Committee on Standards in Public Life
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House of Lords 2nd reading of the Trade Union Bill - 11 Jan 2016

Lord Bew confirms Committee's 2011 report recommendations on party funding should be seen as a balanced package.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has been referred to a number of times in this debate and is referred to in the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

It might be helpful if I remind the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has already has, that the committee was established 20 years ago by John Major and includes lay members and representatives of the main political parties. As I look around me, I see distinguished Members on all sides of the House who have served on the committee. I will return to that point before I conclude my remarks.

I have been chair for two years. In November 2011, my predecessors on the committee produced a comprehensive report on this issue. With great effort, they attempted to produce a balanced and sustainable package of reforms to address the big donor culture in party funding. The committee’s research showed that the public are highly sceptical about the motivations of donors, whether they are individuals, organisations or, indeed, trade unions. Reform of party funding to end the big donor culture appeared in the manifestos of the three main parties in the recent general election.

The committee made it clear at the time that the package it recommended was intended to be reasonably fair in its impact on different parties and called for all parties to act in the national interest to benefit the health of UK democracy rather than for narrow party advantage. For example, chapter 15 of the committee’s report states:

“It is important that proposals are regarded as a package. Failure to resist the temptation to implement some parts, while rejecting others, would upset the balance we have sought to achieve”.

I insist on this as a central point. To extract one element—this afternoon we have discussed Part 4, which deals with trade union funding—without implementing the other reforms is not in the spirit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2011 report. Nobody who reads it can be in any possible doubt about that.

Having said that, I shall make some further points. The committee’s report needs some updating. Years have passed since 2011. We need better current figures, and my committee is undertaking further research to test the public’s view. In particular, it is important that all parties set out their sources and use of funds in an easily intelligible way and use common, publicly available standards so that proper analysis and comparisons are possible.

When the committee’s original report was published in 2011—this is why I mentioned the party-political composition of the committee earlier—Margaret Beckett MP published a dissenting note for the Labour Party, as did Oliver Heald MP for the Conservative Party. Those dissenting notes were published by the committee. Oliver Heald in particular pointed to a lack of adequate information about parties’ funding and called for consistent accounting.

This has led me to the view, which I think is the view of the committee today, that it is essential to promote a vigorous and well-informed debate. I wrote to all the party leaders after the general election, drawing attention to the commitments that were in their manifestos. There now needs to be a broad debate on these issues. I am confident that there are sufficient public-spirited people in all parties. If one reads the press associated with the main parties in our system, one can see a reflection of this opinion. If one listens carefully to what Members of Parliament have said, I am confident that there is sufficient informed and genuinely public-spirited opinion on this matter to produce a serious debate. I entirely respect the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we may have to wait one or two Parliaments before this matter moves on but, while I respect it, it is the role of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at this point to push for a broader, intense debate on these fundamental issues.

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