Nick debates Lord Chancellor on party funding
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):
Most people will be astonished by the front of Labour Ministers, such as the Government Chief Whip, who call for controls on party donations but want to exempt unions from those controls. We have called for a comprehensive cap on all donations so that individuals, companies and trade unions are treated equally. Is it not obvious why the Government have rejected this? They do not want to give up the £17 million of funding they received from the unions last year. In exercising his responsibility for policy on party funding, will the Lord Chancellor be acting in the interests of the public or the interests of his party?
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw):
I am tempted to descend to the level that the Conservatives have now reached on this issue. However, I live in hope that the constructive, consensual approach that they were taking under the Leader of the Opposition only a few months ago will continue. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not been party to the all-party talks. Those of us who have know well that each party has had to accept significant compromises to reach a consensus. That remains my hope and desire, but it can be achieved only if the spirit in which we entered into the talks, and which continued until July, goes on. I greatly regret that, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Conservatives cancelled the next meeting of those all-party talks, which was due on the 3 September, and that they have had the most extraordinary difficulty in finding a date to suit them since then.
The Lord Chancellor conspicuously failed to answer the question. There is no possibility of achieving consensus while union barons control affiliation fees. By not counting £8 million of donations, he drives a coach and horses through the principle of capping donations. Is it not clear from his answer that the Government have not the slightest interest in securing a level playing field for party funding? Is it not also clear that their only interest in the conduct of elections is exactly what the Electoral Commission's report described yesterday-partisan interest above the public interest?
I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Before he starts examining the mote in our eye, he should look at the beam in his own. He totally misunderstands the way in which individual union members have a choice-[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] They have two choices. First, under Conservative legislation, they vote in ballots at least every 10 years- [Laughter.] I do not know why Conservative Members are mocking-I am taking about their legislation. Secondly, unions can make a voluntary decision about whether to pay the political levy or opt out of it.Only one party has ever sought to act in a partisan way on party funding-the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We sought to act on a consensual basis in 2000, and we achieved that consensus with the Conservative party and with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that we can reach it again.