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The Minister will see how strongly Liberal Democrats feel about this matter by the increasing number of Members on our Benches to listen to this debate. [Interruption.] Yes, and perhaps to listen to me as well. Those Members include my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for Cambridge (David Howarth), for Colchester (Bob
Russell)and even my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has come into the Chamber to lend his support to my words this afternoon.
Throughout our discussions on the Bill in this House and another place, we have been at pains to stress to the Government that we do not object in principle to the proposed extension, but we are concerned about how it will work in practice. We have raised some specific anddare I say it?reasonable questions about the proposed scheme, but what has been frustrating is that Ministers, particularly in another place, have been unable to give any coherent responses. We have either been greeted with silence or with answers so vague that they simply raise suspicions that we were being sold a pup.
I am glad to see that the Minister is effectively trying to fill in the blanks and to provide some clarity in the fog of confusion that hung over these clauses until now. We understand that the additional categories of donors would have to meet prescribed conditions, which would be set out in an order once consultation had taken place with the Electoral Commission. However, even now, we have not really been given an indication of what such conditions might be. It is not enough to expect Parliament to agree to such a huge change in the arrangements for donations to political parties, given that we know so few details about how those arrangements are to work.
Mr. Hanson: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. For example, someone who is an Irish citizen would have to produce his passport for verification as a potential donor, and companies would have to be registered in the Republic of Ireland in order to make donations. That is the sort of issue that we are discussing with the Electoral Commission and, hopefully, we can tighten up the situation and thereby address the hon. Gentlemans concerns.
Lembit Öpik: The Ministers response is helpful. Perhaps he could put on the record, by way of a further intervention, a specific commitment that before any such legislation is implemented there will be full consultation not just with the Electoral Commission, but with anyone and any organisations that have an interest in this matter, so that they can make specific representations to the Government and to Ministers as the legislation progresses. Can the Minister give us that assurance right now?
Mr. Hanson: As I have said, this matter will be subject to an order, which will be debated in this House and published accordingly. I am very happy to receive representations on it, as is the normal practice. Potentially, it could be an Order in Council dealt with post-24 November, and would qualify for discussion on the ground that we debated earlier today.
I am pleased in two ways with that response. First, the Minister suggests that this could be the first of the amendable Orders in Council. That is important, because it gives us something of a time frame for the matters that we have just discussed. Secondly, I am encouraged to hear that he would be willing to accept formal representations on these matters. Let me underline the importance of the
Ministers responsewe now begin to get a time frame for when the Government must make the amendability proposals, which is encouraging.
It is important to be assured that the Government are thinking about these conditions. The Minister gave us two examples, which is helpful. We need a coherent strategy that ensures that the loopholes are dealt with. It would also be useful to know over time what avenues of communication will be set up between political parties in the north of Ireland, the Electoral Commission and the agencies in the south of Ireland, so that sufficient checks can be made.
Our donation system is at least sometimes fairly open and transparent, but this is new territory for the United Kingdom, in the sense of working across a national boundary. It would be unreasonable to expect the Northern Ireland Office to operate solely as a single agency to set these precedents. I hope that silo thinking will not prevent a strategic approach from being taken.
In essence, we simply want to be sure that the Minister will expect a political party in Northern Ireland to take specific steps in order to satisfy itself that a donation was from someone who is genuinely an Irish citizen. On the basis that the Minister has given some useful examples by way of interventions, and an assurance that this legislation, if it comes forward through an Order in Council, will be amendable, we are happy to support it today.
Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention and I understand why he wants to make that point clear; nevertheless, I still feel that we are beginning to see a timetable for amendable Orders in Council, which must be roughly the same timetable as the one for this legislation. That is helpful.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I rise to oppose the Lords amendments, which would narrow the list of political donors, restrict funding and strangle parties such as my own. In the light of an earlier question, it is important to point out that we are not talking only about parties such as the Social, Democratic and Labour party. Unionist parties derive a small but nevertheless significant amount of money from across the border with the Irish Republic.
A law that outlaws the raising of funds for Northern Ireland parties on the island of Ireland as a whole is a bad, ineffective and unworkable law. Moreover, it runs against the grain of relationships within these islands between Britain and the Irish Republic that have improved so much in the past 25 or 30 years. It not only makes no sense for legitimate parties in Northern Ireland to be banned from raising legitimate funds anywhere else in the island of Ireland; it also undermines democracy and the existing support for it.
My party survives financially because of good people south of the border. We derive a lot of our funding from within the north, which we require in order to help out. I am glad to note from recent records
that our party is now in the black for the first time in a long time, thanks, in part, to donations. I regret that other parties are in some difficulty, but, if they sought a little help from across the border in the Irish Republic, they could perhaps bring themselves into the black.
The issue is not only large-scale fundraising. The ridiculous nature of this law is particularly apparent along the border. Our small branches and associations in places such as Derry hold an event of some sort, yet Muff is 2 or 3 miles down the road. Ballyshannon is 2 or 3 miles down the road from Belleek in Fermanagh. It is just not humanly possible to implement this law. It is like introducing a law that says that Labour associations on the English border with Scotland are not allowed to make such requests of people across the border. The same point applies to Conservative or Liberal Democrat associations. That is the significance of this measure at local level. [Interruption.] Does someone wish to intervene? [Interruption.] There is so much muttering going on that I would rather give way.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is well aware from what was said in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the dangers and difficulties associated with money laundering and the amount of money sloshing around the Irish Republic. Will he tell me, in the course of his self-serving speech, how, in his view, if this provision goes through, it will be impossible to launder money for Sinn Fein from south of the border into their coffers in Northern Ireland?
Dr. McDonnell: Unfortunately, Sinn Fein will manage to launder money whatever we do in this House. Indeed, it is aided and abetted by the shennanigens of the Democratic Unionist party at every turn. The reality is that we have to bring back devolution to Northern Ireland. There is a competition on at the moment between the DUP and Sinn Fein to see who can be disruptive and who can be the greatest wreckers. Frankly, primarily this is about regulating and creating transparency. My party, the SDLP, is legal and believes in the rule of law, legitimacy and openness. We believe that, rather than creating bad laws that are porous and dysfunctional, we should create good ones that are inclusive. The Lords amendment makes this a bad law that will not work, and in my view it should be rejected. We should continue to try to make laws that are as comprehensive, open and transparent as possible.
Mr. Peter Robinson: I see that the Minister is starting to tidy his papershe is already thinking of his holidays. Indeed, he probably has his swimming trunks on under his suit, ready to go [ Laughter. ] I suggest that when he is on the beach he should not bury his head in the sand in the same way as he has in the Chamber today. He had a credulous gape on his face when it was suggested that there might be a minuscule amount going to Unionist parties as opposed to the amount going to nationalist parties, which indicates that either he is hiding the real intent of his measure or he is completely out of touch with the politics of Northern Ireland.
I suspect that it is the former. The reality is that the Minister is doing this for one partythe Labour
partys sister party, the SDLP. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) is right. Sinn Fein does not need this measure. It can just use the Northern Bank proceeds or the proceeds from all its other gangsterism and other illicit means. The hon. Gentleman admits that Sinn Fein is still involved in criminality, but he wants us to go into government with it. Clearly, it is a measure designed principally to help the SDLP. It is therefore a discriminatory measure. It will discriminate against Unionists and in favour of the SDLP.
Mr. Robinson: It shows how the hon. Gentlemans mind works when he makes an intervention on an irrelevant issue that has nothing to do with the funding of political parties. It shows that he is attempting to cover up the fact that it is the SDLP, and the SDLP alone, that is the reason the Government are introducing this measure.
Why was there a prohibition placed on parties elsewhere in the United Kingdom? It was because those who were resident in and citizens of countries outside the United Kingdom should not be allowed to influence the politics of the United Kingdom. But the Government are providing for precisely that in Northern Ireland, where they will allow people from another jurisdiction to have a direct influence on the politics of Northern Ireland. The Minister is saying that the principle is good generally for the United Kingdom, but that the Government are prepared to throw their principles out to make the politics of Northern Ireland go in the direction that they want.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for hon. Members contributions. I am sorry that we have such a full House to hear the different tonein terms of the context of the debateof the contribution by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). This Bill is about the special circumstances of Northern Ireland and relationships with the Irish Republic and individuals who live and work there. It is consistent with the Good Friday agreement to allow citizens of and businesses in the Irish Republic to donate to political parties that operate in Northern Ireland. It is fair and proper, and an acceptable proposal for the Government to support. I commend the motion to the House.
Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 3, 1 and 2: Mr. Michael Foster, Mr. David Hanson, Lembit Öpik, Mr. Laurence Robertson and Lynda Waltho to be members of the Committee; Mr. David Hanson to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the Quorum of the Committee. [Liz Blackman.]
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