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Northern Ireland: Donations to Political Parties

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the main Northern Ireland political parties, like other UK parties, are already required to submit an annual statement of accounts to the Electoral Commission, which publishes these statements.

However, Northern Ireland parties are not required to submit information to the Commission on the sources of their income in line with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Disapplication of Part IV for Northern Ireland parties, etc) Order 2001.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the Lord President for her reply and I thank her too for facilitating a meeting between myself and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to be briefed by her officials.

We are very concerned that there will be this two-year extension. I fear that the same argument will be deployed in two years' time. It is part of the manana-ism of Northern Ireland politics. Does the Minister not agree with me that there must be some movement towards greater transparency of party finances? Would she consider requiring donations to be published annually in £1,000 bands—from £1,000 up to whatever it is—so that there is at least some transparency in the amount of political donations?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that I entirely recognise the strength of feeling on this issue. As I said to the noble Lord in consultation, we are of course committed to greater transparency with political donations, but in the current time-frame it has not been possible to move to more transparent arrangements.

On the specific proposal put by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, I shall of course take that back. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot give a commitment today, but his proposal has merit. I will take it back and of course come back to the noble Lord on it.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the whole exercise of
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accountability is quite futile when a party such as Sinn Fein declares not quite single figures in terms of thousands of pounds spent on elections and we know that the figure that it declares and the figure that is accepted is less than it would spend on posters? Is there any way in which we can get beyond the stage where we have to cover up in order to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA to stay at the political table?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. I think that the issue of accountability is important; I do not think that it is futile at all. We have to continue to work to gain greater transparency. We are seeking to have some time to enable us to consult and to do that.

I entirely recognise that there is a different context in Northern Ireland and that there is the wider question of intimidation of donors. Of course we recognise that, but we will be working with the political parties to seek to find a resolution to the matter.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Glentoran, I join the noble Lord, Lord Smith, in expressing thanks for the meeting with the Lord President. What is the Government's intention with regard to bringing the provision of foreign and anonymous donations to political parties in Northern Ireland into line with those for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as I said in response to the previous question from the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, we will be consulting on the matter with political parties and other key stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission. This is not an easy issue. In previous consultations concerns have been expressed, but I think that the general view is that we need more time. In addition, negotiations on a longer-term settlement are at a sensitive stage at this moment. It would be wrong to do anything which might undermine that process.

Child Support Agency

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, there have been well documented problems with the new IT system. However, three-quarters of all CSA cases are on the old system and 99 per cent of payments are made within 10 days.

Under the new system, which is where the IT problems are, 90 per cent of private cases have had maintenance assessments and the money flows. Our problem, in other
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words, is not that payments are not being made—they are—but that the new computer, for various reasons that we could explore, is not yet sufficiently robust to allow us safely to migrate the old system cases on to the new system. That is where the key problem lies.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, but, sadly, is it not clear that the CSA is in chaos? The chief executive has resigned; the National Audit Office reports that the situation has worsened since the 2003 reforms; of the 478,000 applications only 61,000 payments have actually been made; more than 25 per cent of payments have been wrong; and when the CSA seeks to enforce maintenance payments, it deals correctly with only 10 per cent.

The noble Baroness's reply makes it clear that the old system was working better than the new. Is this whole thing not a scandal? It is a desperate situation for the people in need of the money—lone parents—who are not being dealt with correctly by the CSA.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I would not in any sense wish to be complacent about the problems that we are having with the new computer system. That is not, I fear, unusual. We had, for example, to abandon the smart benefit card that we inherited from the previous administration—the £1 billion contract—because that was unworkable.

We have a problem with the computer, but I want to emphasise that at the core of the problem is the fact that too many non-resident parents, mostly fathers, do not wish to pay. We see fathers changing their jobs, homes, bank accounts and even changing their countries, rather than choosing to pay to support their children. If they were willing to pay, the CSA would be like a building society instead of a less than efficient debt-collection agency. The reason so much depends on the computer is that we have to chase mostly men who choose not to pay and prefer other fathers to support their children for them.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, one accepts the difficulties that the Minister rightly underlines, but will she confirm that a total of £750 million is owed to single parents, with waiting times going up from 12 to 15 weeks last year to 15 to 22 weeks now? Does she agree that, whatever reasons there may be for this, it would be right for some kind of compensation, be it only interest on the money owed, to be paid to parents who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in great personal distress and financial hardship?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not accept the figures given by the right reverend Prelate. As I say, in existing old-system cases, which are three-quarters of the cases, the money is flowing with something like 90 per cent accuracy targets to the nearest pound, and not 75 per cent as the right reverend Prelate said.
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Under the new system, where lone parents are in work, 90 per cent of maintenance payments are being made. The difficulty for us is with lone parents on benefits where the new computer benefit does not interconnect with the existing IS benefit. In that case lone parents continue to receive their full benefits, which if they include housing benefit could be £200 per week. Under the new system they are losing—I agree that it is not satisfactory—only the £10 per week disregard. So the difference for lone parents is £10 per week on their benefits, which on average, if they have one or two children and housing benefits, are around £200. I do not want to sound complacent about the matter, but the problem has been, so to speak, over-talked. Some of the figures that the right reverend Prelate has suggested are, frankly, not robust.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, given the problems that there have been with EDS, the main computer contractor, would the noble Baroness, as the Minister responsible for the CSA, say that it has either the track record or the spare capacity to be involved in the national identity card?

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