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Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill

8.30 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 20 [Parties to be registered in order to field candidates at elections]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 56:

The noble Lord said: We now return to a group of amendments relating to the separate registration of political parties in Northern Ireland, which we considered at some length on 11th May. The mood of the Committee on that occasion was that these important amendments were deserving of a further airing before the question was put.

As I explained to the Committee on 11th May, this group of amendments is concerned with two issues: first, what constitutes a Northern Ireland party for the purpose of Clause 65. The second issue is what I shall refer to as the "Scottish Green Party" question. For the time being I shall put the second of these issues to one side and concentrate on the Northern Ireland aspects of the amendments. It is fair to say that it was these aspects which caused the Committee most difficulties when we last considered these matters. I shall also put the detail of the amendments to one side while I address the key question of why we should make special provision for Northern Ireland.

This Bill extends throughout the United Kingdom. In an ideal world, therefore, we would not need to make special provision for Northern Ireland parties. However, like it or not, we must recognise, as the Neill committee recognised, that politics in Northern Ireland is not yet conducted on quite the same basis as it is in Great Britain. Political developments in Northern Ireland have undoubtedly taken an important step forward since the Neill committee report was published, but there remain special factors which cannot be lightly dismissed.

Thankfully, the level of political violence in Northern Ireland has greatly diminished since the onset of the peace process, but, as we see from time to time, it has not yet been wholly eradicated. The Neill committee heard evidence that, notwithstanding the Good Friday agreement, it would still be unsafe in Northern Ireland to disclose the names of those who had made gifts to a particular political party there. There is a very real risk, therefore, that if donations made to parties in Northern Ireland were subject to

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disclosure in the normal way, there would be one of two possible consequences. The first is that donors would suffer discrimination, intimidation or worse. The second and perhaps more likely consequence is that people would simply refuse to give to a political party for fear of the consequences to them personally if the fact of the donation was made known.

It was these considerations which led the Neill committee to conclude that there should be a temporary exemption from the reporting requirements for donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland.

The Neill committee separately considered the effect of the ban on foreign funding on parties in Northern Ireland. Here they concluded that the terms of the Good Friday agreement argued for an exception to be made to the definition of a permissible donor in order to allow a citizen of the Republic of Ireland to make a donation to a Northern Ireland political party, provided that the donor complied with the provisions of the Republic of Ireland's Electoral Act 1997.

The Government have accepted in relation to both these recommendations that the case has been made for exempting political parties in Northern Ireland from the application of the relevant provision of Part IV of the Bill on a temporary basis. Clause 65 is the result.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, George Howarth, met with representatives of the main Northern Ireland parties earlier this year. Although opinions were divided, there was a strongly held view in some quarters that exemptions from the disclosure requirements of Part IV remain essential. Given this view, it remains the Government's current intention to exercise the order making power in Clause 65 so as to disapply the provisions of Part IV in respect of Northern Ireland parties. Amendment No. 177A to Clause 65 and the corresponding Amendment No. 189C to Schedule 6 would make it explicitly clear that an order can be made exempting Northern Ireland parties, wholly or in any specified particular, from the provisions of Part IV.

It is intended that any order made under this clause should apply for an initial period of four years only and be reviewed thereafter. We shall, however, review the position afresh before a final decision is taken early next year on the commencement of these provisions.

In disapplying Part IV as a whole in respect of Northern Ireland parties, I make no bones about the fact that we are not following the letter of the Neill committee recommendation 29. We have considered the recommendation very carefully but have reluctantly concluded that an extension of the definition of a permissible donor along the lines proposed--that is, to include citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the republic--is impractical.

The Neill committee recognised that under its formula there would exist the possibility of overseas donations--for example, from the United States--reaching the Republic of Ireland, where there is no ban on foreign funding, and then being re-routed to the

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north by an individual or via one of the parties' offices in Dublin. The Committee fully acknowledged that it had not been able to devise anything that would prevent this, other than statutory provisions which would arguably be incompatible with the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

In these circumstances, extending the definition of a permissible source in the manner proposed by the Neill committee would, in practice, leave a Northern Ireland party free to accept donations from any source. We believe it preferable simply to acknowledge this fact and to legislate accordingly.

Having concluded that the Neill committee was right to recommend special provisions for Northern Ireland parties, we need to define what constitutes a Northern Ireland party for these purposes. Clause 65(2) currently defines a Northern Ireland party as a party with one or more Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or a party with one or more Members of the House of Commons elected for constituencies in Northern Ireland.

This definition has been called into question by the Neill committee. In its comments on the draft Bill the committee raised two concerns. First, the existing definition implies that a political party which, for example, achieves only one seat in an election and loses it in the next will, in losing that seat, lose the Clause 65 protection. The second concern was that the definition placed those parties which have, so far, unsuccessfully fielded candidates at elections in Northern Ireland at a disadvantage. We fully accept these points.

We have to be fair to all Northern Ireland parties and treat them equally. Consequently we must come up with a new definition of a Northern Ireland party. I put it to the Committee that the only equitable definition is one that embraces all parties which contest elections in Northern Ireland. This leads us inexorably to a separate register of Northern Ireland parties, and hence to this group of amendments.

The new clause to be inserted by Amendment No. 63 provides for the existing register of political parties to be replaced by two new registers--namely, the Great Britain register and the Northern Ireland register. Later on in the Committee stage proceedings we will come to government amendments which set out the transitional arrangements for existing registered parties. Under those arrangements a party will need to decide whether it wishes to be registered in the Great Britain register, in the Northern Ireland register, or in both. I recognise that these provisions will impose a rather uncomfortable set of arrangements on parties that organise throughout the United Kingdom. In particular, any such party will need to ensure that the financial affairs of the party in Great Britain are conducted separately from those of the party in Northern Ireland. Such a separation will not be welcome but it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of making special provision for Northern Ireland parties. Without such separation it would be open to a party operating on a UK-wide basis to escape the ban on foreign funding by channelling donations through its Northern Ireland branches.

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It has been suggested that the proposed exemption for Northern Ireland parties is nothing more than a sop to Sinn Fein. That is quite simply false. In fact, Sinn Fein has indicated that it supports the disclosure of donations. The truth of the matter can be found in the oral evidence given to the Neill committee. During the committee's hearings in Belfast, John Stephenson of the SDLP said at paragraph 6548 of Volume 2 of the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom:

    "You should be aware that already many potential donors to political parties here do not donate due to fear. Even with the huge endorsement ... of the Good Friday Agreement, the problem with public declaration will still exist".

Such sentiments were not confined to the nationalist community. This is what Jack Allen of the Ulster Unionist Council had to say (at paragraphs 6667 and 6717):

    "Over a number of years, because of the political situation in Northern Ireland, people did not want to be identified with political parties ... because of the risk factor in Northern Ireland ... We are happy enough to put forward those people who give us donations of £5,000 or more but it would be important for them that it was kept private or confidential to an electoral committee or something like that, rather than be made public in the press".

This view was reinforced by Lynn Sheridan, speaking for the United Kingdom Unionist Party. In her evidence to the Neill committee she said (at paragraph 6848):

    "On the security issue, when someone was having to declare a donor and the amount, there would be problems in Northern Ireland in that people would not want to be seen".

Nor is it the case that only Sinn Fein has benefited from funding from abroad and, in particular, from the United States. Perhaps I may again quote from the evidence given on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Council, this time by the late Josias Cunningham, who said (at paragraph 6676):

    "Taking the American example again, we have several well-heeled sympathisers. It would be very embarrassing if one of them said, 'I would like to support your election campaign or party machine generally. Here is a cheque for $10,000'. And we had to say, 'Sorry. We're not allowed to accept it'".

I hope that the Committee will accept, having heard these extracts from the evidence given to the Neill committee, that there is no republican agenda here. What we are concerned about is the personal safety of the people of Northern Ireland who want to support democratic politics by contributing to the party of their choice. We all dearly hope that in a few years' time we shall not need to repeat this debate. But until the supporters of political parties in Northern Ireland have nothing more to fear from the appearance of their name on a list of donors than the knockabout jibes and groans that one might receive in Great Britain, I urge the Committee to back these amendments and to support Clause 65 standing part of the Bill.

I said that I would move on from Northern Ireland parties and discuss briefly with the Committee the position of the Scottish Green Party--perhaps henceforth to be known as the "Scottish Green Party question". The Scottish Green Party is aggrieved, we believe justifiably, that under the terms of the

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Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 and the associated subordinate legislation it has been prevented registering as a political party. The Scottish Green Party is a quite separate political party from the Green Party in England and Wales. There are, no doubt, some fraternal links between the two parties but there are no constitutional links between them as is the case between, for example, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the English Liberal Democrats.

For the limited purposes of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, the Scottish Green Party has come to a pragmatic accommodation with the Green Party in order that Scottish Green Party candidates can stand for election in Scotland under the Scottish Green Party banner. These arrangements will not, however, withstand the onset of the controls on parties' income and expenditure. We must, therefore, find an alternative solution.

The approach we have adopted, in Amendment No. 77, is to enable a party registered in the Great Britain register to confine its registration to one or two parts of Great Britain. Thus, it would be open to the Green Party to limit its registration in England and Wales. This would then allow the Scottish Green Party to register in respect of Scotland. This aspect of these amendments was, I believe, welcomed by the Committee when they were discussed on 11th May.

The amendments also touch on the registration of minor parties. A minor party is a party that contests only parish council elections in England or community council elections in Wales. Clause 36(2) already provides that the controls in Parts III and IV do not apply to minor parties, but this provision does not quite go far enough in disapplying provisions of the Bill in respect of such parties. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, argued persuasively on 11th May that we should go even further by not applying the restrictions on candidates' descriptions to minor parties. The noble Lord argued his point well and it is one that we are ready to accept.

Finally, I turn to the amendments to government amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. These are quite simply wrecking amendments. They seek to undo the two main changes to the registration scheme that I have set out. The noble Lord's amendments would preserve a UK-wide register with UK-wide registration. I am surprised that the noble Lord is seeking to undo the changes to the scheme which will facilitate the registration of the Scottish Green Party. Perhaps that is not his intention, but that is certainly what would come about. In Committee on 11th May, the noble Lord said (at col. 1814) that he was "pleased to hear" that the government amendments resolved this problem. I suspect that he has not changed his view, but that would be the effect of his amendments.

I welcome this opportunity to debate this group of amendments again. It is important that the Committee is clear about their purpose and effect. Since we last considered these issues, events have moved on in Northern Ireland. The system of devolved government has been restored. That is very much to be welcomed,

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but it does not, of itself, remove the need for special provisions for Northern Ireland parties. We need to ensure that those special provisions work effectively, and to that end I commend the amendments to the Committee. I beg to move.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The grouping of these amendments is wholly unsatisfactory. There are three totally different issues bundled up in the same group of amendments, and that allows the Minister to make the cheap jibe that I am not interested in the Scottish Green Party provision because I have tabled amendments to other parts of this section. There should be three separate groupings: one relating to concessions being made to Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland; the second relating to the whole issue of minor parties--the noble Lord Goodhart explained exactly what this was all about when we debated this issue previously, in the absence of any explanation at all from the Minister; and the third should deal with the smaller point about the Scottish Green Party.

Of course, I welcome the provision relating to the Scottish Green Party. But why could not some effort have been made between 11th May and today to disentangle these amendments so that we were able to deal with those three issues separately? We could have spent 10 seconds on the Scottish Green Party amendments, which I would have welcomed, as, I have no doubt, would noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and that would have been that; we could have had an interesting debate on the minor parties, which we shall probably have to have later on; and we could have concentrated on Northern Ireland.

I tried to see whether the amendments could be disentangled, but it seemed to me that the determination of the Government to keep Amendment No. 63 in its current form rather than to break it up meant that we could not disentangle the three groups of amendments. I want to express my dismay that, after an hour and a half debating the matter on the first day in Committee, no one had the presence of mind to go away and try to sort out that small technical problem. Indeed, I am so annoyed that I think that, entirely on a procedural basis, when we come to Amendment No. 63 I may seek to divide the Committee against it--because I do not believe that governments should get away with entwining two totally separate issues in one amendment.

Later on--and it will be later on--I may wish to turn to the question of minor parties. However, for the moment, I want to talk entirely about the Northern Ireland amendments. We have had an explanation from the Minister as to why he wants these amendments. Well, at least we got quicker to the burden of the amendments that we did on the first day of Committee. After some time on that day, we actually managed to get out of the Minister the following response:

    "The question that has been asked is whether a person in the USA can give money to a Northern Ireland party. Fairly and honestly, I believe that, yes, he probably can".--[Official Report, 11/5/00; col. 1823.]

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How many caveats are there in that?

Under this Bill, such a person will be able to give money to a Northern Ireland party and, in particular, to one Northern Ireland party. That privilege will be denied to any other citizen who lives abroad and who wishes to give a donation to a British political party. I shall return to that issue. I understand the argument that the Minister went over at some length--in fact, at greater length than the question of exemptions to foreign donations--namely, the exemption from reporting. I should like to know how many donations over £5,000 are given to Northern Ireland parties. That seems to be quite relevant. I do not know whether many are, but I wonder just how important it is. If I could clearly see the amendments that do this, I might have a great deal of sympathy with them and understand them in the present climate--although I should like to take advice.

When it comes to the question of the exemption for people from abroad donating to Northern Ireland parties, we are in a different ball game. The Minister fairly said that the Neill committee did not recommend that Northern Ireland parties should be allowed to receive donations from abroad. That may save me from going through the report and quoting from the Neill committee in that regard. However, in relation to donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, the report said at page 77 that,

    "the definition of a 'permissible source' should also include a citizen of the Republic of Ireland resident in the Republic subject to compliance with the Republic's Electoral Act of 1997".

I understand the argument that Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP operate on both sides of the border and that, therefore, their affairs are intertwined, which makes it very difficult to put Chinese walls between them. However, I do not understand why that takes us in a great leap away from what the Neill committee had to say. It is especially not convincing when I read a press release put out by a Labour spokesman in this place today, stating:

    "Any disruption to business in the Lords is due to unelected Tory peers".

We are all unelected. It is not just the Tories who are unelected: we are all unelected. Therefore, I do not know what this is about. It goes on to say that Tory Peers are,

    "delaying Bills they don't like".

I do not particularly like this Bill, but I have not delayed it: the Government have delayed it. Indeed, some of us do not like the Freedom of Information Bill. Again, I have not delayed it. The Government have done so. It has not even had one day in Committee, despite the fact that the Second Reading was on Maundy Thursday, which is so long ago that I have forgotten the actual date. I mean Maundy Thursday of this year, not of last year. But perhaps we will not get to it until I can say that the Second Reading was on Maundy Thursday last year--who knows! I really object to that.

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The press release goes on:

    "The Tories are completely wrong to play politics with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The provisions in this Bill are in line with Lord Neill's recommendations".

Yet the two major amendments we have dealt with today are not in line with his recommendations. I know that the Minister is not responsible for that, but perhaps he can rap the knuckles of those who were responsible and tell them that all they do by putting out such misinformation is cause him even more trouble in Committee than might otherwise be the case. Let us return to Neill. We are agreed that the Government have gone far beyond what the Neill committee recommended. It merely said that something must be done about the Republic. The Government have gone beyond that and are saying that Northern Ireland parties are something special. They can receive money from abroad, but the iniquitous Liberal Democrats--I suppose the more iniquitous Tories--the blessed Labour Party, the Scottish Nationalists, although they are not blessed in the view of the Government, the Welsh Nationalists and the Scottish Greens cannot receive any money from abroad. Indeed, somehow or other, there is something wrong with mainland political parties that is right with the Northern Ireland parties. The noble Lord knows that it is the other way round. There is something wrong with one or two Northern Ireland parties but that is not the case with the majority of parties in this country.

In the Explanatory Notes the Government say--this is what annoys me, especially as regards that press release--that the proposals for Northern Ireland are,

    "along the lines recommended in the Neill Committee report".

I am sorry to say that they are not, unless one extends the definition of "along the lines" very considerably. Interestingly enough, in a letter of 23rd June to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, the Minister said:

    "We have always had some difficulty with these recommendations".

They might have brought that to bear on the Explanatory Notes.

The Government have deviated from Neill and have done so in a way that, frankly, makes many of us very suspicious about the reason why. What have they got in return? Indeed, have they got anything in return? Have they got some weapons decommissioning? I do not know. I could understand making this exception if they had received something in return. But I do not suppose that the Minister will tell me whether they have received anything in return. It might help his argument if that were the case. I took note of the fact that he said there would be a review next year before deciding on the issue. Does the Minister expect something to change between now and the beginning of next year? Perhaps he can help me on that point when he concludes the debate.

I turn to the idea of following Neill and saying that citizens of the Republic are excluded. If the Government wished to do so, I would say that citizens of the Republic could donate to anyone's political party. That would seem reasonable. I believe that the

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noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was kind enough to help me by referring to Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949, which says that,

    "notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of [Her] 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".

That is a good start. We could use that provision.

I find the idea that there is leakage hard to understand. If it is possible that someone abroad who is not allowed to donate to a United Kingdom party can slip money into the Republic of Ireland which is subsequently passed on to a UK party, surely it would be equally possible for that donor to slip money to an elector in England or Scotland who could then pass that money to a political party claiming that it was his own. If the loophole exists as far as concerns the Republic, then it exists in exactly the same way as regards Great Britain.

Perhaps the Minister can explain what would stop me, for example, taking a large donation from a chum of mine in America, if I had such a rich friend, would that I had--

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