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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord invites a response from the way in which he made his point. I ask him this question in response. We do not often fall out over these matters, but does he think that the case that was revealed last week during the discussion before the Committee on Standards in Public Life of the Conservatives using £3.8 million of public money to fund the campaign bunker was the right use of public funds? Does he support that contention? That is the logic of the position being put forward by noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I would seriously question whether that is right. It seems to me that in their admission last week that that is how some of the Short money had been used the Conservatives themselves were not entirely happy with what they had done and that they had gone to the whole trouble of asking advice as to whether they should be using the money in that way. That seemed to be accepting that that was an inappropriate use of Short funds. If that is the case, the argument being advanced by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord McNally, is somewhat shot through with holes.

Lord McNally: My Lords, perhaps I may respond. I am not as shocked as some people about what the Conservatives were doing. The state funding that already exists displaces other funding to be used. We have always tried clever ways of funding. We have done it right from the beginning. We have done it with MPs' expenses and with other aspects of funding. We have always tried clever ways of doing it, often finessing it past taxpayers so they do not realise that some of these funds are going for political purposes. We have always said that it would be far better to give a block grant to political parties to use transparently at their discretion than to have all these rules and regulations which will add confusion and invite parties either to bend these artificial rules or to mistakenly bend them. However, it is an opportunity which the Government for their good reasons have fluffed, as the Labour government in 1974 fluffed it. As I said before, until the matter is faced up to, until we openly see the rationale of state funding of our political parties, we

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will have to run the risk of the other sources of funding perverting and distorting the political system. But we have had this argument and we will have it again.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his earlier remarks and, in particular, for summarising so effectively the case for the amendments. He said that his only reservation or objection was that it may not be popular to use public funds to promote Liberal Party posters in a future election campaign. I fail to understand why a voter may object to paying for parties promoting their policies but is quite happy to pay for the research into those policies which will come from the policy development grants which the Government are happy to provide to the parties. Indeed, it is a wholly artificial distinction to say that you are prepared to use government money for policy development and not use government money to pay for the promotion of those policies. Once the Government have entered into the era of paying towards policy development, as they are about to do, that will allow the parties to free up resources for the promotion of those policies. We are dealing with an artificial divide.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I failed to hear, unless he made a point I did not note, the fundamental distinction between the £4 million or so provided from the public purse--the so-called Short money--to Conservative Central Office for the payment of a press team and a war room to campaign for the Conservative Party and the kind of grants which I am suggesting would legitimately be used for parties to promote their own campaigning purposes. I fail to see the distinction.

However, as at this stage I hear little support for my argument, I shall withdraw the amendment on the basis that what it proposes used to be Labour Party policy--I am sure that it will again be Labour Party policy--and that I believe it to be Conservative Party policy in practice, even if it is not said so openly at the moment. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 23 to 26 not moved.]

Clause 12 [Education about electoral and democratic systems]:

8.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 9, line 15, leave out paragraph (c).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now come to Clause 12 of the Bill, to which I have tabled a number of amendments. We discussed these issues in Committee on 10th October and they were also discussed in another place. The issues concern the duties given to the commission about "public awareness". Indeed, the clause heading states:

    "Education about electoral and democratic systems".

We are concerned, as we said in Committee and in another place, about some of the aspects of the duties given to the commission by the clause.

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On 10th October the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said:

    "Is it wise to hand over that responsibility"--

he was referring to education--

    "to the electoral commission? I doubt it and I urge my noble friends to rethink our position on the matter".--[Official Report, 10/10/2000; col. 190.]

The noble Lord summed up the position quite well. I should like to draw his words to the attention of his noble friend Lord Bassam. Perhaps I may also draw to his attention the powerful words of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in the same debate. My recollection is that what he said was not warmly welcomed by the Government Front Bench, who seem happy to accept those parts of the deliberations of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, whether they be the report we are discussing or regarding last week's efforts, when it suits them but when it does not suit them and they do not want to listen they become rather irritated if he speaks. The noble Lord said:

    "My opinion is that it is a wholly inappropriate role to give to the electoral commission as we conceived it. I cannot see how it could carry out the duties conscientiously under Clause 12 without being drawn into political controversy ... One has to think for only about two seconds about the role given to the commission to see that it is one which would get in the way of the other very serious obligations it has under other parts of the Bill".--[Official Report, 10/10/2000; col. 196".]

The Government seem intent on keeping this clause. I have therefore tabled amendments to correct what I believe are the worst defects within it. Amendment No. 27 seeks to leave out paragraph (c) of subsection (1). At present the subsection reads:

    "The Commission shall promote public awareness of ... the institutions of the European Union".

Perhaps I may say that the institutions of the European Union seem perfectly capable of promoting themselves. Even the most neutral observer, which I would not pretend to be in this case, would think that to ask the commission to promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union is likely to drag it at least into the margins of political debate, if not right into the mud of it. I believe that the inclusion of this duty is unnecessary. Worse than that, I think that it is wrong.

The Minister could help me greatly here. In the debate on 10th October, the Minister stated:

    "People will be more inclined to vote if they believe that the body they are being asked to elect is relevant to them and will make a difference to the community in which they live. That applies as much to the European Parliament as it does to local councils. Without paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (1) ... the commission's ability to make any meaningful impact on the level of participation in our democratic institutions will be severely constrained".--[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 206]

In his defence of these parts of the clause, the Minister referred only to the European Parliament and to democracy. If that was all that was stated in the Bill, I am not sure that I should have tabled these amendments. Explaining to the electorate the European Parliament and how it is elected would be totally consistent with explaining how the other place is elected, as well as the Scottish Parliament in "Scottish only" terms, the Welsh Assembly in Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly in Northern

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Ireland. It would be totally consistent, and I could at least understand that proposition. We decided, in Parliament, on the means to be used to elect the European Parliament. As the noble Lord will recall, it was an extremely complicated issue and a complex method was chosen which proved to be so difficult that in the end the electorate did not bother to turn out to vote in that European parliamentary election. Contrary to what the propagandists for proportional representation said would happen, when put to the test it failed to happen.

I can quite understand the noble Lord's argument. The noble Lord said that, once Parliament had passed the Bill which meant that in this country the European Parliament would be elected using the list system and that the order of the list would be determined entirely by the party machinery, it was clear that any electoral commission should have a hand in explaining to the electorate what it needs to do. I do not know whether such a commission should be deeply involved in explaining the merits of that system over other systems proposed to noble Lords when we discussed the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, but I understand the argument that the commission is well placed to explain to the electorate the method eventually chosen by Parliament.

However, that is not what is says in Clause 12(1)(c). It refers to,

    "the institutions of the European Union".

That is a good deal wider than what we have been discussing. Perhaps the electoral commission would be used to explain the thinking of the European Commission. That might lead it into extremely dangerous territory. For that reason, I believe that this needs to be clarified. If the only institution being referred to here is the European Union's democratically elected European Parliament, that should be what it says in the Bill. That is the only institution which is democratically elected, other than perhaps the Council of Ministers, where at least the Ministers are democratically elected.

The electoral commission should not have to get involved in arguments about the European Commission. If it did that, it might get involved in arguments currently raging as regards the number of Commissioners and whether countries such as the United Kingdom should continue to have two Commissioners where other, smaller countries have only one. One would not have to be on either side of the argument to recognise that this would present dangerous territory for the electoral commission without it going down exactly the kind of road against which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, warned your Lordships' House.

I should like to know exactly what the noble Lord means by,

    "the institutions of the European Union".

If he is referring only to the European Parliament, surely we should introduce at Third Reading an amendment to make that clear on the ground that legislation should say exactly what it means.

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Amendment No. 28 addresses the possibility that the commission could, or a grant made by the commission to another body could be used to, promote a type of devolved government in one area of the United Kingdom. Devolved regional government could be promoted in England, for example, because devolved government is already in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not think that the commission should be doing that; indeed, I do not think that any body which is in receipt of public money should do that. These are issues which need to be decided by politicians rather than by the electoral commission. Amendment No. 28 attempts to remove a pothole into which the commission could easily fall.

I shall not speak to Amendments Nos. 29 and 30, because, in our enthusiasm to probe this clause, we have tabled two amendments which were decided in Committee. I apologise for that. I shall not speak to them at all.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has tabled Amendment No. 30A, which I might describe as the "nuclear option". His amendment has much to recommend it; indeed, I am sorry that I did not table it myself. Earlier I reminded noble Lords of the words of the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Neill. Perhaps I may end by quoting from the report of the Neill committee at paragraph 11.4:

    "We would only make the obvious point that the Election Commission cannot, as some of our witnesses seem to believe, solve all problems and be a panacea for all ills. It is tempting, but not sensible, to say whenever in difficulty, 'Leave it to the Commission'. That is an approach we have sought to avoid in this report. Government, Parliament and others have to accept their responsibilities".

We are concerned to ensure that the commission is independent and above the political debate. That was the concern of the Neill committee and we could have no clearer indication of that than the words of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee's report. I hope that the Government will address the issues that I have raised and, no doubt, that others will raise later in this debate. I must say that the more that I read this clause, the more I am tempted to vote in favour of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I beg to move.

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