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Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 86:

("( ) Any special provision made by regulations under subsection (2)(a) in respect of parties registered in the Northern Ireland register shall, however, only have effect in relation to any financial year of a party so registered during any part of which there is an order in force under section 68(1); and, in the case of any other financial year of a party so registered, any provision made by such regulations in respect of parties registered in the Great Britain register shall have effect in relation to that financial year of the party as if it were registered in that register.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now return to what is clearly one of the more controversial aspects of the Bill; namely, the special provisions for Northern Ireland parties in Clause 68.

Debates on this clause, both here and in another place, have given vent to deep concerns about such provisions. In an ideal world we would not need the clause. However, we must recognise, as the Neill committee recognised, that politics in Northern Ireland are not yet conducted on quite the same basis as they are 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 been wholly eradicated. The Neill committee heard evidence, including from the Ulster Unionist Party, 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 real risk, therefore, that if donations made to parties in Northern Ireland were subject to disclosure in the normal way there would be one of two possible consequences. The first is that donors would suffer discrimination, intimidation, or perhaps worse. The second, and perhaps more likely result, 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.

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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 it 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 committee recognised, however, that if such a special exemption were created there would exist the possibility of donations reaching the Republic of Ireland from abroad and then being rerouted to the North. Having identified this very real possibility, the committee was unable to devise anything that would prevent such rerouting other than statutory provisions which would arguably be incompatible with the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. The Government take the view that as a donation from the Republic could have its origins in the United States or elsewhere a provision along the lines recommended by the Neill committee, and reproduced in Amendment No. 127, would have no more than cosmetic effect.

The Government have accepted in relation to both these recommendations that the case has been made for a temporary adjustment to the application of the provisions of Part IV of the Bill to political parties in Northern Ireland.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, properly latched on to the temporary nature of any special provisions for Northern Ireland. He proposed then that any order made under Clause 68 should be subject to a four-year time limit. This would ensure that any such order was regularly reviewed. The Government readily accept the noble Lord's proposal. It has always been our intention to make an order under Clause 68 for an initial period of four years and then to review the situation in the light of the prevailing situation in Northern Ireland. I should make it clear, however, that the four-year time limit is without prejudice to one or more further orders being made. Government Amendment No. 129 ensures that the ability to make further orders is not in doubt and I would, therefore, commend it to the House in preference to Amendment No. 131 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I should add that government Amendment No. 86 makes it clear that any special provisions in respect of the accounts of Northern Ireland parties should be made only when an order under Clause 68 is in force.

I believe that a review at least once every four years is about right. This does not preclude a review after perhaps two or three years if the circumstances are right. But to suggest, as Amendment No. 130 implies, that the situation in Northern Ireland would have altered sufficiently after just one year, I would argue, is unrealistic.

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Nor can I support Amendment No. 133, which seeks to build a "sunset" provision into Clause 68. There may come a time when we can repeal this clause but it is premature to be thinking of that at present. Of course, if no order is in force the clause would in effect be dormant and one would hope that it would not have to be reawakened, but we should not burn our boats at this stage.

Amendment No. 125, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, offers yet another way forward. On the face of it the amendment has some attractions. Indeed, perhaps I may advise your Lordships' House that it is a solution which the Government have themselves previously considered. The effect of the amendment would be to require Northern Ireland parties to disclose recordable donations to the electoral commission in the normal way but then to exclude the details from the register of donations and therefore keep the information out of the public domain. It may be that this is a halfway house which could be put in place in due course but subsection (2) of Clause 68 already provides sufficient powers to enable us to do that.

We do not, however, see the approach taken in Amendment No. 125 as an acceptable way forward at present. Concerns have been expressed that any external reporting of donations, even if confined to reporting to the electoral commission, would not provide sufficient reassurance to donors that their names will not fall into the wrong hands. I would very much hope that such fears are wholly without foundation but we cannot ignore the fact that perceptions about the risk of information leaking out could have a significant impact on the funding of parties in Northern Ireland regardless of whether such fears have any basis in fact. The political process in Northern Ireland will not be advanced if the main political parties cannot function properly because supporters stop making donations for fear of the consequences. As the situation improves, we shall certainly look again at the option of the disclosure of donations to the electoral commission but not to the wider public. However, such an option should be additional to, and not a substitute for, the wider powers in Clause 68.

Amendments Nos. 132 and 187 are concerned with the impact of a Clause 68 order on a referendum campaign. Let me make one thing clear from the outset--

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if the Minister will give way, perhaps I may say that I have uncoupled the two amendments on referendums. I believe that it is a quite different point. Perhaps the noble Lord will repeat the two amendments he mentioned.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 132 and 187.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I have uncoupled them. We shall come to them much later, I fear.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his help.

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We return to a more constrained debate; I accept that point. As I have said on a number of occasions this is a difficult set of circumstances for us to confront and deal with. In those circumstances, we have devised a position which, while it is not wholly desirable, is desirable in those circumstances. It takes account of the political reality in Northern Ireland. It moves a step forward in the direction that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested in Committee and it takes us some way forward into the future.

I am interested in the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. However, as I have expressed plainly to your Lordships' House, as a halfway house it is not one that we can readily accept at this stage. We do not think that it is realistic. But we are prepared to consider it more closely at some point in the future.

After all that has been said about Clause 68, I hope that the House will accept that it is not a provision that the Government have included in the Bill without giving the matter very careful thought. Our decision to do so was not taken on a whim. The Neill committee looked at the impact of its recommendations on Northern Ireland parties very carefully and took evidence from both the nationalist and unionist communities. It is right to remind the House that in the light of what it heard in Belfast the committee concluded that special provision should be made for Northern Ireland parties. The Government endorse that view. It is right that any such special provision should be regularly reviewed and I commend to the House the government amendments which provide for that. But, subject to those amendments being made, I ask the House to return this Bill to another place with Clause 68 intact. I beg to move.

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