Clause 17

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

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Modifications during prescribed period

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 3, in page 12,line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 8 on page 13.—[Lembit Öpik.]

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham 4:00, 25 April 2006

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 28, in page 12, line 40, leave out subsection (3).

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

Welcome aboard, Mr. Atkinson. You join us at an exciting, nail-biting moment in proceedings.

First, I apologise to the Minister. I recognise that the poor, poor Minister of State for the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), always seems to get the bum’s rush when it comes to this sort of legislation, with the Opposition becoming increasingly annoyed with the Government’s position. I also assure him that although I feel great warmth for him personally and have a lot of respect for his capabilities, we do not seek to provoke him or the Government for any spurious reason. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) genuinely feel the concerns that we have raised.

I move swiftly on to conclude my points about amendment No. 3. In essence, the recent history of politics in Westminster in relation to the Government’s fundraising efforts shows how any political party will seek to gain advantage using any loophole that it is possible to find. The Government should not be surprised that we are so concerned about giving Ministers the opportunity to extend the prescribed period under the clause. We should remember also that at least one party in Northern Ireland has considerable previous form when it comes to taking advantage of what one might call illegitimate fundraising techniques.

The Minister’s position would carry more gravity if he were willing to accept that the exercise is one in risk management rather than risk elimination. What slightly irks us is that the Minister seems to suggest that the Government’s solution is perfect and our concerns are not necessarily legitimate. When the Minister responds to my amendment and to amendment No. 28, which seems to do much the same, will he be a little more balanced in recognising that our concerns are legitimate and they come down to matters of judgment? When it comes to such matters of judgment, those on the Opposition Benches and the  Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland have plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that if things are not tied down tightly and made transparent, that opaqueness will be used to maximum advantage by those who have taken much more dramatic and illegal measures to raise money before.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon,Mr. Atkinson. It is not long since some of us sat under your chairmanship in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, in a lively meeting if I remember correctly. This afternoon might not be so lively, but I am sure that it will be well conducted.

I rise to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and also to speak to the related amendment No. 28, which I tabled.

Clause 17 is an interesting provision and has to be read in conjunction with schedule 2. Clause 17 declares in the definition section:

“During the prescribed period, the 2000 Act”— that is the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—will apply

“in relation to Northern Ireland subject to the modifications in Schedule 1.”

That application is a welcome one.

I will not go into the modifications in schedule 1 in detail, because we will have an opportunity later, but they mean that for the first time political parties will have to notify the Electoral Commission of donations, in secrecy. It is the Electoral Commission’s duty to keep strictly confidential the detail of donations given to political parties and disclosed to the commission by political parties in Northern Ireland during what is intended to be and is described as “the prescribed period”.

According to clause 17(2):

“‘The prescribed period’ means the period—

(a) starting with 1st November 2007, and

(b) ending with 31st October 2010.”

My amendment would remove the following damaging proviso in clause 17(3), whereby:

“The Secretary of State may by order amend paragraph (b) of subsection (2) so as to extend the prescribed period.”

I do not wish that provision to appear in the final legislation for several good reasons. The first is the Secretary of State’s statement on Second Reading. I shall quote his words directly. This is not an invention by the Ulster Unionist party. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland gave the House an assurance that

“the Bill will require Northern Ireland parties, for the first time, to comply with the rules set out under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which require donations over a certain amount to be declared to the Electoral Commission. However, to take account of the continuing concerns about the possibility of donor intimidation in Northern Ireland, for a transitional period, donations to Northern Ireland parties will be checked privately by the Electoral Commission...That period will run from November 2007 and”— these are the important words—

“pave the way for full transition to complete transparency, as in the rest of the UK, in October 2010, which remains the Government’s goal.—[Official Report, 13 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1175.]

That was the clear assurance given to the House.

The difficulty with the clause is when it is read in conjunction with that statement. It was unfortunate that the Secretary of State did not continue in his remarks on Second Reading to explain that through subsections (3) and (4), he, as the Secretary of State, may extend the prescribed period so that it does not end on 31 October 2010. Subsection (4) states that instead, he may by order extend that period every two years:

“The power to make an order...may be exercised on more than one occasion, but the prescribed period must not be extended for more than 2 years at a time.”

The Secretary of State may extend once, twice, three times—indefinitely.

I hoped that when the Secretary of State said to the House on Second Reading that as in the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was in full transition to complete transparency in October 2010, the Bill would put that into effect. On close scrutiny of this clause, particularly subsections (3) and (4), however, that will not be the effect. Full transparency could be delayed indefinitely on the whim of the Secretary of State every two years by an Order in Council. I refuse to allow that power to be given to the Secretary of State, and I therefore wish to see the Minister adopt the amendment.

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

I join the other members of the Committee in welcoming you to the Chair for this afternoon’s sitting, Mr. Atkinson. You may or may not be needed for a further sitting later in the week or next week. Who knows?

I thank hon. Members for raising their points and tabling the amendments before us. For the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Montgomeryshire, I shall put on record straight away that it is the Government’s wish and intention that Northern Ireland becomes part of the overall regime on transparency of donations as soon as is practicable. We have provided under clause 17 that the period between 1 November 2007 and 31 October 2010 will be the prescribed period. For reasons that I explained earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), we have disapplied the regulations on publication of donations, because there is the potential for intimidation and there are concerns about threats. The situation in Northern Ireland, although becoming more stable, remains potentially unstable, and we have disapplied the order for those reasons.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Bearing in mind the much quoted—particularly by the Northern Ireland Office and Government Ministers—statement from the IRA that

“Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever”,

where does the Minister anticipate the intimidation of those who donate to political parties coming from?

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

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. She will know that I anticipate and very much hope, as will every democrat in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, that the next two to three years and beyond will see the continued building of stability in the security situation in Northern Ireland that is potentially there. The hon. Lady will know also that because of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, there is still potential for the intimidation of people who donate to political parties, for long-held enmities to continue, and for that to be manifested in intimidation or, as has been put to me by political parties during the discussions, threats to businesses that donate to political parties and others.

I hope and appreciate that normality will continue to grow, but the Bill includes a provision for the anonymous registration of donations, monitored by the Electoral Commission for that three-year period from 2007 to 2010, because the threat of that intimidation may still exist and be of concern. Legislation can be changed, but the provision is there for the Secretary of State to have the power to make the order post-2010 for a period of up to two years. Although I accept fully that the situation may be normal by 2010, and the Secretary of State may not need to apply the power, I would rather include it in case a situation arises in 2010 whereby the future Secretary of State, for whatever reason or judgment, determines that he or she cannot make those applications and funding documents public—as is done in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends—and must continue to disapply the order.

I do not expect that we will reach that situation. I expect fully that by 2010, we will be in a situation of normality in which the Secretary of State can say that in Belfast, North Down, Foyle and Belfast, South provisions will be applied in exactly the same way that they are in my constituency and in that of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South(Mr. Woodward). I fully expect that to be the case. However, if the Bill did not include the provision for the Secretary of State to make those decisions, which the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for North Down seek to delete, and in 2010, we reach a situation whereby we feel it is not practical to lift the disapplication, we would have to bring primary legislation before the House. This clause provides the Secretary of State with the order-making power to take the decision to extend the disapplication for a maximum of two years, if he so wishes. That power would also be subject to the confidence of the House of Commons and another place through a vote.

The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for North Down are concerned about giving the Secretary of State powers to extend the order. The Secretary of State will not want to exercise that power, because our wish is to achieve normality in Northern Ireland on a par with my constituency and those of my hon. Friends. The power is there in case that situation does not arise and the Secretary of State at that time needs to extend the disapplication.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

I am grateful to the Minister for taking another intervention. I may have misheard  him—I do not think that I did—but he stated that the Secretary of State will have the power to extend the provision for a maximum of two years.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Precisely. I just wanted the Minister to confirm that a Secretary of State will be able repeatedly to extend the provision for two years at a time, which is the wording in the clause.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:15, 25 April 2006

The hon. Lady did not mishear me. I said that the Secretary of State can undertake to extend the order by a maximum of two years at a time. Each time that he does so, it must be confirmed by this House and by another place in an order before the House. I have said to the hon. Lady and to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that the purpose of the legislation is to ensure that provision for donations in Northern Ireland is put on a par with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The disapplication period will last for three years in order to cover the points of concern that have been put to us, for instance, by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South.

That disapplication period will end in 2010, but if at that time, the Secretary of State judges that they need to extend it, he, or she, can do so for two years, subject to a vote in this House and in another place. But that will be the case only if that is the situation at the time, which I do not expect. I hope that it will be recognised that our intention is to apply the provision uniformly across the United Kingdom. That is the Bill’s intention, but we have the reserve power, in order to save further primary legislation, if the situation deteriorates.

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 understand the Minister’s position. I have two thoughts about that. First, the irony of the Government’s intention is that the provision will give the paramilitaries the opportunity to determine Government policy because as long as the paramilitaries are willing to intimidate people who give money to parties, the Government will have a justification for extending the provision that we are discussing.

Secondly, I have another, perhaps even greater, concern: I have warned the Government repeatedly that as long as it looks like there is a plan B, plan A will not get as much support as it otherwise would. Everything that the Minister has said suggests to me that the Government are planning for a potential impasse or failure, or a situation in which such intimidation persists.

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

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that neither I, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my hon. Friends the Members for St. Helens, South and for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) nor my noble Friend the Lord Rooker, are spending our time trying to work towards a failure. We are working for success, a peaceful situation in Northern Ireland and  restoration of the Assembly, but this provision is there in case the Secretary of State, at that time, judges extensions to be necessary.

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 detect a hint of irritation in the Minister’s voice. I do not want to provoke him because I do not want to give the evidently false impression that I think that the Government expect failure. Nor do I think that he is anticipating that the legislation will fail. But to be equally precise, I observe inclause 17, as I have in his language, a desire to keep the option open.

Anybody who has been involved in such matters for a long time will agree that the Minister needs to recognise that when the Government keep their options open, they keep open also the options of those who would resist what the Government want. That is the difficulty with having a plan B—I am always advising the Government not to build one in as a subtext to the primary message of legislation.

I do not think that the Minister his hoping for, or expecting failure, or anything like that. However, by saying, “We need to keep the provision in case something goes wrong and we have to extend the prescribed period,” he is adding to the culture of expectation demonstrated repeatedly by those who resist the process and who will say, “Okay Government, you have given yourself a way forward here, even if we disagree, go ahead and use that extension order.” That is why I am opposed to this part of the legislation. I think that the hon. Member for North Down has a slightly different take on the matter, but at the end of the day, the sum total is the same.

It is not worth dividing the Committee on the matter, but I should like to reserve the right to return to it on Report, following further consultation with Ministers. I have made my points, and I am not satisfied that the Minister took them seriously. Nevertheless, for the convenience of the Committee, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.