With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 8, page 2, line 37, leave out ‘October’ and insert ‘January’.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘(2A) In section 71E of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (duty not to disclose contents of donation reports) after subsection (3) insert—
(3A) Such information may be disclosed where a donation received by a Northern Ireland recipient on or after
(3B) Such information may be disclosed where the total donations received by a Northern Ireland recipient from a relevant person in a year exceeds £7,500, save that no information on donations received before
Amendment 6, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘(2A) Section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is repealed.’.
Clauses 1 and 2 stand part.
My amendments 7 and 8 aim to ensure that all donations made to Northern Ireland political parties from January 2014 will eventually be subject to publication. That would not interfere with the Secretary of State’s right to make a decision to extend the period of secrecy and non-publication that currently applies to donations made to political parties. That would remain in the Secretary of State’s gift even if amendments 7 and 8 were accepted. However, they would make it clear to the general public that anything donated after January 2014 will eventually be made public, once the Secretary of State deems the security situation to be appropriate.
I believe that there is a lack of transparency in Northern Ireland politics, which causes significant public concern. That is reflected by the views of the Electoral Commission, which has commissioned a series of surveys on the matter. They show that a significant proportion of the public believe that this is a matter of concern to them. They want to know how their political parties are funded, and whether that funding has an impact on what the parties say and do in office. It is hugely important that we should move towards transparency as we try to normalise the situation in Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to confirm that the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland, which is held in high esteem there, supports her amendments and does not believe that the deadline of
The hon. Lady is correct to say that the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland supports the amendments and believes that they would be practical in providing adequate support and advice to donors and political parties to make them fully aware of the change by January 2014. No substantive reasons have been given for this move not being able to proceed by 2014. Given all the issues surrounding transparency, and the public concern about the opaque nature of political funding in Northern Ireland, it is important to take this opportunity to make it clear that we want maximum transparency for the public there. We want the kind of transparency that the rest of the United Kingdom already enjoys, but which, for security reasons, we have been unable to enjoy until now.
For me, this is a matter not only of amendments 7 and 8, which I have tabled. I also want to refer to the other amendments in this group. Amendment 2 differs from those amendments, in that it seeks to set in stone the lifting of the veil of secrecy on party political donations in Northern Ireland by October 2014. It would not entirely remove the Government’s ability to extend the period further in an emergency. The Bill could, for example, include an order-making power to ensure that the Government could come back to the House in an emergency and reinstate the existing provisions, but they would need to have a substantive reason for doing so and they would have to bring their argument to the House and gain its support.
I put on record at Second Reading, and I want to do so again today, that this is not about being cavalier or dismissive about the security situation in Northern Ireland. Nor is it about dismissing the potential threat to those who donate to political parties. It is about accepting that that should not automatically, as of right, outweigh the public’s right to scrutinise donations to political parties. If we lift the bar and allow donations over £7,500 to be published, in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, people will factor in that decision when deciding whether to make such donations. Given that all the political parties have said that they get very few donations of that size, the proposal would not impede the normal democratic fundraising capacity of the Northern Ireland parties.
It is also important to confidence and trust that the public should believe that their elected representatives are not available for sale. The only way to convince people of that is to maximise transparency around these issues. No political party can defend itself against that charge while the secrecy continues to exist, because the information will not be in the public domain and available for scrutiny. My own party reveals such information voluntarily, and we encourage other parties to do so, but I believe that as of October 2014, we should be moving towards a more normalised situation for donations. The onus should be on donors to decide whether they wish to donate, knowing that their donation will be made public.
I shall listen carefully to what my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party say about amendment 6. My understanding is that their intention is to remove entirely the possibility of donations to the Northern Ireland political parties from the Republic of Ireland. I cannot support that, and I want to explain why. Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances are reflected not only in our constitutional arrangements but in the fact that some parties operate on a Northern Ireland-only basis, some on a UK-wide basis and others on an all-Ireland basis. Taking that into account, I believe that it would be unfair completely to close the door to donations from the Republic of Ireland. A situation could be created in which parties that operate on an all-UK basis could receive donations from Dundee, Devon and Derby, while those that operate on a Northern Ireland-only basis would be unable to receive donations from Donegal or Dublin. I think that would be unfair.
I have a degree of sympathy, however, with the concerns expressed by the Democratic Unionist party on Second Reading about the potential for overseas donors to put money through the Republic of Ireland, essentially circumventing the rules on foreign donations. Indeed, I supported the Select Committee recommendation in paragraph 44 where we set out our concerns about that. Although we stopped short of recommending that all donations from the Republic of Ireland be stopped, we did recommend that the Secretary of State should seek to include provisions in the Bill that would close that particular loophole. I would be happy to support measures to do that, but I do not feel that it would be just or right to support measures that would simply put a bar on any donations from the Irish Republic, even if those people are resident and are donating to a party that operates on a Northern Ireland basis. That would not be fair or just.
I encourage all Members to consider amendments 7 and 8. Some might not agree with amendment 2, but I do not believe that the hands of the Secretary of State are in any way tied with respect to security judgments. I believe that amendments 7 and 8 will ensure clarity for donors, who will know that any money above £7,500 donated from January onwards will be subject to publication at whatever point in the future the Secretary of State decides that it is safe to declare the information. Clarity will be provided for members of the public who will know that we are moving in the direction of full transparency, in the same way as any other region of the UK. This draws the line under what has been a very tortured issue for a very long time. I hope that when the opportunity arises, Members will vote in favour of increasing transparency on these matters.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I rise to speak to amendment 2, which is in the name of Naomi Long and myself. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady’s speech, and I am grateful to her for supporting the amendment that I proposed—one that is obviously consistent with the recommendations of the Select Committee on the matter of transparency for larger political donations. This recommendation was not disputed in the Committee and there was no vote or dissenting voice, as can be seen in the report. Looking back over the evidence given to the Committee by every Northern Ireland political party, it becomes clear that there is little evidence that the parties are receiving many donations above this specified amount, so it is not as if we are talking about a large number of people potentially at a security risk.
A fair number of the parties favoured transparency, and the hon. Member for Belfast East has pointed out that her party already publishes its donations, while the Green party and Sinn Fein said they were in favour in the evidence given to us. It is not quite so easy, however, to find on Sinn Fein’s website all of its donations. Some of us have tried and have asked, but the information does not quite seem to be there.
I am very impressed with the hon. Gentleman’s comments so far. Will he confirm for the record that the Conservative party, which organises in Northern Ireland, is now going to be fully transparent in respect of all the donations received by that august body?
If only that were not so far above my pay grade, I would be happy to answer the hon. Gentleman. It is a matter that he will have to put to party officials. I have never had the pleasure of campaigning for my party in Northern Ireland, so I have not been made aware of those rules. I think that transparency is the right thing and that such matters should be disclosed, but I have no problem saying that the hon. Gentleman would have to ask somebody else about how my party operates in Northern Ireland.
The issue before us today is how to find a balance between transparency and the security threat. It is right that the Committee should have a say on that today. We should be reflecting on the fact that it is 15 years since the Good Friday agreement, and on how much progress has been made. The G8 summit in Northern Ireland was held without a hitch; and we had the Queen’s jubilee tour last year. I had the pleasure of being there to see it, and it was amazing to see that Her Majesty did not need to go around with all the bullet-proof glass of the past. That shows all the progress we have made, yet we seem to be saying that 15 or 16 years on from the agreement, we still do not dare publish the largest donations made to political parties.
The amendment refers to donations of more than £7,500. I think all the parties agree that that is a rare event, but there must come a point at which the level of a donation is such that members of the public begin to suspect that it is buying some kind of influence. There should be a threshold beyond which the public are able to see what donations are being received, so that they can be sure that no influence is being bought.
I have no reason to doubt that all the parties in Northern Ireland are entirely fair, that they are not for sale, and that they do not change their policies to suit donations. I am not sure that all the people in Northern Ireland are quite as confident of that as I am, but it is for them to be cynical. Their view on the subject may not have been greatly enhanced by a BBC programme that was shown in Northern Ireland last Thursday evening, and which I believe has prompted some doubt about the entire propriety of what happens.
It is possible that those who wish to make small donations will not be able to risk the threat to their security, but those who choose to donate more than £7,500 should do so in the knowledge that the fact that they have done so will be published, on the basis that it may be suspected that they are buying some kind of influence. We want to ensure that it is absolutely clear that they are not doing that, that none of the parties would do that, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.
If it is not robust enough now and will not be robust enough in October 2014, when does the Minister think that the security situation will be robust enough to allow the publication of information about larger donations? What must change between now and the point at which we shall be able to publish that information? What criteria will the Government use under their new power to bring about more transparency? I am not certain that anyone fully understands what the obstacles are now, and what improvements would be necessary for us to provide that increased transparency, which I think every party that gave evidence to the Select Committee agreed was, in theory, desirable.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Select Committee has discussed this issue on many occasions. Our party, along with nearly all the others, wants transparency, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that in parts of Northern Ireland today, to be a Unionist is to be an outcast. Subscribing to a political party could still put someone’s life in danger.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, but surely he agrees that such people can choose whether to donate a large amount to a party. If my amendment were passed, they could still donate £7,499 every year without their names being published. Surely he agrees that a donation can reach such a level that the donor must accept that it should be subject to transparency, because of the amount of influence that that donor might be exerting. The amendment provides that, in just over 14 months’ time, any donation that exceeds £7,500 will be made public. That would give an individual 14 months in which to make any large donation to a party that he or she wished to make—without the information being published—which would presumably tide the party over.
This topic is very important to those of us who are involved in the political process in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to balance the security risk against the public good, and that in this instance the public want transparency and accountability in politics?
Yes. I made that point at the outset. The need for absolute security must be balanced against the need for transparency, and I decided that the level at which the balance tilted towards transparency was £7,500. The hon. Lady might choose a different figure, but there must be a point at which donations are seen to buy influence, and the details should therefore be published.
The leader of the hon. Lady’s party gave some of the most compelling evidence to the Select Committee. He said that his big fear was that if a small business man gave £1,000 to his, and her, party, another party might knock on the door and demand £2,000, because that business man was clearly willing to donate. I think that there is a risk at that level. That is why I did not table an
amendment proposing that all donations should be made public, and I think that that is why the Select Committee recommended the £7,500 threshold as well.
Fifteen years after the Good Friday agreement, with all the progress that has been made, can we really justify maintaining the secrecy of all the large political donations to Northern Ireland parties when in the rest of the UK we have the publication of much smaller donations with no trouble? We accept that there is a unique situation in Northern Ireland. The security situation there is clearly different from what those of us representing seats in the mainland face, but for how many more years can we tolerate there not being this transparency in politics in the UK?
Even if we judge that the risk now is high, the point is that there will never be a point at which we can say there is no risk. This provision is about transitioning and saying that the donor must now take some responsibility for judging whether to take that risk, and that that risk should not always outweigh the public interest.
Absolutely, and if this amendment were passed, a donor would still have 14 months in which to make any donations they wanted to make and have them not made public. I suspect that would get the political parties through the 2015 general election, and that if they planned things carefully, they could get enough funds to get through the 2016 Assembly elections, so there would be no detriment to party funding until perhaps the 2020 elections in terms of the need for very large donations. That would give everyone a large amount of time to adjust to these new transparency rules.
I therefore ask the Minister to set out why the Government are apparently reluctant to go down this route even for the largest donations. I note that in their response to the Select Committee they said they would carefully consider any restrictions on transparency after October 2014. It would be useful to understand what their criteria are for making that decision. I accept, however, that the Minister cannot, and should not, tell us the specific intelligence he has about security threats.
Northern Ireland Members obviously understand Northern Ireland politics better than I do, but it is my understanding that the details of anyone who nominates a candidate or who stands for a council are published. If we have not had any evidence that there is a real security threat to people participating in those aspects of Northern Ireland democracy, why do we have this threat in respect of donations? It is worth asking how credible it is to have those two opposing situations, whereby it is safe to nominate or stand but it is not safe to donate money. I am not sure whether there is a very convincing argument for that.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have the privilege of sitting on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. When we took evidence on this issue, we took evidence privately and in public session, and we took it in written as well as oral form. Did we ever receive evidence from a donor to any political party or to any independent Member of the Parliament that they felt at risk of being targeted by terrorists or anyone else for donating?
No, of course we did not receive any such evidence. We do not know who the donors are, so we could not go and ask them. That question was raised with some of the parties; they were asked whether they had any evidence from their donors that could be put on an anonymous basis, and I do not recall any evidence along those lines being received.
A few moments ago the hon. Gentleman drew comparisons between elected representatives and donors, but elected representatives chose to put their names forward—in the same way as some of us on this side of the House chose to wear the uniform of the Crown, and served in Northern Ireland. That is a choice we made. The donors do not necessarily make a choice to have their names and addresses and businesses all known. That is the difference. The difference is between those who make these choices and those who donate and do not want to make anybody else aware of that. Derbyshire is not like South Down. Amber Valley is not like Belfast. They are two different places—there are different situations and different circumstances—and, with the greatest respect, I am a wee bit unsure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of all the background in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, people who make donations before October 2014 should not have their details published, as that would not be their understanding of what would happen. My argument is that if they choose to make a large donation after
I do not doubt that my constituency is very different from that of the hon. Gentleman and I do not want to underestimate his understanding of those risks, as they are clearly far greater than those in my constituency will ever be. However, we are all asked, as Members of Parliament in the UK, to vote on this Bill and to make these choices. We need to be in a situation where there is sufficient normality in Northern Ireland to be able to publish details of these donations. I am not convinced that we have not reached that point now and that for large donations it would not be the right way in which to tip that delicate balance, especially when we are not getting credible evidence from anybody that there is a real threat or that any past incidents would give us real cause for concern. Perhaps that evidence exists and just cannot come into the public domain. I have no doubt that the Minister will have information that is far stronger than the Committee could get its hands on or perhaps should get its hands on.
On the current balance of the arguments, I think we should be publishing details of those larger donations. I accept that we are not in a position to do that in respect of smaller donations, but let us make that change. Let us say that we have progressed far enough, 15 or 16 years on from that historic agreement, to think that the situation in Northern Ireland is strong enough for us to be able to publish details of those large donations. Let us go for transparency for the whole political process, and let us show that it is clean and that people cannot be bought. Let us not continue any longer with this fear or misunderstanding that the process is corrupt. That is where we are, and the events of last week and that television programme have raised again fears that something is happening which should not be happening. We all sincerely hope that it is not.
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. First, I wish to discuss amendment 6, which stands in my name and that of my colleagues, and then I will comment on the other proposals in the group. Nigel Mills put a legitimate point of view, one that had support in the Select Committee but has not found favour with the Government, so I look forward to hearing the Minister speak on it. It is also worth making the general comment in relation to all these matters that the Bill did go through pre-legislative scrutiny. That is not to say that it cannot be improved or that we cannot debate it and tease out the various issues—that is what we are here to do. The hon. Gentleman referred to recent programmes and, of course, we also have to bear in mind the recent “Panorama” programme and The Sunday Times exposure of issues relating to Back-Benchers here and members of the other place. All these issues are very pertinent and need to be examined, too.
Our amendment 6 would repeal section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Political parties in Northern Ireland currently follow different rules from parties in Great Britain. Many people in the UK—UK taxpayers and voters—might be slightly surprised that a different set of rules applies on donations to people who can be elected to the House of Commons to make laws for the whole of the United Kingdom if they are in political parties in one part of the UK. The 2000 Act was passed to prevent foreign influence through donations being made without transparency, openness and all the rest of it and to ensure that donations were made by legitimate donors—donors who reside in the United Kingdom or who have locus in the UK, because, after all, the political parties to which they are donating are making laws for the UK. By logic, therefore, the same rules should apply across the UK to all the political parties represented in this House. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve.
In Great Britain, donations are permissible only from individuals or bodies in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland parties, exceptionally, are allowed also to receive donations and loans from the Irish Republic. The amendment would end that exemption and put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom. One argument that is made over and over by many people, quite validly and properly, is that Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Usually, that argument is applied to the question of transparency and the revelation of the identities of donors—I shall come to that in a short while—but it never seems to be raised in the context of this glaring loophole, which preserves a special position, effectively for the benefit of nationalist parties. Let us be frank: that is why it was brought in originally and why it was lobbied for.
I listened carefully to Naomi Long and I understand where she is coming from. I understand the argument she advanced and the way in which she advanced it. Her concern was more to do with the loophole whereby donations come not so much from citizens or organisations in the Republic but from individuals or companies who are used as a conduit for political donations to parties in Northern Ireland from outside the Irish Republic—from the United States, or wherever. That is the real problem. It was identified by the Select Committee, which recommended that the loophole be closed.
The purpose of our amendment is to highlight that glaring loophole. We cannot have an exception that allows donations to come in from abroad and thereby allows them to come in from even further afield than intended—from America, Australia, Canada, other parts of the European Union or wherever else. That issue must be addressed. It is entirely unacceptable, when we talk about transparency, openness and all the rest of it, that in Northern Ireland parties that are represented or may be represented in this House could be funded by bodies, individuals and organisations in other parts of the world yet we would never be able to find out because of this exception.
I appeal to the Minister to consider the issue, to consider very carefully not just what we have said but what the Select Committee has said and to take the matter away and see how the loophole can be closed. If we are trying to move forward and bring the law on donations gradually and cautiously into line, we must do it across the board, not just on the issue addressed by clause 1 and the other amendments but on the issue we are raising through amendment 6.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I need some assistance in making up my mind about whether to support the amendment, so I would like him to explain precisely the remit of section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, as amended. Does his amendment affect only donations from Irish citizens outside the United Kingdom, or would it apply equally to those who believe themselves to be Irish citizens living in the UK, and who might even wish to donate to the Democratic Unionist party?
The hon. Lady asks for clarification; I think the position is pretty clear. The position of those who would see themselves as Irish, or who hold an Irish passport and live in the United Kingdom, would not be affected at all. The exception allowed for in the 2000 Act as amended allows people who do not reside in the United Kingdom, but who do reside and have a residence qualification in the Irish Republic, to donate to Northern Ireland parties. We are saying that that is a back door route; the donations may be from individuals, companies and organisations in the Irish Republic, but that money can come from wherever—there is no regulation whatsoever. That is why we have tabled the amendment.
I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about international donations, but does he not agree that closing down all donations from the Irish Republic for parties that operate on an all-Ireland basis would not be fair, when parties that operate on a Northern Ireland or UK-wide basis can still get donations from the whole of the UK? Is it not more important that the Minister of State goes away and looks at how we can deal with the international issue in collaboration with the Irish Government, who manage their rules?
I have asked the Minister to take the matter away and consider it, but the fundamental point is that we are talking about the United Kingdom. When it comes to laws on donations, the electoral system for this House, and the way in which Members of the House are treated, right across the board, I believe that we are a Parliament of the United Kingdom, and Members of the House should all be equal, regardless of where we come from.
As far as the political set-up in Northern Ireland is concerned, there is absolutely nothing to stop political parties getting donations from any part of the United Kingdom, although I have to say that it is not common for Northern Ireland parties—the hon. Lady can bear this out—to be inundated with donations from other parts of the United Kingdom. I think that parties on this side of the water have that market well and truly cornered, whatever the source of the donations. We certainly do not get donations from the unions in Northern Ireland, either.
This is a point of principle for us, I suppose. The hon. Lady may not agree with it, and she has a perfectly valid perspective, but our view is that we are part of the United Kingdom, and we should all abide equally by the rules of the United Kingdom. The fundamental point is that the situation is not only wrong in principle but wide open to abuse; a coach and horses could be driven through the provisions, in ways that run contrary to the reasons for introducing the measures in the 2000 Act. They were brought in to pander to Sinn Fein in particular. Whatever the reasons may have been for that, years ago, those reasons have long since ceased to apply, and everybody should be on a level playing field.
I have sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. One of the concerns of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was that his amendment would effectively contravene the provisions of the Good Friday agreement—that freedoms allowed there effectively enable an all-Ireland party to operate, and what he is trying to do would stop that happening—and that is perhaps not the way Parliament ought to go.
Nothing in the amendment, or in our proposal, would prevent a party from operating in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Likewise, there is nothing to stop a party from operating on a UK-wide basis, if it wished to. All the provision does is put Northern Ireland parties in exactly the same position as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, so that we are subject to the same rules and scrutiny. That is a perfectly legitimate point of view, which the Minister needs to consider.
Amendment 2 in the name of Nigel Mills means that after
We discussed the issue generally on Second Reading and the Government set out their position, which was opposed to that of the hon. Gentleman. Generally speaking, we welcomed the Government’s approach, which was one of caution but of cautious progress. We made it clear in the House that we want to see Northern Ireland on all fronts—not just, as some people have it, selectively—moving forward and coming into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Right across all fronts we wish to see that.
We welcome the fact that amendments 7 and 8, as well as amendment 2, safeguard the anonymity of those who have donated up till now. Some have argued that that should not be accepted, but it is accepted by everybody and rightly so. The question is whether the Government should still have regard to the circumstances in October 2014, or whether we should make a decision now that as of that date, regardless of the situation or circumstances, the discretion is taken away.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about clause 1(3)? He said that people who had made a donation up till now have their anonymity guaranteed, yet clause 1(3) seems to suggest that there might be circumstances in which the anonymity of those who gave before the Bill is enacted might be breached.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I flagged that up on Second Reading and the Minister may want to look at it. The Bill is a tidying-up exercise, and the matter will have to be addressed in another place or on Report. The question is whether the clause leaves open some kind of discretion. When the Select Committee considered the matter, it recommended that the clause should be tightened so that there was certainty that anonymity would be preserved. There should be no room for doubt.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The protection of people who have given donations to a political party in Northern Ireland cannot be lifted retrospectively unless they give permission. If they are happy for their data to be released, the Electoral Commission may wish to do so. That, I think, is what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to. I will look at the provision again, but there is absolutely no intent whatever to release data on anybody retrospectively unless they agree to that.
I very much welcome what the Minister has said. I think that is the intent of everybody. The slight concern is about the drafting and the need for the intention to be explicitly spelled out in those terms. Some commentators have pointed out that the current wording is somewhat loose with regard to the possibility of some discretion. Given the situation with regard to litigation on these matters, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that somebody will test it in court. The provision needs to be tightened up.
This is an important aspect of the Bill that we must thoroughly ventilate. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that although data may not be available for release, they do exist? If data are collated, stored and placed in a silo of information, there is always the fear and concern that they could be released. Examples at the moment from the other side of the Atlantic indicate that point. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any suggestions about how we could address that concern?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about data that are held and not meant for publication yet somehow find themselves in the public domain, and we can all cite many examples of that happening in recent years. There are, of course, criminal sanctions, but that does not necessarily guarantee anything. The fact of the matter is that it depends on the good will and good faith of those who safeguard such information, and on proper security to ensure that what Parliament intends and enacts is followed through. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that rightly concerns people, and the Government may wish to comment on what steps they are taking to ensure that information does not enter the public domain when people have been guaranteed that it will not.
Returning to amendment 2, which would remove the discretion, we put on record our concerns that donors to political parties in the rest of the UK do not face the same problems as donors to parties in Northern Ireland. Nigel Mills pointed out the tremendous progress that has been made, which we all recognise, value and celebrate, but there is still a serious threat in terms of terrorism and public safety. Not long ago there was the murder of a prison officer, David Black, and there have been other serious incidents, disruptions and bomb attacks. We operate in a different climate—it is much improved and better than it used to be—but most people accept that we are still in a situation in which caution must be exercised.
As we move forward to a more normalised society, we hope that the threat from dissidents and others will recede and continue to be dealt with. As we put the violent past behind us, it is right and proper that we move towards a system of donations and loans, as employed in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we support the normalisation process for political donations as outlined in the Bill.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking so many interventions. Will he kindly reflect on a question that I asked on Second Reading? While we all accept and do not query the dreadful times that all of us of a certain age have lived through in Northern Ireland, we are now in more peaceful times. Will the right hon. Gentleman quantify in numbers—this will be helpful for people at home watching the debate—the threats to current donors to the Democratic Unionist party? Is it in half dozens or dozens, and can he quantify that in changed circumstances and—thank the Lord—quieter times in Northern Ireland?
A point was made earlier—I do not know whether it came from the hon. Lady or someone else—that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee did not hear from a donor saying how afraid they would be if their identity was made public. It is not easy for people in that position, and there will not be lots of people coming forward and making their position clear. By necessity, some of these things will be done with the least publicity and information as possible from the donor’s point of view, because they want to protect their anonymity.
The Select Committee heard from the First Minister—I have already cited his evidence—from David McClarty, an independent MLA, and from representatives of my party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the UK Independence party, which of course is becoming a major force in the rest of the United Kingdom, although not particularly in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Unionist party. They all urged the Secretary of State to exercise caution when modifying the current confidentiality arrangements for political loans and donations in Northern Ireland. As the Committee’s report states:
“They argued that the security situation in Northern Ireland presented a barrier to implementing the same transparency regime as Great Britain because donors remained at risk of violence and intimidation”.
‘Our difficulty is that we feel that we were particularly vulnerable in the past, in that some of our donors felt vulnerable and threatened… Sometimes, the threat is not even direct, but people are put under pressure and told, “You gave the SDLP £1,000 this week; we think that we are entitled to £2,000 this week”. The threat is at that level. In a situation in which there are still a handful of people moving about with guns, that threat is there.’
The Committee also heard from Mike Nesbitt MLA, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who expressed concerns that commercial donors would face recriminations in the form of boycotts of their businesses or violence. That is something that is very hard to pin down, because it is spread by word of mouth and those individuals might ask, “Why are people not coming in?” His party colleague Tom Elliott MLA, who represents Fermanagh and South Tyrone, told the Committee that “a number of businesses”—he could not quantify it—were being boycotted because of their affiliation to particular political parties. He said that two of the UUP’s commercial donors had recently contacted the party asking it not to send further correspondence to the company’s business premises in case the employee responsible for opening the post made public the fact that the company had donated to the party.
Those are real fears. They are not made up or designed to camouflage or cover up anything. Nevertheless, bearing all that in mind and exercising caution, I think that it is right that we support the provisions of the Bill, which are about moving towards greater transparency and openness when the situation allows.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a number of very important points. A number of the Committee’s witnesses where asked why donors would be at greater risk than candidates, for example, or those who support candidates in other ways, perhaps by delivering leaflets, displaying posters, canvassing or signing the nomination papers. Why does he think that donors would be at greater risk that those participants?
It could be argued that donors are at as great a risk as those who put themselves forward as political representatives and stand for political parties. I suppose that one reason why they might choose to be a donor, rather than a candidate, is that they do not want to attract the sort of public attention that being a full or part-time public representative brings in Northern Ireland. They want to be involved in the political process, to support it and to have their political interests advanced and their views reflected, but they do not necessarily want to get involved in politics directly. However, even being a donor can attract problems for those people. There is a difference between being a donor and standing for election as a political representative. Not everybody wants to be a political activist. I think that there is a significant difference in the level of public attention that people want to attract, and that is human nature.
I want to take the right hon. Gentleman back to the quotes he gave about the commercial risk of a boycott if someone is exposed as a political donor. The leader of the UUP and the First Minister both said that it was the security risk that justified the lack of transparency and that the commercial downsides of a boycott alone would not be a sufficient threshold. Does he agree that it is only the security risk that justifies the lack of transparency?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I refer him to paragraph 23 of the research paper on this matter produced by the House of Commons Library, which says:
“Mr Robinson, Mr Nesbitt and Mr Elliott all argued that security and commercial risk to donors were intrinsically intertwined”.
The responsibility for setting the timetable for removing anonymity must, in our view, remain with the Secretary of State, as is the current position under the Bill. We would urge caution as to when the decision is considered, as we noted on Second Reading, when the Secretary of State gave us an undertaking that there would be consultation not just with the Electoral Commission but with the security forces and political parties. That is absolutely right and proper.
For those reasons, we support the consensus behind the Bill and urge colleagues to consider carefully the importance and significance of our amendment 6.
I entirely appreciate, from my own family experience, the challenges as to why there had to be anonymity in Northern Ireland for so many years. I entirely support that, for the reasons that others have mentioned. I have a great deal of sympathy for amendment 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley and the hon. Member for Belfast East, which refers to a £7,500 threshold and has a provision giving people 18 months or so to make whatever substantial donations they make. A lot of thought has gone into the amendment, and in many respects I instinctively understand and appreciate it. The right hon. Member for Belfast North argued for allowing the Secretary of State to have flexibility up until October, because, sadly, the reality in Northern Ireland is that even though there have been enormous advances, things can change on a sixpence. The arguments are therefore very finely tuned.
A key part of normalisation is to make everything as equitable as possible between Northern Ireland and the UK. I fully understand the reasons for the length of time that the process has been given. I think that we are being very sensible in drawing to a close on this. If the Government cannot accept amendment 2, will the Minister categorically assure me that come October 2014 they would be absolutely cognisant of the fact that if another inappropriate excuse for a delay were implemented, it would be a very sad day for this House and for Northern Ireland? I suppose that some eagle-eyed observers will recognise that I am struggling slightly with this and reading between the lines. I would welcome our having equalisation come October 2014. That transparency is vital, and it is the next and final stage. I urge the Minister to make it very clear that while we retain the discretion up until 2014, our default position is to move towards normalisation expeditiously.
On amendments 7 and 8, tabled by Naomi Long, I sympathise with the argument that if we stick unquestioningly to the date of October 2014 there is a danger that the same excuse will be given that the security situation does not permit us to move to more transparent arrangements. It is as if the date has been picked almost as a gesture to pseudo-transparency and the hon. Lady is testing that by proposing that it be brought forward. I sympathise with that, but January 2014 would be cutting it a bit fine, given that I assume the Bill will only get to the Lords this autumn.
I believe, however, that there is a case for bringing the date forward from October 2014. Bills are often enacted at the beginning of the financial year and I see no reason why that should not also be the case with this Bill. Members might point out that there are elections due next year, but I would have thought that a starting date of the beginning of the financial year would adequately and competently address the problem. I certainly do not think that the starting date should be after next year’s two intended elections, because that would make it look as though we were legislating with them in mind and almost allowing last orders for donations.
If January were the only date available before October, I would support amendments 7 and 8. I ask the Minister to consider bringing the date forward, because it looks as though the date of October has been set with next year’s elections in mind. Many people are also concerned that, come October, the can will be kicked down the road yet again.
Amendment 2, tabled by Nigel Mills and the hon. Member for Belfast East, seeks to ensure that the real commencement date for transparency is made absolutely clear and unambiguous. We heard on Second Reading, and the Minister has told us in an intervention today, that there is no intention retrospectively to reveal donations, even those made in recent years. A signal has to be sent, however, that there will be a date from which a record of all donations can be revealed when the circumstances allow it. That needs to be made clear and explicit. That is what amendment 2 calls for and I support it, because I do not think the public believe political parties when we tell them that transparency, definition and certainty are not possible and that we cannot give them an unambiguous commencement date for transparency. Amendment 2 goes someway to addressing that deficit in public credence.
As I indicated on Second Reading, I am sensitive to the many risks and threats that people may have experienced because of their involvement in Northern Ireland politics, whether as a candidate, the family member of a candidate, an activist, a member or a donor. However, there comes a point when the public feel that the arguments about security are overdone and are an excuse for secrecy. They are not sure whether secrecy is in the interests of the parties or whether it truly ensures the safety of the donors.
There is even blurring as to what the donor sensitivity is. There might be commercial or customer sensitivity if somebody is seen to be giving to a particular party. As my hon. Friend Dr McDonnell pointed out in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, when people are known to have given to one party, it makes them susceptible to approaches from other parties. I am not sure that that fully answers the question, if the point is that we will know that somebody gave £1,000 to X party one week and £2,000 to us the next. A lot of that information seems to circulate and get out in Northern Ireland anyway. Many people have impressions, reliable or not, of who are the significant donors to various parties.
People often attend party dinners or events at constituency level and are not particularly sensitive about appearing at such events in various publications. There are people who attend events that are attached to several parties. They have their own reasons, justifications and rationales for doing so. It is therefore not the case that everybody is paralysed about doing anything that shows support for or engagement in political parties. We must weigh carefully how far the genuine arguments about commercial sensitivity and security can be deemed to override the compelling requirements for transparency.
I also said on Second Reading that transparency is not needed just so that people can see who is supporting the election costs of particular parties and might therefore have influence on them; it really matters when parties are in a position to take or influence key decisions. The case for transparency has become more compelling in the context of devolution, because many parties take many different decisions. Indeed, parties not only take decisions, but have the ability to prevent Ministers of other parties from taking decisions. Those powers of veto can be exercised on behalf of vested interests as much as they can in the interests of Ministers’ Executive powers or people’s powers at Assembly or local council level. Of course, the councils will be taking on more powers, including over planning. That makes these matters more sensitive.
Other hon. Members have referred to the recent television programme and the issues that have arisen from it. On Second Reading, I put it on the record that my party colleague, Alex Attwood, took the initiative when he became the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland of saying that he would tell officials if he was aware that the person behind a planning application or the person who made a significant objection to a planning application was a donor to his party, so that the information could be recorded and the officials could handle the matter at a sufficient distance from the Minister. The officials made the point that that had not happened before and that it was not necessarily required, but in his view it was required. When we now hear stories, impressions and accusations ricocheting around in relation to companies and political parties and who may be on donor lists, the public concern is palpable. We cannot in this House ignore that. The parties in Northern Ireland, even those who have defended extending security cover and security sensitivity, cannot ignore that. When there are so many questions, people cannot take as the answer, “Well, there is still a compelling need for secrecy and we cannot afford transparency at any level.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On his point about the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland notifying officials when a potential SDLP donor is involved in a planning application, does he know whether that information, when lodged with officials, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and is it available to a member of the public?
As I understand it, it is not, not least because it is not a compelling point. He informs his officials and the matter is handled in a particular way, but that does not put anybody at any risk. I do not believe that Alex Attwood is inadvertently trying to find a way around the provisions and the whole question of protecting things on a retrospective basis; it is about him as a Minister being honest with his officials and with the responsibility entrusted to him to exercise good, clear, honest and independent judgment. It is also about allowing his officials to do that as well, because many of the issues that have arisen in recent days involve concerns that Ministers are intruding into what officials are doing—that Ministers are being overactive in their Departments in relation to matters being handled at an official level. Questions arise about who meets Ministers and whether they record and declare those meetings fully, and whether they account for those meetings in response to questions in Committees. When those questions are being asked, we need to address transparency requirements.
It will not fall to this House and the Bill to provide all the answers to remedy the situation: the Executive and the Assembly will have to address tightening the ministerial code on ministerial meetings and donations. On Second Reading, I made the point that this issue does not just relate to planning decisions, and recent events relate to significant public contracts and public appointments. There have been a lot of questions on whether public appointments in Northern Ireland always follow the standard they are meant to follow. Many people would anecdotally suggest that there is too much coincidence and pattern in some public appointments.
Those are all reasons why we need more transparency. The fact that Northern Ireland is a small place is often used as a reason why we cannot have too much transparency. When I was a Minister, I would have made it known to a civil servant if a relative of mine was appointed to something. I would not have made the appointment, but it would have been for me to take official note of it. I wanted to disclose that, rather than have somebody else find out later on. Where relatives might have had a perceived interest in a particular project, or even a rival project, I would again have made a point of always declaring it. Of course, I was often told by civil servants, “Look, you can’t do that every time. Northern Ireland is too small a place. You can hardly walk down a street without bumping into people. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting somebody that you know or are related to.” [Laughter.] That is not particularly good advice and is not the way I would usually want to make contact with people—even I might tweet first before doing that. The smallness of Northern Ireland can become an excuse for not having proper standards of transparency. That smallness is one of the reasons why it is necessary. The danger is that slippage in one area becomes an excuse for slipperiness in another. We should not allow that to happen. I have been definite about my support for making stronger moves on transparency, which is why I support amendment 2.
On increasing transparency, does my hon. Friend think that the confidence of people in Northern Ireland would be increased if there was a statutory duty in the Bill to consult with the PSNI before arrangements were changed?
That could well be a pertinent point; the shadow Secretary of State makes a very good point. When it comes to security concerns, in many other instances, we treat the Chief Constable almost as an oracle. No doubt, the Minister will tell us that in any decision that he and the Secretary of State take, they reference information from the Chief Constable and other intelligence assessments, but it would be useful if that was in the Bill. Similarly, there is the role of the Electoral Commission; we know of its support for the amendments.
Amendment 6 would remove the right of anybody resident in the south of Ireland to make a donation to a party operating in the north of Ireland. I addressed this issue on Second Reading. I represent a border constituency in a regional city that serves both sides of the border in the north-west and which has strong links with neighbouring towns and areas. As such, the economic interest of the north-west is of cross-border economic interest. The same goes for the social fabric of the north-west: most families have a strong cross-border dimension, with many people living and working on a cross-border basis. Many people who work in the north live in the south, and vice versa, which is reflected in complicated—more so than they should be—arrangements for cross-border workers in respect of tax credits and other things.
When such cross-border life is part of the come-and-go flow of life, it extends to politics as well, because people have a strong interest in what happens in the region and want to offer political support, particularly if they are living temporarily in the south, but are from the north originally and might live there again or if they live in the south and have strong business interests in the north. It is natural. They do not regard themselves as being abroad when working or living in Donegal or Derry. They do not regard themselves as engaging in daily international travel.
No, I’m not. Donegal is well placed where it is, so close to Derry, and Derry is well placed and well favoured where it is, so close to the bounteous beauty of County Donegal.
At a wider level, there are parties in Northern Ireland that see us as being part of the body politic of the island as a whole—it is our natural body politic, just as the population of the UK as a whole is the natural body politic for those of a Unionist identity in Northern Ireland. The idea, therefore, that when it come to our politics—our political agenda, our political offer, our appeal for support—our natural broader political hinterland, our natural political family, should be precluded from giving political donations to us would be wrong and unequal. It would be absolutely wrong if Unionist parties were able to receive donations the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including the whole of the island of Great Britain, to which they have such affinity, but nationalist parties in Northern Ireland could not receive contributions from people throughout the island of Ireland who want to support them.
There are some parties, such as Sinn Fein currently, that are organised on an all-Ireland basis. They should not be precluded by any new arrangement from being supported in that way. The option is available for other parties as well. My party operates support groups in the south, and always has done. The ability to operate support groups in the south was one of the things that gave many people in the south of Ireland a responsible and effective channel through which to back constitutional nationalism and support the sorts of things that we now have in the Good Friday agreement during the dark years of violence from physical-force republicans and intransigence from “No! Never!” Unionism. It is important that the wider contribution—the literal contribution—of people throughout the island should be respected.
However, I note the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s concerns that, in allowing continued donations from the Republic, care must be taken to ensure that only legitimate donations pass muster and that donations cannot be used as any sort of cover for getting round the wider provisions on truly international donations. That can be addressed not just by clearly requiring that donations can come only from those on the register in the Republic, but by adding clearly that anybody making a donation must make a formal declaration, for which they will be liable, that it is their money and has not been given to them by anybody else from anywhere else. Similarly, that declaration should have to be made by those receiving the money.
The system has to be made compelling in that way, because we have had enough of all the pseudo-transparency, where parties say, “Oh, our money comes this way and that way, and we publish things on the website.” However, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, when we go looking for the things that are supposedly published on the website, they are not there. I therefore totally oppose amendment 6.
I assure the hon. Lady and her party colleagues that I certainly did not want any stray fire to land on their reputation in that regard, so I am glad to affirm that point.
However, our opposition to amendment 6 is about putting things on a level playing field for all the parties in Northern Ireland, whether nationalist, Unionist or neither. As political realignment hopefully takes shape over the years to come, there will be all sorts of shifts in how parties present themselves, on either an all-Ireland or a wider-UK basis, and how far their nationalism or Unionism is emphasised. That is why donations should be available for parties from throughout the UK and from throughout the island of Ireland. That seems to me to be fair.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about both the donor and the recipient making a declaration. Currently, the rules mean that individuals or companies in the Irish Republic can provide funding to Northern Ireland parties, but that is not permissible when it comes to funding for parties in the Irish Republic, so the position is even worse. How does he think his suggestion can combat that problem?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a point that throws up the conundrum that, although we are trying to legislate for Northern Ireland in broad conformity with UK legislation as it is applied for parties here, because of the circumstances in Northern Ireland, the exception is to allow donations from the south. Then there is the discrepancy in the donations rules for people in the south, whereby they can donate under one set of rules to parties in the south and under another set to parties in the north. Perhaps there is a case for saying that we should try to arrive at some conformity on donations across the island of Ireland, or that donations from the south of Ireland should conform to the southern Irish rules as well. I do not have a problem with trying to finesse some of these issues so that we are not left with too many obvious conundrums. However, the answer to the question that Mr Dodds has asked is not provided by amendment 6. It is not the answer to his very valid, pertinent and relevant question about the different standards for people from the south contributing donations.
I made the point on Second Reading that there were many people in the south who were originally from the north, or perhaps from this island, who had a valid and benevolent interest in the affairs of the north and who continued to make a contribution there, often through membership of public bodies. I also made the point that not all of them had been appointed to such bodies by nationalist Ministers. If such people are seen to have a valid role and to make a credible input in the best interests of Northern Ireland by way of a public appointment, I do not see why they should be precluded from doing so by way of donations to political parties.
It is a pleasure to follow all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far. I intend to make only a brief contribution to the debate, as many of the points have already been raised. I note that amendment 2, tabled by my hon. Friend Nigel Mills, uses the word “may”, rather than “shall”, which is in keeping with the rest of the clause that he is seeking to amend. The Select Committee feels that we should move forward in this respect, and that we should try to normalise politics in Northern Ireland. I know that that was the ambition of the previous Secretary of State and the previous Minister, and it is fair to say that it is also the ambition of the current holders of those positions. It has been our guiding principle. Each and every political party that the Committee spoke to during the course of the inquiry approved of moving towards greater transparency.
Everyone on the Committee, myself included, recognises that there is a different security situation in Northern Ireland. The Committee has had a sufficient number of meetings, and paid a sufficient number of visits to Northern Ireland, to understand that fact. Further to my earlier intervention on Mr Dodds, a question that has frequently been asked is: why should the arrangements be different for donors and for those who participate in the elections? The right hon. Gentleman gave an explanation for why people might want to be donors but not candidates, and I understand that, but I am still not clear why a donor should be at greater risk or under a greater threat than someone who is standing for office for a political party. I would have thought that it was the other way round. People who support a candidate, largely by signing nomination papers, would surely expose themselves to the same risk.
It has been pointed out that if a business makes a donation, it could put them at a commercial disadvantage, but it is up to the business to make that decision. There is a Co-operative store close to my office in Tewkesbury. The Co-op has supported the Labour party for many years, and I have to make the decision whether to go and buy a carton of milk and a newspaper from that shop. It happens to be close to my office and very convenient, so I do that. I do not think that businesses should be able to hide behind the argument of a security risk in order to protect their business interests. If they make a donation to a particular party in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in Great Britain, they should take that commercial risk. That should be part of the normal run of politics.
I am somewhat intrigued by the substantive clause inasmuch as it allows the Secretary of State to increase transparency, but does not allow her to reduce it. Having looked very closely at the provisions, I am still slightly confused on this point. If the Secretary of State increases transparency, can she reduce it at some later date? In other words, she cannot reduce transparency from where it stands now, but can she reduce it if she has increased it in the future?
I make that point because if she cannot reduce it, where have we got to? What would be the difference from what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley proposes. Let us say that the Secretary of State increases transparency, but in the year after that, the security situation—heaven forbid—got worse, so that she had to come back to introduce primary legislation to change that position. In those circumstances, I do not really see what would be any different from my hon. Friend’s proposal.
The Select Committee and I would certainly be against the publication of any information retrospectively when donors have made donations in the belief that that would not be the case. I am slightly concerned about the wording in clause 1, however, where it states:
“Such information may be disclosed if the Commission believe, on reasonable grounds, that…the relevant person has consented”.
We tried to strengthen that provision, saying that there had to be evidence that the person had consented. The Government response was that if they adopted our proposal, it would create an absolute offence and a mistake could be made. I am not completely persuaded by that argument. I think that the clause does need strengthening to ensure that a mistake cannot be made in this respect and that there has to be a clear indication from the person or organisation that made the donation that permission has been given for any such disclosure. I thus seek clarification from the Minister on those points.
I would like to say a few quick words on amendment 2, as proposed by Nigel Mills, and to put a different perspective on it. First, however, I wish to say that I have had a number of discussions with the hon. Gentleman and that we have served in the Finance Bill Committee together, as we have on delegated legislation Committees. I know that his interest is sincerely held and it is one that I respect. I was nevertheless struck as I read the briefing for this debate by its tone, and I would suggest that there is a reason for caution—anything further being an exaggeration.
My party, the Democratic Unionist party, is very much in favour of openness and transparency. We are also well aware of the security situation in Northern Ireland and of the fact that the dissidents are still very much on operations, which means that we cannot have one-size-fits-all legislation. It cannot happen; it is not like for like. Those who say that the people should stand up to intimidation show only the fact that they do not care or perhaps do not understand that people in Northern Ireland still live a life that carries a degree of anxiety—not just in historical cases, but in issues that are still ongoing today for communities across the whole of Northern Ireland. I accept that it is not to the same extent as in the past, but none the less there are still threats in my constituency and in others across Northern Ireland.
As someone who, like others, works within the community, I understand the real fear that people experience and I do not believe that it can be so easily dismissed as some people have suggested. Our security situation cannot be regulated to a date, as dissidents certainly do not respond to deadlines. Although I fully understand and agree with the necessity for transparency that has been put forward, this cannot be put before the security concerns of people and businesses, which are real and justified. To suggest otherwise would be to hope naively for the best, which is a good thing in principle, but not when people’s lives are at stake.
I have to say—I hate to say it, as well—that extortion of a sectarian nature is not a thing of the past when it comes to Northern Ireland. It still happens today; incidents are taking place. There is a very real possibility that if a business is seen to be donating to political parties, it might come under pressure to donate to other groups, perhaps those of an unsavoury nature. As my right hon. Friend Mr Dodds said to the Committee, businesses can feel that they have been boycotted by customers whom they have had for years. There is a real issue for those people; it is not an exaggeration or a remote ideal. Is this what is intended by the legislation before us tonight? I do not believe so. I do not believe that the Bill is intended to scare off people who wish to contribute to a party. However, that will be a side-effect of it. People will fear that their homes, their businesses or, indeed, their families will be at risk, and that cannot be ignored by any Member in any part of the House.
I do not believe that we have reached a stage at which people can freely publicise their political ideals in any circumstances without fear of reprisal. As I have said before, in this debate and in others, security concerns are paramount for me, and they should be paramount for the House when it legislates. Can I, in all conscience, legislate in a way that would put people at risk because they support a political party, as is their right? I do not believe that I can, and I sincerely ask all other Members whether they can do likewise.
We must be open, but we must also be wise. I believe that wisdom dictates that the status quo should be extended for a further two years, as proposed by the Minister and by earlier speakers, and that it should be judged again at that stage. I do not believe that we will never reach a stage at which publication becomes safe, and I firmly believe that that is the direction in which we should be heading, but the fact that we see a signpost to a destination does not mean that we have arrived, and in this instance “better safe than sorry” definitely applies.
I cannot support amendment 2, but I commend amendment 6, which was tabled by members of my party and presented very eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North. I believe that it presents us with a way forward in the Province.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I wish to speak to amendments 7 and 8 and amendment 6.
Given that we are living in a more normal society in Northern Ireland—although the degree of that normality varies, and we have seen it ebb and flow over the last few months—I believe that the anonymity relating to donations could now be lifted, not necessarily next October but perhaps at an earlier date, as suggested by the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills).
I cannot disagree with what I understand to be the intended purpose of the amendments. It is important that, in trying to achieve a greater level of political maturity and in the practice of politics generally, we strive to achieve the highest standards of public life, whether we are serving our constituents or executing our parliamentary duties here at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The public ask us to serve them, and the duty to serve them is in our contract with them when we are elected as members of political parties. The electorate rightly demand from us the highest standards in public office in the execution of that contract, and it is important for the guiding principles of transparency, openness and accountability to constitute not just the pillars on which our fledgling democracy is built, but the rules that govern donations to political parties serving us in public life and wider civic society.
Like my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, I acknowledge that there may be concern about security issues—concern that was expressed by the leader of our party when he gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is a need to protect donors, because some of them—and some parties —fear that they may might be at risk from a terrorist or other threat. However, if we have learned anything over the last few months—and over the last few days, when television programmes have contained revelations about alleged political interference in certain bodies—it is the importance of giving some form of resilience and confidence to the public.
In that respect, I do not have any problem in supporting the amendments of the hon. Member for Belfast East, although it will not come as a surprise to learn that I do not support the amendment in the name of Mr Dodds because like my party colleague, my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, I believe we live in the island of Ireland. I believe that fervently as a democratic Irish nationalist, but notwithstanding that, I represent a border constituency, and many people at the southern end of it daily travel to places of employment in County Louth. They pay taxes sometimes in both the north of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They also have their children educated in the north, and they buy goods and services in the south and the north. There is that exchange of ideas and people. They view people in County Louth, albeit it is in the south of Ireland—in the Republic of Ireland, a different jurisdiction—as their neighbours and friends. In those circumstances, with that exchange of people and ideas, I cannot support this amendment. I am sure DUP Members will perfectly understand where the parliamentary party of the SDLP is coming from in that respect.
I also believe that we need to see progress on a whole range of matters, however. Mr Haass has been appointed today to chair the all-party talks on flags and emblems and reconciliation. It is important that we move towards that in the next phase of devolution so we can see the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, including support from the British Government for a Bill of Rights that is dedicated to the needs and requirements of Northern Ireland.
May we clarify one little point of conflict between the hon. Lady and her colleague, Mark Durkan? He supported the thrust of the amendments in the name of Naomi Long, but he suggested that January was a bit too soon and perhaps the tax year would be better. However, Ms Ritchie has just said she supports the amendments of the hon. Member for Belfast East, so is it January, or is it March and the tax year, or has the hon. Member for South Down got further ideas?
It was my very clear understanding that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle said that if the hon. Member for Belfast East were to press her amendment to a Division, he, like me, would support her—although I think I might be a Teller in such a Division. We in the SDLP believe that there is a need to move towards greater transparency and accountability. That can be balanced against the political progress we are making in the interests of the public good and, above all, the wider needs of society in Northern Ireland, because the experience of the last few weeks tells us that the public want politics to move in that direction. They want us, while serving them, to exercise our job in the right and proper and accountable manner.
We have heard a great deal this evening about the threats and dangers that could possibly be attracted to party political donors. It is perhaps salutary to mention that if such threats exist to those who donate to political parties, credit should be given to those who have the courage to participate fully in the democratic process as candidates and elected representatives, and perhaps we in this House do not give enough credit to those who sit with us in this Chamber and who take the most extraordinary risks in conditions that are frequently beyond the imagining of us on this side of the water. Many right hon. and hon. Members sitting here tonight have had very close personal experiences in that regard, so when we talk about the threat to donors let us also salute the courage of those who participate fully in the democratic process.
May I, in these brief remarks, say that I thought that Mr Dodds showed his fine—I was going to say almost Jesuitical subtlety but he probably would not thank me for that—analysis of the situation when he referred to the need to advance incrementally and organically? It is one thing to legislate, but we cannot legislate for human behaviour; we cannot demand that people’s behaviour and instincts change, and that society and culture change, because a piece of law has been approved in this House. A cultural change, an organic change, has to take place, and that is, of necessity, a slow process; it is an incremental process. None of us disagrees with the desirability of the destination; we all want to be in that place. It is the road map and the route we are talking about today. In the particular circumstances of politics in Northern Ireland, proceeding festina lente—I hope hon. Members will forgive me a spot of Latin—should be our watchword on this occasion. In recognition of that, the proceeding slowly and cautiously option is by far the best one. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, possibly also on the subject of transparency of the Conservative party in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee of the whole House under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As usual, we have had a wide-ranging debate on the provisions. I wish to make two personal comments. First, may I apologise on behalf of the Secretary of State, who would have been here but for the fact that, as Opposition Members know, it is right and proper that she is in the Province this evening as there are important matters to be dealt with there? It is right and proper that I acknowledge that she would have been here and she particularly wanted to deal with clauses 1 and 2. May I also say a personal thank you to right hon. and hon. friends in the House who have sent me notes and stopped me in the corridors following the tragic loss that my family have had in the past couple of days? The comradeship of this House has helped me through, especially as I was giving evidence to the Select Committee when my father-in-law passed away.
This debate has taken place with the perfect tone, and people watching this debate, particularly if they are doing so in Northern Ireland—I hope they are and I hope the BBC covers it properly—will be impressed. We probably all disagree about many of the issues; one of my colleagues came up to me saying, “Who agrees on what here?” We all agree that Northern Ireland has come a huge distance in the past 15 years but still has quite a long way to go. I would love to be able to stand here and say that I can agree with amendments 7, 8 and 2, but I cannot.
The office I hold means that I see things that I had hoped I would never see, and there are things I cannot repeat on the Floor of this House. May I pay tribute, as the shadow Minister did, to those who stand for office in Northern Ireland, whether in this House or any other elected body, because they stick their head about the parapet? As so many in this House, in the Assembly and in local government know, that very often puts them and their families under threat. We heard on Second Reading about the terrible atrocities of the past. Sadly, some of those threats remain today. Of course I add the caveat that we have come an awful long way but, as I said on Second Reading, I have to look daily at protection for people—close protection weapons, home protection and so on. Some of these people are elected but the vast majority are just going about their normal work to protect us. Sometimes they are not even in the public sector. I know we will never be in a perfect situation in which there is no threat to anybody, but while there is a threat I must be very careful to ensure that those who wish to donate and their loved ones are not put at risk by revealing their identities. Clauses 1 and 2 move us forward, slowly but surely, as we have for the past 15 years, and I thank the shadow Minister for supporting me in that regard. As I said, we would all love to be in a completely different position. I know that some hon. Members do not agree with me, and I completely respect them and their view, but the Bill moves us forward, although perhaps not at the speed that some would like.
I acknowledge that the Bill moves us forward. That is welcome and I welcomed it on Second Reading. Will he clarify exactly how my amendments 7 and 8 would pose any threat to security, given that all they would provide is that from January any donations made would be subject to publication once the Secretary of State deemed it was safe to publish?
I completely understand where the hon. Lady is coming from. The whole Bill went through pre-legislative scrutiny, and we are not discussing semantics —it is much more serious than that. We are saying that the Secretary of State will take the powers and that, if we are in a secure position, we will move forward. As mentioned earlier—I think the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Robertson, asked about this—the Secretary of State also has the statutory power to revoke.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for taking a second intervention so soon after the first. I was very concerned when the Minister wound up on Second Reading and used an expression that struck me—and, I am sure, other right hon. and hon. Members —at the time:
“If one person is put at risk, that is not right.”—[Hansard, 24 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 118.]
Although I cannot speak for others, I inferred that if one donor felt he or she was at risk the transparency measures would not be lifted by the Northern Ireland Office. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify when it will ever be the right time—when we have no risk at all?
That is a good intervention. I read what I said the following day, as all good Ministers should—as all good Members should, to be honest—and I was speaking metaphorically. I was not speaking about an actual physical individual, because of course that would be a crazy situation. We would never, as hon. Members have said, get into a position where there was no threat to anybody. Let me clarify: I was speaking in general terms, rather than individually.
Let me touch on the threat. My job is not only to ensure, along with the Electoral Commission, that the electoral system in Northern Ireland runs properly but to ensure the national security of Northern Ireland. There might be concerns about individual businesses, and I think that this applies to businesses that give donations to any political party in the UK—we have talked about the Co-op—and they suffer any consequences, but that is completely separate from the intimidation and personal threats I see daily.
The shadow Secretary of State asked whether it should be on the face of the Bill that the PSNI should be a consultant. This subject is much more wide ranging than the PSNI; we could do that, but we do not need to. As Mark Durkan said, it is more wide ranging and involves the other security services that are helping us and that helped us so brilliantly during the G8.
Amendment 6 stands in the name of Mr Dodds. I am told that I should not say this, but I have some sympathy with the argument, in that we need to move forward. I will not accept the amendment—he probably understands that—but if we are talking about normalisation, I accept that there need to be discussions between the Government in the south, us, and all the political parties on how we can get to a slightly better position. I very much take on board the point that the Good Friday agreement set out that there is a different situation in Northern Ireland when it comes to donations and political parties. Of course, there is a cross-Ireland political party that has had Members elected to this House, but it is not represented in the Chamber today.
I am committed to ongoing discussions, and to seeing how we can move the issue forward. I cannot accept amendment 6, but as that commitment is, I think, roughly what the right hon. Gentleman asked me to give, hopefully he is happy with that. I ask hon. Members to withdraw amendments 7, 8, 2 and 6, and commend clauses 1 and 2 to the Committee.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. When we discuss this issue, it is natural that we focus heavily on the threat to donors from terrorism. I do not dismiss that, and I do not dismiss the point that the threat level is severe. However, no compelling evidence was presented to the Select Committee during our inquiry to show that the threat specifically targeted donors. People remain willing to sign councillors’ nomination papers—people who do not want to lift their head above the parapet and be elected representatives, but who are willing to have that information published.
The Chairman of the Select Committee highlighted clearly that a boycott could happen in any part of the United Kingdom, and that that is not a compelling reason for the current arrangements, so we need to be cautious about conflating those two things. However, although we naturally focus heavily on the security threat, we must also focus heavily on the wider threat to the political process that the lack of transparency is becoming in Northern Ireland. The suspicion that politics operates for the benefit of those with the means to buy influence is utterly corrosive to the democratic process. It taints all of us as politicians, and it puts the institutions under threat, as the public disengage from politics as a result of that perception.
Confidence in Northern Ireland politics is at a low ebb, and only through increased transparency, and increased speed of delivery of transparency, can we meaningfully address that. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said, and while I understand and accept many of his points, I cannot accept that a coherent argument has been made to say that amendments 7 and 8 would pose any threat to the security of any individual.
I know that the Select Committee took evidence, but a lot of the evidence that could perhaps have convinced the hon. Lady could not be given to the Select Committee. She cannot see the evidence that we see daily. Nobody in this House is more determined that there should be democracy than I am, but to push something forward without that knowledge is dangerous.
The evidence that I am seeking is not evidence of the security threat. The evidence that I am referring to is evidence that amendments 7 and 8 would in any way compromise anyone’s security. The amendments leave it to the Secretary of State to decide when that information should be made public—she currently has that power—but make it clear that anyone making a donation after January 2014 will eventually have that fact made public when the Secretary of State and the Minister of State are confident that it is safe to do so, in the light of all the information that they see and we ordinary Members of Parliament do not. There is no compelling argument against amendments 7 and 8; they are supported by the Electoral Commission, and I would like to press them to a vote.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the events of recent days mean that the concerns that lie behind her amendments are clear and present concerns of the public, and are felt profoundly? It is a bit much for the Minister or anybody else to conduct this debate as though those concerns were not there.
I agree entirely. There is a serious risk if people no longer trust their politicians and no longer trust their institutions to act in the public interest. The only way we can overcome that is by clearing the matter up. No party can easily defend itself while this information remains secret. I am willing to accept the Secretary of State maintaining the discretion as to when the information will be published, but I see no risk to anyone from a decision being made now that makes donors and parties aware that anything donated after January will be made public, when the Minister of State and the Secretary of State are convinced that it is safe to do so.
To be absolutely clear, what the hon. Lady is talking about is bringing forward the date from October to January. That would not have any effect on any donations up to now or any donations before January next year, so in relation to the wider issues and the context in which we are speaking about this, the measure would take effect only from next year. Is that right?
That is absolutely correct. I made it clear on Second Reading that I would be in favour of any measure that retrospectively exposed donors to publication. I believe that would be unjust while there is a legal question about whether they had the expectation that donations made in the prescribed period would not be made public. At a very personal level, they understood that to be the case. If we are to have honour and integrity in politics, that should extend to people’s understanding of agreements that have been made, so I would not favour retrospective exposure. Only donations made after January would be affected and that would come about only after the Secretary of State had ruled that it was safe to do so. I therefore wish to press the matter to a vote.