. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 145 and 146 not moved.]

Clause 49, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 146A not moved.]

9.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 146B:

    After Clause 49, insert the following new clause--


(" .--(1) The Commission shall keep and make available in electronic form to all registered parties a national register (in this Act referred to as "the national register") of all individuals for the time being registered in an electoral register.
(2) Any donation received by a registered party shall be regarded as being received from a permissible donor if it was received from an individual appearing in the national register at the time of its receipt by the party, whether or not that individual was registered in an electoral register at the time the donation was received by the party.
(3) Any donation received by a registered party shall be regarded as being received from a permissible donor if it was received from an individual registered in an electoral register at the time of its receipt by the party, whether or not that individual appeared in the national register at the time the donation was received by the party.
(4) In this section, the term "electoral register" has the same meaning as in Section 49.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 146B seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. That goes against my principle of trying to slim down the Bill, but there you are! Consistency is not the hallmark of politicians.

I should first apologise to the Committee and to Ministers for having tabled this amendment only a few days ago. However, as I hope to be able to explain, the amendment comes about only because of recent developments. We discussed, albeit very briefly, the £200 limit. The Bill will require all political parties to verify that all donations of £200 or more come from permissible sources. As I have explained on other occasions, that will place a heavy burden on all parties, especially on the central organisations. That will particularly be so in the case of donations from individuals. As drafted, the Bill will require political parties to verify that the individual donor actually appears on an electoral register.

That might sound simple enough, but it is not. There are literally hundreds of electoral registers throughout the country. They are held by individual registration officers across the whole of the United Kingdom. I shudder to think how many individual registers there are. But what will happen if a donor knows he is registered, but cannot remember which register his details are on, or the name of the council that holds it? Checking each register every time will be a massive task. I could direct my party's treasurer, if I was going to give the party lots of money, to the constituency

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register I am on, but he would then have to delve into which register inside the constituency would lead him to my street.

The Conservative Party raised this issue with the Home Office in June. Our nominating officer wrote to the Home Office on 28th June and asked,

    "what plans there are to provide parties both locally and nationally with a central, collated and up-to-date version of the electoral register".

He continued:

    "In our view, this would aid both the smooth running of the new system and ensure that no impermissible donations from individuals were accepted. This is especially important given the Home Secretary's stated aim of implementing the rolling electoral register in February 2001, which will add to the administrative complexities of ensuring that donors are registered to vote".

A Home Office official responded quite positively on 11th August, saying:

    "You asked about progress towards a national electoral register. The Home Office and the Association of Electoral Administrators commissioned ... a study into the issues of a consolidated electoral register ... I will keep you in touch with developments".

That was a reassuring statement and further developments were awaited. But there have been further developments in recent days because it appears that the Labour Party has also been concerned about this problem, a problem which will arise if no central register is available to us. The Labour Party has written to the Home Office as well. In a reply dated 3rd October from the Home Office to the Director of Finance at the Labour Party, Mr Neil Bendle, which was copied to officials in Conservative Central Office, and, I presume, officials in the Liberal Democrat Party, the same Home Office official wrote:

    "The simplest solution would be some form of 'on line' access so that parties and the Electoral Commission could check whether a donor was on a register when the donation was made".

That is fair enough. That is what our nominating officer was getting at in his letter of 28th June. But the Home Office official's letter of last week revealed:

    "The aim would be to have such a system in place for next October".

But the restrictions on donations will come into force at the beginning of next year, some eight or nine months before then. The letter concludes by saying:

    "Alternatively parties could check directly with the registration officer whether someone was on the register at a particular time but clearly whether any such arrangement was feasible would depend on the volume of calls. Or we try to consolidate the registers and issue parties with perhaps a CD Rom with the data on it and regular up-dates. We are giving some thought to how this could be achieved and what the cost implications might be".

A great deal of thought had better be given to how this could be achieved because the first situation envisaged by the Home Office is wholly unacceptable. Can noble Lords really imagine political parties, for a period of eight or nine months, telephoning registration officers up and down the land every time a donation of £200 or more is received? We shall be in the run-up to an election on the first Thursday in May, I understand, so our political parties will be getting more than £200. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is not going to fall for that one, but it was worth a try.

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Even at that, there will be a good many £200--or, rather, £199.99, when I think about it--coming into our political parties. What will happen if the registration officer says, "I'm sorry. I am not giving that information over the telephone"? How will it be verified? If one sends faxes, the registration officer will have to reply. What about the Data Protection Act and the right to privacy?

I think that the situation is quite difficult. It will build up into a mammoth task both for the political parties--adding to the bureaucracy in the Bill--and also as regards problems for the electoral registration officers. We ought not to put any additional burdens on them, especially if they are busy thinking about running a general election in the same period.

I have tabled this new clause, along with Amendment No. 319D, because I do not believe that it should be left to the political parties to telephone up and down the country to check whether someone is included on an electoral register. As I have said, the Bill already imposes burdens on the political parties. In the Minister's own words--I said that he would hear them again and again--it is cumbersome and bureaucratic. This new development will add yet more bureaucracy. I do not think that this will be tolerable. The Home Office cannot expect to impose new obligations on political parties without giving them some way of checking whether donors are on the electoral register other than telephoning hundreds of registration officers every week. Indeed, the fact that they have commissioned a study indicates that they recognise the problem.

Of course, the Home Office has now admitted that the political parties will be quite literally left in the lurch for most of next year. Who will carry the can if impermissible donors are accepted simply because it is either very difficult or even impossible for the political parties to make their checks? I would bet that it will not be the Home Office, nor will it will be the electoral commission. It will be the national and local officials of political parties, many of whom are volunteers.

Perhaps I may remind Ministers that if a treasurer in the Labour Party resigns during this period because of the trouble he is having, one of them will have to go to Downing Street to get the Prime Minister to sign the form. If that does not bring some sense to the Government Front Bench, I do not know what will. I commend the new clause to the Committee and I beg to move.

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