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With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 2.
These are relatively minor changes, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will be able to support them. There has been support on both sides of the House for the provisions in clause 1, which will protect permanently the identities of those who have made donations to Northern Ireland political parties in the past.
In the past, donors gave money with the understanding that their identities would not be revealed, and it would be unfair to change that position without their consent retrospectively. However, there has been some debate about the date on which the guarantee of anonymity should end. Naomi Long, who is in her place, proposed amendments that would reduce the length of time for which donors would continue to benefit from these provisions. It is important that all donors are fully aware that the rules have changed at the point at which they make a donation.
The Bill as drafted refers to
In view of the support for the change from all Northern Ireland parties represented in the House, whose donors are those affected, and from the Electoral Commission, which regulates party finance, the Government are willing to support a change to an earlier date.
That was my understanding. I have just taken advice from those in the Box and they agree, so I think we are pretty sure that that is the case.
Will the Minister kindly give me some advice? A large number of delightful gentlemen and ladies in my constituency are members of the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Should they follow this Bill, which applies only to Northern Ireland, or should they follow the example set by the Conservative party in the rest of the United Kingdom and make all their large donors and donations transparent, open and public, rather than keeping them secret?
I am not entirely clear what the hon. Lady is suggesting. The Bill will bring things in Northern Ireland to the same level as in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am very pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box this evening, but if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had been here she would, of course, have quite rightly reminded the House that Northern Ireland has become such a normal place that it could host the G8 summit in Fermanagh successfully and could host the world police and fire games. No matter how normal Northern Ireland has become, however, for some reason this Bill will preserve the anonymity of and secrecy about donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. That, of course, is not the policy in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the Conservative party supports transparency. Will the Minister take this opportunity to urge his sisters and brothers in the Northern Ireland Conservative party to make their donations public?
Oh, I see. It is because it is discretionary. I am sorry, I had missed the point made by Lady Hermon. Having the discretion gives us the opportunity to do it, if I can put it that way. I think that she will understand what I am saying, but given that the Secretary of State is not here I think that it would be unwise of me to go any further down that road. I am sorry that I did not understand what she was saying the first time around.
Let me now turn to amendment 2. Clauses 14, 15 and 16 introduce minor changes to the requirements for voter registration for Northern Ireland, the requirements for obtaining an overseas vote and the requirements for absent voting. Hon. Members will be aware that European parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on
Amendment 2 is a technical amendment that changes the commencement date for clauses 14, 15 and 16 to avoid their coming into force during or immediately before the election period, which would be not only inconvenient but very difficult. It would avoid a situation in which electoral administrators in Northern Ireland were expected to make changes to registration and application processes at a time when they were busy with electoral preparations. It would also help to avoid public confusion about voter entitlements. It remains the Government’s intention to commence the provisions as soon as possible and in good time for elections to this House in 2015. As we say in government, the provisions will commence “soon” after the elections in 2014.
I support the amendment, and I particularly welcome the fact that following our debate in Committee of the whole House the Government have listened to the representations I made, as well as those made by the “Who Pulls the Strings” campaign in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
It is not often that those of us on the Opposition Benches see the matters that we would like a Bill to deal with being addressed. It is even rarer for those of us who sit as solitary Members to see such concerns taken on board. I am particularly pleased that a compelling argument has been made for the amendment. I must qualify that, however, with my slight disappointment that we have been unable to go further to remove the exemptions and rules in Northern Ireland to allow us to move into line with the rest of the UK. There is evidence of huge public demand for that in Northern Ireland. Like in every other part of the UK, and, I suspect, in almost every other part of the democratic world, there is suspicion and a perception in the minds of the public that politics operates for the benefit of the few not the many and that those who have money and influence can wield that to their own advantage.
To rebuild trust and confidence in the political system, it is hugely important that people have transparency about donations and can scrutinise whether donations made to political parties influence policy and decision making at a government level. That is not possible currently because even though donations are declared to the Electoral Commission, they cannot be published. I believe that the time has come for the veil of secrecy to be lifted.
The amendment is a good step in that direction in that it clarifies the position for donors. Those who donate up until the January date will know that their anonymity will be permanent. There was a question mark over that as the powers of the Secretary of State would have allowed those donations to be published retrospectively. I believe that people gave that money on the understanding that it would be handled with confidentiality and privacy, and that expectation should be met by the Government. That is very important.
The amendment also means that those who donate after January will know that those donations will eventually be published. They will not be published right away. It will be for the Secretary of State to decide at the next point of review, which is due, I think, in October 2014, whether the security situation, in her view, would allow her to publish them.
The amendment makes it very clear to anybody making a donation from January onwards that at some point in the future that donation will be open to public scrutiny. It clarifies the situation in their minds so that they know when they make the donation the risk and the public scrutiny that will be involved. They will be able to make an informed decision.
Sir Christopher Kelly gave evidence on the subject to the Committee. He was very clear that he was not convinced by the argument that security should automatically outweigh the right of the public to scrutinise donations that are made to political parties. I share his view and do not believe that security should outweigh that right. Indeed, despite everything that has been said in the House about intimidation and threats against my own party, we continue voluntarily to publish the details of those people who make donations of more than £7,500 to the Alliance party so that people are fully aware of and can scrutinise our policy decisions.
Perhaps I can take this opportunity to encourage the Minister, which I think my colleague Lady Hermon sought to do, to encourage his colleagues in the Conservative party in Northern Ireland to join us in voluntarily publishing their donors. Indeed, I urge other parties in this House in Northern Ireland to do likewise. I think that it would help to build trust and confidence in the political system, to ventilate what has become quite a toxic issue in Northern Ireland, not least in recent months, and to move forward on a clearer footing.
My disappointment is that we are not in a position at this point to make more progress on bringing us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the amendment is a good step forward. It will provide clarity for the public and reassurance that the direction of travel is towards openness and transparency. I thank the Government for taking this on board. The assurances given by the Electoral Commission that they can prepare parties and donors to be ready for the change that is about to take place by January has been helpful in enabling things to move forward. I thank the Government and fully support what they are proposing.
Before I discuss the amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may pay tribute briefly to the late Eddie McGrady, who served in this House for many years. It was a pleasure to work with him. He was indeed a decent man with a sharp and ready sense of humour and I know that he will be sadly missed in Northern Ireland.
I join others in condemning the attacks on the office of Naomi Long, who is a very valuable member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Having worked with her on that Committee for three years, I know that she will not be put off by the attacks; she will continue to show great determination, and to carry out the work that she has been doing with great distinction.
The Select Committee was keen for a move towards transparency as regards donations in Northern Ireland, partly, as has been said, to move the Province towards what might be termed more normal politics. It was interesting; we took evidence from all the political parties—not just the main ones, but the smaller ones in Northern Ireland—and I think that I am right in saying that there was unanimous agreement that we should move towards greater transparency on donations. There were some question marks about how quickly that should happen, and about the security situation, but it was generally accepted that people who stand for office in Northern Ireland, and those who sign nomination papers, put up posters or go canvassing, take the same risks as people who make donations to political parties in Northern Ireland; why would they be any different? For me, that was the convincing argument.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, clause 1 allows the Secretary of State the discretion to make the decision. The Select Committee suggested that there be a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the appropriate security authorities with regard to taking that decision, but overwhelmingly, we felt that we should move towards greater transparency regarding donations in Northern Ireland. Like the hon. Member for Belfast East, I am grateful to the Government for listening to the points that the Select Committee made on not only this issue, but others.
When the matter was debated and voted on in Committee of the whole House, we voted for the proposal. The Government have had consultations, and the measure has been brought forward because it has widespread support in Northern Ireland, and so fulfils one of the criteria for changes to which the Minister has alluded previously. It is because there is cross-party consensus that the amendment has been put forward, and we welcome that move. We have absolutely no difficulty with moving towards greater transparency from
We remain concerned that the amendment, and the Bill, will not close the massive loophole that allows parties from outside the United Kingdom to be bankrolled to a fairly considerable degree by donations made outside—indeed, very far from—the jurisdiction. In that context, I refer to a report of
“that have been embroiled in racism”, discrimination and
Sinn Fein took in £245,000 in the period up to May this year, and almost £31,000 of that
“was used to pay printing expenses in Northern Ireland and to purchase a vehicle.”
A political party that operates and seeks votes in part of the United Kingdom, and is elected to this House and to the Assembly, is allowed, through the special provisions of electoral donation law, to raise such funds and channel them to Northern Ireland, and basically to skew the electoral process through massive donations from abroad.
Unfortunately, the Government have not, so far, seen fit to close that loophole, which should not be available to any party. When the decision was made to bring in regulations and legislation on the funding of, and donations and loans to, political parties, it was rightly decided that, in principle and fact, parties should be able to receive donations only from registered electors in the United Kingdom. That is a solid, sound principle, but an exception has been made in relation to Northern Ireland. Nationalist parties—primarily Sinn Fein—can raise all this money outside the jurisdiction. That money is used to influence the political and electoral process. It is a scandal, and it is wrong, morally, politically and constitutionally. Something needs to be done about it; a party has openly admitted, through records filed in the United States, that it is using foreign money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from other parties if a Unionist party, or the Conservative, Labour or Social Democratic and Labour parties, used foreign money that had been donated secretly to fund their electoral campaigns, with no accountability.
Sleazy money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from sanctimonious people in Sinn Fein about that, yet we are talking about a party that is receiving individual sums of up to $20,000. Documents filed with the US Department of Justice indicate that a New York-based company called MarJam Supply Company contributed $5,000. A Government employment equality agency in the United States found that staff at that company were subjected to racial abuse. Another company that gives money to Sinn Fein hit the headlines after its former boss was sentenced to three years in jail for embezzling pension money. The former chairman of another company that donated $1,000 to Sinn Fein pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges. How do we know all that? It is because the US authorities require that information to be registered in the United States—it is no thanks to legislation passed in this House.
I say to the Government that this is intolerable. It is a scandalous abuse of the electoral system in Northern Ireland. No wonder the IRA and Sinn Fein do not have to rob banks any more, when they can get that sort of money flowing into their coffers from abroad, with no accountability whatever. I urge the Government to listen, to take this argument on board, and to create a level playing field for all the other parties.
This is not an appeal made on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party. We will fight our campaigns and get our votes; I am confident that we will do well. Mark Durkan said in an earlier debate that he never foresaw any party in Northern Ireland getting more than 30 seats and being able to trigger a petition of concern. He did not envisage it; I am sure that if he had envisaged it, the trigger figure would have been higher. We have 38 Members. Things can happen in Northern Ireland, and we will fight our battle. When it comes to donations and loans, all that I am calling for is a level playing field for everybody. The Government need to act on that. Frankly, it would be a disgrace if, in this Parliament, a Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister—and a Government comprised of right hon. and hon. Gentleman who have sought to reform the parliamentary system to create greater fairness and transparency—continued to allow this outrageous situation to continue.
I welcome Government amendments 1 and 2. I want to acknowledge Naomi Long, who championed amendment 1 at an earlier stage of the Bill. I recall that at one point on that day, she thought she would not be able to divide the House, because she did not have Tellers; we guaranteed her Tellers if the amendment went to a Division. I also want to acknowledge Nigel Mills, who put his name to the amendment and took an active part in the discussion, as a conscientious legislator and a person of consistency. I recall that on that day, Lady Hermon was very strident in pressing the Government to see the sense of the amendment, and in rejecting their arguments against it.
I am glad that the Government have found that there was consensus on the issue, but it was a new, revised consensus, induced by the fact that we had Divisions on the subject in Committee of the whole House. Clearly, very different messages were being given before that, including in evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It is one of the occasions on which debate in the House brought about change, not just in Government thinking but in how parties responded and saw those issues by understanding how they were regarded by others. The public are vexed about the lack of transparency and the readiness of too many parties constantly to use security considerations to deny scrutiny, which is treated as a matter of course elsewhere.
Mr Dodds has looked more widely at the issue of political donations, and we need to look at anything else that needs to be tightened up at any other level. I am particularly alert to the need to allow an active and positive interest by members of the wider Irish diaspora and by democrats throughout the island of Ireland, but that should never allow for any dubious corporate donations or anything else. It is quite clear that the ambit of measures in relation to donations to Northern Ireland has been cynically abused, and it does not match funding that would be allowed elsewhere. Again, for the sake of consistency, without transgressing any legitimate interest of the wider Irish diaspora, including the very recent diaspora, I would point out the need for balance.
Government amendment 2 is a sensible measure, as the provisions of clause 28 would impose quite a scramble and some difficulty on local electoral officers, so it makes sense to kick forward the commencement date.
I had forgotten what a vexed issue donations are—perhaps I should have remembered—whether from Michael Brown or one or two Labour donors. I can name them if the House wants. Indeed, we have had the odd one in our own party.
Right. I had simply forgotten what a vexed issue donations are, and I think we would all agree that we wish to move to the greatest transparency possible.
I did not bracket them at all, except to say that there have been vexed issues over donations to each major party. The hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend—
Order. We are going to move on. The point has been made on both sides of the House, and we do not want to get bogged down. I am sure that the Members from Northern Ireland want to get to the meat of the issue.
I meant no disrespect to any Member of the House of Lords on that matter, although one or two of them have had a few problems. [Interruption.] I will if you want.
The vexed issue of donations stretches across the Irish sea and, indeed, across the Atlantic, as we have heard from Mr Dodds. We would all wish to move to greater transparency. We have moved in Great Britain to increased transparency, which is absolutely right. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about people declaring their donations quite happily to the Alliance party. There is a special situation in Northern Ireland—we know that, which is why we are discussing the Bill—but we want to move forward with consensus to normality above all else. That has to be done slowly—we know why—and Naomi Long said that it should be a case of one step forward. I think that that is the right way to go.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North wants to go further. Donations from America, as I understand it, must be made either by Irish citizens or by an Irish company carrying on one or more principal activities on the island of Ireland. [Interruption.] I have been told to lay off anyone going to jail, but I could name another one who is in the news today.
Finally, may I tell the hon. Member for Belfast East that I did not serve on the Bill Committee, but I understand that her amendment was resisted at the time. I hope that she realises as the single member of a single-Member party in the House that the Government listens. We have listened to her, and essentially we have accepted her amendment.
Amendment 1 agreed to.