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Monday, November 9, 1998 Published at 22:39 GMT

UK Politics

Pick'n'mix approach to Neill report

Lord Neill (centre front) with his committee

A £20m cap on election spending for each political party will be in place in time for the next national poll, but the government is set to reject proposals to remain neutral in referendums.

Home Secretary Jack Straw confirmed the government is to take a selective approach to its tough anti-sleaze proposals.

Mr Straw was speaking at the beginning of a Commons debate on the party funding report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

He told MPs the government would legislate as soon as possible to implement the "main findings" of the committee's report.

He said the £20m cap on election spending suggested by the committee - chaired by Lord Neill - was "in the right bracket".

[ image: Straw: Supports the committee's
Straw: Supports the committee's "main findings"
He added that there was also wide acceptance of a limit of £1.5m for next year's elections to a Scottish Parliament and £600,000 for the Welsh Assembly elections.

The forthcoming legislation would include setting up an Election Commission, as recommended by the committee, although whether its functions and powers would be as outlined by Lord Neill would need to be looked at further.

Mr Straw acknowledged the legislation would not feature in the Queen's Speech later this month, but promised to publish a draft bill before next year's summer recess.

But he went on to describe the committee's proposal that the government of the day should remain neutral in referendums as "not the clearest section" of its report.

He said that in some cases, as with plans for a European single currency, ministers in certain circumstances would need to continue to have access to official advice during the campaign, and would need to make clear to the public where the government stood.

'No cherry-picking'

[ image: Fowler:
Fowler: "Implement in full"
Shadow Home Secretary Sir Norman Fowler, answering for the Opposition, argued there should be no "cherry-picking" of the Lord Neill's recommendations and challenged the government to implement them in full.

"The report comes at a very important time," he told MPs. "The country is facing not only new elections but new systems of voting.

"Just as important, it faces the prospect of referendums on proportional representation and a referendum on the single currency if and when the government does put that issue to the public."

"No government can be wholly objective in providing information for referendums if it supports one side of the argument."

Sir Norman also disclosed that the Tories' major donors would be listed in the party's annual accounts, to be published in the "next few weeks".

Neutrality proposal 'artificial'

[ image: Maclennan:
Maclennan: "Political process up for grabs under Tories"
Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the report - "although it doesn't go as far as we would have done".

Lord Neill's recommendations were "a significant advance in the attempt to control the distortions produced by improper funding and perhaps even more importantly the public perception that the political process was up for grabs."

Mr Maclennan told MPs the Lib Dems accepted the broad conclusions of the Neill Report and also most of its particular conclusions.

But expecting a government to stay out of any referendum was "artificial" because the dividing line between government and party on such issues was unclear.

Former Tory cabinet minister John MacGregor, a member of the Neill Committee member, said it had discovered "very little evidence of abuse" of political power.

Stories about sleaze had given the electorate a "totally false impression" and had been "greatly exaggerated", but the report was still needed in order to counter that perception.

Lord Neill watched from the Commons gallery as MPs debated his report.

His committee's recommendations include a £20m cap for each political party on general election spending, a ban on foreign donations and "blind trusts" to fund political offices, full public disclosure of donations over £5,000, and the creation of a powerful and independent election commission.

The debate was held on a motion for the adjournment of the House - which means MPs do not vote on the matter being discussed.

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