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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, with these amendments we return to the vexed matter of the special provisions for Northern Ireland parties. I readily admit that it is a vexed matter, with strong passions running on both sides of the argument. The House is by now well aware of the case made by the Neill committee for these special provisions, so I shall not detain the House by going over that ground again, but shall confine my remarks to the amendments before us.
The amendments address four different aspects of Clause 70: first, the exemption from disclosure; secondly, the exemption from the ban on foreign funding; thirdly, the time limit on any order made under subsection (1); and, finally, the effect of the exemption in respect of the ban on foreign funding on a referendum campaign. I shall address each of those points in turn.
Amendments Nos. 4, 7 and 8 address the issue of disclosure. They seek to take what some may describe as the middle road between applying the controls in full to Northern Ireland parties and a complete exemption. As I indicated on Report, that is a middle way which the Government have previously closely examined. We have concluded, however, that it is not an approach that we can adopt at this time.
Concern has been expressed that the disclosure of donations to the electoral commission, but not more widely, would not provide the necessary assurance to donors in Northern Ireland. Let me make it perfectly clear that this is not because the Government lack confidence in the ability of the commission to keep information about donors in Northern Ireland parties confidential. The key consideration here is public perception. We know that sections of the community in Northern Ireland do not have full confidence in the public institutions operating in that part of the United Kingdom. Whatever the reality of the situation, there will be a perception that information given in confidence to the electoral commission will somehow leak out.
Consequently, this half-way house will not take the trick. If donors are fearful that their details will be made known, they will stop making donations and it would, as a result, become very difficult for democratic parties in Northern Ireland to operate effectively. Such
Amendment No. 6 seeks to give effect to the letter of the Neill committee's Recommendation 29. Let me remind the House why we think that this particular recommendation is impractical. Under the amendment, a party in Northern Ireland could accept a donation from a citizen of the Republic of Ireland resident in the Republic, subject to that person's compliance with the Republic's Electoral Act 1997.
The first difficulty with that approach is that we do not believe that it would be practical to require that a United Kingdom party satisfy itself that a donor complies with legislation in force in another state, in another jurisdiction.
The second difficulty with this approach is that it would simply serve no useful end. The noble Lord knows very well that the Republic of Ireland's legislation in this area does not ban the foreign funding of political parties. I make no comment about that as it is clearly a matter for the Irish state. But, in the absence of such a ban, any citizen of the Republic could accept a donation from the United States or elsewhere and then simply reroute it to a party in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord has argued that we should at least make an attempt to confine the foreign funding of parties in Northern Ireland to funds emanating from the South of Ireland, but this amendment patently fails to do that. If the amendment has no effect in practice, frankly it should not be made.
Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 relate to the time limit on any order made under subsection (1) of Clause 70. On Report the House accepted a government amendment to limit the life of such an order to four years. It is right and proper that an exemption order should be subject to regular review and we believe that once every four years or so is about right. These two amendments would require an annual review. I put it to the House that that is too frequent. We very much hope that the political climate in Northern Ireland will continue to improve year on year.
I believe that the impassioned plea made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is right. This process is not and never will be perfect, but we have to do all that we can to help it. This is not the same as saying that the political situation will have changed sufficiently one year over another to justify an annual review of a Clause 70 order. I invite the House to stick at four years, albeit with the possibility of an interim review should the climate change materially, as we all hope, in which case the order then in force could, if appropriate, be revoked.
Finally, Amendment No. 11 returns to the issue of foreign funds being used by a Northern Ireland party to meet the costs of a referendum campaign. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, continues to be unhappy about such a consequence of a Clause 70 order.
If, as we propose, an order is made under Clause 70 to exempt Northern Ireland parties from the restrictions on the acceptance of donations, that exemption will apply for all purposes. It is not, and never has been, our intention to allow Northern Ireland parties to accept foreign donations to meet their general running costs or to meet the cost of election campaigning, but not to meet the cost of a referendum campaign. On what possible grounds can such a distinction be made? There is simply no case for this amendment.
The noble Lord is perfectly entitled to argue that there should be no special provisions whatsoever for Northern Ireland. It is up to your Lordship's House to decide whether to accept the noble Lord's case or to accept the Government's and the Neill committee's case. If your Lordship's House comes down in favour of Clause 70, the case for Amendment No. 11 simply evaporates. The fact that a Northern Ireland party may use foreign donations to fund a referendum campaign raises no new issues.
At each stage of this Bill we have heard the arguments for and against Clause 70. Sadly, there has been no meeting of minds at least between these Benches and those of the Official Opposition. The time has come to decide once and for all whether this clause should stand part of the Bill. I put it to the House that there are compelling arguments for these special provisions and I therefore invite the House to reject these amendments.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may comment on the Minister's reply in reverse order. On foreign funding for referendums, he seems to be quite happy that that should go ahead and he seems to accept, in fact almost suggests, that the Government deliberately set out to allow that. To take a narrow aspect, if the Scottish National Party ever arrives at the stage--I hope that it will not--of forcing a referendum on an independent Scotland, it seems to me that there would be no justification for saying, "No, you cannot have foreign money"; whereas in a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland, we could say to one side of that argument, "You can have foreign money". The position is totally without logic and--dare I say it?--totally without integrity.
The third point, the limit of four years, is not the most important part of these amendments, but it seems to me that if the Government are to make progress on Northern Ireland and want to sweep away all these exemptions as soon as possible, which I understand is the Minister's position, they would be better reviewing the situation once every year rather than once every four years. However, that is the least important of the four amendments.
On the second point--essentially, of how we can check whether money that has come from a donor in the Republic has not originated in the United States--the same question could be asked in relation to Great Britain. How will we check that? The electoral commission will carry out some checking, as no doubt
However, I should have thought that, with all the co-operation we have with the Republic's government, it would not be too much to ask them to go a step further and help the electoral commission in any investigation it had to conduct in relation to a large donor in the South. I should have thought that that was a small price for the Republic of Ireland to pay in return for all that it has had from the United Kingdom Government over the past few years. So I do not believe the noble Lord made a case at all in that regard.
On the question of donations and keeping them confidential, perhaps if there had been a fourth stage of the Bill--thank goodness, there is not; that is one thing at least on which the Ministers agree with me--I might have knocked out the fact that we should tell the electoral commission and allow Northern Ireland parties not to report their donations of £5,000 to anyone. But it is an amazing proposition that we cannot trust the electoral commission with confidential information.
This has been a sad debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that I hope that his friends in the other place who voted with us on these issues in the Commons do not read in Hansard what he has said today. I do not believe the exaggerated nature of his speech, which was more or less that this would be a threat to the whole peace process, to be in the least bit justified. I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said--that Sinn Fein should be allowed to seek to raise money for legitimate political purposes. I have no problem with that. But why, in reality, should they be the only people who are allowed to raise money for legitimate political purposes outside these islands? The Labour Party is not allowed to and I do not believe for a moment that anything the Labour Party raised would not be used legitimately.
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