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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before my noble friend decides whether or not to withdraw his amendment I hope that I may say a few words. I think that we are all probably grateful for the Minister's comments. I am almost tempted to remind him of what his noble friend Lord Peston said at the beginning of his speech yesterday. It is perhaps a little unkind to do that now, but what we have just been told is a step in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said,
I fully accept the arguments that have been made against my suggestion. However, if my noble friend wished to test the opinion of the Committee on his amendment I would certainly support him. However, I suspect that he will not test the opinion of the Committee but will test the Minister by accepting the invitation to withdraw the amendment and see what the Minister brings forward at Report stage. I certainly look forward to that as I believe that it will go a long way to improve this part of the Bill.
Lord Norton of Louth: I am most grateful for what has been said by speakers on all sides of the Chamber and for the support for the amendment. I take the points that have been made by the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont of Whitley and Lord Molyneaux. My Amendment No. 225 was intended to move somewhat in that direction although I realise that it does not fully meet the point that by getting a sponsor to certify that he has consulted the commission it would be open to Members to ask what advice had been given. I recognise the problems inherent in that.
However, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I do not want to spoil things in the light of his opening comments on what brought him into politics by saying that I am opposed to referendums. However, my view is that if we have them they should be clear and rigorous and there should be a body that can advise on the wording of questions. That is an important task, as the Minister conceded. I believe that the electoral commission is the most appropriate body to carry it out, not least because we have to ask what is the alternative body to carry out that task. I am grateful to the Minister for the points he has made and in the light of his positive response I have no hesitation in not pursuing the amendment at this stage. I look forward to seeing what is brought forward at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
("(8) The Scottish Ministers may by order provide that subsection (7) shall have effect as if the words "other than a local government election in Scotland" were omitted.
(9) Section 146(5) shall apply to an order made by the Scottish Ministers under subsection (8) as it applies to an order made by the Secretary of State under this Act and the reference in that
The noble Lord said: This rather large group of amendments makes important changes to the scheme in Part II of the Bill for the registration of political parties. These changes, however, address two quite separate issues. I shall endeavour to explain each of these in turn as simply as possible.
The first issue concerns the application of the controls on donations in Part IV to Northern Ireland parties. I do not wish to pre-empt the stand part debate on Clause 65, but it may assist the Committee if I explain some of the background to that clause in order that these amendments can be considered in their proper context.
The Neill committee gave special consideration to circumstances in Northern Ireland, including the Good Friday agreement. It concluded that there was no alternative but to exempt, at least for an initial period, Northern Ireland parties from the full rigour of its proposed scheme. The Government reluctantly accept that conclusion, and Clause 65 therefore includes a power to exempt Northern Ireland parties from the controls on donations in Part IV.
As currently drafted, the protection afforded by a Clause 65 order is to be made available only to those political parties which have one or more members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly or to the United Kingdom Parliament for a Northern Ireland constituency. This definition of a Northern Ireland party obviously excludes a number of parties--including the Conservative Party--which unsuccessfully contest elections in Northern Ireland.
In responding to the draft Bill published last July, the Neill committee expressed concern on two grounds about the operation of Clause 65 as presently drafted. First, the committee pointed out that a political party which secures only one seat at an election and loses it in the next would, in losing that seat, also lose the protection conferred by Clause 65. The committee felt it to be unsatisfactory that the protection should vary in this way. Secondly, the committee argued that the clause placed those parties which had so far unsuccessfully fielded candidates at elections at an unfair disadvantage.
The Government fully accept that the protection afforded to Northern Ireland parties and their donors by a Clause 65 order should not be dependent on electoral success. It should be open to any party which contests an election in Northern Ireland to benefit
In broadening the definition of a Northern Ireland party we need to ensure that we do not create a situation in which parties operating on a United Kingdom-wide basis can escape the ban on foreign funding by channelling overseas donations through their Northern Ireland branches. In order to guard against this possibility, Amendment No. 180 provides that where an order made under Clause 65 is in force it would not be possible for a party registered in the Great Britain register to accept a donation from a party registered in the Northern Ireland register.
There are a couple of other amendments in this group relating to Clause 65 which are worthy of particular note. Amendment No. 179, which seeks to amend Clause 65 itself, makes it crystal clear that any order made under subsection (1) of the clause is to apply equally to every Northern Ireland party. It has been suggested that the exemption would apply only to Sinn Fein. This is not our intention. A donor to any Northern Ireland party may risk discrimination or intimidation, and it is therefore clearly right that all Northern Ireland parties should benefit from an exemption order.
Finally, on the Northern Ireland aspect of this group, Amendment No. 316 to Clause 146 adds the order-making power in Clause 65 to the list of delegated powers subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. This fulfils an undertaking given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Mr O'Brien on Report in another place.
I turn now to the quite separate issue dealt with by these amendments; namely, the problem faced by the presence of wholly independent political parties operating in different parts of the United Kingdom but with the same or similar names. This problem is particularly acute for the Scottish Green Party.
The Scottish Green Party is a wholly separate political party from the Green Party in England and Wales. But because of the way the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 operates, the Scottish Green Party has been prevented from registering in its own right. That is essentially the result of the protection afforded by that Act to a party's registered name. Under the provisions of the Registration of Political Parties (Prohibited Words and Expressions) Order 1998, once a party has been registered it is not possible for another party to register with the name of an existing party qualified by words such as "English", "Scottish" or "Welsh". Accordingly, once the Green Party had registered, the Scottish Green Party could not register using that name.
The key amendments are those to Clause 25. Parties applying for registration on the Great Britain register will be required to specify the part or parts of Great Britain in respect of which the party wishes to be registered. The new clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 103 makes transitional arrangements for existing registered parties. Under these arrangements it will be possible for a party to confine its registration to, for example, England and Wales. This would then enable a "sister party" to be separately registered in Scotland. It will of course be open to any party to take advantage of these new arrangements. I commend these amendments to the Committee.
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