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("References to documents used in legal proceedings

.--(1) In section 69 (office of election agent and sub-agent)--
(a) in subsection (1), for "writs, summonses and" substitute "legal process and other"; and
(b) in subsection (3), for "writ, summons or" substitute "legal process or other".
(2) In section 85(4) (penalty for sitting or voting where no return and declarations transmitted), for--
(a) "the writ or other process" (in both places), and
(b) "a writ or other process",
substitute "legal process".
(3) In section 121(5) (presentation and service of parliamentary election petition), for the words from "as nearly" to "such other" substitute "in such".
(4) In section 136(2) (security for costs), in paragraphs (a) and (b), for "on summons, directs" substitute "directs on an application made by the petitioner".
(5) In section 184(1) (service of notices), for "summons, notice or" substitute "notice, legal process or other".
(6) In section 202(1) (general provisions as to interpretation), after the definition of "legal incapacity" insert--
""legal process" means a claim form, application notice, writ, summons or other process;".
(7) In Schedule 4 (election expenses at certain local elections in England and Wales), in paragraph 4(3) (penalty for sitting or voting where no return and declarations transmitted), for "a writ or other process" substitute "legal process".").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 17, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 132 agreed to.

7.45 p.m.

Schedule 18 [Control of political donations by companies: new Part XA of Companies Act 1985]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 260:

    Page 165, line 8, at end insert ("qualifying cash donations and qualifying non-cash donations made by companies to registered parties and to other EU political parties").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I may indicate that we are prepared to take away the fourth of the amendments relating to the de minimis threshold and bring back our own similar amendment. Perhaps the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his first three amendments.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That is a good try by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. I shall try to be brief in exchange for that but I have two or three points that I want to make. In fact, I shall be content if they are answered by letter but I believe that the points should be answered.

With this series of amendments, I am looking at Schedule 18. It is essential that it is clear and transparent as to which donations constitute political donations and which do not. The scope of the meaning of an EU political organisation is, I suggest, too wide and too uncertain. For example, does that include the Industry Forum of the Labour Party, the Enterprise

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Forum of the Conservative Party, think tanks like the IPPR or the Institute of Economic Affairs? Similarly, what is the standing of NGOs like Friends of the Earth?

Lord Eatwell: As chairman of IPPR, I should point out that the IPPR is a charity.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I take that back, but I am making a point about think tanks and the donations from companies to think tanks. If the noble Lord waits for a few seconds, he will see the point that I am coming to.

If the scope of the new regime is not clear, there is every likelihood that there may be problems with the donations to those bodies. Companies may not wish to fall foul of the legislation because they have failed to receive prior shareholder approval for a donation to a body which they do not believe is a political organisation but they are concerned about it. So we are seeking clarification on that. In fact, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, has underlined the need for clarification on the subject.

That is the first point. My second point relates to Amendment No. 264. I am sorry that my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie cannot be here but this issue has arisen in particular with regard to the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies. The chairman of the group, Mr Ashok Kumar, the MP, wrote to Mr Paddy Tipping on 4th February seeking clarification as to whether those all-party groups would be treated as political organisations. Some all-party groups receive donations from companies and so on. Of course, if they are considered to be political groups, they would fall within the provisions of the Bill and would require prior shareholder approval.

In his reply on 24th March, Mr Tipping confirmed that, as the Bill was worded, all-party groups would be affected and the definition would be looked at afresh. My information is that that decision was taken last Easter, and that would exclude all-party groups from the Bill. My noble friend was told by the Minister that the Government intended to clarify the scope of Schedule 18 so that all-party groups would not be considered. But nothing much has happened and here we are, in Committee, and no amendment seems to be forthcoming.

I hope that I have made my points as quickly as possible. Schedule 18 needs a little thought and some clarification. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thought that this might be simpler than it has turned out to be. The amendments would narrow the definitions used in Part IX to exclude from the provisions of the Bill donations to political organisations other than political parties and company expenditure on advertising or promotional material. The second objective is to introduce a de minimis threshold, which we agree with in part.

24 Oct 2000 : Column 238

We need to remind ourselves what this part of the Bill is about. The Neill committee said that it wanted a broad definition of political organisations, because otherwise companies would have undesirable scope to evade the legal requirements on political donations. We cannot support the amendments on that point.

I am not sure that we can deal with the noble Lord's points because of the way in which the amendments have been set out, but we agree that there is a good case for a de minimis threshold. We should like to introduce an amendment on Report to exclude all-party groups from Part IX. That might help. We will deal with the issue in Amendment No. 280 of a de minimis limit for company authorisation, not for disclosure. That probably addresses the issue.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister. We shall read what he has said and look forward to an amendment on Report, as well as any clarification that he can give on any of my other points, including the de minimis point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 261 to 264 not moved.]

Lord Blackwell moved Amendment No. 264A:

    Page 165, leave out lines 35 and 36 and insert--

("(b) any organisation whose intention is to affect public support for a registered political party or referendum campaign, where intention to affect support is indicated by the criteria set out below--
(i) whether the organisation gives financial support to registered parties or referendum campaigns,
(ii) whether the organisation undertakes activities that are specifically aimed at canvassing support for registered parties or referendum campaigns as opposed to influencing the overall political and policy debate,
(iii) whether the organisation is constrained to support policies endorsed by one political party or is free actively to develop and promote ideas independently of any political party,
(iv) whether membership, subscription or equivalent status is restricted according to political affiliation or is open to all,
(v) whether political parties have any role in appointing officers of the organisation.").

The noble Lord said: The aim of the amendment is to provide a possible solution to some of the issues that my noble friend Lord Mackay has just raised. I declare an interest as the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, which is a think tank that may be affected in some of the ways that my noble friend suggested.

There is still uncertainty about the definition of an "EU political organisation" and what requirements there might be on forward permission from shareholders. The Bill defines an EU political organisation as a registered party or,

    "any other organisation which carries on ... activities of any political nature in the United Kingdom or any other member State".

"Activities of any political nature" is a broad definition. As my noble friend suggested, a number of other organisations apart from think tanks could be

24 Oct 2000 : Column 239

caught, including pressure groups or trade associations. Indeed, it is difficult to think of many organisations with a role in public life that could not be described as carrying out activities of a political nature in some way.

If the definition is not clear, it will be left to companies and their boards to decide on a case-by-case basis whether they believe that theirs is a political organisation under the terms of the Bill. If they decide on the evidence available that it is not, they lay themselves open to challenge. That creates unhelpful uncertainty and may, on the margins, discourage corporations from giving to organisations to which we might wish them to donate. The onus is on the Government to clarify the issue by setting out their intentions rather than leaving it to other organisations, and ultimately the law, to interpret.

The amendment puts forward one way of drawing the line between political organisations and others. The issue is open to considerable debate. Our intention was to include those organisations that are fronts for registered political parties, by which I mean organisations that seek to persuade people to vote for a party or candidate, but to exclude organisations that are independent of political parties and seek merely to develop policies or pursue political debate. That seems to be a clear possible dividing line. The formulation has been discussed by various think tanks and is broadly supported by, among others, the Centre for Reform, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the New Policy Institute and the Social Market Foundation and it has been discussed in broad terms with officials. The question is whether the amendment, which is meant to be helpful by setting out some criteria to define the amorphous term "political organisation", is an acceptable way of drawing the line and giving greater certainty.

Charities were mentioned earlier. Some organisations are charities and some are not. That would be one way of drawing a line, but the criteria by which the Charity Commissioners decide on charities are not necessarily the right ones in this case, any more than they are necessarily the right people to ask to delineate what is a political organisation. That is a side issue to the Government providing a clearer definition of an EU political organisation. I ask the Government to look at the words that I have used. I hope that they, or some similar form of words, will be acceptable. If the Government do not accept them, I should like to hear that they are prepared to put forward an alternative form of words to meet the same objective. I beg to move.

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