Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2007

– in the House of Lords at 7:32 pm on 23rd July 2007.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare)

My Lords, at the end of 2005, the Government carried out a full public consultation on the issue of political donations in Northern Ireland. Their response to the consultation exercise was published in January 2006. It outlined a number of measures that were later given legislative effect in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of the same year. The Act is, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, the parent Act of the order before us today. Since it received Royal Assent in July last year, we have had a series of discussions with the Irish Government and the Electoral Commission on the detail of how the new donations arrangements in Northern Ireland will work, and the order seeks to give effect to those discussions. I am fully aware—and indeed I am reminded of it as I read my notes—of the concerns that some expressed about these provisions during the passage of the 2006 Act, and in the recent debate on this order in the other place, and I know that those concerns are shared by some noble Lords here today. Given that, I should like to set out the detail of the order in context as clearly as possible.

Until now, the source of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland has been completely unregulated. The provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 which banned foreign donations and introduced a system of public reporting of donations in the United Kingdom were disapplied from Northern Ireland. Donations have been permitted in Northern Ireland from anywhere in the world and the Electoral Commission has not been notified about who donates what. This exemption was for what we considered to be sound reasons—concerns relating to the possible intimidation of donors to political parties in the event of their identities being made public, and to allow Northern Ireland recipients to accept donations from Ireland in a manner consistent with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

However, in 2005 we concluded that the time was right to introduce effective regulation of donations in Northern Ireland in order to inject some transparency into the system. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 therefore made provision for political parties registered in the Northern Ireland register and regulated donees, known collectively as "Northern Ireland recipients", to continue to be exempt from the provisions relating to the control of political donations which are set out in Part IV of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 for one final period. Under Section 11 of the 2006 Act, that period of disapplication expires on 31 October this year. From 1 November, all of Part 4 of the 2000 Act will apply to Northern Ireland for the first time, but with two significant modifications. First, Northern Ireland recipients will continue to be able to receive donations not only from all existing permissible donors under the 2000 Act, but also from Irish citizens and prescribed Irish bodies. Secondly, Northern Ireland donation reports will be held confidentially and checked privately by the Electoral Commission for an initial period of three years, or longer if extended by order of the Secretary of State.

It is worth repeating a point I made during the passage of the 2006 Act: these changes, whatever is said about them, represent a very considerable narrowing of the regime that exists at present. I should repeat that the present system allows Northern Ireland recipients to accept donations from anybody of any nationality resident anywhere on the planet. What is more, they do not have to report them to any regulatory body. Any move from that to introduce more transparency and a degree of regulation will represent a narrowing of the regime. The confidentiality arrangements in relation to Northern Ireland reports which are set out in the order are temporary. The Act provides that they will fall away in 2010, bringing Northern Ireland even further into line with Great Britain. Although the period is extended by order it is our firm hope that, when the time comes, we will not have to seek Parliament's approval to do so.

The provisions enabling Northern Ireland recipients to continue to accept donations from Irish citizens and Irish bodies meeting prescribed conditions are contained in the 2006 Act and are, by contrast, permanent. This order simply puts flesh on the bones of Part 3 of last year's Act by setting out precisely what the conditions are, how the Electoral Commission may verify the source of any donation, and what steps it can take if impermissible donations are found to have been accepted. The provisions of the 2006 Act are in line with the original recommendations of the Neill committee which gave rise to the 2000 Act in the first place: that because of the special role of Ireland in Northern Ireland's political life, as set out in the Belfast agreement and elsewhere, it would not be right to ban contributions from there. In contrast to the position on confidentiality of donations, which as I have said we hope will no longer be relevant in 2010, we do not see any circumstances in which the recommendation in relation to Irish donations is going to lose its relevance at any point in the near future. For this reason, the measures in the 2006 Act and this order to meet this recommendation are not time-limited. But the order-making power in the 2006 Act allows us to vary widely, with the consent of Parliament, who should qualify as an Irish donor.

As I have indicated, the order puts flesh on the bones of the relevant provisions and I will briefly summarise them. Part 1 of the order specifies the conditions which an Irish citizen must meet in order to be able to donate to a Northern Ireland recipient. It also specifies the categories of Irish bodies which will be entitled to donate to Northern Ireland recipients from 1 November onwards.

Schedule 1 sets out the information which must be provided in relation to donations from Irish donors in donation reports from Northern Ireland recipients. The steps which the Electoral Commission must take in order to verify the information contained in the donation reports submitted by Northern Ireland recipients are set out in Part 2 of the order. The Electoral Commission must check 50 per cent of donations from individuals and 100 per cent of donations from bodies reported by Northern Ireland recipients. It may verify the information provided in the donation reports by, among other things, contacting the bodies listed in Article 11 to which it is able to disclose information. For example, the commission could contact the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission to verify information relating to payments made under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000 or could contact the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in relation to companies registered in Northern Ireland.

The commission is under a duty of confidentiality in relation to information contained in reports from Northern Ireland recipients during the prescribed period. However, the commission has the power under the 2000 Act, as modified by last year's Act, to release information contained in a Northern Ireland donation report if it believes on reasonable grounds that the donation was from an impermissible or unidentifiable donor.

Article 10 sets out the requirements in relation to which such information must be released. The commission would release the amount of the donation and the party to which it was made but not the identity of the donor. This is in recognition of the fact there may be circumstances in which the publication of a donor's personal details—their name and address—could lead to a threat to that individual's life.

It was suggested in the debate in the other place that if this order was not passed the relevant measures in the miscellaneous provisions Act would fall away on 31 October. I stress that this is not the case. If this order fails to pass, the relevant sections of the 2006 Act would still take effect on 1 November this year; however, without the details of this order the new regime would not work effectively. For example, no provision would be made about the contents of donation reports which relate to Irish donations, and there would be no mechanism in place for the Electoral Commission to check both Irish and UK donations to Northern Ireland recipients during the prescribed period. This would mean that while Northern Ireland recipients would be required to submit donation reports in relation to donations from the UK and not those from Ireland, these reports would not be scrutinised properly. I am sure noble Lords agree that would be very undesirable.

I should also like to clear up any potential misunderstanding concerning the issue of Northern Ireland parties being able to pass on Irish donations to their counterpart parties in Great Britain. There are two separate registers of political parties—one each for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A party may be registered in both the Great Britain and the Northern Ireland registers, but in such a case it is treated as two separate registered parties. This was set out in the original legislation in 2000.

New Section 71C of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was inserted by Section 12 of the 2006 Act, further prevents parties registered in Northern Ireland making donations to parties registered in Great Britain or to regulated donees in Great Britain. The effect of this is that Irish citizens and prescribed bodies meeting the prescribed conditions will be able to donate only to parties registered in the Northern Ireland register. This means that there is no back door by which Irish donations can legitimately reach parties registered in Great Britain. They would be classified as foreign donations—it is as simple as that—and would be ruled out. That was the position established by the 2000 Act and the 2006 Act maintains that situation.

I hope noble Lords agree that the order represents an important step towards aligning donation controls in Northern Ireland more fully with those for the rest of the UK and along the path to achieving full transparency. It does not duplicate what happens in Great Britain—I fully accept that—and that is made clear throughout. It represents the principles of the Good Friday agreement by allowing donations from Ireland. I shall do my best to answer any questions. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 June be approved. 21st Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 7:45 pm, 23rd July 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for the characteristic and forceful way in which he has outlined the Government's case on this matter. Throughout the difficult debates over the past two years he has never gilded the lily and he has presented the facts to us in a straightforward manner. None the less, what he is proposing today constitutes, as he has said, a double exemption of sorts for Northern Ireland—one temporary and one of longer-term significance—from the normal UK electoral law.

To deal first with the temporary exemption, which is perhaps of less deep significance, the Government had obviously hoped that by this point they would be in a position to remove confidentiality protection of the kind that exists in Northern Ireland electoral law and to have complete transparency along the lines of the United Kingdom. It is not the Government's fault that we are not quite at that point. The violence at the weekend in Carrickfergus reminds us of the ways in which Northern Ireland still, despite the enormous progress made, does not have the degree of stability and peace that there is throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. None the less, although the Government's position is understandable, the consequence of what has been said here today is that it is most likely that the next general election will be fought in a context in which confidentiality will apply to Northern Ireland electoral donations which will not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is important to keep that in mind.

More significant, however, is the Government's view on the question of allowing Irish citizens to contribute to Northern Irish political parties. This goes against the basic principle of exclusion of foreign donations in our mainstream UK legislation. Irish citizenship is defined in the Irish constitution extraterritorially; it can mean Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but also in the United States of America. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was honest enough to say to the Grand Committee in June 2006, there are a lot of Irish citizens around the world. This is opening a very wide door.

I was quite surprised to see in another place—and to a degree repeated today by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—the argument from the Government that opposition to or concern on this matter reflects a failure to grasp the core principles of the Good Friday agreement. The Good Friday agreement is quite correct; it gives a legitimacy to people who consider themselves British or Irish or both. However, this provision gives a legitimacy to those who consider themselves American or Irish or both. It is not quite in line with the Good Friday agreement; it creates in principle a new privileged type of donor. That argument surprised me when I first heard it, but the more I reflected upon it the more it surprised me.

Since 1994 I have been a vigorous advocate of the principles of the Good Friday agreement. These principles today are accepted by all the parties in this House; they are accepted—with a degree of reservation by some perhaps—by 108 Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and they are accepted by both the British and Irish Governments. In 1994 this was far from being the case. Those of us who argued for it found ourselves often in a lonely place and often opposed, it would appear, by the majority in both communities in Northern Ireland, and certainly by the majority of the parties which currently dominate the Northern Ireland Executive. Now things have changed and I am very grateful for that.

However, it is also remembering that in 1994 the Labour Party found itself in an ambiguous position on some of these questions, as indeed did the Irish Government. The argument for this legislation cannot be found in the Good Friday agreement, although it can be found in the broader logic of the peace process more generally. I am prepared to accept that. The Government would have been more honest with us if they had expressed themselves in those terms.

In certain respects, though, the argument as presented today actually constitutes a regression from the key principles of the Good Friday agreement. One of the things the agreement does is remove the difficulties that arose from the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which created an unhappy marriage between British and Irish constitutional thinking in which it emerged that, for example, a common-or-garden phrase like "the status of Northern Ireland" meant an entirely different thing in Irish constitutional theory from what it meant in British constitutional theory. It was not until 1998, thanks in part to the labour of noble Lords in this House today—I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Trimble, Lord Laird, Lord Kilclooney and Lord Maginnis, and others—that eventually this matter was sorted out by the Good Friday agreement, the referendum that led to a change in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and the victory of the principle of consent, the guiding principle now accepted by all which governs the politics and the future of Northern Ireland.

The key point is that we are now regressing. On one hand we have a formula in the Irish constitution, extra-territorially defined citizenship, which is extremely broad and is something the British Government have no right to expect to be able to define. We are returning to the uneasy world of 1985 to 1998, when the British Government found themselves locked in to meanings that were defined by the constitutional text of another state. I almost said that we were returning to the dark days of Thatcherism in that respect. It would have been better if the argument had been made on a different ground; that is, on the ground of the broader logic of the peace process.

I also think that the House has found it easier to accept the provisions because the party that is expected to benefit the most, Sinn Fein, does not appear in the House of Commons. We cannot assume that that will continue for ever. Such is the pace of ideological revisionism within Sinn Fein's political leadership that it is quite conceivable that it will appear in the Commons within the next few years, and should it do so, it would be a step that I would welcome. However, a consequence would be that, possibly in the context of a hung Parliament, a key group of MPs—which might decide the colour of the next Government, on the polls as they existed a month ago, if not today—would be elected in the context of an electoral law totally different from that governing the other Members of that House.

It is not enough to say that we can prevent transfers of money from Northern Irish parties to British parties. The consequence of this legislation goes further: it will create a different type of Member. So far that type of Member does not appear, but they may appear soon and that might affect how Governments operate. It is important to say that, because many of the concerns about Sinn Fein in politics and its financing have disappeared or been greatly reduced because of its relatively weak performance in the recent Irish general election. But although many noble Lords might devoutly wish it, the affairs and representatives of Northern Ireland cannot be kept in Northern Ireland.

A Pandora's box has been opened here. I understand the reasons why the Government have decided to do it. There are justifications in terms of the peace process and of the process that has persuaded the Sinn Fein leadership to give up violence and endorse politics, which are overriding considerations, and the greatest justification of all is the saving of human life that has occurred as a result of that policy. In that respect the Government are on firm ground, but they should not hide from themselves that there is a downside and an ambiguity to what is taking place, to which we will have to pay attention over the years that follow.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (the Olympics), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland, Shadow Minister, Wales

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Bew, has made his maiden speech. He is a compatriot of mine and, although not quite a neighbour, is in very close association. He has given us, in those short eight minutes, a clear demonstration of his capabilities. He is indeed a professor of Irish politics at Queen's, and has been part of Irish politics and all those things that have happened for probably the past 40 years. I sincerely hope that he will continue to attend your Lordships' House regularly and give us his wit, knowledge and experience of Irish politics. I hope also that he will open that into a wider field than just Irish politics. He is very welcome here.

I return to the business of elections and referendums—in other words, party funding. My party, as the Minister made clear he understands in his clear outlining of the order, is not totally happy about what is happening. The Northern Ireland Office seems to have done a lot of work to fill one of the gaps I was worried about, which was that money could flow in from almost anywhere, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said. There are Irish citizens all over the world, and money could flow from them into Ireland and into the parties in Northern Ireland. However, it was new to me tonight when I heard it, although it probably should not have been, that money cannot flow out from Northern Ireland into England, Scotland or Wales. As a Conservative in Northern Ireland I am rather disappointed about that; I thought we might have pulled an advantage over the Government. I wondered why the Labour Party was giving serious consideration to setting up in Northern Ireland. I thought maybe it was joining us in having a way into this potential pot of gold. But it seems that is not to be.

I am sad that parts of the order are permanent. I believe it will need reviewing again. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bew, I find it pessimistic that we are still saying we cannot do the same in Northern Ireland as we can in the rest of the United Kingdom because, because. We must grasp the issue. The Government have grasped it pretty well for a while, and we must not let them start slipping back from it on matters that might be a little uncomfortable. I see no reason why the disciplines should not be operated in Northern Ireland the same as they are here, or why Irish citizens should be allowed to fund Northern Irish parties unless they are clearly domiciled within the 32 counties—I can see some right in that. But there is no right in any Irish citizen holding an Irish passport being able to ship money from anywhere in the world through the Bank of Ireland into wherever. I hope the Minister will be able to tell me that the homework has been done thoroughly there, and that only those people who are registered on an electoral roll in the Republic of Ireland and are inhabitants and taxpayers thereof will be in a position to move money to parties in the north.

Overall we support the bulk of the order, but there are loopholes in it that still need to be tightened up, and the permanence of some aspects of it are disappointing. I have a final question. In the Republic, can we ship money down to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the other political parties there? If the Conservative Party or the Labour Party wished to help to fund a campaign, or some of our wealthier members—I think there are more wealthy members on the government side than on our side these days—chose to help and support Fianna Fáil for their own reasons, or political reasons, could they do that?

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction of this order, and I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bew. He was a colleague of mine as part of the wider Northern Ireland academic community, even if he worked for the other university.

This situation is in a class of intractable problems, rather like the West Lothian question, and it will be with us for the foreseeable future. There are some unsatisfactory features, which all sides recognise, in these exemptions applying to Northern Ireland. There is a way we can contrive to deal with it. The Northern Ireland Assembly should have an upper Chamber, suitably adapted from the Celtic House of Druids, and people could buy their appointment to it by donating to the nearest parties and joining the legislature. We are trying to avoid that sort of thing here but we could nevertheless pass that on as a transitional experiment, which I commend.

Only slightly more seriously, this continuing exemption is offensive for many of the reasons raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Glentoran. I have one question for the Minister. Article 3 of the order refers to someone being eligible to obtain an Irish passport, or certificates of nationality or naturalisation. That is a very loose, weasel phrase. Anyone can say, "I'm sure I am eligible to obtain one of these things". This loose wording is most unsatisfactory. Will the Minister kindly explain how that will be tightly defined rather than being an open-ended mere gesture?

Otherwise, with reluctance, we on these Benches accept, given the exigencies of Northern Ireland, that this exemption should be allowed. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that I do not want these provisions to be set in concrete. We should review them in four or five years' time to see how things are working because we hope that by then, Northern Ireland democracy will have matured enough not to need these loopholes. Very reluctantly, we support the order.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative 8:00 pm, 23rd July 2007

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on his maiden speech. It was delivered in a characteristically trenchant manner, displaying his considering knowledge and learning. Those Members of the House who had the privilege of hearing that speech will appreciate the extent to which this House will benefit from the noble Lord's presence and contribution in years to come.

I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about the Minister's pathetic attempt to say that this in some way can be derived from the Belfast agreement of 1998. It cannot. This flies against the letter and the spirit of the agreement. The noble Lord who made the assertions was unable, of course, to provide any justification for them. The agreement recognises the rights of individual persons to regard themselves as British or Irish but it confers no constitutional rights on them. Instead, in constitutional terms, the agreement explicitly recognises that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It recognises the legitimacy of that; it even recognises explicitly the power of this Parliament to legislate and that that power is in no way untrammelled. It is quite wrong to say that that agreement gives Ireland a special place in the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland—it does not. There is a special relationship through the North/South Ministerial Council and those arrangements, and that was the concession that we made to Irish national feeling. It is quite wrong for the Government to go further than that.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, is quite right that the approach taken by the Minister is a repudiation of the principles of the agreement and a regression to the worst things that went before. I feel very strongly about this matter; the House will have to come back to it again. The Government will have to stop being seduced by people offering some notion of the spirit or logic of the agreement. The agreement is clear, it has a text, and it ought to be respected. It is wrong for those who did not make the agreement to rewrite it in this wholly unacceptable way.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, said that he could accept this as somehow part of the peace process. Let me unpack that phrase. What that means is not the agreement and not anything derived from the agreement, but the manoeuvres that have been necessary to persuade paramilitaries to give up violence and enter into the political process. This peace process did so much damage to popular confidence in the agreement. It was because of this other process, quite apart from the political processes set apart in the agreement, that one saw the Government making improper concessions to those who had been involved in violence. I mean "improper" in the sense of not being justified by the agreement that we made, which is, or ought to be, the settlement of these things. From 1998, that agreement has been regularly undermined by the Government making concessions not justified by the agreement to those involved in violence as a means of weaning them away from it. In other words, it has been done as a result of a perceived threat from them. We should be long past this; we should not be back in this territory. I recall how a leading member of the Democratic Unionist Party said in 2003 that if one were to vote for that party on Thursday, the concessions would stop on Friday. Here we are in 2007, and yet another concession is being made to the men of violence. I hope that the noble Baroness who represents the DUP will tell us why it has acquiesced in yet another unnecessary concession to the republicans. I will not prolong my comments so as to ensure that she has the opportunity to do that.

Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the order and add my name to those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on his magnificent maiden speech. It is not a case of this House being a much better place and learning a lot from the noble Lord's contribution but that we in Northern Ireland are extremely favoured by having a man like him in this House. Northern Ireland and this House will gain by his presence here.

I do not propose to dwell on the order too much except to say that I identify with a lot of the remarks made by the noble Lords, Lord Bew, Lord Glentoran and Lord Trimble. I am concerned about the special position that is constantly given to the Irish in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I have had experience directly from the Belfast agreement of dealing with Irish officialdom and it is not particularly pleasant. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we have allowed very low standards of Irish governance to come into our part of the United Kingdom, ensuring a lack of proper procedures in many important areas such as recruitment to public bodies. It is unacceptable and we should fight it on every possible occasion.

Some people have exercised their minds over loans in the past few months, but where do loans come into the order? We have talked about donations, but I wonder how loans fit in. Can the noble Lord give me some idea about that? I understand about the need for transparency regarding donations in Northern Ireland but outside the remit of the order, there is a whole area that has to be further examined. A lot of money flows through to the coffers of Sinn Fein/IRA from illegal activities. Where is the money that was taken from the Northern Bank? Where is the £365 million per year lost to the Revenue by fuel laundering in Northern Ireland? Is that the money that backed up the election campaign which Sinn Fein ran in the Irish Republic and which, thank goodness, was a total disaster for that party and has perhaps set a new climate of opinion on the island of Ireland about the way forward?

A lot more effort should be put into trying to stop the illegal flow of money—a massive amount of property is owned by Sinn Fein/IRA in the Irish Republic—and its coming-across from its businesses into the election coffers on both sides of the border. I know that it is very hard to stop and I accept that it has nothing to do with the remit of the order, but we in this House should be very sensitive to it.

Photo of Baroness Paisley of St George's Baroness Paisley of St George's DUP

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on his maiden speech. Secondly, I say in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that my party never gave any concessions to Sinn Fein, as he has accused us of doing. For the first time in its history, Sinn Fein has had to sign up to support the police. It has also decided to sign up, or was brought to the point of doing so by my party, to support the courts of law and order, which it had never done previously. We welcome that. We said that, if it signed up to those things, we would take the matter further. Sinn Fein wanted to sign up only to ordinary police, which would have meant paramilitary policing in its style, not policing as we know it, and we all know what that means.

For the first time in at least 35 years, the police have been able to enter 100 per cent republican areas in Northern Ireland; they were never able to do that under previous Administrations. For the first time, Sinn Fein has welcomed the chief of police to the Falls Road, which we all know is a 100 per cent republican area. That was never done before. So I do not see where the concessions lie or where we have given in. We have brought Sinn Fein along and things have changed whether we like it or not.

Even to my surprise, things have changed for the better in Northern Ireland. People right across the religious and political divide in Northern Ireland have witnessed that and congratulated us on it. People from England and other parts of the world who have previously visited Northern Ireland have seen the change, too, and we look forward to greater changes. We know that there will be hurdles and difficulties. We are prepared for them and will have to face them as they arise, but, at the moment, things are moving, slowly but definitely.

I rejoice in the fact that Sinn Fein was beaten in the Republic of Ireland, which weakened its case in Northern Ireland. A united Ireland is further off now than ever before because of the rejection by the southern electorate of the IRA. It never expected that, as we all know. We will continue to fight for the rights of the people in Northern Ireland, for the defence of the police and, by them, of the courts of law and order.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare) 8:15 pm, 23rd July 2007

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on his maiden speech and welcome him to the House. His views are a welcome addition to the range of views that we hear in this House from Northern Ireland. I only wish that the range were wider. I do not know why the SDLP does not come here; I do not know why Sinn Fein does not come here. This House is a platform and a vehicle, and the place is available. The wider the opinion, the better it is. We always end up with these almost one-sided debates, although one gets a flavour of the different shades of unionist views.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, joins many practising professors in this place. They are gainfully employed. Everyone thinks that everybody in this place is retired. I have to tell my friends outside, "You're kidding. They're out working and then they cut you to pieces at Question Time in the afternoon". That is why Ministers in this House are under greater scrutiny than Ministers in the other House. That is my honest opinion after six years here as a Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, is very welcome.

The noble Lord rightly said that no one can accuse me of sugar-coating the order. I have made no attempt whatever to hide exactly what we are doing, nor do I seek to do so. This is not a situation with which mainland political parties would be content in the long term, but one cannot divorce oneself from the fact that our relations with the Republic are different from those with other member states of the European Union, for example, on a range of issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke about a hung Parliament and the other place being perhaps in the grip of a small group. I was in the other place from 1974 to 1979, towards the end of which we had a minority Labour Government. We worked very closely with our then colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party to survive for a while. It would be unfair to say that we were held to ransom, but they cut a deal, saw their opportunities and who could blame them? I digress, but, as I have said, I have made no attempt to sugar-coat the order.

I shall do my best to answer the specific questions, all of which were quite legitimate. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked about loans. There will be provisions for loans. They will be complicated. Frankly, we could not have done it in the order. We have changed the rules and we have changed the legislation on loans anyway. The provisions of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which relate to the regulation of loans, have yet to be commenced for Northern Ireland, although they have already commenced for Great Britain. We hope to commence them later this year. We do not have to legislate; it is a question of getting a commencement order up and running. The legislation has been made. Northern Ireland was included, but the legislation did not commence there at the same time as in Great Britain.

I go back to what I said earlier about the Neill committee, whose work gave rise to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—a very important piece of legislation, of which the Government can be rightly proud. The Neill committee, among other things, recommended that because of the special role of Ireland in Northern Ireland's political life as set out in the Belfast agreement, it would not be right to ban contributions from there. I shall go no further than that. There was another view of that issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned the Conservative Party organising in Northern Ireland. It is not for me to offer advice to the Conservative Party, but I think that it would be better off trying to organise in places such as Ealing Southall than bothering with Northern Ireland at present. I know that I should not have said that, but I could not resist it, because of the way in which the noble Lord raised the matter.

However, the noble Lord made the fair point about the money flow. When the money flows into Northern Ireland from Irish recipients, it stays there. Therefore, for example, the Conservative Party of Northern Ireland, on a separate register, cannot donate to the Conservative Party of Great Britain—likewise the Labour Party and other parties. The money stays there. As a UK citizen on the electoral register, I can donate to parties in Northern Ireland. People in England, Scotland and Wales can donate to political parties in Northern Ireland.

The question that arises is whether people resident in Northern Ireland can donate to political parties in the Republic, which is in effect a foreign country. It is not my job to answer that, because it is a matter exclusively for the Republic of Ireland's own legislative effect. I understand that such parties could donate to Irish parties if they had an office on the island of Ireland from which one or more of their principal activities are directed. I remember making this point when we discussed the Bill. But that is a matter for Irish legislation, as the regulation of donations to parties in the UK, including Northern Ireland, is a matter for UK legislation. We have discussed that with Ireland—I made that clear in my opening speech—but we differ in aspects of the proposed law. I fully accept that.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (the Olympics), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland, Shadow Minister, Wales

My Lords, I return to one point—the cash flow from Conservatives in Ireland to Conservatives in the United Kingdom. If the Conservative Party in London decided to have all its election posters done, with the printing and material, under the auspices of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, for example, or somewhere in Northern Ireland, and those accounts were paid by the resident Conservatives, where would we be then?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare)

My Lords, I strongly suggest to the Conservative Party that if it does not know the answer to that it should go and have a chat with the Electoral Commission, because that relates to the operation of the GB register. However, as far as I know we are a United Kingdom and any business anywhere in the United Kingdom can do business with other areas. That is a business transaction. This is part of electoral law, but there should be a satisfactory answer that does not stop political parties organising themselves. That is not the intention. The intention is to stop money-laundering via the Irish route to Northern Ireland and to GB parties, because we do not accept donations from foreigners or foreign countries in Great Britain—and that legally would be the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, asked about the words "eligible to obtain", which is clearly a legitimate question. The order is drafted to take account of the legal concept of Irish citizenship. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was not thought appropriate for us to legislate in the UK to dictate what status someone in Ireland should have. That is why the route is the other way.

I shall explain how the checks will be done, because that will explain the position. What safeguards or checks will there be on Irish donors being entitled to donate to Northern Ireland parties? All citizens permitted under Irish law to donate to political parties in Ireland will have to meet the prescribed condition to be eligible to donate. That is, they must be eligible to obtain at the time of making the donation one of the three following documents indicative of citizenship: an Irish passport, a certificate of nationality or a certificate of naturalisation. It is not appropriate for us in the UK to legislate to dictate which one of those documents people should have or whether they should have it; all that we have laid down is that they should be eligible to obtain such a document.

A certified copy of those documents must accompany the report in which the Northern Ireland recipient reports the relevant donation. In other words, the political party that reports the donation to the Electoral Commission must have a document stating that the donor was eligible to obtain a certificate of nationality, a certificate of naturalisation or an Irish passport at the time they made the donation. That would satisfy the rules; it would ensure that one has closed the groups of people who would be eligible for that. Those documents—the Irish passport, a certificate of nationality or a certificate of naturalisation—would be certified by Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs. That closes down the people who are not Irish citizens, or those eligible to be Irish citizens, in Timbuktu or anywhere else being able to shove money into Northern Ireland parties. The effect is the same as if we had legislated, which would have been considered improper, to say that they must hold one of those documents. That was agreed between the two Governments.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, I am not entirely clear on the eligibility criterion. I understand the point about people having a passport, a naturalisation certificate or a nationality certificate, but these days it is so easy to forge passports that I wonder how much easier it is to forge a statement of eligibility that one is entitled to one of these documents. I find that so loose and open-ended that, even given the Minister's best efforts at an explanation, I do not believe that he has answered my point.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming, Food and Animal Welfare)

My Lords, that document will be certified as genuine by Ireland's Government; for example, by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. I am not arguing about what is easy to forge and what is not easy to forge, but the Electoral Commission would receive details of the donation from the recipient in Northern Ireland—the political party—accompanied by a certified document from the Department of Foreign Affairs that the donor was eligible to make the donation. In other words, they have to be eligible to make the donation in Ireland anyway, as that is where the constraint comes in. People who are not eligible to donate in Ireland are not eligible to donate in Northern Ireland. It is said that the check will be carried out by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I am happy to put that in a more detailed note.

It is worth putting this next paragraph on the record. The Northern Ireland recipients—that is, the parties—will have to provide the information set out in new paragraph 2A of Schedule 6 to the 2000 Act in donation reports from Irish bodies. In practice, in order to accept the donation and to provide the information required in new paragraph 2A, the Northern Ireland recipient will need to be satisfied that the body has an office in Ireland or in Northern Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities are directed and that the body falls in one of the categories prescribed in Article 4.2. That will enable the Electoral Commission to check both individuals and companies—it obviously deals with donations from registered companies. In other words, the donor has to be legitimate; it cannot be a front company. The company must have the wherewithal and the legal authority to donate in Ireland in the first place.

People may argue about this, but this is a constraint on what happens today. I repeat that today political parties in Northern Ireland can receive money from any individual of any nationality, from any company, anywhere in the world without having to make a report to anyone about the amount of money received. Therefore, there is progress on that. This is not completely aligned with the United Kingdom, for reasons that I have explained, which we shall have to live with. I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in his maiden speech that, come the next general election, people will be able to question legitimately from where the parties have got the money. There will be certain constraints about not being identified, but they will be free to make voluntary submissions about where the money came from. The fact is that there will be challenges about the money, which is quite legitimate in a democracy. We have set up a legal framework and we want it to operate fairly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.