Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Howarth: I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman seeks to make. If he cares to elaborate on it, I shall try to give him a considered answer. If he is implying that the measures are designed purely to facilitate Sinn Fein, he is quite wrong.

Mr. Bercow: I intended to be clear; I am sorry if I was not. My point was that it is entirely conceivable that an organisation that was not a political party could and would have a view about the yes or no answer to a question in a referendum but, unlike a political party, it would not be able to receive funds from outside the country.

Mr. Howarth: The exemption in the order is designed entirely to cover political parties. It has no bearing on the conduct of a referendum. Other parts of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 deal with referendums and, if the hon. Gentleman has any concerns about them, I suggest that he takes them up with the Home Office. We are dealing exclusively with the funding of political parties, and the two relevant issues that flow from the Neill committee report.

Mr. Öpik: I had assumed that a non-political organisation could get funds for a referendum or something else from wherever it can secure them. Will the Minister clarify whether that is the case?

Mr. Howarth: In general terms, it is the case. The point that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made related to the fact that referendums are covered by the Act and he wanted to clarify whether there was a difference between a referendum and the provisions in the order. If that is the clarification that he sought, I am happy to confirm that there is a difference. Although a referendum would be funded on a different basis, that would apply across the United Kingdom. My case is that the funding of political parties is subject to different pressures in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I want to press the Minister on that issue. The order is on political parties, elections and referendums, but referendums do not always affect the whole of the UK; some have been held in Northern Ireland specifically on Northern Ireland issues. Does the fine print in the order mean that cross-party groupings and non-party groupings can get money from anywhere and that it is only political parties that are restricted on donations?

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. Gentleman reads the order, he will see that the headings refer to Northern Ireland parties, the disapplication of schedule 7, which covers political parties, the registration of the meaning of a registered political party and the registration of donations by regulated donees in Great Britain. It does not mention referendums that are held only in Northern Ireland or UK-wide.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 879

Referendums would be affected only if a political party chose to campaign on them. The considerations that relate to any other means of fund-raising would apply in those circumstances because they are disapplied from the Act. There may be circumstances in which resources that were donated to a political party could be used for campaigning in a referendum, but presumably that would not be the purpose for which those general campaigning funds had been raised.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Perhaps I can help the Minister. When challenged on this matter during the Bill's passage in another place, Lord Bassam said:

Mr. Howarth: I am in no way disagreeing with my noble Friend. I said that in those circumstances it would be possible for political parties to campaign in a referendum as described. However, the Act sets expenditure limits on campaigning generally in referendums. Unlimited expenditure of any kind would be penalised.

I feel bound to draw one further factor to the attention of the House. At least one party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, which is represented in the House tonight, has been fund-raising in anticipation of the exemptions. I also understand that some of its prospective donors have promised funding on the basis that the Northern Ireland parties would be exempted and not identified. In view of the fact that we signalled that the order would be introduced, it was not unreasonable for the party to do that. However, if we were to backtrack on that commitment, it would represent a breach of good faith. In those circumstances, we are honour bound to meet that commitment. Having made those important points, I commend the order to the House.

8.45 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): We strongly and passionately oppose the motion, for reasons that I and others outlined during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill through both Houses of Parliament.

The Minister's speech was uncharacteristically confusing, and I did not think that his heart was entirely in it. I hope that he will forgive me if I am a little critical.

Mr. George Howarth: To dispel any misgivings that the right hon. Gentleman might have, I can assure him that, whatever my speech conveyed, my heart was properly in it. I have given the measure careful consideration and I believe that, in the circumstances, it is exactly the right thing to do.

Mr. MacKay: I am grateful to the Minister. I shall be happy for him to intervene again, but perhaps I could first make a little progress.

Our first fundamental objection concerns the fact that it has been decided, rightly, that political parties in our country should no longer accept overseas donations.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 880

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) became Leader of the Opposition, one of his early decisions, before the Neill committee reached its conclusions, was that the Conservative party would not in future accept overseas donations. There was no real dispute about that during the Bill's passage. Our concern is that Northern Ireland is being treated differently.

I passionately believe in the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. As a unionist--and I emphasise the small "u"--I believe that, wherever possible, Northern Ireland should be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of our country. It is fundamentally wrong that political parties in Northern Ireland are able to obtain funds from abroad when parties based on the mainland are not.

I am particularly concerned that the measure is largely, but not exclusively, a sop to political parties that are still close to violence and inextricably linked to paramilitaries. I willingly acknowledge to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that I am obviously excluding his party. I acknowledge also that, as the Minister said, the hon. Gentleman and his party are anxious to obtain money from abroad. I think it fundamentally wrong for any party to do so, and it is particularly sad that the majority of parties that will try to do so have past and present paramilitary links. That is the first fundamental reason for our opposition to the motion.

Secondly, there is a red herring in the debate. The Minister says that even if we banned donations from abroad in Northern Ireland, the security situation means that there could be threats to donors, so their names would not be revealed and we would not know whether the donations were from abroad. We fully accept that, in the present climate in Northern Ireland, it would be wrong to publish the names of donors, whether individual or corporate. There is nothing between us on that point, and I do not think that any Member would think that publication was wise at the moment. The Minister and I hope that the situation will change, and that such precautions will not be necessary in future if the peace process that we support reaches a logical and happy conclusion.

I beg to differ on one point. I notice that the Minister was particularly cautious in his reference to the Electoral Commission, when he said that he hoped that it would not be insulted by what he had to say. On the commission's behalf, I would have accepted those remarks, had they come from some Ministers, as an insult, but I did not in this case. However, the commission is a neutral, secure body, and if the commissioners alone were given the names of donors, they would be able to establish whether or not they were foreign. It is therefore an excuse and a red herring to use legitimate concerns about publicising donors' names in this instance. There would be no problem in giving them to the Electoral Commission alone, and we should do that.

There is another separate and serious aspect of the Act and the order. I think that we have established that the Minister was incorrect when he started to suggest that the order had nothing to do with referendums. As I illustrated in my intervention, it clearly does; I quoted his ministerial colleague in another place, Lord Bassam of Brighton, at some length. That is another of our serious complaints about the order.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 881

It is conceivable that there will be a border poll in the future. It might even be advantageous at some time to have a further border poll. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned, it is outrageous that a political party--for instance, Sinn Fein--can obtain money from abroad to campaign in such a referendum, yet a cross-community group supporting the peace process and the Union would not be allowed to do so. That is far from a level playing field; indeed, it is unfair and unreasonable.

The Minister will know--it could be that the note coming from the officials' Box is confirming this--that the situation is straightforward, and that political parties can obtain money from abroad but groups campaigning in a referendum that are not political parties cannot. These are groups with which he and I would probably want to associate. In anybody's book, that is deeply unfair and wrong.

The Minister said that this does not really matter, because there are severe limits on how much each political party can raise from abroad in a referendum campaign. I remind the House that there are rather generous limits, with which I do not quibble. Each political party is allowed to raise £500,000 for each referendum campaign. That is not a trivial amount. In the case of Sinn Fein, much of it might come from abroad. That gives it a distinctly unfair advantage.

In general, I have the greatest reservations about referendums. I believe in our parliamentary democracy wherever possible. We should use this elected Parliament to make decisions. If the electorate does not like the decisions that we make, it has an opportunity every four or five years to put others in our place who might make more favourable decisions. However, I acknowledge that occasionally there is need for a referendum. One of the obvious examples, going back over the past 60 or 70 years, was the border poll to which I referred earlier.

If we are to have referendums, it is vital that there be a level playing field. The last referendum to take place throughout the United Kingdom was conducted in 1975. The Minister and I were perhaps on the same side of the argument. I campaigned for a yes vote--[Interruption.] Apparently, he did not. I nevertheless welcome the Minister's conversion.

I still believe that Britain's future is within the European Community, but I had great reservations about the funding that turned out to be available to the two different campaigns. That is why limits must be set and why, wherever possible, there should be equality of campaigning so that the British people can make a decision in any referendum that is based on equal spending and equal advocacy by both sides. On reflection, 26 years later, that did not happen in 1975, which is regrettable. I think that I would have won and the Minister would have lost--as in fact happened--even if the funding had been different. However, the matter was rather distasteful, and it appears more distasteful as the years go by. We therefore learned a lesson from the 1975 referendum, and we should ensure that the same thing never happens again.

I hope that I have expressed clearly my serious concerns about specific referendums in Northern Ireland, of which the most obvious is about the border poll that

6 Feb 2001 : Column 882

will probably take place in the near future. I should now like to move on to the wider issue of referendums elsewhere in the United Kingdom and I shall explain, Madam Deputy Speaker, why I am not trespassing out of order. The most obvious referendum to come up Europe-wide--that is a wonderful Freudian slip, but I mean United Kingdom-wide--in the foreseeable future will be on whether or not we should join the single currency. Again, I suspect that the Minister and I would be on opposite sides of the argument, which is a pity. However, it is essential that we have a level playing field.

I should like to look at the situation in Northern Ireland. Political parties registered in Northern Ireland would be able to obtain £500,000 abroad and add that to the referendum campaign throughout the UK. The Minister will say that they are not allowed to pass that money on to political parties on the mainland, but they will have to. They can take advertising space and publish leaflets. It is quite easy to spend £500,000 on a referendum campaign on a single currency. That would however be wrong, and it would influence unduly what happened in the campaign.

I shall give a spurious example which, I hope, is not sensitive in the context of Northern Ireland politics. The Conservative party in Northern Ireland is a registered party in the Province, and it could spend £500,000 on billboards and advertising, quite separately from the separately registered Conservative party on the mainland. It could spend that money on the same campaign as the Conservative party, but it would pay for different advertisements in different places. We could easily take a logical step further and divide the Conservative party in Northern Ireland into individual constituencies, so that there are separate Conservative parties registered for Strangford, South Down and Belfast, South. Each party could then accept £500,000 from people who were against entry to the single currency. We could direct that money to them and they would spend it on the referendum.

I believe that the Minister would think that wrong and unfair and that it would act against his desire to join the single currency. Lest there be any doubt, may I add that the Conservative party would have no intention of doing what I have just said? I am simply saying that that option would be available to us; it drives a coach and horses through the order, which is highly dangerous.

Next Section

IndexHome Page