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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have not tabled an amendment but I wish to raise a point. It is possible that my question relates more appropriately to Schedule 4, but I believe that it applies also to Clause 42.
Clause 42 provides for the electoral commission to make public the accounts submitted to it by political parties. Schedule 4 includes accounting units--that is, constituency parties--with an income or expenditure of more than £25,000 a year. This clause and its application to accounting units was the topic of some debate in the other place. In the Standing Committee my honourable friend Dominic Grieve raised concerns about the fact that, while some larger local parties would have their accounts made public by the commission, their smaller opponents in the same constituency who did not reach the £25,000 threshold would be able to keep their accounts secret. My honourable friend advanced the argument that that would provide some local political parties with a potential advantage over their opponents.
To give the Home Office some credit--and I do not do it very often so I am happy to do it today--it consulted on the point raised by my honourable friend. An official wrote to the main political parties asking for their views on the matter and suggesting the solution of allowing public access to the accounts of all accounting units, both above and below the £25,000 threshold.
I know that the Conservative Party responded positively to that suggestion, but, unless I am being particularly thick, there does not seem to be anything in relation to that in the amendments that we have before us. Given that that consultation was carried out more than seven months ago, it is safe to assume that the Government rejected that course of action, or else they have forgotten all about it.
I hope that the Minister will be able to discuss this issue with the Committee this afternoon. As it stands, it seems to me that the Bill could provide the local parties with some considerable advantage in that they can pore through the accounts of their opponents but their opponents cannot look at their accounts.
That seems to me wrong. There is no way round it, if one wants to be open about it, other than to have all parties' accounts open, whatever the threshold. So fairness all round may be the better principle here. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this point.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: As a former election agent, an allied point comes to mind. I note that the electoral commission is given powers to regulate the requirements in relation to the annual statement of accounts. Can we have an indication as to whether the regulations will be published and at what stage that will happen?
Lord Swinfen: I wonder why the commission should not be liable to produce copies of accounts for the whole time throughout which it keeps accounts, as stated in Clause 42(b). Nowadays, accounts can be quite easily scanned on to a computer and, once on the computer, can be printed off at leisure for as long as they are held on it.
I should assume that in this computerised age all accounts will be put on to a computer. Why, therefore, should they not be available for the whole of the time that the commission keeps those accounts?
Lord Bach: The noble Lord has taken the Government Benches slightly by surprise but there is nothing wrong in that at all. I may not be able to give as complete an answer as he would like, but it may be that that is not possible in any event.
As the noble Lord knows, we consulted the main parties on the £25,000 threshold for the audit of accounting units' accounts. I must tell the Committee that there was no consensus in favour of reducing the limit. But the noble Lord has a point; one cannot deny that. I can answer it only in this way today by reminding the noble Lord that the electoral commission can keep the threshold under review and it can be varied by order if it is being abused or if it is thought that it is being abused.
While I am on the subject of the electoral commission, I may have inadvertently misled the Committee when dealing with the last group of what I described as minor and technical amendments. The electoral commission itself will not be a prosecuting authority. I want to make sure that that is on the record and I apologise if my reply on that was misleading.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am glad I raised that because I have been given one answer but, of course, every answer raises another question, and the question has come to my mind because the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has intervened in this debate.
We have discussed the question of the need to keep secret the donors to political parties in Northern Ireland. Of course, a political party in Northern Ireland with a turnover of over £25,000 may well list some of its donors in its accounts. If those accounts are open to the public, then it seems to me that the Government are frustrating one of the defences which they raised earlier in relation to treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. So the Government might like to think about that particular aspect of this part of the Bill and how it relates to that other part of the Bill, about which some of us are very unhappy but which, nevertheless, the Government are very keen to see enacted.
I am not pleased to hear the Minister's answer. As the original letter from the Party Funding Unit was on 21st February and the Conservative Party replied on 10th March, it might have been a good idea, when the Government concluded that there was no clear agreement among the parties, to tell the parties that. That might have saved the last nine minutes when I raise the issue on the Floor of your Lordships' Committee.
Lord Bach: I dare say that the accounts will be put on computer and, subject to the pessimistic view of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, as to what can sometimes happen to a computer, they will last for as long as the computer lasts. But that does not take away from the minimum requirement which appears in Clause 42(b).
("( ) for disapplying, to such extent or in such circumstances (or both) as regulations under this subsection may specify, any of the provisions of section 43(1).").
Page 26, line 46, at end insert--
("( ) Section 42 applies in relation to any revised statement of accounts received by the Commission in accordance with regulations under subsection (9) as it applies in relation to any statement of accounts received by them under section 41.").