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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I regret that it took a lengthy time to respond to the concerns of the noble Countess. She gave details of 16 children. Time and care had to be taken to ask the relevant local authorities for their views. We have made a judgment that the proper procedures were followed. It would be inappropriate for my department to talk directly to parents. It cannot be appropriate for Ministers or officials to intervene in individual cases; nor would it be appropriate for them to comment on such cases, especially those that have been the subject of court proceedings. Our responsibility is to ensure that local authorities carried out the proper procedures, and they did.
Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the main aims of social workers in this field should be to provide help and support to families who need it? Is he satisfied that in cases such as those cited by the noble Countess, families are being properly listened to rather than being put immediately under a
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, parents' views must be made known in any childcare proceedings. But I refer the noble Earl to the comments of the Chief Medical Officer's working group on the illness CFS/ME, which is very relevant to this Question. It concluded that evidence that is clearly suggestive of harm needs to be obtained before convening child protection procedures or initiating care proceedings in a family court. It also makes the point that social services should be made aware that medical opinion in the field of CFS/ME is divided and that consideration should be given to obtaining further opinion from an expert medical practitioner with specialist knowledge of the illness.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, while the Government welcome the contribution that the IPPR's report has made to the current lively debate on state funding, it is clear that there remains no consensus as yet about the way forward. The independent Electoral Commission, which is charged with a statutory obligation to review and report on matters relating to the regulation and funding of political parties, has already begun its review of the arguments for and against state funding and a cap on donations. The Government await its recommendations with interest.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The IPPR has close links with the Labour Party. Does she agree that there is now a great deal to be said for caps on large donations, for a lower limit on election spending at national level and for increased public funding of the political process, particularly through matching funding, or possibly tax relief, for small donations?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord has rightly identified a number of issues of real importance. He will know that there are wide-ranging and differing views about them. I am sure that the commission will fully consider all those issues. That is why I say that we anxiously await the outcome of its deliberations. I am sure the noble Lord will make good use of the procedure for consultation in relation to that report.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, your Lordships will know that there has been an active and anxious debate. It was thought right that the commission should now look at this issue again. It will report in 2004. Your Lordships will know that the debate goes backwards and forwards. Those who are in favour of state funding say that it gives transparency, security and a fair playing field. Those who are against ask why the public should pay for political parties that they do not support. These are all deeply interesting and lively issues, which, I am sure, will delight the commission when it considers its report in the final days in 2004.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness has said that she awaits the commission's report with interest. Can she also give an indication that the Government will not change their mind and will not support state funding of political parties?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot give any such assurance, as the noble Earl knows. The whole point of having the commission is allowing it to do its work and then doing it the courtesy of listening to what it has to say. Once we hear what it says, we shall make an informed decision.
Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, although there is much useful analysis in the IPPR report, and there is a case for increased funding on research for political parties, when it comes to trade union contributions, there is a fallacy in supposing that when you have a political fund, a larger union with many thousands of members does not have to give pound for pound a lot more as a contribution than a small union with only a few hundred members?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, these are all valid points. The IPPR says in the back of its report that it does not offer a detailed route, but a basic path to be followed. Its suggestions are only a contribution. It does not pretend to have all the answers. I am sure that that is another issue that will need to be carefully scrutinised by the commission.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, if she cannot speak for the Government, will the Minister at least comment for herself on the fact that the current problem with under-funding of political parties is the simple fact that the public do not identify with politics in Westminster and Whitehall? If we were seen to take more interest in the public and in their hopes and fearsand I am not sure that last night's film did much
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, no one can say of anyone sitting in this House that we do not have an active and deep interest in the public. My deliberations in participating with your Lordships have made it clear that we seem to think about nothing else. Your Lordships will know that I cannot but speak for the Government. It is my privilege and pleasure so to do.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it sounds as though the Government have changed their mind since their 1999 response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, on state funding. Does the noble Baroness agree that most people would find it abhorrent if all political parties were paid for 100 per cent out of taxpayers' money? Is not a slightly more rounded way of looking at the issue to consider the case for tax deductions for the noble service of supporting those political parties that must be a necessary evil in our political environment?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we certainly have not changed our minds. We have remained open to the evidence that we may be given. That is not changing our minds, it is making informed, proper choices. The noble Lord will know that there were a number of reasons why the Government felt unable to accept the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on tax relief. We recognise that a certain level of focused financial support in the form of policy development grant should be made available, but we considered that tax relief as then suggested amounted to general state aid by another route. A tax relief scheme would be expensive for both the Inland Revenue and the political parties to administer. The loss of revenue would have to be balanced against other spending priorities. As I have already said, we will be interested to see the Electoral Commission's view on the matter, as on others. Our minds are not closed in the way that the noble Lord would like. We remain open and we remain able and willing to do that which is in the best interests of our country.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it not true that in the minds of the political activists on the ground, particularly in the Labour Party, there is deep concern about these large political contributions? Is it not also true that for many people in both Houses, the position taken on this issue by the Committee on Standards in Public Life only a few years ago was utterly wrong?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, this interchange demonstrates the breadth of disagreement on the issue. There is much force in what the noble Lord says and in the argument that political partiesparticularly the more aberrant nature of certain aspects of some political partiesshould not be funded by taxpayers' money. This is a very important,
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