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Lord Rennard: I thank the Minister for that reply and the small amount of sympathy that he expressed for our arguments. It is strange how people in this place withdraw their amendments, thanking the Minister for not doing whatever they have just asked him to do.
We are entering into a debate. I am sure that the climate of opinion in this country is changing in the long run. The donations that have bought public influence in the past may not be so acceptable in future.
The issue is not just transparency over the amount of a donation. What is never transparent is the influence that such donations buy. How are we to know how far the donations by, for example, Mr Paul Sykes have changed Conservative Party policy on Europe, or to what extent donations from the League Against Cruel Sports, worthy organisation though it is, may have changed Labour Party policy? We may know the amount of money but we do not know what policy change the donation has bought. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The clause refers to donations that subsequently turn out not to be permissible. It says, quite fairly, that if the identity of the donor is known, the political party should return the money to the donor, as in the case of Bernie Ecclestone, I suppose. In any other case, such as when the donor's identity is not known or when, once the register is checked, he turns out not to be who he says he is, the money has to go to--needless to say--the Consolidated Fund.
My view is that the right honourable Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, gets more than enough money into the Consolidated Fund. He does not need any more. As we have all said--and the Government have not disagreed--the Bill will add to the costs of political parties. We have come up with a way to give at least the major political parties the odd pound or two to offset the costs of the Bill without the need for state funding.
When donations are returned to the electoral commission, it should do a little calculation, divide up the money and dish it out to the parties that have two or more Members in the House of Commons. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, is not here, because the proposal would clearly not benefit his party, but we cannot go too far. I believe that it would benefit the parties which will incur the greatest expenditure as a result of this Bill.
If someone wants to donate money to politics but does not do it properly, it seems to be much fairer that the money should then go to all the political parties. That will make it slightly frustrating for the donor because the money will not have gone only to the party for which it was intended. The noble Lord will notice that I am not even suggesting that a proportion should be taken away from the party which would have received the donation. I am being very even-handed. I believe that it would be much fairer to divide the money which the commission receives from those sources rather than to give it to the Chancellor.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, a question. I find that I have a problem with what he has suggested. If the donation comes from an impermissible source, the political party for which it was intended should receive no benefit from it. However, if the donation goes to Members of Parliament in proportion, do not the political parties who should not have benefited from it then receive it? I am rather puzzled about that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I believe that I answered that question. The donation will go to the political parties in proportion to their membership in the other place. I said that very generously I was allowing the party for which the donation was originally intended to receive its share, but that is simply a sign of my even-handed nature in these matters. I am obviously not explaining the proposal very well.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. However, in this Bill we are attempting to ensure that the donation does not go to the political party for which it was intended. I am suggesting that it should go to all the political parties and not to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that it is a thoroughly good amendment. As
Lord Norton of Louth: Perhaps I may intervene briefly to support my noble friend in part. It strikes me that a variation on a theme which I believe would meet the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, would be to distribute the donation to the parties other than the one for which it was intended. I believe that, when one considers the matter, there is a benefit in that suggestion. If parties knew that the money would go to their opponents, it would produce a greater incentive for them not to accept impermissible donations and it might make them even more rigorous. Not only would they have the threat of law over them, they would know that the money was going to their opponents.
Lord Rennard: I believe that it is a splendid idea in particular that the money should not go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer but to the parties for whatever purposes they require it. I believe that this represents yet a further step by the Conservative Party towards the state funding of political parties, which of course we welcome. My only disagreement with the amendment is that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to fairness in distribution. Let us suppose that the money has come in from whatever source. If it is to be distributed fairly, surely it should be in proportion to the votes cast at the previous general election rather than according to the proportion of Members in the other place, who, as we know, are elected by a wholly unfair electoral system.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am becoming seriously worried about this debate. Earlier we had class warfare declared by the noble Lord, Lord McNally; now a redistribution of wealth is being proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. That cannot be right.
Clause 52 requires that where a political party is unable to ascertain the identity of a donor or establish that the donor is a permissible source, it must endeavour to return the donation to the donor. We believe that that is right. However, given our party's current strength in another place, I am rather tempted to accept the amendment as a useful source of party funds. But the proposition set out here is rather extraordinary, as I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, willingly accepts. The consequence of this amendment would be to enable a political party to benefit from a donation made by a foreign source. Of course, not all the benefits will be derived by the party for which the donation was intended but such an outcome goes against what is attempted to be achieved by the Bill.
Nor does it seem plausible to imagine that, if a party did receive a large amount of money which it could not accept, but was unable to return it to the donor, it would be happily forwarded to the commission,
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sorry that the noble Lord takes that attitude. As he was arguing against it, he warmed me to it even more. The idea is that money donated by a foreign donor to a British political party, which could not be returned, should be distributed among all the parties. That is the price to be paid.
I see that I have half the support of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, so it will be interesting to see which Lobby he will go in. I almost have the support of the Liberal Democrats and I am interested to see whether they will come into my Lobby. On that basis, I am tempted to ask the opinion of the Committee.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.