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Lord Bach: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 89 and 99 address a point which the noble Lord raised in Committee. The concern is that in restricting the definition of a permissible source to persons included on an electoral register the definition would exclude those who may, for reasons of personal security, choose not to register to vote.
Perhaps I may briefly remind the House why on this occasion we have considered it necessary to depart from the recommendation of the Neill committee--it was that those eligible to register should also qualify as a permissible source--and instead restrict the definition of a permissible donor to those individuals who are registered voters.
It is essentially a matter of providing the political parties with a simple workable test as to whether an individual donor qualifies as a permissible donor. It would, by contrast, be no easy matter for a registered party to establish whether a donor whose name did not appear on an electoral register was nevertheless entitled to register. The difficulty would be all the greater where the donor happened to live overseas.
Under the current rules for overseas registration, a party would need to establish that the person was registered to vote on the domestic register anything up to 20 years previously. The amendments seek to address the difficulty by providing that the commission should maintain a register of those who submit to it a notification that they are entitled to vote. Our main reservation is that the proposal merely transfers the difficulty to the commission. The commission will exist to administer and enforce the provisions of the Bill.
Providing it with the potentially difficult and onerous task of establishing whether a particular person is eligible to be registered as a voter in order to enable that person to make a political donation does not fit into that conception of the commission's role. Indeed, one could argue that to confer such a function on the commission would be to create a possible conflict of interest for the commission. It would, in effect, be doing the work of the registered parties for them; namely, establishing whether a particular donation could be legitimately accepted. Moreover, given the sensitivity of information kept in any such register, it seems likely that the commission would need to establish a secure means of consulting it.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Members of political parties are not the only ones concerned. A significant proportion of people in the constituency of Hereford are not on the electoral register. That is because they are either serving members of the SAS; are families of such members, are civilian workers in the SAS headquarters; or are in another way involved with the SAS. They do not register for security reasons.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. We understand that it is a real problem and are not pretending otherwise. However, we make no special provision in order to enable people who are not on the register to vote. We are not therefore convinced that it would be right to go down a separate road in order to enable such people to make donations. It seems to us that the real problem is to find a way of getting those who for good reasons are loath to put themselves on an electoral register in a position where they are able to vote. That is the main problem. For that reason, we are not content with the two amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on this issue.
Amendment No. 100 relates to a different issue. It would require the electoral commission to maintain a national register of electors and to make the register available to registered parties. We discussed the proposal in Committee. The noble Lord wants an update on it and he is entitled to that. As we acknowledged during that debate, it is desirable that both the political parties and the electoral commission have easy access to electoral registers. In Committee, we pointed out that with the introduction of rolling registers such checks would best be carried on up-to-date registers maintained at local level. But, given the nature of the controls set out in the Bill, it would make sense for there to be a central access point to all 600-plus local registers.
The electoral commission project team is in discussion with the Improvement and Development Agency for local government and with the Association of Electoral Administrators on how online access to all local registers can be arranged not just for the commission but for political parties too. Ensuring the compatibility of locally held registers is likely to assist in making those registers more accessible. However, I have to tell the House that this is no small undertaking and we do not believe that it will be in place before next October.
We have been looking at ways to provide an interim solution which can be in place in time for the commencement of Part IV of the Bill. However, it has not proved possible to find a value for money solution which can be relied upon to be in place for February
Lord McNally: My Lords, the Minister has just read out a list of those who are consulting each other on this matter. The Minister did not refer to party professionals. I suggest that they should be consulted because they have the best experience at the sharp end of how to make such a system effective.
The existing arrangements require local registers to be maintained in a common electronic format, and we amended the Bill in Committee to facilitate that. We do not believe, therefore, that at this stage Amendment No. 100 takes us much further forward. I have explained to the noble Lord what we seek to do and the difference between now and before. I do not claim that it will necessarily satisfy the noble Lord, but I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I begin with Amendments Nos. 89 and 90. I understand the noble Lord's difficulty. However, that difficulty would have been resolved by accepting my earlier amendments in Committee and doing what the Neill committee recommended. Certainly, that would have dealt with the problem faced by the military outlined by my noble friend in his intervention. We understand their position entirely. However, I can see that I shall not make much progress on that matter.
I had hoped to be greatly reassured by the response to Amendment No. 100, but the opposite is true. All that has happened is that political parties will get more money to help with start-up costs because of their difficulty in checking the eligibility of donors. It is amazing that we find ourselves in this position after many months' consideration of the Bill, reflecting the fact that the party professionals in the three main parties were not brought into the argument at a sufficiently early stage. That was a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, touched in his intervention. The position is that in an election next April political parties will be in very grave difficulty when it comes to checking the eligibility of donors. I cannot see a way round it, given the incompetence that has surrounded this issue over the past many months. Government have known for a long time that they will be confronted with a situation in which the political parties will be under an obligation to check weekly on the eligibility of donors. Yet they have not willed a system, let alone the means, to allow for an efficient
I am very dissatisfied with the Government's position which will sow the seeds of real confusion when the Bill begins to be implemented. One wonders whether the Government should give serious consideration to holding their hand on the implementation of the whole of this matter until they have the means to sort it out. The position is very unsatisfactory. It may be that if the professionals in the parties read this they can come up with a solution which some noble Lords will be content to table as a Third Reading alternative to the predicament in which we find ourselves.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I have listened with enormous interest to this debate. As someone who is totally devoted to everything electronic, I am very sympathetic to the view which has been expressed. But is there no possibility that the donor will himself be aware that he is on the electoral register? Is it not possible to ask him whether he is on the electoral register and, if so, where? Would that not solve the problem?
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