I should make a declaration at the beginning of my comments on anything to do with donations for political purposes or to political parties in that I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. In that capacity, I take, for obvious reasons, a particular interest in any changes to legislation that apply to political donations, loans and anything akin to them. My views are my own entirely—the issue before us has not been discussed at any length in the Speaker’s Committee.
With that preface to my remarks, I shall speak to amendments Nos. 24 and 25. They relate specifically to clause 14 of this miscellaneous—extremely miscellaneous—provisions Bill and the final disapplication period, which is defined as
“(a) starting with the day on which this section comes into force, and
(b) ending with 31st October 2007.”
The amendments would remove subsections (4) and (5) from the clause. I have difficulty with what is meant by those subsections, although I am sure that the Minister will clarify their meaning when he responds to my proposals.
As drafted, clause 14(4) means that section 54(2)(c) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 will be effective
“in relation to any donation received during the final disapplication period by—
(a) a Great Britain party, or
(b) a regulated donee who is resident or carries on activities in Great Britain,
as if it referred to a Great Britain party only.”
Speaking personally, that is gobbledegook to the hon. Member for North Down. I would be thrilled and delighted to be able to understand the legislation. Lovely, the Minister is indicating that he wants to intervene. Excellent!
I shall try to assist the hon. Lady. In practical terms, the amendments would allow Great Britain parties, regulated donees and others to receive foreign donations from Northern Ireland parties as a back-door route during the disapplication period, because of the lack of regulation in Northern Ireland during that period. That is the purpose of the provisions.
That is most helpful. So in clause 14 we are being asked to approve back-door donations. Did I understand correctly?
No, the purpose is to stop back-door donations.
It is just as well that the Minister clarified that. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for East Antrim is always very agitated and interested in making comments, whether sedentary or not, but I am sure that he will get his opportunity shortly.
The Minister has now indicated that the effect of the clause is to stop back-door donations to Great Britain parties, and I am delighted with that assurance. I was particularly struck that, coincidentally, exactly a week after Second Reading of the Bill on 13 March, the Lord Chancellor made an important statement in the House of Lords about political parties and funding, and about donations and loans in particular. He indicated that
“The Government intend to move amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill, currently before this House, to make it compulsory for political parties to disclose any loans they receive. This issue affects all political parties”
—I emphasise all political parties—and he said
“I have today written to the leaders of all political parties represented at Westminster, and to the Electoral Commission, seeking their views on the elements of a reporting regime, including whether it should be retrospective.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 2006; Vol. 680, c. 12.]
I confirm that it is the Government’s intention to introduce regulations to that effect in Northern Ireland.
The Minister is obviously in a good mood this morning. He may not have been willing to insert the word “criminal” before the word “offence”, but he is now indicating that, when there is a mind to do something within the Government, they can move very quickly.
On the amendment, may I just test the Minister? The amendment tabled in my name is intended to remove subsection (5) from clause 14, because it is difficult to understand, and any member of the Committee may agree with the hon. Member for North Down on that, not just the Minister. It reads:
“References in Schedule 2A to the 1983 Act to a permissible donor falling within section 54(2) are to be read, in relation to any donation received during the final disapplication period by a candidate at an election in Great Britain, as not including a Northern Ireland party.”
The amendment is a probing one, because I need to be able to understand the legislation that we are being asked to approve in the Bill. As it stands, and even when read alongside the relevant legislation, it is extremely difficult to understand. Will the Minister clarify the scope of the paragraph? My other comments about donations will be taken in connection with clause 15.
I hope that through my interventions on both points, I have assured the hon. Lady. For the avoidance of any doubt, however, subsections (4) and (5) of clause 14 introduce a ban on Northern Ireland political parties in the disapplication period up to 31 October 2010 from making donations to regulated donees or candidates standing for election in Great Britain. In practical terms, her amendments would allow GB parties, regulated donees and candidates to use Northern Ireland parties as a back door through which they could accept foreign donations during the period in which donations were not as yet banned in Northern Ireland. Ours is a simple method of ensuring that during the period when the Act is disapplied to Northern Ireland, there is no back door by which mainland GB parties can receive donations via Northern Ireland. That is the sole purpose of those two subsections.
I hope that that satisfies the hon. Lady. With regard to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs made about loans, we intend to ensure that, with specific modifications, Northern Ireland is dealt with in exactly the same way as the United Kingdom. I shall introduce appropriate amendments to deal with that matter at an appropriate stage during our considerations.
I am most grateful to the Minister. That was a helpful clarification, and I pay tribute to those who drafted the notes to provide that clear explanation of those subsections. The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs confirmed on 20 March that he had written to the leaders of all political parties represented at Westminster. Although five Sinn Fein Members do not physically take their seats at Westminster, they receive money analogous to Short money. Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State has written to the president of Sinn Fein, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), asking that party for its views about openness in relation to loans?
I am sorry, but I missed the hon. Lady’s point.
“I have today written to the leaders of all political parties represented at Westminster”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2006; Vol. 680, c. 12.]
My point was that there are technically five Sinn Fein Members and a political party known as Sinn Fein represented at Westminster, but they do not physically take their seats; so will the Minister intervene on the hon. Member for North Down and assure her that the Secretary of State wrote to the president of Sinn Fein, the hon. Member for Belfast, West, inviting him to disclose the details of loans and donations to Sinn Fein, and say whether those details should be retrospective?
Not only did the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs raise the matter, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote to political parties in Northern Ireland and their leaders to ask them for their views on it. They obviously included the hon. Member for Belfast, West, even though he chooses not to take his seat in this place. Although he chooses not to do so, he and his colleagues are still elected.