On the 27th October the Bishop of Salisbury the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam spoke in the second reading debate of Lord Tyler’s Private Members Bill, ‘Democratic Political Activity (Funding and Expenditure) Bill’. The Bishop acknowledged that the House had achieved a consensus that we have a problem with funding of political parties and he encouraged all sides of the debate to lay aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections, to sit down together and work out what best to do.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I too admire the commitment and persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in bringing this Bill before the House. It was in November 2011 that the Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report on political party finance and found the current arrangements unsustainable.
My presence in this debate has been referred to a couple of times and perhaps it needs some explanation. I feel as though I have come into the engine room of the political process and am talking with a number of people who have been at this work for some time. I have arrived a bit like a chaplain in industrial mission. The role of the Lords spiritual is distinctive and one of our tasks is to lead daily Prayers. One of the best of those is, I think, when we pray for heavenly wisdom and understanding, laying aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections. Our political system depends on a Parliament being able to do that. The pressures are subtle and money in particular can be seductive.
I am not sure whether a bishop has quoted Karl Marx approvingly before, but he said something like, “If you want to know what a person believes, ask them what they spend their money on”.
The Church of England has a tendency to talk itself down, but noble Lords might note that the Church of England is strongest in its local parish form, where something like 550,000 people commit to planned giving with an average contribution of £11 per week. The Church has always been one generation from extinction, but that has been so for 2,000 years and gives some grounds for confidence.
People give to political parties because of their beliefs. A healthy political party has many members and the picture is constantly changing. The rapid rise in Labour Party membership to over 500,000 means that the party has refound financial solvency. It changes the context of this debate, although there is, as others have pointed out, an imbalance in party political funding, which gets much comment.
Political parties would give a great deal for the confidence of the financial position of the Church of England with its contributions. The health of politics and civil society depends on funding that reflects involvement and commitment, but which also has a measure of public funding. It is right that we invest in the political process. It is part of a civil society—we do in fact do that—and this Bill attempts to strike a balance.
Money in large amounts buys influence and that can make it very difficult to lay aside private interests, prejudices and partial affections. It seems entirely right that there should be cap on political funding. That is not the same as donations to things such as charities, cultural events or capital appeals, but where there are large gifts to political parties, a few individuals can make something happen which is perhaps beyond the public good. The Bill is about the body politic and the health of democracy in which large donations are intended to skew the process by buying advantage.
The Bill is unlikely to make progress in the conventional way. There is not the time nor the necessary consensus on the way forward. Yet there is a consensus that we have a problem. That is what the Bill is trying to highlight. It would be sensible, therefore, for all sides to sit down together and work out what to do, in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, suggested. It is a role of Lords Spiritual to encourage the political parties to lay aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections, and that is what I want to encourage noble Lords to do.