Amendment 8

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

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:45 pm, 15th July 2019

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.