Schedule 1

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 25 April 2006.

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Modifications of 2000 Act

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

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 23, line 34, at end insert—

‘“71F Location of donation reports

A Northern Ireland report must not at any time be kept in any office of the Commission in Northern Ireland.”'.

The amendment is very simple and could be described as a probing amendment. I would like, as I believe would many others, to be reassured by the Minister that information that is given to the Electoral Commission will be held in a safe place, preferably in London rather than Belfast. The reason for that is simple. In the period between now and 2010—and afterwards if necessary—there will be a serious risk that information that has been disclosed, but not publicly disclosed, will be leaked. We would like it not to be leaked, but if it is, we do not want the wrong  people to be blamed. We do not want staff in a Belfast office automatically getting the blame.

More fundamentally, we are fully aware that paramilitary organisations have sought at times to gather information in the public sector. As I said in our debate this morning, a member of the Real IRA was convicted in October 2004 after he had accessed a number of personal details from records held at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. There have also been times, dare I say, when there have been leaks from the Northern Ireland Office to hon. Members across the Committee. It appears that in 2002 the IRA was operating a spy ring inside the NIO. Those are some of the reasons, and they are enough justification to say that information kept in Belfast might not be as safe as it would be if it were kept elsewhere.

I am keen to have some reassurance from the Minister that information that has been disclosed will be kept in a safe place. Should I get that, I shall be very happy to withdraw the amendment.

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

I fully understand what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve, and I have some sympathy with the points that he makes. However, I do not think that it would be appropriate for us to put such things in primary legislation; that should be an operational matter for the Electoral Commission. My officials in the Northern Ireland Office have discussed with the Electoral Commission the location and security of any records that might be made under this legislation. It has indicated that so far as it is aware, provisionally until the Bill becomes law, the intention is that it should not hold any donation reports from Northern Ireland in premises in Belfast. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend. The security of information is particularly important to the Commission; it takes it very seriously and is aware of the sensitivities in relation to Northern Ireland. While it is an operational matter and I hope that the legislation will not fetter it, the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed are understood by the Electoral Commission and, having discussed the matter with my officials, I have every confidence that it will act appropriately.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

Will the Minister kindly enlighten the Committee about the estimated cost of the Electoral Commission’s providing the security that will be its responsibility once this is on the statute book?

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

I do not have to hand an estimate of the potential cost, but let me put it into context. The Electoral Commission is already undertaking that role for parliamentary constituencies and for parties in Scotland, England and Wales. We are adding to its burden by some 18 parliamentary constituencies, and the political parties that operate in Northern Ireland. While I do not have an estimate of the costs involved, I suspect that their overall impact on the legislation will be marginal, because they will relate to an operation that the Electoral Commission already undertakes.

If I have any figures to hand in due course, I shall write to the hon. Lady. However, the costs are marginal and the commission is content to undertake the work. Given that, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.