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|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 22nd July 2010|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates
Draft Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc. (Extension of the prescribed period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2010
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Draft Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc. (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2010
This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and the first time that I have spoken from the Government side of the room. I hope that this afternoon’s proceedings will be short and uncontentious.
The order will make a short extension to the period during which donations and loans to political parties in Northern Ireland may be made confidentially. As members of the Committee will be aware, political parties throughout the United Kingdom must report donations and loans received over certain thresholds to the Electoral Commission. Political parties in Northern Ireland must also abide by those reporting requirements. However, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 made provision for details of donations reported by Northern Ireland parties to be held confidentially by the Electoral Commission and not disclosed publicly, as would otherwise be the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. The reason behind that special provision was the ongoing concern in Northern Ireland at the time that businesses or individuals who wished to make donations to parties in Northern Ireland might face intimidation if their identities were made public. The 2006 Act was clear that those confidentiality arrangements should apply for only a temporary period, which is referred to under the Act as the “prescribed period”. The prescribed period will end on 31 October 2010 unless an order is made to extend it for a period of up to two years.
The draft order will make such an extension to the prescribed period, but for a period of just four months. It might assist the Committee if I set out briefly why we believe that the short extension is required. I understand that the previous Government had committed themselves to a full public consultation before a decision was taken on whether the existing confidentiality arrangements should be extended, or whether there should be increased disclosure. However, that consultation was delayed due to the talks at Hillsborough castle earlier this year, and then by the general election.
There is clearly an expectation in Northern Ireland that the current prescribed period should not be allowed to lapse without full consultation. I, too, believe that it is important for the Government to take full account of
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Clark. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship. I also wish to give a warm welcome to the Minister. I have already been able to say that on the Floor of the House, but not here in Committee, which is where a lot of our work is done. If he and I can sustain the constructive relationship that I had with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) when he had the position that I now hold, I am sure that we will work well together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
I should say at the outset that we shall support the order. My mind was taken back to the momentous events to which the Minister referred, such as the Hillsborough castle talks, the preparation for devolution and then the general election campaign. In that context, it would have been impossible to launch the sort of consultation that is needed on such an important issue. I confirm that, had we won the election, we would have brought forward precisely the same order, or something very similar. However, the draft order is intended to enable the consultation, so that gives me the opportunity to press the Minister on one or two questions about it.
When does the Minister intend to launch the consultation? Will it be a full three-month consultation? When does he hope to reach a conclusion? If he needs a further order, when would he envisage bringing it forward, because the House and the political parties in Northern Ireland would find it helpful to have some kind of time frame? Will he say a little about how he intends to conduct the consultation? I am sure that he will put a document out, but does he intend to meet the political parties or other organisations from across the wider community?
These are still relatively early days for the Minister, but have any of the political parties yet expressed a view to him about the existing confidentiality arrangements? We will hear from a representative of one of the political parties in Northern Ireland this afternoon, but there are of course others. Have they indicated whether their views of the arrangements are altering?
Eighteen months to two years ago, a new consensus seemed to be beginning to emerge, and Northern Ireland was perhaps moving forward to a point at which full transparency could be considered. Will he comment on the higher threat level that now pertains in Northern Ireland? Has that influenced any of the political parties’ views on the issue?
I draw the Minister’s attention to something that I am sure he has studied already: the research by the Electoral Commission published in July last year. The research tested whether a number of groups throughout Northern Ireland believed that confidentiality was still
There is a critical issue on which it is important to have clarity from the Minister before the consultation: if the confidentiality arrangements are to be lifted, from what point will that happen? Will the arrangements be lifted from the point at which the prescribed period came to an end, or would they have to be lifted from when the original legislation first came into effect? I press him on that point because I realise that this is a tricky issue. Most people who have given to political parties in Northern Ireland over the past four years will have done so thinking that their donations would remain in confidence. It is therefore important that we get an answer to my question so that there can be absolute clarity in the context of the consultation.
Finally, I want to ask about one of the most controversial aspects of legislation covering the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland: the fact that donations can be made to such parties by Irish citizens and a range of Irish-registered organisations. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss that issue with his counterpart in the Irish Government? Indeed, what weight would he give to opinions from the Irish Government in the consultation?
I welcome the Minister’s comments about the extension under the order because proper consultation needs to be carried out. I do not speak for all the political parties in Northern Ireland, which are big enough—no, I will not go on to use the next word—to look after themselves. However, I am sure that they will give their opinions in the consultation.
Things are dramatically different in Northern Ireland from anywhere else in the United Kingdom. When companies in the United Kingdom donate money to political parties, it is virtually a badge of honour and they do not mind the press knowing. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, things are somewhat different.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East mentioned research on the legislation that was conducted about a year ago, but things have changed remarkably in those 12 months and, unfortunately, the security situation has changed somewhat as well. We now have a severe threat from so-called dissident republicans, whose workings we have seen over the previous weeks and months. It is therefore important that we go through a proper consultation on the matter. Yes, we need to look further into the future to how, inevitably, things will work themselves out, but I believe that we will have the threat situation for a considerable time to come. If we believe the press reports of recent days, we have another breakaway from the Continuity
There is no doubt that we have come a long way and we look forward to better days in the future. At this stage, it is sensible to go through a consultation process, but I believe that we might have to look at another extension.
Mr Swire: I am grateful for the contributions of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East—the shadow Minister—and the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I am pleased that the shadow Minister supports the order, given that, in a sense, it is his legislation. As he says, if he was in my position this afternoon, he would be saying what I am saying, or something close to it. I will try to deal with the points that he raised.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the parties in Northern Ireland had expressed a view. I have written to the party leaders, but they have not expressed any view by way of response. However, I hope that they will have an opportunity to raise any issues with me during the extended period of consultation, not least given what the hon. Member for Upper Bann has just said.
I am sure that you, Ms Clark, will not allow me to digress too much on the current situation in Northern Ireland almost by way of a stand part debate, but I would like to take the opportunity to remind the Committee that we are extending the period because of the general election, when clearly we were all busy doing other things, and secondly because of the Hillsborough talks. Again, I put on record what a remarkably good job the shadow Minister did at the time. If anyone is aware of why there was a need for a delay because of Hillsborough, and why Hillsborough took priority, it is him.
With regard to retrospectivity and whether details of donations and loans made during the prescribed period will be released after it ends, the right hon. Gentleman will know that that will be the case under the current law. We will not debate what happened during the formulation of the 2006 Act, under which the policy was enacted, but I understand that it would require primary legislation to amend the Act. However, we will consult on that. If we were not extending the period, I understand that the information would have been revealed in November. However, by extending the period, we have time to consult on whether that would be desirable.
The consultation process will start as soon as possible after the order is passed. The process will last for the full three months and will follow the norm for Government consultations by using online and other means. I hope that those with concerns will have a genuine opportunity to put them to us over the summer and autumn. Those views will be reflected in our conclusions in due course.
On the question of whether I will meet the parties to discuss the matter officially, I have no plans to do so, but my door is open. As the right hon. Gentleman will imagine, I meet the parties and their leaders regularly, so they will have the opportunity to bend my ear on the issue. He asked whom I had consulted on the order. The Electoral Commission was consulted and, as I said earlier, I wrote to all the party leaders, but to date none has expressed any objection to the order.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Irish Government and donations to Northern Ireland from around the world. The position is different from that for the rest of the UK, but it is not the subject of the order. The Government are on record as saying that we see this as a possible anomaly. It needs to be addressed in due course, but this afternoon is not the time to debate it because we are considering simply an extension order, not wider issues. I have not yet consulted the Irish Government about the extension, but I will do so and I will take on board their views as part of the consultation process.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann and the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East tried to tempt me to discuss what is going on in Northern Ireland today. I am sure you will stop me if I digress too much, Ms Clark, but it is worth putting the backdrop to the consultation process in context. It is true that the events of the past few weeks have been extremely concerning. Even those who have not visited Northern Ireland of late will have seen completely unacceptable scenes flashed across their screens on the 24-hour news. Most of us had hoped that Northern Ireland would not have to endure such events post devolution. Justice and policing have been devolved to Northern Ireland and are now the responsibility of the Minister of Justice, David Ford.
Paul Goggins: We all share deep concern about the pictures from the Ardoyne last week, including about the disgraceful abuse and misuse of children by putting them in harm’s way. When the shadow Secretary of State and I visited Northern Ireland on Monday, we were very impressed by the way in which the devolution of justice and policing had already clearly embedded itself. We had the chance to meet the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable. Although they face huge difficulties and challenges, they do so with real confidence in the new relationships that have been established.
Mr Swire: The right hon. Gentleman is right, of course, and he will not be surprised to hear that we continue to have the meetings that he would have held when he was in my role. Those people are doing an extremely good job under very testing conditions, but the situation has to be watched carefully. We support the Justice Minister and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. One should not leave out of the equation—as we touched on during Question Time a few weeks ago—the good relationship between the Garda and the PSNI, which has been extremely effective and of great benefit to all the people in Northern Ireland.
It is unacceptable to put children in the way of harm, but a new phenomenon has also developed, in that young people were attracted to the Ardoyne by Facebook. The message seemed to be, “If you’re young, come and throw stones, rocks and worse at the PSNI,” and that is a worrying development. There are other worrying developments arising from that and other incidents in Northern Ireland. We should not think that we have ticked the box for that particular parade, because there will be other parades throughout the summer. If we see a repeat of such behaviour, which we all hope we will not, similar images will be flashed across the world again.
An investment conference is scheduled for the autumn in Washington. How can we persuade people to come and invest and do business in Northern Ireland, which we desperately need, if scenes of such unacceptable behaviour are simultaneously being flashed around the world? We have a serious problem. It is vital that everyone on both sides of the House is careful about the language that we use. We should be united in our support for the devolved Administration and their efforts to take Northern Ireland down the peaceful road on which we all wish it to go. The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Upper Bann will know that some of the devolution institutions are still young and tender. It is up to all of us to nurture them. Without wishing to sound patronising, our job is to ensure that they are embedded in such a way that they can withstand the real challenges and problems that they are facing and that they will undoubtedly face in the future.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I apologise for intervening so late in the debate. I was interested in the points that the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East made about nature of the consultation. Liberal Democrats have always argued for as much transparency as possible. The unique circumstances of Northern Ireland clearly make it right that we should have a consultation. My hon. Friend the Minister was asked what form the consultation would take, and he referred to consultation with respect to the order in his reply. Would it be possible to know a little bit more to make sure that everybody in Northern Ireland will be involved in the consultation?
Mr Swire: Just to clarify the position for the hon. Lady, the consultation will not be on the order, which provides for an extension. The consultation will be on the whole issue of transparency of donations in Northern Ireland, which affects anybody who gives money to political parties in Northern Ireland, either as a donation or a loan. The consultation will be publicised in the normal way. The Government have consultations one after the other.
We will begin the consultation process—there is no reason to delay it beyond this afternoon if the order can be passed. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the more people who take part in this consultation, the better. They should not be just politicians, Members of the Assembly and councillors, but people who have donated to parties and who have serious reservations about their identity being revealed. There are arguments on all sides. I am loth to use the term, but we want to move the electoral process in Northern Ireland to “normality” so that the process will be the same wherever one is in the United Kingdom.
John Hemming: For the avoidance of doubt on an issue raised by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, I understood that the Minister said that if transparency occurred, it would be retrospective. Will
Mr Swire: No. As the law stands, donations within the relevant period would be published, but that raises serious issues because people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere will have made donations in the belief that the information would not be put in the public domain. However, the way in which the 2006 Act is drafted
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 22nd July 2010|