Amendment 8

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Lord Bruce of Bennachie:

Moved by Lord Bruce of Bennachie

8: Clause 3, page 2, line 21, at end insert—“( ) The report under subsection (1) must include a report on progress made towards preparing legislation to provide for transparency of political donations and loans from 1 January 2014.”

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, Amendments 8 and 22 are Liberal Democrat amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond. They are important, and I hope the House will give them serious consideration and support. Indeed, I hope that the Minister may even be able to accept them.

Amendment 8 would provide that the progress reports must include:

“a report on progress made towards preparing legislation to provide for transparency of political donations and loans from 1 January 2014”.

Amendment 22 contains a new clause to ensure that, if an Executive has not been formed by 21 October, the Government must, within three months of the progress report being laid, introduce regulations to backdate the transparency of political donations and loans to 1 January 2014.

Let us look at the political and historical context. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for greater transparency of donations and loans to political parties. It was widely supported, and it imposes restrictions on the sources of donations, especially to prohibit foreign and anonymous donations to political parties, and to make registered parties subject to reporting requirements in respect of donations above a certain value. Political parties in the rest of the UK are, rightly, bound by those provisions, and they have been widely quoted and enforced—to some people’s discomfort, I have to say.

Many noble Lords in the Chamber this afternoon will know that, by cross-party agreement, political parties in Northern Ireland were excluded from those provisions and therefore have not been required to reveal the sources of their funding. I think that people understood at the time that there were good reasons for that, because of concerns that the security of donors would be at risk if their names were made public. But I also think that people would acknowledge that the political and security context has changed significantly in recent years, so that exemption could not be expected to continue indefinitely—especially because, as I shall explain, concerns have been raised about it.

During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, the Government agreed to an amendment from Naomi Long—then MP for East Belfast and now leader of the Alliance Party and a Northern Ireland Member of the European Parliament—to ensure that the greater transparency that applied to the rest of the United Kingdom should be extended to Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to Naomi Long, who has worked tirelessly to try to bring that equivalent transparency to Northern Ireland.

The provision ensured that, at a point when the Secretary of State determines, any donation of £7,500 from a single source to a political party from January 2014—that is the significant date—could be subject to publication. The political parties in Northern Ireland and their donors have therefore known that donations received from 1 January 2014 could eventually be published and scrutinised. That is important: this is not something about which they should express any surprise.

However, when the order was eventually produced last year, it provided for transparency of political donations and loans only from July 2017. At the time, we on these Benches tabled a regret Motion simply asking why that was the case, given what was in the 2014 Act. This is important because, during the period 2014 to 2017, there were two general elections and a referendum. The Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland has collected the relevant data: it has the information, but without our amendment it is unable to release it.

Noble Lords will be aware that it came to light that, during the referendum campaign, a very significant donation of £425,000 was given to one party in Northern Ireland. In the context of the highly charged debate on Brexit, people should be able to know all the details of that significant donation, not least—I guess this information is known—given the reports that the donation was not actually spent in Northern Ireland but was spent elsewhere in the UK and indeed potentially perverted the outcome of the referendum. This is therefore not just a matter of concern regarding transparency for the people of Northern Ireland; it is about Northern Ireland being used as a vehicle to undermine the transparency of the law in the rest of the UK. It has to be acknowledged that that is not a situation that should be allowed to continue.

The rules are in place to shine a light on the process. This comes at a time when, sadly, I suggest, trust and confidence in political parties have never been lower and mistrust over who is funding which political parties for what purpose has never been a matter of more public concern—and, it appears, legitimate public concern. Transparency should be the foundation, the bedrock, on which the trust that voters can have in the democratic process should be built. We have had accusations of foreign interference in elections and referendums, not only here but in other parts of the world. We have seen, for example, revelations in Italy of huge amounts of money being sought from Russia to fund a major political party.

People are therefore entitled to ask for a justification and explanation for why the Government chose the date of 2017 rather than 2014, which they had indicated they were minded to accept and for which the data has been collected. When he responded to the debate on our Motion, the Minister stated:

“Right now, we are not ruling out the re-examination of the period that precedes 1 July 2017. Indeed, the draft order will allow consideration of it, once we have had an opportunity both to bed in the transparency order and to examine the details reflected therein. We will not rule anything in or out on that point. I stress that. It is important that we recognise it”.—[Official Report, 27/2/18; col. 623.]

Yet so far there has been no further consideration of this matter. In a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on 12 February this year, the Minister said:

“The Government has no plans in place to legislate to facilitate the publication of pre-2017 data. We are committed to undertaking an operational review to consider all aspects of the operation of the donation and loans systems in Northern Ireland, to review whether there might be a case for further reforms”.

If the Minister is indeed committed to such a review, when will it take place? I suggest that, if he were minded to accept Amendment 8, he would have the opportunity to conduct such a review. Is he able to accept it, given that at the time of the legislation in 2014 the Government indicated that the data would be collected and that people should be aware that that data could be applied?

We are committed to ensuring that there is proper transparency and accountability for political donations and loans in Northern Ireland. We think that if we do not do so then it will undermine our entire democratic system, and we are not prepared to let that happen. I repeat that we on these Benches regard this as a crucial issue for the integrity of the political system both in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK. It cannot be acceptable that a law is allowed to sustain in Northern Ireland that allows Northern Ireland to be used as a vehicle for donations that would be neither clear nor acknowledged and could infiltrate the rest of the UK and completely undermine the legislation that applies to the whole of the UK. On that basis, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I support my noble friend on this amendment. When we were discussing this issue on 27 February last year, we made it clear that we wanted any loans and donations to be published as from 1 January 2014, not at the later date of 2017, as we have already heard. We were very pleased to support the Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018 with that one proviso. It made clear that, for the first time, the Electoral Commission would be allowed to publish information about loans and donations dating back to July 2017. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 allowed that, and we have still not been given a satisfactory explanation as to why the Government held back from it.

Why did we ask for this? As we have heard, conveniently during that three-year period there were two general elections and the EU referendum campaign. We know that, during that referendum campaign, £425,000 were given to a party in Northern Ireland. I think we should name that party—it was the DUP. We have had no indication from it about whether that money was spent in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

We need to know what all political parties receive in loans and donations to avert that very real fear of money laundering—of parties receiving moneys that are in any way illegal. Our amendment simply seeks to introduce this new clause to provide for regulations to ensure transparency in political donations and loans from 1 January 2014, if the Executive has not been formed by 21 October this year.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 5:00 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, the proverbial visitor from outer space might have been somewhat surprised a short time ago when we were discussing the previous set of amendments about what piece of legislation we were debating. It is the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. I was so pleased to see a packed Chamber and all these people taking such a keen interest in Northern Ireland, but they have deserted us all of a sudden. The great, the good and the not so good have gone. It just shows how fickle fortune is in the political arena.

On a more serious note, I think that there is merit in this amendment. At the end of the day, since the 2014 date, donors have known that their details might potentially be released. I accept that it would not have been fair to release the names of donors who donated before that date because they would not have known at that stage that their names might end up in the public domain. There is a perfectly solid and reasonable case for that. Subsequent to that, people have known. I therefore see no reason why 2017 was called into account when 2014 was the kick-off date for this process. That is not an unreasonable thing to suggest and therefore I am supportive of it.

I would like to make a serious point about the proceedings relating to the previous amendment. I am sure that, when we talk about Prorogation, the people on the streets of Belfast talk of little else. They will be bemused that we have been caught up in this firefight which is not strictly speaking relevant to this legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is not in his place at the moment, but he was more than right when he called this a Christmas tree Bill last week. In fact, Christmas implies celebration and something to look forward to, so maybe that is not the right phrase for it; it is a jumble, a mess and a sorry piece of legislation, with all these things included. Then we find ourselves getting involved in a national debate on a totally different matter. Her Majesty’s Government will have to look at this. I must say to colleagues in the other place as well that I know things can be drawn too tightly, but we have gone to the other extreme with this legislation. However, I would be more than content to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP

My Lords, I firmly believe that there should be full openness and transparency regarding donations and loans to all the political parties in Northern Ireland, just as there is in the rest of the United Kingdom. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Secretary of State sought the view of all the Northern Ireland political parties on this matter in January 2017. As I emphasised in February 2018, there was clear support for full transparency. However, only one party—the Alliance Party—took the rather unusual position that the implementation of the new rules should be backdated to January 2014.

I acknowledge that the earlier date was referred to in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, but in my view retrospective legislation is acceptable only in exceptional circumstances. It is not fair to reveal the identities of those who made donations assuming that the law at the time would always apply. It is strange that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is intent on reopening issues that have been fully considered in the House and elsewhere, rather than concentrating on providing an effective framework for the future. The treatment of foreign donations to Northern Ireland political parties, for example, is an important and unresolved issue. The Electoral Commission is in full receipt of all the facts regarding donations before 2014, so although I support full transparency, I believe that the date of 2014 is a fair way to treat this.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

There is something which is right about the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce: the whole of the United Kingdom should have similar regulations regarding transparency of donations and loans. The Committee will be aware that for decades this was virtually impossible in Northern Ireland, because people would be intimidated and worse if their donations to various political parties were made public and they were identified as possible targets. That was an obvious reason why the law in Northern Ireland was not the same as it was in the rest of the United Kingdom. Happily, the world has changed. There should be regulations which are common to all parts of our country.

There is an issue about people who were unaware when they gave donations that their names would be revealed; would they have given them if they had known that? We must take this into account, but we must not allow Northern Ireland to be used as a back-door conduit for donations simply because the law and regulations in Northern Ireland are different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, raises an important matter through Amendment 8, one that I know your Lordships take a keen interest in. As he pointed out, the donations and loans order that came into force last year provided complete transparency for donations and loans made to Northern Ireland parties from July 2017. At that point, we said that we would look again at the regime in due course to see if further changes should be made. Our feet have certainly been kept to the fire. I was very impressed with what has happened in and out of the Chamber, as outlined by the noble Lord.

I can confirm that the Government are happy to report to Parliament on the progress that we have made on the issue of donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland from 2014. The Government have no concerns in accepting the noble Lord’s amendment today, and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, indicates that this is not unreasonable to the people that he has been in touch with. I have also noted the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont.

Amendment 22, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, would insert a new clause into the Bill compelling regulations to be made on this issue. I know that this is a matter of concern to the Committee, as I have said. We have debated more than once how we might make progress on this complex issue.

During consideration of the transparency of donations and loans order last year, we made it clear that we intend to work with the Electoral Commission and Northern Ireland parties to establish whether further changes are required to the existing regime. However, we have made no commitment to legislate further on this matter. As always, on this issue it is important to move forward on the basis of consensus in Northern Ireland, and we will be consulting the parties. It is not appropriate to commit to making legislation on this issue before consulting the Northern Ireland parties.

We intend to look at the Northern Ireland donations regime as a whole. I realise that these are difficult and sensitive issues and I repeat that we look to move forward with consensus in Northern Ireland. But we cannot accept the noble Lord’s Amendment 22, and I urge him not to move it.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am grateful to the Minister for accepting Amendment 8, which, as I said, does exactly what it says on the tin: it enables the Government to bring forward reports about the implementation of the regulations back to 2014, and does not prevent the Government introducing regulations at a later date. I understand that the Minister is unwilling to accept Amendment 22 and would like to reserve my position on that, but I welcome his acceptance of Amendment 8, which takes us a step further down the road. We would be much happier if we knew that all the data was going to be published, but we accept that there has to be a process and consultation.

Amendment 8 agreed.