Clause 15

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 25 April 2006.

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Extension of categories of permissible donors

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 11, line 28, leave out ‘has' and insert ‘and “members association” have'.

This is a technical amendment, which corrects a drafting error. It ensures consistency with the 2000 Act. I commend it to the Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 11, line 31, leave out from beginning to end of line 8 on page 12.

I am sure that other members of the Committee will wish to keep fit by rising to speak on clause 15, which deals with the extension of categories of permissible donors.

There has been considerable controversy over recent weeks, which has affected all parties represented in the Committee, but not individuals, about loans and  donations to political parties—including to my party. Controversy over the financial position of the Ulster Unionist party is quite different from that which has affected other parties, but I shall not go into detail.

The purpose of the amendment is to find out why clause 15 includes the provision that I wish to have deleted. Subsection (2) of proposed new section 71B states:

“A description or category of body must not be prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1)(b) unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that a body of that description or category would be entitled under Irish law to donate to an Irish political party.”

It seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State should have to be satisfied that a body of a particular description or category is entitled under Irish law to donate to an Irish political party. It is an extraordinary duty to give a Minister in the British Government. I would like the Minister to comment on that.

I was particularly struck by the comments of the Lord Chancellor on 20 March on Government amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill, which is currently being considered by the other place. Those amendments would make it compulsory for political parties to disclose not only donations but loans that they receive. The Minister indicated in an earlier intervention that it is the intention of the Northern Ireland Office to bring Northern Ireland quickly into line with what is happening elsewhere in Great Britain.

In its long title, the Bill states that it allows the Government to make

“miscellaneous amendments to the law relating to Northern Ireland.”

Why, when there was such haste by the Lord Chancellor in relation to other political parties and when the Minister who speaks for the Northern Ireland Office has already indicated that Northern Ireland would be brought into line, cannot we do so post haste? Not only did the Lord Chancellor refer to the Electoral Administration Bill, but the first clause of the Bill, which we debated on the Floor of the House, refers to an order in council making provisions for Northern Ireland

“for purposes corresponding, or similar, to those of section 10 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006”.

For goodness’ sake, if the Minister has indicated that Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of Great Britain in relation to donations and loans, why cannot we do it now? The Bill has not even gone to another place. The Government missed the opportunity to bring forward amendments—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I do not seek to have a difference of opinion with the hon. Lady where there is not one. The Government intend to bring forward an amendment to ensure that the provision announced by the Lord Chancellor applies to Northern Ireland. We will do that during the parliamentary passage of the legislation. We are not able to do so at the moment, because we need to consider in detail the consequences of that provision for Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady has the assurance that we will do it.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am most grateful to the Minister. I take it that he indicates that the amendment will be made in this Bill—or did he indicate that the amendment would be made to the Electoral Administration Bill?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am sorry, but I sigh with exasperation. We are considering the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. We have just had a stand part debate on clause 13. We have gone through clause 14 and we are currently considering clause 15, but we have yet to discuss clauses 16, 17 and 18. A substantial part of part 4 is dedicated to “Donations for Political Purposes”.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I want to assure the hon. Lady that what she wants is what we are going to do. I do not mind being attacked in Committee for doing things that she does not want us to do, but I find myself in the strange position of being attacked for things on which I agree with her.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down 12:00, 25 April 2006

I am most grateful to the Minister. That was a helpful intervention for someone who claims not to be seeking controversy or a disagreement.

The Minister will know that it is exceptional, unusual and extremely welcome that Northern Ireland matters are dealt with by primary legislation. It is unusual for us to discuss a Bill that we are able to amend. The Minister will know that the vast majority of legislation for Northern Ireland is delegated legislation. I will be aggrieved if the Minister says that the Northern Ireland amendment to the Electoral Administration Bill will be made by delegated legislation. We are considering primary legislation for Northern Ireland clause by clause, with part 4 dedicated to donations for political purposes and loans, to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of Great Britain. I should have liked the Minister, on indicating that he intends to make the changes, to make them meaningfully, where they could be properly scrutinised in discussions on this Bill.

The Electoral Administration Bill is in the House of Lords and will come back—

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The Minister mentioned his intention to incorporate into the Bill the changes in the legislation going to another place. However, it is not in his power to incorporate the legislation in the Irish Republic. This is a perfect example of a situation where he could introduce in the Bill provisions that would rule out loans that might have an effect in the north of Ireland being used under Irish legislation.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which moves this debate with the Minister on slightly. Perhaps the Minister would like to reflect on how he will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of Great Britain in the Electoral  Administration Bill. I should like him to resolve the matter of whether that will be done by Order in Council.

Picking up on the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, my amendment would delete the reference whereby before a Secretary of State in the British Government can move, he has to be satisfied that

“a body of that description or category would be entitled under Irish law to donate to an Irish political party.”

That is an extraordinary phrase to appear in the Bill. I do not think that any member of the Committee would be thrilled or delighted if it referred to a body of a description or category entitled under French or American law to donate to a French or American political party. Will the Minister clarify what is intended under the clause?

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am sitting here shell-shocked by the strength with which the hon. Lady has made her arguments. In the context of comments made earlier by the hon. Member for East Antrim, I can say that there is a serious misunderstanding in the Committee.

There is an implication that the funding for another political party that has chosen not to take its place in the House is somehow derived from normal political fundraising activities. The resources of 200 paid activists in the Newry and Armagh constituency, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury suggested there were, cannot be obtained through normal political fundraising. Neither he nor I could do that. We are talking at cross-purposes. When 200 such people are put into a constituency, there is an element of paramilitary operation involved rather than normal, legitimate political operation.

I will make no apology, even if I am in a minority of one, for being absolutely opposed to any restrictions on the raising of funds from Irish citizens and corporations. I do not think there is any doubt about my political views. I come to this place because we have very much in common and to represent the people of south Belfast, but I have a different outlook from many Members of the House and of the Committee and I would like to see things done differently. That does not prevent me from participating fully here and doing what I feel is the decent thing.

The survival of the SDLP is at stake, and we make no apology for drawing some of our funding from Irish citizens who do not live in Northern Ireland. That is quite legitimate. It is legitimate for people who see themselves as British to support the Unionist parties and for the Unionist parties to identify closely with people in Britain, and we believe that we are entitled to the same right and interchange.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that all of his intentions could be put into British law by the Minister in this Bill? We could help the SDLP and other parties. We do not have to rely on Irish legislation that is not within the control of the Committee, the House or this Government. We could achieve his aims without being dependent on another state.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but it is in keeping with the principle of what he wants to achieve for the Minister to make some reference to current Irish legislation, which is fairly tight—as tight as we want to achieve here. That is a good enough benchmark until the objectives are attained by whatever means we wish to use to put them in place here.

To return to my earlier point, the logical outworking of the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement, as others may wish to call it—involves the recognition of people’s right to be accepted as British, Irish or both. When we finally accept that point, it will leave relationships within these islands much healthier and more positive, and we will be able to look forward into the 21st century, rather than back to the 18th or 19th.

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that Irish donations, or indeed Irish laws and Irish regulations, should be treated or viewed in the same manner as those of France, the US, Germany or any other place. That would be clear discrimination against those of us who perceive ourselves as Irish but operating in Northern Ireland.

It is very important to accept and to remind ourselves that Sinn Fein funding is not the issue. Effort is being made again and again to say that if we take action, that will curtail illegitimate funding going towards Sinn Fein. I do not wish to delay the Committee, but looking through some of the reports to the Electoral Commission, we can see that it is not just on fundraising that there are flaws. There are flaws and holes at various levels. They relate to returns, money spent and how it is spent.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it would be much better to have state funding of all political parties, including the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party, to get away from any reliance on donations and, of course, loans?

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I entirely agree. State funding could not come half quick enough for me because, frankly, I have to spend far too much of my time talking to and working with people on whom I depend for donations and that distracts me from the work that I want to do. Bring on state funding quickly, please. Without delaying the Committee, I want to make the point that the measure that we are discussing is a direct threat to me and my party, and to make clear my absolute opposition to it.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I have concerns about the wording in clause 15 that the amendment is designed to remove. Let us look back to 2000, when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill was originally debated in the House. The Liberal Democrats accepted that parties that operated on an all-Ireland basis should be able to receive donations from offices in the Republic of Ireland. However, we recognised that, in the absence of similar legislation in the Republic of Ireland, the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the provisions of the 2000 Act, which bans parties in Great Britain from receiving foreign donations, would create problems. We  agreed to the exemption of Northern Ireland from those provisions on the express condition that the Government would seek talks urgently with the Government of the Irish Republic on introducing similar legislation in Ireland.

Obviously, what the Government of Ireland do in relation to the funding of political parties in the Irish Republic is entirely for them, but can the Minister tell the Committee whether any discussions with the Irish Government have taken place? For example, were the Irish Government willing to consider special arrangements for parties that operate both in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic? Can the Minister also explain who is or what bodies are allowed to donate to political parties under Irish law?

The hon. Member for North Down referred to the wording in clause 15 that would require the Secretary of State to satisfy himself

“that a body of that description or category would be entitled under Irish law to donate to an Irish political party.”

The Secretary of State needs to become an expert on Irish law as it relates to donations to political parties. That is what we have concerns about. Ideally, we should be reaching an agreement on this issue with the Government of the Irish Republic.

The Electoral Commission has also expressed concerns about these provisions. Its view is that

“it is difficult to achieve openness and transparency with such a regime.”

The commission has stated that it would like to see a clear definition of the tests of Irish citizenship, so that recipients of donations would be able to check the permissibility of donors. It also states that the legislation should clarify to what extent the commission will be able to check political parties’ compliance with the requirements on donations and whether it will be asked to give an opinion about the extent of political parties’ observance of the requirements. Will the Minister undertake to deal with all those issues, hopefully today, but certainly before consideration on Report?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 12:15, 25 April 2006

The remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, South are perhaps the most revealing made in the debate so far. He said that the removal of the clause would affect the survival of the SDLP. He is known for over-egging the pudding sometimes, but even if we take his remark with a pinch of salt it confirms the point that I made in an intervention on the Minister that this part of the Bill is discriminatory and is aimed at one section of the Northern Ireland community and one part of the body politic.

I do not think that any Unionist party could make the same comment and claim that without clause 15 its very survival—or any part of its financial arrangements—would be adversely affected. The provisions are particularly directed at the SDLP and will benefit Sinn Fein even more. Therefore, they do not pass one of the essential tests that Northern Ireland legislation is supposed to pass—namely, that it should undergo an equality impact assessment and should not go ahead without good reason, and indeed, usually mitigation as well.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister, now that we have heard from the hon. Member for Belfast, South, what he believes the import of the provision to be and how it got through an equality impact assessment. Anyone in Northern Ireland would find it difficult to accept the Minister’s assurance that the clause would have no adverse impact on any section of the community.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South has made much of the need for the clause to be passed, to reflect his Irishness. As a Unionist, I respect the fact that he looks more towards the Irish Republic than towards the rest of the United Kingdom. However, that does not by any stretch of the imagination justify determining the rules for fundraising and political donations in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom, by means of laws established in another country—albeit one with which some people in Northern Ireland might have an affinity—over which neither the hon. Gentleman nor I, nor any Member of the House, has any control.

That is not acceptable—especially in the light of the record of some parties in the Republic, the laxity of the rules that apply to political donations there and the way parties are allowed to raise money. Some of the stories of sleaze emanating from the Irish Republic would make the honours-for-loans affair here look quite acceptable or even honourable.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Yet is not that very example testimony to the importance of transparency? The Government’s recent experience underlines what happens if one gives loopholes for secrecy.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Absolutely, and that is why I do not believe that this clause is acceptable. We would not wish the standards that apply in the Irish Republic to be translated to us. That is not a dig at what happens in another country—well, I suppose it is. It also reflects on politicians in Northern Ireland parties if it is seen that the rules are so lax that the required degree of transparency does not exist and there is secrecy that allows parties to hide behind a smokescreen when it comes to raising finance.

I do not particularly agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, South on state funding. Although we have security problems in Northern Ireland—members of my party sometimes seek to highlight them more than members of the hon. Gentleman’s party do—that is not a reason for having a cloud of secrecy obscuring the way parties raise funds.

Referring to an earlier clause, the Minister said he wished to close the back door on foreign donations to parties in Great Britain. Yet, at the same time, he is leaving the back door open for foreign donations to parties in Northern Ireland. As a Unionist, I want the same standards to apply to fundraising for parties in Northern Ireland as apply for parties in Great Britain. I also believe that having that degree of transparency in fundraising is a safeguard for parties.

For all those reasons, the amendment is sensible. It would give safeguards to the parties in Northern Ireland and ensure the integrity of any legislation covering party political donations. It would also stop  back-door funding. Some of that might well go to the Social Democratic and Labour party, but I believe that far more goes to Sinn Fein. We know from all the other financial arrangements it has had in the past, such as money laundering, that it has no qualms about how funds are raised or where money comes from. Unfortunately, Sinn Fein is now probably one of the richest parties in the United Kingdom per member. It has used that fact to good effect to inflate its political standing in Northern Ireland.

The arguments of the Minister and the hon. Member for Belfast, South do not withstand scrutiny, and the amendment ought to be agreed to.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Unlike the Minister, I have yet to hear the Government talk about the relevant Irish legislation, and I am therefore unsure whether we in the Committee or the House in general have been informed about what it means to hand over some power to Ireland to set electoral rules and laws over us—or certainly over Northern Ireland and the political parties there. I therefore made the effort to look at the Irish legislation. In fact, I looked at two Acts in particular: the Irish Electoral Act 1997 and our Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as it pertains to the Republic of Ireland.

To do so is important, because there are clear exemptions in Ireland that we would not be happy about having in our legislation. For example, all that one needs to do to donate to a political party in the Republic of Ireland is be an Irish citizen. One does not have to live anywhere in particular. One also can donate through support groups, as they are called, or friends. The most famous are Noraid and Friends of Sinn Fein, which are highly proactive and have on many occasions been involved in raising more than funds for political parties.

We have no control over that Irish legislation—not yesterday, not today and certainly not tomorrow. As it stands, it would allow undeclared loans to be made to political parties. That is the point that I was trying to raise earlier with the Minister. He does not have control over the legislation going through the Lords at the moment; he cannot ask for an amendment that allows us to cater for Irish legislation.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I feel it is in order to check whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is utterly unacceptable in any moral context for a party operating in the United Kingdom to accept loans from abroad and not declare them.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

I would certainly say that that has been the thrust of legislation since I have been a Member of the House. I do not think that I would want to do that, nor is it appropriate that people who are arrested for fraud are involved in donating to political parties. If the Minister were to go to the Committee in the other place and ask it to cater specifically for Irish legislation, it would probably say, “No, you have your chance: here is your Bill, so why do you not do it?” This is a missed opportunity.

On the support groups, the Standards of Public Office Commission in Ireland will give one the details of donors because, interestingly, Ireland has transparency for its donors. I recognise that Northern Ireland is a special case and that we should allow some leeway in Northern Ireland legislation to ensure that, for now, anonymity is allowed—certainly outside the Electoral Commission.

It is clear that one party—Sinn Fein, which I have chosen specifically—has received nearly $1 million from support groups outside the Republic of Ireland since 1997. In an election year, it is usual for it to receive some $200,000 to $250,000. In addition, it has received other sums of money from citizens who live outside the Republic. That is important, as this party generates a lot of money in a way that it could not in the north of Ireland, nor could any other party.

The Minister could use the legislation to cover the aims of the SDLP or the nationalist parties or those that receive funding from the south—they can have all the exemptions they like. We could say that an Irish citizen living in the Republic of Ireland would be allowed to donate and that a party incorporated north and south of the border could donate—we could do all that—but to turn a blind eye and say, “Well, we’ll leave it up to the Dail to decide, in whichever year,” is short-sighted and certainly foolish.

We do not know what position Sinn Fein will take in elections in the next few years. One has only to listen to the Minister for Justice in the Irish Republic to realise that there are serious concerns about the position Sinn Fein might achieve in the Republic and about the influence it might have—rightly, if elected—on future legislation. If the number of exceptions and exemptions given to Sinn Fein in the north are any yardstick to go by, if they are given in the south, I fear for the future of some Northern Ireland parties, whether nationalist or republican, if, yet again, they are treated unfairly while an individual party is favoured.

As a Conservative, I do not believe in state funding. I notice that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have stated their support for it. There is one party in the United Kingdom that is state funded. Because of the exemptions to the Short rule and its wider remit in receiving state funding, the one party in the United Kingdom that receives state funding, outside the House of Commons, is Sinn Fein. That is yet another irony of the peace process. The one party that is benefiting from all the exceptions and help is not the nationalist SDLP, which plays by the rules, but the other party, which does not.

With clause 15, we therefore get rid of our responsibilities for producing good legislation to Ireland without even trying to focus on what we are trying to achieve. That is an opportunity missed and it will not help the process.

I find it fairly discourteous that the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office have not referred us to or provided us with the detail of Irish legislation, so that we know what that means—it is important. I am interested to know whether the Minister will refer to those Irish Acts and to how people can get round things, and whether he will explain how we can be sure that those Acts protect the interests of the peace process, because that is what it is all about.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 12:30, 25 April 2006

I am grateful for the contributions from hon. Members from all parts of the Committee. I can tell the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) and for East Antrim straight away that we have an honest disagreement. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South, in that the clause states that Irish citizens and bodies should be allowed to make donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to take account of the historic nature of the special role that the Republic of Ireland has in the affairs of Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend indicated, it is entirely consistent with the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—that relationships between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on such matters should appertain.

I understand where hon. Members are coming. From their perspective, the Republic of Ireland is a foreign power and should be deemed as such under the Bill, as France, Germany, America, Australia or anywhere else in the world would be. However, I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is quite clear that, when implemented, the legislation will in due course ban foreign donations. We have included a difference in relation to the Republic of Ireland because there is a relationship with the Republic of Ireland, whether hon. Members like that relationship or not, with regard to shared objectives, a shared future and shared aspects of the democratic process. For the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined, in relation to the Belfast agreement, that is part of the principle.

As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) mentioned, we have on a number of occasions discussed with the Irish Government their electoral legislation and the possibility of their changing it. We have had discussions at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, but I am not aware of any proposals from the Irish Government to introduce changes in their electoral legislation, although they have considered that. I have discussed the issue with my counterparts in the Irish Republic at ministerial level.

In the event of the Irish Republic bringing forward any such changes, the Bill enables powers to be given to the Secretary of State to make amendments to the scheme, which the House will have to endorse, to enable those changes to be reflected in the changes that the Committee is considering now. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about the Irish Republic’s role, but we have set down clear standards in the Bill. If an individual is an Irish citizen, they can donate to political parties in the north of Ireland for the purposes of electoral contests. We do that for the special relationship with the Republic of Ireland, for the historic nature of that relationship and in accordance with the Belfast agreement.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Would the Minister care to comment on the fact that, as he indicated, the issue has been discussed on several occasions with his counterparts in the Irish Government? Can he confirm the transparency of the current situation, as regards donations to Irish political parties, including Sinn Fein, in the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

In the discussions with the Irish Government, I have shared, as a matter of course, information regarding the intentions of the British Government in relation to the electoral changes that we are making in the north of Ireland. At BIIGCs, we have shared with them the details of the legislation that, potentially, will come before the House, as one would expect. We feel that it is important to do so on matters that affect the island of Ireland. I have shared with them our intentions and I understand that the Irish Government have looked at the potential for changes in their legislation. At present, there are no proposals from the Irish Government, but they are keeping the matter under review. In due course, they will discuss with the British Government our perspective on their electoral policy and legislation.

This boils down to an honest disagreement between me, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South and other members of the Committee, and Opposition Members and Members from the Northern Ireland Unionist parties who have spoken in the debate. We have banned foreign donations and will continue to do so, but it will be a matter of special interest that the Republic of Ireland still has a role and responsibility, given the historical agreements made in Belfast on Good Friday and the historical nature of the relationship between the Republic and the north.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

There is common ground with the Minister in that we agree that Irish citizens should be able to donate to parties operating in Northern Ireland, and also that there should be a ban on foreign donations, but it concerns me that the measure is such that it may permit a foreigner to donate money to an Irish political party and that money may then be spent in Northern Ireland. Can he clarify the situation regarding foreign donations—that is, from people who are neither British nor Irish—to an Irish political party, with the money ending up being spent in Northern Ireland?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Again, at the moment, the measure is framed so as to ensure that Irish citizens can donate to Northern Ireland political parties. We have banned foreign donations; we accept in the legislation that Irish citizens can donate to parties in the north, for historical reasons. I hope there is agreement with the Liberal Democrats. I say to the hon. Member for East Antrim that it may benefit Sinn Fein or the SDLP, but is he telling me that there is no single person in the population of the Republic of Ireland who may wish to donate to his party, the party of the hon. Member for North Down or the Alliance party in Northern Ireland? I cannot rule that out. It is perfectly legitimate for an individual resident—let us say someone in a border area of Northern Ireland, or an Irish citizen who believes in the Union—to donate to the party represented by the hon. Member for East Antrim for those reasons. There is no reason why that cannot be done.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Perhaps if I put a scenario to the Minister he may understand. He talked about an Irish citizen, but proposed new section 71B(2) refers to

“a body of that description or category would be entitled under Irish law to donate to an Irish political party.”

The scenario works in one sense if we are talking about the nationalist party. What if a Unionist party chose to register a body incorporate, which is in the Irish legislation, in the south of Ireland and a foreign donor—perhaps a British citizen living in the United States or a Saudi Arabian donor or whoever we like—donated to an Ulster Unionist party based in the south, which passed that donation, through the Irish legislation, to Northern Irish politics, which would be perfectly admissible? The problem is that anybody can take advantage of the Irish law to get foreign donations into the system.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman will know that that could be an issue that might need to be examined. The position of the legislation is clear: we ban foreign donations to British political parties operating in Great Britain and the United Kingdom as a whole, including Northern Ireland. Irish citizens are potentially able to donate to parties operating in Northern Ireland because of the historical nature of the position between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I would not expect there to be any situation whereby under Irish law and British law foreign individuals could subvert British Government legislation to secure donations to British political parties operating in Great Britain and/or in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

It is not subverting Irish law; Irish law allows overseas donations. They can come from either an Irish citizen overseas or a support group of an Irish-based political party overseas. It is not a matter of saying that we can just let Irish citizens donate. No, we cannot do anything. We do what the Irish say because that is in the second part of the legislation. It allows overseas donations into Ireland, so it allows overseas donations via that route into the United Kingdom Northern Ireland political environment.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Parties that operate in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland are separate legal entities. Like individuals, they will be party to British law. Irish citizens can donate Irish-based resources and Irish-based finance from Irish citizens to political parties in the north, but that precludes donations from overseas individuals who are not Irish citizens. The position relates to the fact that Irish citizens, but not citizens of other nations, can support political parties in the north.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The discussion reminds me of what happened on the Floor of the House: the longer the Minister spoke, the more agitated the Opposition became. I shall explain why. Does he not see that there is nothing theoretically to prevent the Labour party from setting up something in the south of Ireland and getting foreign donations into that part of the corporate organisation, transferring the money to the north and bringing it into the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Minister must accept that he is vulnerable because of the recent experience that showed that political parties will do anything to get round the  conditions. What guarantee do we have that the legislation will not fail to achieve standardisation and elimination of foreign donations?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The simple, straightforward reason that United Kingdom law bans foreign donations, with the exception of Irish donations from Irish individuals. That resource cannot be laundered through an Irish individual to a British political party or to a party operating in the United Kingdom. It is about individuals who are resident and Irish citizens being able to donate on the island of Ireland to support political parties in the north. There is an honest disagreement in Committee about the Bill and the role of Irish citizens in supporting parties in the north.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister emphasised proposed new section 71B(1)(a) and the role of the Irish citizen. Will he comment on proposed new section 71B(1)(b), which refers to

“a body which is of a prescribed description or category and in relation to which any prescribed conditions are met.”?

Does that not cover the point made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that a party in Northern Ireland could set up a body in the Irish Republic and receive donations from a foreign donor through that body into Northern Ireland?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

No, it does not. There is an honest disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and me on such matters. I believe that the situation ensures that Northern Ireland political parties and GB political parties are separate legal entities from those in the Republic of Ireland. Under the Bill, an individual who is an Irish citizen and involved in the Republic of Ireland can donate political party resources to parties operating in the north, as indeed, under Irish law, can bodies. However, the two are separate entities and United Kingdom law on foreign donations will apply to that, with the exception of Irish-based citizens and bodies. From my perspective, that means that money cannot be laundered through the Irish Government and Irish political parties or individuals to support British political parties or Northern Ireland political parties, because that would be illegal under United Kingdom legislation.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The Minister is generous in giving way. The disagreement is about a technical, legal position that is either right or wrong. It is not a disagreement about whether we should or should not accept the provision. It is not illegal to donate to a Northern Ireland party if the body undertaking the donation is either an Irish citizen or a body under the rules of Irish electoral legislation. It is therefore not illegal for a body in the south to give money to a political party in the north, even if the money that the body is donating comes from abroad. That is a fact, not an angle of disagreement. This concerns the reading of the legislation.

If the Minister tabled an amendment to remove the provision on bodies donating and said that that had to be done by an Irish citizen, that would go some way to alleviate the problem. He could—

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s interventions are getting longer and longer.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 12:45, 25 April 2006

There is an honest disagreement between us. In my view the matters relating to this are tight in the sense that we have supported the Irish Government’s definition of Irish citizens and their definition of donations to political parties. We do so because we wish the Republic of Ireland to be able, as part of the Belfast agreement, to support Northern Ireland parties should they so wish. It is meant to be ring-fenced around the Republic of Ireland. I believe that that is the effect of the Bill. I believe that hon. Members have a fundamental disagreement with the citizens and bodies of the Republic of Ireland donating to parties in the north of Ireland. That is what motivates them in Committee. That is why I will ask my hon. Friends to support the clause as drafted and to reject the amendments.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I have listened patiently to the Minister and to remarks that have been made by other hon. Members. I was particularly struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, South. If I could briefly put on my Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hat, I should tell the Minister that in our first foreign overseas foray we visited Dublin. It was part of our inquiry into organised crime and the hon. Member for East Antrim was also there—[Interruption.] I beg his pardon. He was not present on that occasion.

We were particularly struck by the witnesses’ concern about the Northern bank robbery and how it affected the way that Sinn Fein’s operation in the Republic was perceived. Until the recent robbery in the south of England, it was the largest bank robbery in British history: £26.5 million or thereabouts was stolen just before Christmas 2004. The Police Service of Northern Ireland believes that a substantial amount of that horde of cash was taken to the Republic of Ireland and some notes are believed to have been traced.

It was very notable that witnesses in the Irish Republic did not refer to the murder of Robert McCartney by the provisional IRA or those connected with the provisional IRA in Belfast. For them the most undermining event that had taken place in Northern Ireland had been the bank robbery. I find it unbelievable and I am offended that the Minister chose to rely upon the Belfast agreement, an agreement which I supported, as a defence. I would be amazed if he could turn to a specific phrase or clause that entitled the Irish Government to support Irish parties in “the north”—that was the unfortunate phrase he used: it is Northern Ireland and it is part of the United Kingdom—if they so wished. That is not my recollection of the agreement for which I voted. I should be delighted if the Minister could bring in a copy of the agreement this afternoon and point out that phrase.

Given the disquiet felt by very senior members of the Garda about how the political system in the Republic of Ireland can be wholly undermined by one party—Sinn Fein, connected with the IRA—by simply  buying influence through a bank robbery, I refuse to give my consent to this clause.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does the hon. Lady agree that what we have seen once again is a Minister who is doing his best to defend a piece of legislation that clearly has a flaw in it? I do not blame the draftsmen for this because I believe that the Government want to keep this loophole. Would she agree that we effectively have here a piece of legislation with such a large loophole that it will not do anything to assist the law-abiding parties who obey the principle and spirit of the law, but will give an open gate to any party that wants to continue with foreign donations to do it through the back door?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Of course, I agree.

It is written in the Bill that there will be an exemption for Irish citizens. The Minister has confirmed that an Irish citizen could be in the Republic of Ireland and make a donation of whatever size. There will be no limit on the size of a donation, and no suggestion of any criteria that would be imposed. I cannot in conscience accept that Sinn Fein can not only distort the political system and undermine it in the Republic of Ireland, but that I should ask them, invite them and encourage them to do so in Northern Ireland, the part of the United Kingdom I love so well. I cannot and will not do it. I shall not withdraw the amendment, and want to press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 16.

Division number 3 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 15

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 16 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I have just one thing to say: I do not want to rehearse the debate again, but the Minister is obviously so confused that he thinks that the Liberal Democrats are supporting the Government in opposing the amendment. When he looks at the record, he will see that the previous debate covered an amendment that was pretty much identical to the one that we just supported. That is a concern about the clause, and I think that the Minister is now confused about its intent.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am only making the point on clause stand part. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute spoke in the last debate in favour of Irish citizens donating to Northern Ireland parties, and then he and his hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire voted against the same thing in support of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. As ever, the Liberal Democrats have faced both ways at the same time.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

My concern is that the Bill would allow Irish bodies to give money and those bodies could, frankly, be money laundering. I am not opposed to donations from Irish citizens, but my concern about the wording of the clause is the reference to other bodies.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The only money in this clause stand part debate is a sixpence, because the hon. Gentleman has just turned on one.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

In speaking to the question that the clause stand part, I would urge the Minister to come back with some details about the Irish legislation that has been mentioned. I also want to point out that this is not about some hidden agenda to stop that, and the Minister’s accusation was rather insulting. We should do what is right and what is within the power of this Government and Parliament, without relying on the Irish Government. We could give even more benefit, if we wanted, to the parties of the nationalist persuasion, because it is in our power. To accuse us of trying to undermine things is disingenuous.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is disingenuous of the Minister to say that he simply cannot see the difference between having sensible legislation that achieves what we want and ignoring the loopholes? All we are asking is that the Government have a sensible conversation with the Government in Dublin to ensure that everything fits together. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is clearly the Minister who is panicking?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

The Government are certainly on the back foot at the very least. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, we are asking only whether we can do something in British law to close down overseas donations via bodies in Ireland. It seems likely that the Minister was not aware that the issue arose in the Bill until we mentioned it. I would be interested to know whether he or any of his officials have the Irish legislation beside them, because he has been challenged to mention bits of it, but nothing has come back. The Government have clearly rushed things through, trying to win hearts and minds in Sinn Fein, and the losers will be the other parties, which play by the rules. All we are trying to do is introduce British legislation to ensure that a loophole that is not within our control is not exploited. If the Minister cannot see that, the issue will rise to the surface in three or four years’ time and he will have only himself to blame.

Question put, that the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 6.

Division number 4 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 15

Aye: 16 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 15, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.