9 February 2009
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) made his case powerfully, and I understand what the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said about our not wanting to be seen to be putting ourselves in a different category from other citizens. However, my central point is that it is not a good thing for the police and the whole panoply of criminal law and prosecutors to invade politics—sometimes, although not in my case, for party political reasons—because they often do not want to do it. It is pretty clear, from my direct experience, that the police do not welcome this practice that has grown up. We are in danger of following the American course whereby we pollute politics with all this extraneous interference.
When fraud is being committed—when an hon. Member or a member of a political party is, say, deliberately concealing a donation or seeking to obstruct justice or in some way to hinder and block the operation of the legislation that this Government have put in place—then those people deserve to be pursued for a criminal sanction; of course they do. But where an innocent mistake has been made involving what are complex rules, as has happened to many hundreds of Members of this House—including some here this evening, not only me—it is not sensible for the police or the whole system of criminal law to come in; it is a matter for regulation either by this House or by the Electoral Commission. I think that this Bill improves the situation.
Let us look at some examples. The “loans for peerages” case was pursued as the result of a political request. It took 15 months, nothing happened at the end of it, and the police spent a great deal of money—hundreds of thousands of pounds. The question of whether there was an issue in that case needed to be addressed by the political process—the process of transparency and democratic accountability for which this Government deserve a lot of credit for introducing. We turned our back on the old system whereby a Hong Kong billionaire could give what he liked to a particular political party and nobody knew where it was coming from, who he was or what his motive was.
The other important point about the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East—whether all its specifics are satisfactory to the House is a separate matter—is that the Electoral Commission needs to be much more accountable and needs different leadership from what it has had in the first phase of its work. If I may say so—I will not go into detail—I found it to be incompetent, dysfunctional and politically unworldly. There have been some sensible changes, with commissioners with a political background coming in. I could not believe some of the things that I experienced. One of the things that I found out in the course of this story was that if one of us were taking part in an internal party election and a member of our campaign staff, perhaps a student volunteer, got us a return to Brighton that cost, let us say, £12 or £13 off-peak, and that individual had used a credit card with a credit rating of £2,000 to £3,000—in other words, more than the £1,000 that we have to declare in relation to any donations—the commission’s view was that we would have to declare that. A £12 ticket counted as a donation in kind because of the credit card that happened to pay for it a couple of days before the money was reclaimed. I could quote countless examples—but I will not burden the House—about my own unhappy experience, which proved to me that the commission had very little idea of the political world that it was regulating.
This is not in any way intended to excuse or somehow sidestep the obligation to report on time, or the necessity for the law to be obeyed by regulated donees, which all of us are. I am simply saying that we need from the new leadership a more effective and competent commission, and one that will carry out the duties that the new legislation will enshrine. The changes that the Government have made to the Bill, which were in part provoked by the original amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East and spoken to by my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) in Committee, have made it a much better Bill. I hope that the commission’s leadership will take heed of it and start to act in a proportionate and more politically worldly fashion.
In the end, we are dealing with politics, which is a voluntary activity. We all have our obligations, but we do not want, for example, to criminalise the local party treasurer because he is in his 80s and has not studied the small print of something—someone who could not be any further away from wanting to do something dishonest. We have to take the process forward in a sensible fashion, and that has not been the case before now.