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Lord Rennard: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he has just referred to consistency in arguments. I would have thought that he should have welcomed the conversion and change of heart, based in part upon new information, on the Conservative Benches. He should perhaps have taken the attitude of more joy in Heaven for one sinner that repenteth, as perhaps the Conservative Party's position has now moved to the Labour Party position.

The Minister did not address my question. Indeed, when I moved the amendment in Committee suggesting that £22,500 was the appropriate constituency limit aggregated nationally, he said that if there was consensus between the parties the Government would have to shift to recognise that consensus. I ask the Minister to be consistent, as he has just urged all Members of your Lordships' House to be consistent. We have on record the Labour Party's position. We now have the Conservative Party's

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position and the Liberal Democrats' position. I ask the Minister what more consensus there could be on this issue to produce the shift for which we ask in official government policy.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, arguments about consistency cut several ways. I argue for consistency in terms of the position which was adopted and recommended to your Lordships' House by virtue of the Neill committee. That is where we intend to be consistent. I consistently intend to stick to that point.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and McNally, for their support for the amendment. I was extremely disappointed by the Minister's comments, which consisted of two parts: first, a series of political slurs, trying to say that this concerned funding difficulties in the Conservative Party and difficulties over the Short money. When the Minister kindly gave way earlier, I pointed out that he quoted only part of the information and evidence given by David Prior. The remarks I made in moving the amendment were not concerned with funding but with the balance between the centre and local parties. I made clear consistently in a number of interventions during Report that I am concerned about the balance we are seeking to strike in many ways in the Bill. That is what it is all about. The Minister has been kind and thoughtful. He may be irritated because it is now 11.25 pm, but I thought that his irritation showed in a way which was not worthy of him.

Secondly, his substantive political point was to say, "Let's run with the £20 million and then consider". That is like the advice of St Augustine, to the effect, "Lord give me chastity but don't give it yet". The Minister knows very well that if we reach the next general election on this basis the chances of the matter being readdressed and reconsidered after the general election are next to negligible.

We are seeking to strike an important balance. Given the support from the Liberal Democrat Benches and the evidence that his own party has given in the past, I ask the Minister to go away and think carefully about this. I give notice that I may wish to raise this matter again at Third Reading. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 150 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 151:

    Page 161, line 33, leave out from ("(b))") to end of line 34 and insert ("any period of one year").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is now grouped with Amendment No. 159 in the name of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke and also Amendment No. 160. I shall be fairly brief about this. The amendment is concerned with the interesting question of the expenditure of £20 million, which we have discussed, being accounted for over a 365-day period before a general election. I could understand

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that in relation to a Scottish election because, although I cannot quite remember it, everyone who is interested and involved knows the date of the next Scottish general election because those elections occur at fixed periods. I believe I am right in saying that we know the date of the next European election, give a day or two. The Europeans sometimes manage to change the date, but not significantly.

Unless the noble Lord is going to tell us this evening--I am sure that he will not because I have tried to trap him on a number of occasions--one thing that we do not know is the date of the next general election. I do not know whether we are in one of the 12 months for which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has to keep careful accounts. I do not know whether we have been in it for two or three months now. It is an unknown period.

What we are concerned about here is a double unknown; namely, the question of whether we have more than one election in a year. Instead of the period of 365 days ending with the date of the poll for the election, my amendment specifies "any period of one year". While I am not certain that that is the happiest of solutions, it certainly seems to provide a good deal more certainty than is provided by the Government in the Bill. At the moment we do not know whether we are in the important year or not. My amendment would suggest that we would be in that important year all the time.

My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke will deal with his amendment. I have some sympathy with it as regards third parties, although I predict that the Minister will expose some technical difficulties which could mean that, if third parties were so minded, they would be able to use the leniency of my noble friend's amendment in a way that I am sure he does not intend. A third party would use it in order to abuse the special position which his amendment would provide. I believe that uncertainty about the 365-day period is unfortunate for our political parties. The Government should have addressed this issue long ago. I put forward my amendment as my modest contribution to try to firm up these matters and to make the issue a good deal more certain than it is. I beg to move.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, my Amendment No. 159 deals with paragraph 3 of Schedule 10, which imposes restrictions and controls on third parties campaigning in a general election for a year before polling day. My amendment deals specifically with paragraph 3(3). Its purpose is to redefine the controls so that they apply only from the date when the election is called.

I assume that it is generally accepted that, as the Bill limits spending by political parties, it is also reasonable to limit spending by third party organisations if they affect elections, otherwise controls on political parties could easily be circumvented by front organisations. My amendment seeks to deal with the form which

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these controls take. I am suggesting that they should refer to Clause 61(6) on page 46 of the Bill, which states that the,

    "'general election period' means the period--

    (a) beginning with the date on which Her Majesty's intention to dissolve Parliament is announced in connection with a forthcoming parliamentary general election, and

    (b) ending with the date of the poll".

The provisions in Schedule 10 are not aimed at political parties, which, by definition, work to parliamentary and political timetables. Here we are dealing with campaign groups, private organisations and even charities which until now have been largely free to campaign at any time provided that at an election they did not spend money in support of political candidates. As Schedule 10 stands at the moment, the spending limits will apply for a year before the election. Since Parliament is not for a fixed term, as my noble friend Lord Mackay pointed out, campaign groups will not be certain when these controls will apply.

The Government's response so far--the only one I have managed to find--comes in a letter dated 2nd February from the Home Office Minister, Mike O'Brien, to the right honourable Frank Field, which says that,

    "recognised third parties can avoid the offence of exceeding the limits on controlled expenditure imposed by Schedule 10 by, in effect, operating to the expenditure limits for any 365 days period".

That seems somewhat draconian. The effect is to impose the most sweeping controls on third parties, including restrictions on spending and requirements relating to the disclosure and permissible source of donations, at all times. Such an arbitrary restraint risks being struck down by the courts, I should have thought, as a breach of the guarantee of free speech under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. At the very least it will result in protracted legal disputes over whether or not specific materials were intended to influence the election.

This provision should be of concern to any organisation, including charities, whose activities touch the political arena, particularly where politicians take exception to that group's views. Even if its aim is not to influence the election of parties or candidates, its leaflets or advertisements could be held to fall foul of the law if it is judged that the material,

    "can reasonably be regarded as intended",

to enhance the standing or election of parties or candidates.

Anyone who doubts that should look at a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, dated 1st November, to my noble friend Lord Cope. I understand that a copy was placed in the Library. Paragraph 2 reads,

    "Your particular concern was, I think, that an organisation might conduct a campaign on an issue which is outside, or at the margins of, the main lines of party political debate ... It is likely therefore that, to take your example, an animal welfare organisation running a campaign in the run up to an election which advocated a ban on fur farming would be caught by provisions of Part IV".

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I wonder whether the Minister, when he replies to the amendment, can confirm that it is the Government's intention that any charitable organisation such as the RSPCA, to take one example, should be caught by these provisions and indeed whether it is their intention that any cross-party organisation--for example, one campaigning against the euro--would also be caught by the provisions, even though the Government have said that no decision on the euro will be taken until after the election.

While a few campaign groups might try to influence the election of candidates, most simply want to influence policy, not elections. That is a fundamental distinction. All such groups know that they should take care at election time. Now, under the provisions of Schedule 10 as they stand, they run the risk of prosecution at any time.

Concern was expressed in another place during debates on this Bill about these provisions and an attempt was made in an amendment tabled by the right honourable Frank Field MP to restrict the control period so that it began only when a general election was called. The Government rejected the amendment but were not very convincing in their response. The Home Office Minister, Mr Tipping, said at col. 226 of Hansard of 14th March this year that the Government would,

    "look at [the] debate and take account of the comments made down the road"--

that is us. The fact that there is no certainty about the date of the election until the end of the Parliament is no reason to subject campaign organisations to controls all year round. Nor is it good enough to say that such organisations need only register and then there will be nothing to worry about. They will still be subject to the Bill's stringent controls on the source of funds and to spending limits.

That adds up to a gross infringement of their freedom. The controls should relate to when the election is actually called. That is the effect of my amendment. If the Minister thinks that the period is too short, perhaps he will come up with an alternative suggestion. But government controls on campaign groups that apply every day of every year simply because those groups take a contentious position on a specific issue, are controls that have gone a bridge too far.

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