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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
Austin, John (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mates, Mr. Michael (East Hampshire) (Con)
Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Steen, Mr. Anthony (Totnes) (Con)
Streeter, Mr. Gary (South-West Devon) (Con)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Wright, Dr. Tony (Cannock Chase) (Lab)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 10 July 2007

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings? The order follows on from the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which received Royal Assent last summer. A number of detailed discussions have taken place since then, including with the Irish Government and the Electoral Commission. Prior to the passage of the 2006 Act we had, of course, consulted the political parties and others on the issues involved. The Government’s response to the consultation exercise was published in January 2006 and informed the relevant provisions of the 2006 Act.
It might be helpful to the Committee if I set the order in context. The 2006 Act made provision for political parties registered in the Northern Ireland register and regulated donees, known collectively as “Northern Ireland recipients”, to continue to be exempt from provisions relating to the control of political donations, as set out in part IV of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, until 31 October this year.
The provisions have been disapplied in Northern Ireland since their enactment for two good reasons: first, because of continuing concern about the possible intimidation of donors to political parties in the event of their identities being made public; and, secondly, to allow Northern Ireland recipients to accept donations from Irish citizens and from organisations based in Ireland in a manner consistent with the Good Friday agreement. From 1 November 2007, that disapplication will be removed and part IV of the 2000 Act will apply to Northern Ireland, albeit with the amendments and modifications made by the 2006 Act.
Those amendments extend the categories of donors permitted to make donations to Northern Ireland political parties in order to include, in addition to those covered by the 2000 Act, Irish citizens and prescribed Irish bodies that meet certain conditions. The amendments also make provision for the Electoral Commission to hold Northern Ireland donation reports confidentially for the prescribed period of three years, or for longer if the period is extended by order of the Secretary of State. They also require the commission to take steps to verify the information contained in those reports.
The purpose of the order is to set out the detail of how the new arrangements will work in Northern Ireland from 1 November onwards. Part 1 specifies the conditions that an Irish citizen must meet in order to be able to donate to a Northern Ireland recipient. It also specifies the categories of Irish bodies that will be entitled to donate to Northern Ireland recipients from 1 November onwards. Schedule 1 sets out the information that must be provided in relation to donations from Irish donors in donation reports that are required to be made by Northern Ireland recipients.
The steps that the Electoral Commission must take in order to verify the information contained in those donation reports are set out in part 2. The commission must check 50 per cent. of donations from individuals and 100 per cent. of donations from bodies reported by Northern Ireland recipients. The commission may verify the information provided in the donation report by, among other things, contacting the bodies listed in article 11 to which it is able to disclose information.
The commission is under a duty of confidentiality in relation to information contained in reports from Northern Ireland recipients during the prescribed period. However, the commission has the power to release information contained in a Northern Ireland donation report if it believes on reasonable grounds that the donation was from an impermissible or unidentifiable donor. Article 10 sets out the requirements in relation to which such information must be released.
In conclusion, I hope that members of the Committee will agree that the order represents an important step towards bringing donation controls in Northern Ireland more fully in line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. It puts us on the path towards the achievement of what we hope will be full transparency by 2010.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister just said that the order will put us on the track towards bringing Northern Ireland in line with provisions for elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but the order will allow and set conditions for donors from the Irish Republic to donate to political parties in Northern Ireland. That is not allowed elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Would he like to comment on that? Why are special provisions being made for Northern Ireland? He has just told the Committee that the order will bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Paul Goggins: It will bring Northern Ireland more fully in line with what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that one of the changes made by the 2006 Act allowed Irish citizens and bodies to make such donations. That comes out of the principles of the Good Friday agreement. I take it from his question that he might not fully agree with those principles, but no doubt there will be an opportunity to debate that. The fact is that the provisions in place constitute a more robust system of scrutiny and oversight of political donations than Northern Ireland has ever had. I hope that, by 2010, we will have sufficient confidence in communities across Northern Ireland to ensure a fully transparent system of political donations.
The hon. Gentleman caught me in the middle of my final sentence. I am glad that he was able to take that opportunity, and I am sure that he will want to catch your eye later, Mr. Cummings. With those remarks, I bring my opening comments to a conclusion.
4.37 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North, I am a little surprised by the Minister’s comments and the tone that he adopted when introducing the order. Rather uncharacteristically, he made out that the order represents a move towards normality and equality with Great Britain, when actually it will extend the unusual provision that exists in Northern Ireland for foreign donations. The original 2000 Act prohibited foreign donations—from which, of course, Northern Ireland was excepted by the provisions of the 2006 Act—so that political parties in Northern Ireland could accept donations from the Republic of Ireland.
It is interesting to note that when the 2000 Act was passed, it was seen as being very important to the great efforts being made to bring parties together to form the Assembly. The Act therefore went through at a crucial time. Why was that concession time-limited to 31 October this year? We now have this order in front of us, which will make that provision permanent. I have sat on enough of these Committees to become rather suspicious, and I wonder why the concession was time-limited. I suspect that it was done in order to get this order through the House, which I think is rather disingenuous. The Minister said that these provisions are consistent with the Good Friday agreement, but that existed last year when these very provisions were time-limited. If they are in accordance with the agreement, why was the concession time-limited then? That does not make sense, and I would like an explanation from him.
We are now considering making these provisions permanent, and I note that since the enactment of this legislation, there have been discussions with the Irish Government and the Electoral Commission, as the Minister said, but not with the political parties in Northern Ireland. There may have been discussions before, when the option was time-limited, but not since it has become a permanent proposition.
I return to the original purpose of outlawing foreign donations, and I quote from the Official Report of the Second Reading debate on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Jack Straw), now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, who introduced the Bill, said:
“At the heart of the Bill's provisions is the need to ensure that the funding of political parties is open and transparent.”
He continued:
“The secrecy that has hitherto been permitted to political parties in their funding, and the scandals to which such secrecy has given rise in recent years, have undoubtedly left a sour taste. In contrast, all political parties—and the reputation of our political system as a whole—will benefit from the Bill.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 34.]
The other objective was to avoid foreign influence in British political life, but the influence of the Republic will remain significant. It is not just that—the question arises as to whether donations from the Republic will originate in the Republic or come from elsewhere. We are all aware of the fund-raising abilities of certain people in Northern Ireland—those in Noraid, for example. Will that money find its way to Northern Ireland via the Republic? It seems that that would be very easy to do. Political parties in the Republic will also be able to receive and to donate.
The money coming from the Republic will fund political parties only on one side of the divide in Northern Ireland. It will not go to the Democratic Unionist party or the Ulster Unionist party—or if it does, it will be only a very small percentage, if that. It will go to the nationalist and republican parties in Northern Ireland, which hardly seems fair.
There is some confusion in the law. For example, the Conservative party organises in Northern Ireland and presumably it will be able to receive donations from the Republic should people there want to give money to it. I hear that the Labour party might be organising in Northern Ireland, and presumably it, too, will be able to receive money from the Republic. Yet those very parties in England will not be able to receive money from the Republic of Ireland, and I do not understand how that can be workable. It is a nonsense in law, regardless of the moral issues and of whether people in the Republic would want to give money to the Conservative party. The situation is potentially very confusing and conflicting.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): If people in the Republic were to give a donation to Northern Ireland that was meant to go to London, that would not be impossible because donations can be made from Northern Ireland to London.
Mr. Robertson: That demonstrates how nonsensical this situation is. Money could presumably go from America to the south, from the south to the north and from the north to London. That shoots holes in the 2000 Act and is complete nonsense. Apart from the moral aspects, it is a legal mess.
I have a couple of smaller points to make. There seems again to be a difference between what will happen in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, for a donation to be permissible in Great Britain, the donor must be on the electoral roll. In Northern Ireland, it is phrased a bit differently—the donor must have an Irish passport, a certificate of nationality or a certificate of naturalisation to qualify. If somebody were living in New York but had an Irish passport, would they be a permissible donor?
I am disappointed by how the order has been introduced. I am disappointed that it picks up on what seemed a reasonably acceptable situation under the 2006 Act. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanations on the points that I have raised.
4.47 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. Under existing legislation, Northern Ireland parties are currently exempt from requirements to comply with part 4 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 concerning donation controls because of special circumstances in Northern Ireland regarding both the continuing fear of intimidation of donors and the Republic of Ireland’s special position, as set out in the Belfast agreement, in relation to the political life of Northern Ireland.
Last year, we passed the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which provided for continuing exemptions for Northern Ireland parties and regulated donors until the end of October 2007. After that, they will be required to comply with most of part 4 of the 2000 Act. However, they will continue to be able to accept donations from Irish donors and, until 31 October 2010, need not make their donation reports public. Instead, the Electoral Commission will check reports privately for compliance.
The 2006 Act gives the Secretary of State the power to prescribe what conditions an Irish citizen must meet to be able to donate to a Northern Ireland party, which categories of Irish body will be able to donate, what conditions they must meet in order to do so and what steps the Electoral Commission must take to verify the information in Northern Ireland parties’ donation reports. The order prescribes those details.
During Committee consideration of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Liberal Democrats expressed the view that there must be clear rules for determining which Irish individuals and bodies can donate to Northern Ireland political parties, and that the rules must be drawn up tightly so that people who are not Irish citizens but have only some vague connection with Ireland cannot donate. Clear rules are needed so that any political party receiving a donation will know whether it can be accepted, and so that the Electoral Commission can check whether any donation is valid.
I have a few questions for the Minister about the order. I draw his attention to article 3, which states that
“the prescribed condition in relation to an Irish citizen is that at the time of making a donation to a Northern Ireland recipient he must be eligible to obtain one of the following Irish passport;...a certificate of nationality; or...a certificate of naturalisation.”
The individual concerned might not hold any of those documents, but he must be eligible to obtain one of them for his donation to be legal. However, when the party that has received the donation submits its donations report to the Electoral Commission, that must not only state the amount of the donation and the donor’s full name, but be accompanied by one of the following documents:
“a copy of the donor’s Irish passport...a copy of the donor’s certificate of nationality...or...a copy of the donor’s certificate of naturalisation”,
and each must be certified by
“the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland”.
A donation must be made by somebody who is eligible for one of the three documents, but to comply, the recipient party must have obtained a copy of one of the three documents. There seems to be an inconsistency between article 3, which specifies the donation, and schedule 1, which specifies the details of the report.
The donation could be legal, but even if the person involved had been born and brought up in Ireland and was an Irish citizen, they might never have applied for a passport or have any of the documents. Their donation would be legal, but the party could not make a legal return to the Electoral Commission. Surely that is an inconsistency. Would it not have been better to have specified in paragraph 3 that the donor must have one of the three documents before making the donation?
Another question concerns enforcement. For the first three years, until 2010, there is no requirement to make donations public, so there will not be the transparency that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom. If someone makes a large donation and it is made public, the press become interested, and if it turns out that the donor is not all that he claimed to be, that could become public. My own party has had a little difficulty in that regard. Political parties can find it difficult to determine whether a donation is strictly within the terms of the law. There are policing issues; the transparency required in the rest of the United Kingdom can often throw up dodgy characters. Under the order, the Electoral Commission has a duty to carry out investigations. The wording is that
“the Commission must take reasonable steps to ascertain whether...the accurate”.
To carry out those functions, the Electoral Commission would need the co-operation of the Irish Government and their various agencies. Can the Minister assure us that the Irish Government have assured him that they will co-operate with all reasonable requests from the Electoral Commission for information, as it tries to check the validity of the donor?
If the Minister can answer those questions satisfactorily, I shall support the order.
4.53 pm
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I join those who have already spoken in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings.
As far as my party is concerned, we voiced our concerns about the implications of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 when the Bill was being discussed on the Floor of the House. Our primary concern was about the advantage that it would give to certain political parties in Northern Ireland and the disadvantage for other political parties. That is unfair in its own terms.
However, I should also like to touch on the point raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, who rightly said that there are implications for the United Kingdom as a whole. We are in the business of creating a much more transparent and open regime for political donations, and I support that. The order does two things. First, it extends the period of confidentiality for such donations for three further years. Secondly, it creates a glaring loophole through which donations could be made from abroad not only to parties in Northern Ireland, but through Northern Ireland to parties in the rest of the UK.
One interesting suggestion that I have heard is that the order and enabling Act might bring a boom in business in Northern Ireland with the creation of political party offices in Northern Ireland. The idea has been mooted, in some press quarters, that there is nothing to prevent political parties from setting up offices and registering headquarters of some kind of political operation in Northern Ireland. Such parties might not be involved in the mainstream UK political process, or might see the advantages of being able to attract large amounts of foreign money without having to go through the current disclosure arrangements that apply here, and could do that quite easily by simply setting up in Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green pointed out, there is nothing to prevent money from being channelled from abroad into the Irish Republic, into Northern Ireland and therefore into the rest of the UK. Before Members simply nod this order through, they should be aware of its implications not only for Northern Ireland, for which it is a shoddy, shabby measure, but for the rest of the country, because it opens a back door for donations to political parties in the UK.
One way of tackling the problem would be for the Irish Republic to have similar bans on donations from foreign countries to political parties there, because money could not then be channelled into the Irish Republic and on into Northern Ireland. During the debates on the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, the then Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who was steering the Bill through the House, said that the Government were
“in discussion with the Irish Government about their arrangements in the Republic of Ireland and how they impact on our own arrangements. Indeed, that matter was covered at the recent British-Irish governmental conference in London. I hope that those matters will be resolved to positive effect in due course.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1244.]
Will the Minister tell us what the outcome of those discussions was and whether any positive progress has been made? I agree with the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who said:
“The Liberal Democrats agreed to the exemption of Northern Ireland from those provisions on the express condition that the Government would urgently seek to persuade the Government of southern Ireland to introduce similar legislation”.—[Official Report, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1195.]
Were the commitments of the then Minister of State followed through?
What were the outcomes of the discussions with the Irish Republic? If that matter has not been addressed, we will have opened up an incredible vista in the country as a whole on party political donations. We now have a situation in which Northern Ireland has been set aside as a special case, primarily to advantage the nationalist and republican parties, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said. I should be interested to hear what the hon. Member for South Down has to say on this matter, as he spoke about it in the debates on the 2006 Act. We pointed out that the relevant measures would, in particular, primarily benefit members of Sinn Fein, so the hon. Member for South Down may want to be slightly careful about welcoming the order, because it might not turn out to be to the long-term advantage of his party, even though his party might deem it expedient in the short term.
The Minister mentioned why the order is in front of us. He also mentioned the Belfast agreement, which gets to the nub of the reason why Northern Ireland is being treated differently, and why we are opening up to the rest of the country a back door for political donations. The reason is political. All the good, sound, sensible and rational arguments about preventing people from outside the United Kingdom from donating to political parties that operate in the United Kingdom have been set aside in Northern Ireland for political reasons. The Minister made it very clear when he mentioned the Belfast agreement. From the explanatory notes and background material, the argument clearly is that the Irish Republic has a special position in relation to Northern Ireland. Frankly, that is not a sufficient reason to set aside the very good arguments that prohibit the donation of foreign money and resources to a political party that operates in part of the United Kingdom.
Another issue is the Irish Republic’s role in the matter. It is clear that Irish donors are eligible if they can donate to political parties in the Irish Republic. I am concerned, because the question of who is eligible to donate to a political party in the Irish Republic is a matter for the Parliament of the Irish Republic, not for us. If it wishes to change the rules about people who are entitled to donate, to widen or narrow the category or whatever, what will be the impact on the legislative process in this Parliament? Will we be forced to note that the Dail has made changes and to follow suit to keep our legislative regime in step with what happens in Dublin? It seems a bizarre proposition that we must continually watch what goes on in the Irish Republic and change our laws to make them fit with whatever laws on party political donation the Dail decides to implement.
There are members of the Committee and Members of the House who will not see any difficulty with that situation, having become used to undertaking such activity when it comes to Brussels legislation. However, we are transferring another aspect of our sovereignty—the decision about what types of donors should be able to send money to political parties in Northern Ireland—to the Dail. The Minister must address those questions.
Needless to say, we believe that the order is deficient and bad in principle. It is not a sensible way in which to proceed in terms of party political donations in Northern Ireland, and it is favoured by only one side of the Northern Ireland community. I shall finish with a point that the Minister mentioned. He spoke about the Belfast agreement, and we were told that agreement was fundamentally based on consent—the consent of both communities—and that there had to be a majority of Unionists and of nationalists in support of propositions for them to be passed. The Northern Ireland Assembly is set up on the basis that there must be a majority of votes, and a majority of Unionists and nationalists in favour of a proposition on certain key issues.
Fundamentally, the order and the proposition of creating a loophole for Northern Ireland political donations fail the test of the Belfast agreement because they do not have the support of the Unionist community, nor of any of the Unionist political parties. Therefore, I ask the Minister to reconsider the basis on which he has brought the order before us today.
5.6 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to serve under your direction and stewardship in the Committee, Mr. Cummings. Needless to say, in view of comments from contributors so far, you would expect me to welcome the order, and I do so, but not for the reasons suggested by previous speakers. The presumption that only the nationalist/republican community will benefit from donations from the Republic of Ireland is simply not correct. Most, if not all, political parties in Northern Ireland benefit from and seek contributions from citizens of the Republic.
The problem that is not being faced up to is the difficulty of the special circumstances that pertain in Northern Ireland. Yes, the Good Friday agreement is broadly embedded, and yes, we have devolution, which is in its infancy after only a few weeks or perhaps two months, but all has not changed dramatically overnight just because four or five political parties agreed to devolution. On the ground, the situation will change only very slowly, and there is still intimidation and extortion.
Just yesterday, a shopkeeper in my home town of Downpatrick wrote to the local newspaper begging other shopkeepers to report intimidation and protection money rackets to the police so that he would not have to stand alone against them. That happened in a small market town without a paramilitary history, so one can imagine what might happen—and is happening—in communities that have been ghettoised by paramilitaries.
The situation is not normal and it is not a Great Britain situation. It is a different situation. Many of the apparent loopholes may apply also in GB. Two-power co-operation could be set up in GB, just as in the Republic of Ireland, and people may make donations in GB, but surely the registration process, the audit process, the register of companies and the checks on those companies and people have some bearing on the validity or otherwise of their contribution.
Mr. Dodds: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. McGrady: Let me finish what I am saying, and then I will give way.
Let me for a moment differentiate the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in terms of the use of the words “foreign donations”. The difference is not just embedded in the Good Friday agreement; it goes much further back to the Ireland Act 1949, and it is important to refer to that. Section 2(1) states:
“It is hereby declared that, notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of His Majesty’s dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country for the purposes of any law in force in any part of the United Kingdom...whether by virtue of a rule of law or of an Act of Parliament or any other enactment or instrument whatsoever, whether passed or made before or after the passing of this Act”
—in relation to—
“foreigners, aliens, foreign countries, and foreign or foreign-built ships or aircraft”.
For 60 years, there has been a definite distinction between the word “foreigner” and a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. This has already been alluded to. Section (vi) of the constitutional issues part in the Good Friday agreement stated that all the signatories and all those who now espoused, used and worked with it
“recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose”.
The situation between the United Kingdom and France, Germany and the United States is different from the one between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, which involves an entirely different relationship.
Let us consider the auditorial checking processes in the order. Although there is a degree of secrecy in that the data are given to and protected by the Electoral Commission, it is incumbent on that commission to carry out all the necessary checks it considers appropriate to verify the donation, its origins and so on. We can debate that further some time after now, when things will hopefully have changed dramatically.
The requirements in respect of a citizen of the Republic of Ireland making a donation to a political party in Northern Ireland are draconian in their stringency. If I wanted to get a donation from a friend in the Republic of Ireland, I would have to ask them for their passport, certificate of nationality or certificate of naturalisation. I would then have to take the document to the Department of Foreign Affairs for verification and certification. Let us think of the consequences of a business man handing me his passport, which would put it out of his jurisdiction, and his having to go abroad on business. Such a situation would be fraught with all sorts of practical difficulties. Those particular measures and conditions have nullified the intent behind the order.
This is not just a question of opening the door, willy-nilly, to people making illegal donations from illegally gotten gains. Stratum upon stratum of verification and certification will be registered and pursued by independent appointed bodies. Given that fact, it should not be put into a context, as many of the contributions to date have been, of suggesting that this is somehow a normal situation in respect of things that happen in the United Kingdom and do not happen elsewhere.
For instance, a person can make a donation to a political party in the United Kingdom if he is on the electoral register. That is a simple thing. He cannot do such a thing in the Republic of Ireland. It is not accepted that he or she is on the register of the Republic of Ireland, so people have to go through this entire process to get to this point.
Mr. Dodds: I am tempted to say that one has to qualify in a whole lot of other ways to donate to political parties in the Irish Republic, as some of the tribunals can testify, but we will not go there.
Companies can register here in Great Britain and there is nothing to stop them doing so. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the point is that they cannot receive donations from abroad? He mentioned the issue of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic and cited previous legislation, but section 54 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is littered with references to the UK. The purpose of the order is to make an exemption from that and to make special provision for the Irish Republic. Obviously, that is the position.
Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is really referring to innocent funds coming in from a foreign country via the donor to a political party in Northern Ireland. In reality, that can happen in any situation, whether in GB, France, Germany or the USA, but surely such funds are subject to the checking and all the various counterpoints that are in place. [ Interruption. ] Well, the law is there to prevent money from being transferred illegally from a foreigner from any country, notwithstanding electoral processes and political party donations. The law is there anyway. Someone could argue every which way that they were dealing with hot money. That is a presumption that is not there. Political parties in the north of Ireland presumably can and will go only to legitimate sources and donors who can and will be checked quite rigorously through the processes that I have just referred to and so shall not refer to again now.
I therefore ask the Committee to take account of the circumstances in which we find ourselves—not where we would like to be or what is available elsewhere, but the particular circumstances that we have inherited. I hope that in the fullness of time we will have a normal society in Northern Ireland, but we should not think for one minute that we do after three, six or eight weeks of devolution, because we do not.
5.17 pm
Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): When I came into the room this afternoon, I did not plan to make a contribution to this debate until I heard the Minister say that the order is all about creating normality. To pick up on what the hon. Member for South Down just said, the one thing that I fully agree with is that there is not yet a normal society in Northern Ireland. Much progress has been made, but there is a long way to go. That is not an argument for making this arrangement permanent. It may be an argument for extending it for a year or two until what the hon. Gentleman wants to happen happens and there is a normal society. When Northern Ireland is a fully normal society and integrated into the democratic process in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom, this arrangement will still be on the statute book. Therefore, the order is not about normalising or regularising things. It makes permanent an irregularity that was made temporary earlier.
Aside from the odd remark, no one has actually pointed to the elephant in the sitting room. The order is not about the hon. Gentleman’s business friends. It is about the massive donations from the United States that go to a certain political party. That happened during the time of terror, when the money provided arms. Many people gave money, unconscious that that was happening. They thought that they were supporting poor and beleaguered families. Sinn Fein members are still active in going over to the US to obtain that supply of money. It can now be channelled in, and it has made Sinn Fein the richest political party in the whole United Kingdom.
That cannot be right. We are not on a level playing field, and to make permanent the irregularity of the playing field must be fundamentally wrong. Therefore, almost everyone in this Committee is pointing out the anomalies, including the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green, who made a perceptive intervention. I invite others to reinforce his points about the flaws in the order. The Liberal Democrat speaker said that it was full of holes but that he would support it. That is up to his party—it is not all that unusual.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury said, if we are going to try to make everything normal within the United Kingdom, if we are going to try to bring the Northern Ireland political parties into a normal situation, the wrong thing to do is to make permanent in law an exception that none of the rest of the parties in Great Britain has to endure. Why does the Minister not take this proposal away and make the provision temporary for another year or two? In that case, I believe that my hon. Friend—I have not consulted him—and my party would probably support it. It is divisive, wrong and illogical, and it should not be happening.
5.20 pm
Paul Goggins: Although it is on an issue that I know is hotly contested, this has been a calm and considered debate. Opinions are sharply divided, as I acknowledged at the outset.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and I debate such issues frequently. I know when his temper is up, and it was a bit up this afternoon. He challenged, as did the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, my contention that the order is a move toward normalisation. I stand by that claim. Why? At the moment, and until 31 October this year, donations can be made to any political party in Northern Ireland by anybody anywhere in the world. Limiting the rules and applying tighter scrutiny to the process of donating to political parties, as we are doing, will tighten up the system significantly.
I acknowledge that we are not there yet, but I hope that we will be soon. I hope that toward the end of 2010, donors’ names and details will be published on the Electoral Commission’s website. We have not arrived at full normalisation.
Mr. Robertson: If the order were not passed, the relevant measures in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 would end on 31 October. I do not see how the order is moving us more towards normality.
Paul Goggins: It is as I said. At the moment, anybody anywhere in the world can donate anything they like to any political party in Northern Ireland. I take it that no Committee member thinks that that is a good thing, and the Government are seeking to limit it. We want to arrive at a fully normalised situation as soon as possible, but it is not possible at the moment.
We have made it absolutely clear in the order that only permissible donors will be able to contribute. That means that they must either be United Kingdom citizens on a UK electoral register, feature on the list of organisations in section 54(2) of the 2004 Act or—I accept that this is contentious for some—be an Irish citizen or body permitted by the legislation. That reflects the settlement connected with the Good Friday agreement.
I have heard the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, North, and I understand that the issue exercises him, but the Good Friday agreement enshrines the freedom of citizens of Northern Ireland to choose whether they are Irish, British or both. It enshrines the spirit of equal treatment. Irish citizens should therefore be able to donate to political parties whether north or south of the border. That is the principle. The hon. Gentleman might not be entirely happy with it, but the Government are comfortable with it, and it feeds into the order.
Mr. Dodds: The Minister fails to understand the Belfast agreement. It is quite obvious from his comments that he does not understand the fundamentals of the agreement to which he subscribes. He will understand my party’s point of view on it. It is not a question of equality between Irish and UK citizens; it is a question of equality for all citizens in the UK. The Minister is creating a special position for citizens and donors outside the UK that is unique to Northern Ireland and has implications for the rest of the country. It is not a question of creating inequalities between Irish and UK citizens in Northern Ireland—people there have the right to an Irish passport—but between people inside and outside the United Kingdom.
Paul Goggins: I do not hide the fact that a different situation pertains to the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that; there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman and me on that matter. I simply point to the reason why that is the case, but he clearly does not like that explanation.
Mr. Mates: What about putting it into the legislation that the arrangement was temporary? Was that not part of the Belfast agreement, or was there a nod and a wink and “We’ll make it permanent in a year’s time”?
Paul Goggins: The position is that we hope that by 2010 we will not need confidentiality in relation to donations. We want normality and the Electoral Commission to publicise the details of those who make donations. That would be a normal situation, and we want to move to it as soon as we are able. We hope that it will be possible by 2010.
Dr. Vis: My hon. Friend read out in his introductory remarks paragraph 2.2 of the explanatory memorandum. He has just been talking about confidentiality, but I do not understand the second part of that paragraph:
“unless the report relates to a donation which is impermissible or from an unidentifiable source, in which case the Commission may publish details.”
If the source is unidentifiable, what is the purpose of publishing details?
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—a very perceptive hon. Friend he is too. We simply make the point that if the source of the funding is either unidentifiable or impermissible, the commission will be able to publish details on its website. It will not be able to publish the details of any donation made within the rules in the order. The situation is perfectly clear. I do not know whether my hon. Friend accepts my explanation, but that is the rationale.
If a donation comes from an impermissible or unidentified source, such details can be put on the commission’s website. Those are the only circumstances in which there will be any publicity. I hope, and I am sure my hon. Friend also hopes, that in due course—we hope by 2010—further details will be publishable on the website. I am sure that all Members want to see as we move further towards ending the restrictions.
Mr. Dodds: As the right hon. Member for East Hampshire said in his intervention, it would be helpful if the Minister indicated that the provisions were temporary and would lapse. The Minister referred to allowing one aspect of the provisions to lapse, namely disclosure. Why does he not apply the same logic to other provisions, such as the special provision given for donations from outside the country?
Paul Goggins: Because we think that that aspect of the provisions should be permanent.
Mr. Dodds: Why?
Paul Goggins: For the reasons that I have indicated. We believe that there should be equal treatment north and south so that people in Northern Ireland have the right to choose whether they are Irish, British or both. The consequence is that an Irish citizen should be able to contribute to a political party, whether it be north or south of the border. We believe that that is an important principle that underpins the order, and we do not see any circumstances in which we would wish to change it. We do wish to change the provisions on confidentiality, which we have to accept at the moment for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for South Down amply illustrated. The risks are still too great, so we wish to have confidentiality in place, but we hope that beyond 2010 it will not be necessary.
Mr. Robertson: Even if we accept the disclosure part of the order, however, we come back to the fact that under the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, the disapplication period was to end on 31 October 2007. If the arrangement is now going to be permanent, why was it made temporary then? I cannot see what has changed. Well, I can, but I would like the Minister’s response.
Paul Goggins: We had to put in place procedures and administrative systems and there had to be discussion with the Irish Government and the authorities there to ensure that the system actually worked. The disapplication meant that anybody could make any donation from anywhere in the world. That was the temporary position that the disapplication provided for. We want to move on from that to a permanent position whereby donations are properly regulated, albeit that they are permitted to come from Irish citizens and bodies.
I want to get to other comments that the hon. Gentleman and others made. The hon. Member for Belfast, North asked about consultation; one or two others made similar comments. I understand that on the day the order was published there was a difficulty with its circulation. If any hon. Member was inconvenienced by that, I apologise. However, we are not bringing in brand new legislation out of the clear blue sky. It was already debated and resolved in an admittedly heated debate on the 2006 Act, and the order seeks to give effect to what was decided then. Extensive consultation had already been carried out. Political parties submitted their views and there was considerable debate in the House when the Act was passed. We did not feel that there was any need to have the formal consultation process again; we were simply giving effect to that legislation.
As the new system comes into play, we will of course need to engage and discuss to ensure that it works as we all hope that it will. I make that pledge to the hon. Gentleman for as long as I am in this job, and I am sure that those who follow me will ensure that there is continuing dialogue and discussion.
Mr. Dodds: I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. He refers to consultation—or the lack of it—with political parties. Will he also confirm the lack of consultation with others outside the political parties in Northern Ireland? Were others consulted? Were bodies, organisations and the public at large given the opportunity to comment on the provisions in the order? From what he says, that appears not to be the case.
Paul Goggins: I have learned over the past year that consultation procedures in Northern Ireland are second to none, and rightly so. Full consultation on the legislation had already been undertaken, and the Government published their response in January 2006. The hon. Gentleman’s own party’s comments were reflected in that response. So we had the consultation, the legislation was debated and decisions were made; the order gives effect to the legislation.
Mr. Dodds: I cannot let the Minister get away with that. He is now advancing the proposition that if there has been a debate on the relevant primary legislation in the House of Commons, that constitutes adequate consultation in respect delegated legislation and Orders in Council in Northern Ireland, of which we have a plethora. What a preposterous proposition! The Minister should reconsider. Many people in Northern Ireland would be outraged at such a proposition, not least those who are not members of political parties or Members of Parliament, and who will therefore be deprived of the opportunity to have any say in the consultation process.
Paul Goggins: I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I am saying that there was a widespread consultation with the parties and with wider civic society in preparation for the legislation in 2006. The order gives effect to that, so that from 1 November we will have a better, more rigorously monitored and regulated system. We have had the consultation process, and we have not ignored people’s views. We might not have incorporated all the views of the hon. Gentleman’s party but, if I recall correctly, it made it clear in the consultation process that there would need to be some limits to transparency because we were not yet in a fully normalised situation. That was good advice, and we were happy to acknowledge it and to ensure that it was in the legislation.
Paul Goggins: I have placed on the record several times my opinion that we had a full and comprehensive consultation. I freely acknowledge that I will not persuade the hon. Gentleman. He drew attention to article 11, and it is clear that the bodies listed in it are listed on the advice of the Electoral Commission, whose job is to ensure that donations that fall within the terms of the legislation are scrutinised properly. In its view, those bodies, including the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention, need to be consulted.
Mr. Dodds: Why?
Paul Goggins: Because the Electoral Commission advised us that it will need to be able to divulge information to those bodies. Otherwise, the confidentiality rule inherent in the legislation would be breached. The commission wants to be able to consult those organisations and to ensure the scrutiny and effective control that I imagine hon. Members want to see.
Mr. Dodds: Will the Minister give way?
Paul Goggins: I am happy to give way. However, I hope that in the end, I will have time to respond to all members of the Committee.
Mr. Dodds: I think that the Minister will have plenty of time, given that we curtailed our comments in the main debate. It is important that we question him, because this is our first chance in any shape or form to go through the details of the order. He mentioned the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission and other bodies listed in the order, and the Electoral Commission’s view. However, I am interested in his view. He brought the order before the Committee, so I am interested in his explanation as to why the Assembly Commission and others are on the list. Without referring to the Electoral Commission’s view, what is his reason for including the Assembly Commission in the list? What information does it have that could be of relevance to the Electoral Commission? I want his view—not that of the Electoral Commission.
On the publication of names, addresses and other details, I repeat that I hope that in 2010 we can move to a much more normal situation and that such names can be published by then. However, we must have regard to the ongoing security situation. A number of members of the Committee deliberated on the Bill that became the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, so they will be aware that, despite the tremendous progress that has been made in politics in Northern Ireland, there remains a residual threat from dissident republican terrorists and loyalist paramilitaries. We must have regard to that in legislation. None the less, we remain optimistic about there being an increasingly normal situation in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury contended—I suspect that it is true—that Irish citizens might be more predisposed to give their hard-earned cash to a republican party such as Sinn Fein, or to the party of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury is quite right: an Irish citizen could make a donation to the Conservative party were it to operate in Northern Ireland, which it increasingly tries to do, if that were the choice of that citizen. That could perfectly well be the case.
The hon. Gentleman went on to point out—he was joined by the hon. Member for Belfast, North and, indeed, by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down, although the latter made the point from a slightly different angle—that, of course, there is a risk that people who make donations might have received the money from another source. Of course, we acknowledge that that is a risk, but it is not peculiar to Northern Ireland. It is a risk within the democratic system across the United Kingdom. We need to guard against it, but it is not unique to Northern Ireland. Politicians of all parties face that risk more generally, and must guard against it. With the help of the Electoral Commission, hopefully, we can do that as effectively as possible.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. He is right, of course; money could find its way to England via different sources. However, as he is well aware—both he and the hon. Member for Belfast, North pointed it out—Northern Ireland is not quite in a normal situation. For 10 years, Ministers have pointed out that Sinn Fein is inextricably linked to the IRA, which retains an army council. Does the Minister not accept that that is why the issue is a little different and more of a concern in Northern Ireland? Money could well come from sources in America, whether well-meaning ones or not. That is a big concern.
Paul Goggins: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying in historical terms, and that brings me to the comments of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire. I do understand the history, but the fact is that since the historic decision this January by Sinn Fein to support policing and the rule of law—and given the consequences of that for devolution and democracy, and for the peace and prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland—the situation has changed. That has reduced the risk pointed out by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, to which the hon. Gentleman has just alluded.
We are in a changing situation: the risks may be there, but they are comparable with the risks that we face anywhere in the United Kingdom. The context of this discussion is more optimistic, in that sense. We have in Sinn Fein a political party that has fully supported policing and the rule of law. That moves us substantially forward on this and other issues.
I turn briefly to two other matters raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury. First, he asked—rhetorically, I think, but I owe him an answer—whether Irish citizens with an Irish passport in New York will be able to make donations. Yes, they will, as this legislation makes perfectly clear.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman put his finger on an interesting issue to which I intend to pay close attention, as I am sure he will: unincorporated associations. To put that into context, the Electoral Commission tells us that in its overall work, only 4 per cent. of donations to political parties come from unincorporated associations. We have included in the legislation a requirement that such associations get a guarantee, as it were, from a solicitor. That solicitor would say that the group were who they said they were, and were operating in good faith. We need to make sure that, bearing in mind the advice of the Electoral Commission, the situation works out as well as we hope it will. I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that we need to pay close attention to that issue. I am happy with the provisions in the order. An unincorporated association must get a guarantee from a lawyer proving that it is what it says it is, and that it is acting in good faith. However, we need to keep an eye on the issue, even if only 4 per cent. of donations come from unincorporated associations.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again and for his sympathetic response to the issue that I raised. Article 4(2)(h) refers to trusts, and there are restrictions in respect of money that can be transferred to a trust, which might then pass it on to political parties. Would it not be sensible to apply a similar restriction to unincorporated associations?
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman points out that trusts set up in good faith to make political donations before the order becomes fully operational will be able to carry on as before. Newly established trusts can be paid into only by permissible donors, so we are certainly tightening the restrictions in that respect. The situation regarding unincorporated associations is different. I simply point out that I am satisfied with the legislation as it stands, but I will be fully satisfied only if it works as well in practice as we hope it will. I intend to follow how it works very closely.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, there has been considerable discussion about the terms of enforcement with the Irish Government. The Irish authorities have assured us that they will continue to work closely with us to make sure that the administration of the system operates effectively.
Mr. Dodds: In his discussion with the Irish Government, did the Minister get any indication at any point that they had the slightest notion of introducing similar arrangements to bar donations to political parties from outside the jurisdiction of the Irish Republic?
Paul Goggins: I can be candid with the hon. Gentleman and say that I was not party to any of those discussions personally. I am assured that the Irish Government have no intention, as far as I know, of changing the rules and widening the range of people who will be permitted to make donations to political parties in Ireland. If they were to do so, we would obviously need to pause and reflect, but I have no reason to believe that they intend to do that.
It is absolutely clear to me from the work that I have done on this issue so far that the Irish authorities are acting in complete good faith. They want to see this system work and they will work with us, even though it imposes an additional administrative burden on them. They want to make it work. I hope that that offers some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. I live in hope.
Mr. Reid: In order to monitor the legislation, could the Electoral Commission publish a report for each political party showing how much money had come from each category: Irish citizens, UK citizens, political parties, and companies? Although the names of individual donors would not be published, that would give some idea of where the money was coming from.
Paul Goggins: The straightforward and honest answer is that I do not know. It is a fair question, however, and I shall raise it with the Electoral Commission. Perhaps it already does that in some way, shape or form, or it may be prepared to consider it. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a full reply in due course.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North and I have had a few exchanges since the consultation, during which his party drew attention to the issue of confidentiality. We need to place limits on transparency until we get to a position of full normality.
Mr. Dodds indicated assent.
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman made a strong contention on a number of occasions regarding the permissibility of making donations from abroad. I have already confirmed to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that the legislation permits that, but only from permissible donors—in other words, Irish citizens who are living abroad. The idea was conveyed earlier that these donations could come from anybody, anywhere in the world. That is what we are changing through this legislation. Yes, an Irish citizen abroad would be able to make a donation, but that would be all.
I alluded to the conversations with the Irish authorities, which I was not personally party to, about their intentions. I can tell the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute that they have operated in complete good faith and I think that they have every intention of making sure that this system will work properly. If there were to be a major change, we would have to reflect, as I said, but I do not see any prospect of that in the immediate future.
As I pointed out, the organisations named in article 11 are those recommended to us by the Electoral Commission. Given its experience in carrying out such work, I accept its recommendation, which is why those organisations are included in this legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Down, as he always does on these occasions, used his experience to illustrate the history of this issue. He also dealt with the practical implications for modern times, including some of the risks that remain. He acknowledged those factors and gave us a very effective run-through of the practical issues that we need to deal with. I am grateful for his support for what I believe will be a well- regulated system, which will ensure that donations to political parties in Northern Ireland will be made in a much more robust, highly scrutinised and controlled way than ever before.
In conclusion, I contend that order will aid the process of democracy and devolution in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the whole Committee will support it.
Question put :—
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 3.
Division No. 1 ]
Drew, Mr. David
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Goggins, Paul
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
Marris, Rob
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Reid, Mr. Alan
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Wright, Dr. Tony
Dodds, Mr. Nigel
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007.
Committee rose at eight minutes to Six o’clock.

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