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Lord Marsh: My Lords, I suggested that the easy way to overcome the problem would be to give trade union officials similar powers and, indeed, encouragement if they wished to remove the Prime Minister.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, that is what I can describe only as an interesting suggestion, but I am not sure that it would find universal favour with the Government. The House will be well aware that trade unions, many of which support the Labour Party, do not always get what they wish from the Government.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, will the noble Lord always bear in mind that it is a basic freedom in this country that every individual has a right to back any political party and that questioning a person's right to give money to that political party is a dangerous road to tread?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I believe that in many respects that argumentation led the Neill committee to conclude in its report that there was no need to put a cap on political donations; nor did it recommend state funding for political parties. The committee saw that participation by individuals in political processes, including the making of donations, was open to all citizens if they wished to do so.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I speak as a former member of the Neill committee. Do the Government feel that the time has come to deal with the abuse mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, by putting a limit on the amount that any one personwhether an individual, a corporation or a body such as a trade unioncan contribute to political parties? Do they also feel that, by contrast, they should
Lord Filkin: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, knows better than most, this is an extremely well tilled field. No fewer than six studies have been carried out into party political funding over the past 25 years. The noble Lord is well aware of our position to date. At this stage, the most helpful comment I can make is that we shall await with interest the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on these issues next summer and shall then consider whether there is merit in them.
Lord Saatchi: My Lords, I have just heard the first move by the Government towards total state control of party funding. Would it not be better, as my noble friend said, to leave it to individuals to decide whether they want to support a political party? After all, is it not true that even someone who simply pays to become a member of a political party expects to gain some influence, even if only by going along to a party meeting and talking to his MP? Would it not be a great pity if the Government regulated the individual donor out of existence, leaving only the possibility of complete state control of party funding, which our Benches would totally oppose?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. It might well be a pity if I had implied on behalf of the Government that we had any intention whatever of doing anything that he suggested. However, that is not our position. Our position is that individuals are free to make political donations to parties of their choice; that there is no cap on the size of those donations; and that the issue of sizeable donations should be in the public domain. Political parties no doubt look to their own control mechanisms over such issues.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I believe it is good to try to avoid being excessively party political on many of these occasions. However, I am aware that all political parties receive state funding from a variety of sources: Short money; Cranborne money; and policy-development grantsthe most recent initiative and a very useful source, with £2 million being distributed between the partiesin addition to the funding that national parties receive in support of national election campaigns. I do not believe that most people feel that the current system is fundamentally broken; it is a mixed system.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government implemented the EU Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications on 18th September, bringing into force an opt-in regime for unsolicited commercial e-mail to individual Internet subscribers from 11th December 2003. However, we recognise that the problem of spam e-mail is global. The UK has held discussions on spam with the US Administration and is currently active in discussions on this issue in wider global fora, including the OECD.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. He will be aware that more than 50 per cent of all global e-mail traffic now consists of spam and that it is reckoned that by February that proportion will rise to 70 per cent. That compares with a figure of just 8 per cent two years ago. However, does he agree that the opt-in regime under the EU directive is all very well but that it will be completely worthless unless the United States takes seriously its responsibility to stop all the junk that comes out of that country? A huge proportion of it apparently comes from Florida, where 200 spammers are sending 50 million e-mails each day. Why cannot everyone follow the admirable example of Italy, which has interpreted the EU directive in a way that makes everyone who sends e-mail advertising without the informed consent of the recipient guilty of an offence which can carry a gaol sentence of up to three years?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend has identified a substantial and, as he indicated, growing problem. That is why we are concerned to tackle the problem as best we can on an international and, indeed, global basis. A parliamentary committee visited the United States to try to impress upon that country that we in Europe regard opting-in as a crucial dimension of any legislation. We recognise that there is some federal activity in that respect and almost half the American states now have some controls over spam.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the better the controls in the European Union and the United States, the more one will drive the spammers to use sources and servers in places such as Kyrgyzstan and Russia, which they are already doing? Does he also agree that the effect of implementing controls in Florida, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, would simply be to expand the traffic in those places?
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the totally satisfactory answer to this problem is not to have an e-mail address? Would the Government be minded to encourage a proactive policy of supporting a vigorous revival of letter writing, preferably by manuscript?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate tempts me to say that I still cultivate the art of letter writing. However, he will recognise that in this day and age all organisations, particularly organisations with an international dimension, use e-mails, including his Church which I am sure uses e-mails to a substantial extent.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that would put an enormous demand on ISPs. We do not believe that that is an impost that can be enforced at the moment. Clearly, we expect organisations to provide opportunities for people to protect themselves against the incursion of spam. That is why we now have an opt-in regime in this country, as there is in Europe. If one does not want what are often superfluous e-mails one can take steps to protect oneself against them.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that there is a problem not only with e-mails, but also with unwanted advertising that comes through fax machines, very often throughout the night? Short of turning off fax machines and rendering them unusable, what steps does he suggest to avoid that?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness has identified a growing problem in another area of developed technology. We need to move apace to protect the use of such technologies from enormously irritating material. I sympathise with her point, but as far as I am concerned,
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