Ministers agree to relax new rules on party accounts

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Ministers agreed last night to water down new rules on party funding in the face of Tory protests that they could leave voluntary officials such as the Conservative treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, facing prison if they file false accounts.

Both main opposition parties protested against changes making party treasurers legally responsible for controlling election spending and donations, saying they were often part-time and the burden was too heavy. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, a party treasurer will commit a criminal offence if false information is given to a new electoral commission. The commission will keep a register of political parties, all of whom must make regular submissions on donations and election spending.

The Bill is designed to limit election spending to £20m in general elections and to ban foreign donations following a comprehensive inquiry into political funding by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

As it reached its committee stage in the Lords last night, changes demanded by the Conservatives threw the party's controversial treasurer into the spotlight once more. The Home Office minister, Lord Bassam of Brighton, agreed to make changes which would reduce Mr Ashcroft's responsibilities. A government amendment to the Bill would be tabled when it reached its final stage in the Commons later this year, he said. But one Labour MP said he still believed that Mr Ashcroft should be held accountable for his party's spending.

Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin, said while the Labour and Liberal Democrat treasurers were mainly hands off, Mr Ashcroft's role was central because he was chief fund-raiser and principal donor. "It is simply laughable to suggest that someone occupying that position should not be accountable for his or her role," he said. "It is amazing what cartwheels William Hague will turn for him."

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, the Tories' deputy leader in the Lords, said before the debate that he felt the whole Bill was too burdensome. "It is going to change the role of treasurer out of all recognition," he said. "Normally the party treasurer bothers about raising the money and not much about spending it." The Conservatives would prefer to see a separation between the role of treasurer and that of a full-time accounting or compliance officer.

Lord Rennard, Director of Campaigns for the Liberal Democrats, agreed with Lord Mackay and said parties should be able to make their own decisions about who was responsible for accounting. "A finance officer could have responsibility for ensuring parties comply with the regulations," he said.

Lord Rennard said the Liberal Democrats would also table amendments at a later stage to limit parties' spending in elections. A government proposal for a £20m limit in general elections should be cut to £15m, he said, and a by-election limit of £100,000 to £75,000. The Liberal Democrats had spent just £25,000 on their victory last week at the Romsey by-election, he said.

Later in the committee stage, a Conservative peer, Lord Norton of Louth, will try to change a provision which says donors should be electors in Britain to ensure that they actually live here.

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