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Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

Lords amendments considered.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 3

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

In all parts of the House, there has long been awareness of some of the real concerns about the way in which Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with through the Order in Council procedure. We have had many debates about such matters with Members on both sides of the House in the past 15 months during which I have had the privilege of holding this office. We have had discussions in Committee, which have sometimes spilled over into discussions on the Floor of the House. The Government have been considering how to improve the procedure, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the official Opposition spokesman and other parties last year. As it happens, the other place has helpfully tabled an amendment to deal with those matters, on which we are focusing today.

My noble Friend Lord Rooker and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have considered the procedures in the House, and we have concluded that we need to examine how the Order in Council procedure is to be changed. Following last week’s Lords amendments, the Government have given an undertaking that, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable. Our intention is for the restoration of the devolved Assembly by 24 November. Many of the matters dealt with under the Order in Council procedure are properly dealt with by the Assembly, should it be reconstituted. In the event of the Assembly not being reconstituted—of course, I hope that it will be—we will consider how to make those measures more accountable, agreed through the usual channels, if I may say so, with a stage of parliamentary consideration at which Northern Ireland Orders in Council can be amended. We will also ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through Bills.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so clear that the Government have finally listened to this request. Will he assure us, however, that in the unfortunate circumstance that the Assembly does not recommence by 24 November, we will not wait for months or years for the changes to take place? Can he assure us that the timetable will be a matter of days or weeks, not months or years?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions on these issues. Obviously, the Government’s first priority is to get the Assembly up and running, with the co-operation of colleagues on both sides of the House, by 24 November. In the unhappy event that the Assembly is not reconstituted, we will take an early opportunity to examine how to make the Order in Council procedure more appropriate, as has been discussed in another place and here. Although that will be considered as a matter of urgency, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that the first priority of officials and Ministers is to get the Assembly back up and running.

Of course, we are sorry that the provision is not going through now, as Members on both sides of the House have campaigned for it for a long time. I was just looking at Hansard from long ago, when the majority of Northern Ireland Members wanted that to be done. Success rests with the Government. If the Government put down the IRA and the so-called Protestant paramilitary—if they put an end to all the terrorism, cleaning of banknotes and so forth—we will have what we want: ideal democracy. If we can have that, however, let us have the same democracy that we have in legislation on this side of the water.

The right hon. Gentleman’s support is always welcome, and I am grateful for the support that he has given to our objectives today. Let me say to the House, and to the right hon. Gentleman in particular, that the Government’s prime objective is to get the Assembly up and running again. The matters dealt with by Order in Council are dealt with in that way because the Assembly is not sitting. I understand that the Government have responsibilities in regard to the restoration of the Assembly, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman with due respect that responsibilities also lie with all the political parties that are elected in Northern Ireland to ensure that the Assembly is reconstituted.

I ask the House to disagree with the amendment because in my opinion—and I hope that this is acceptable to Opposition Members—what it proposes is unnecessary in view of the Government’s undertaking to consider further parliamentary scrutiny of Orders in Council. I hope that Members will not oppose the motion, but if they do, I hope that they will understand where the Government are coming from.

I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory remarks, and in particular for the significant concession that the Government have announced today in response to repeated arguments from my right hon. and hon. Friends here and in the House of Lords, and from the Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist parties, about the unacceptable and undemocratic nature of our present system for Orders in Council affecting Northern Ireland.

Let me say at the outset that I share the Minister’s hope that devolution can be restored in Northern Ireland by 24 November, and I hope that the Government succeed in that objective. It will come as no surprise to the Minister if I repeat what I have said on many previous occasions—that in my view restoration of devolution will be possible only if the republican movement is finally willing both to recognise the legitimacy of the police service and the courts in Northern Ireland, and to give its full and active support to those institutions. But if for whatever reason devolution cannot be restored by 24 November, Conservative Members will look to the Government to move quickly—I use their own word—to introduce new legislation to change the way in which Orders in Council are dealt with here.

It is intolerable that legislation which, if it concerned England, would be dealt with by a Bill, and which would be amenable to amendment and detailed debate by all parties and by Back Benchers in all parts of the House, should, in respect of Northern Ireland, be the subject of a time-limited debate on a single Order in Council, almost always taking place in a Committee Room upstairs. Worse, the Committees allow only perhaps four Northern Ireland Members to participate in discussions of measures relating to education, local government reform and health which directly and significantly affect the lives of the people whom those Members are sent here to represent. Insult is added to injury by the fact that in the case of Orders in Council as in that of any secondary legislation, Parliament must either accept or reject what the Government put before it. It has no power to amend an Order in Council.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that since the announcement that this move would be made, some people in Northern Ireland are describing it as a concession of a political nature? What the hon. Gentleman is describing, however, is something that should have been done years ago. It is something that stands in its own right, irrespective of deadlines, the restoration of devolution or anything else. It is something that ought to have been done already, and ought now to be done as quickly as possible.

I agree. I described it earlier as a concession by the Government, but I would also describe it as a concession to democracy and common sense.

Given that it is a concession to democracy and not to a particular party, and given that between now and the time when devolution is restored in Northern Ireland—if it is restored—there is still a large amount of controversial legislation in the pipeline, is it not appropriate for the concession to be implemented now, rather than the Minister’s making a promise for the future as he has today?

I would have preferred the concession to have been introduced much earlier, but I think that when it comes to measures that affect the way in which Parliament collectively deals with legislation it is best, if at all possible, to achieve reform by means of consensus across the House of Commons rather than by making procedural moves a subject of party political dispute.

In view of the firm assurances that the Government have given today, we shall not oppose the motion, but if devolution is not restored in November, we shall hold Ministers to account and expect them to deliver what they have promised to the House.

The Minister and the House know how strongly I have felt about this matter over the past two years. Indeed, on some occasions during Statutory Instrument Committees I have been almost angry with the Government for failing to make the change. The Minister knows, but I warn him again, that he would not like me when I am angry. Nevertheless, I am relieved to know that he and the Government have seen the sense of a change for which the Liberal Democrats have called for more than two years.

I recall outrageous occasions on which the will of Northern Ireland politicians, speaking in unison, has been ignored in preference to the dogma of the Government. For example, the Government lost a vote on tuition fees in a Grand Committee in which they had a majority because Northern Ireland Members and others felt so strongly that that was the wrong move for Northern Ireland. Of course, we had no opportunity to amend the legislation, and Northern Ireland had imposed on it a piece of legislation developed entirely by the Government, with scant regard for the wishes of the people there.

In that context, I thank the Minister for placing on record the Government’s intention to address the way in which we legislate for Northern Ireland in Westminster. That has been a long time coming. The Liberal Democrats, together with Conservative and indeed Northern Ireland Members, have expressed concerns on many occasions. We are grateful that the Government have now responded and are prepared to act.

We also appreciate the Minister’s important observation that this is nothing to do with planning for failure. We are firmly committed to devolution, and we hope that the continuing priority of the Government and, indeed, politicians speaking for Northern Ireland constituencies is the re-establishment of the devolved Assembly. However, if the devolved Assembly is not restored by that date—and, as I have said, we sincerely hope that it is—we must move quickly to ensure that whatever processes are implemented in this place in the interests of legislation for the Province are implemented speedily.

I asked the Minister to confirm that the Government’s timetable for change would be days or weeks rather than months or years, but I noticed that he declined to be that specific. I will be specific. In my judgment, the Government need to move on that change by the end of December 2006, because the situation has gone on long enough. Even December 2006 will provide the Government with four or five weeks to initiate a dialogue and produce plans to change the methodology for Northern Ireland legislation, thereby enabling it to be amended.

We also very much welcome the intention to legislate for Northern Ireland by means of primary legislation, wherever possible, but will the Minister clarify precisely what that means? Will we see more Bills like this one, where a number of measures that are not related to each other are all scrutinised at once, or will it mean that Northern Ireland measures will be included in legislation for England and Wales that is proceeding on the same subject areas at the same time? Given that we have debated anonymous registration in the Bill, it would have been much better if Northern Ireland provisions had been included by the latter means. I simply cannot understand why we separate Northern Ireland legislation from legislation intended for England and Wales where it is perfectly obvious that the same rules apply.

However, we appreciate that that would require discussions between various Departments, so I rhetorically ask the Minister whether such a feat would be possible. I sincerely hope—[Interruption.] I hear an equivocal response from the Minister so I will take the positive part of it. Silo thinking has to some extent made it difficult for the Northern Ireland Office to work with other Departments, where doing so would offer economies of scale and might lead to more consistent legislation. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be better co-operation and co-ordination between the various Northern Ireland departments and Departments in Whitehall?

Finally, this is an occasion when the Government are asking us to trust them without their having made specific legislative proposals or any specific modifications that could, through amendment, initiate the process that we are discussing in the Bill. I do not always trust the Government, but on this occasion I do, and I sincerely believe that the Minister is sincere and that his word is good. For that reason—[Interruption.]

He is laughing with surprise and relief that on this one occasion we trust him—[Interruption.] I sense from mutterings not many Benches behind me that others may be somewhat more distrustful. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats accept the Government’s promise on trust and we assume that we are talking about movement within a five-week period after 25 November. We also assume that changes will be implemented through statute by the end of February. On that basis, we thank the Minister for listening to our views on this important issue and we will not oppose the Government.

I would have supported the Lords amendments today, but given that the Minister has proposed what we all accept is a necessary step forward for securing democracy in Northern Ireland, I am happy to go along with it. I strongly urge that the work is done over the summer, so that we are ready to put these measures through as soon as the House returns after the recess.

I, too, hope that the Assembly will be back by 24 November. In the last few months, we have seen the Order in Council procedure used in a totally undemocratic way. Quite frankly, the Government are not seeking votes in Northern Ireland and they do not care about the people of Northern Ireland in the same sense that they care about the people of London, for example. If every single London Member said that they did not want something to happen, it would not happen. That was the case quite recently when London MPs were very angry about health issues and primary care trusts, and proposals were changed. On many Northern Ireland issues, however, all the parties from the nationalists to the Unionists support certain measures, but the Government have still railroaded their own policies through by the ridiculous Order in Council procedure.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of selection in Northern Ireland—I happen to think that the education system in Northern Ireland is a good system, even though, like every education system, it can be made better—forcing through a measure in two and a half hours in a Committee is not good enough. One Labour Member was taken off the Committee because he had said that he would vote against the Government. I, of course, would not even be considered for that Committee. The Government seem to think that it is all right to put me on European Standing Committees or Statutory Instrument Committees, but not on a Northern Ireland Committee.

Disgracefully, that education measure was forced through. That was using education as a form of blackmail against the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians, when we all know that the vast majority of people there, although they may have wanted to change the way in which the 11-plus worked, did not want to stop academic selection. Minister after Minister stood up and said, “Oh, we are not getting rid of grammar schools; we are just getting rid of academic selection”. Come on, really!

I am pleased that we might be beginning to treat Northern Ireland people with the same respect and to accord them the same rights as we give to people in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK. If my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in England and their constituents were treated in the way that Northern Ireland Members—I include my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) who is in his place behind me—and their constituents are treated, they would find it disgraceful.

If the new Assembly does not get up and running, I have real doubts about what might happen under some new procedure, because Sinn Fein has wanted to get rid of grammar schools since day one. If Sinn Fein can do anything to stop that Assembly coming back on 24 November, just in order to get rid of academic selection, that is what it will do. If Sinn Fein manages to stop the Assembly until just after 24 November, I hope that this House will find some way forward. I also hope that the Liberal Democrats would see how Sinn Fein had exploited the issue.

To go back to the nub of the matter, we must find a way of ensuring that the democratically elected MPs from Northern Ireland can take the necessary decisions. Where are they in all this? Why are they not accorded much more power? They have been elected and taken their seats in this place. They should be listened to much more, but because the Government do not seek a single vote in Northern Ireland, they refuse to organise there and refuse to give those people of the UK the opportunity to vote Labour or join the Labour party in any meaningful sense. It is so frustrating.

The Minister may not think so, but I have a lot of time for him and I believe that he has tried hard in very difficult circumstances—[Interruption.] I am probably ruining his remaining career in saying that. Seriously, though, he has tried hard and it can be extremely difficult to be the front-person when the Secretary of State has not been there, yet is pulling the strings. I am pleased that we are moving forward, but it must happen soon over the summer. If the Assembly does not return, we must ensure that the legislation goes through as quickly as possible. Let us do all that we can—the Government must do all that they can—over the summer to help the democratically elected parties in Northern Ireland to form an Assembly so that the people of Northern Ireland can have true democracy.

It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—and never more so than today. I completely endorse her comments, particularly those tangentially related to the education order, but I also welcome the general principles that she has enunciated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) from the early 1970s and myself from the later ‘70s have consistently championed the cause of ending the Order in Council procedure. As Northern Ireland elected representatives, we were capable of speaking on Second Readings of legislation relating entirely to England and Wales. We could table amendments and speak to them in Committee—at great length, if we uncharacteristically wanted to do so—and we could speak on Report and Third Reading. However, we could not do the same in respect of legislation that applied to our own part of the United Kingdom. It was irrational that we should have a greater say in the affairs of England and Wales than in those of the constituents who had sent us here from Northern Ireland. It was an absurdity—one that, regrettably, the Conservative Government did not attempt to rectify at the time; nor have the Labour Government done so, except that it appears that they have accepted that there is a case to be answered.

Perhaps I am just a sceptic, but I rather suspect that the Government making this concession had something to do with the strength of opinion of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Cross Benchers in the House of Lords. The Government recognised that it might be in the interests of the Bill to make this concession, rather than the Minister having a Damascus road experience on the issue. However it may have come about, we are glad that the Government are moving in that direction, although, like the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we would have preferred it to be done now.

Important legislation will be dealt with between now and whenever the Government rectify the situation, and particularly because issues such as water charging will come before the House. Those issues are of immense importance to our constituents and, unfortunately, they will be dealt with under the procedure, whereby only a few of our Members may get the opportunity on some delegated legislation Committee upstairs to speak on the issue for a few minutes. That is unsatisfactory when dealing with such important issues.

The Minister has not spoken about the process by which he would improve the Order in Council procedure. The Lords indicated that it wanted to make Orders in Council amendable and to introduce a procedure by which the Government could withdraw the order to consider the decision of the House and return with an amended order if necessary, or if the Lords did not amend it, the proposal would be adopted by the House. So the Lords made very specific proposals in its amendment, but the Minister has not said whether he would allow Orders in Council to be amended in such circumstances as may come about. The Government still have not told us about that.

All we know is that they would attempt to get greater democracy into the system. At some later stage, they could decide that we would have two hours instead of an hour and a half to debate an order, or three hours upstairs instead of two and a half, and they might trumpet that as being a great blow for democracy. The Minister needs to give us a clear indication of the nature and scope of his intention in relation to any change to make the process more democratic.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the essential element that we are looking for is amendability?

Absolutely—that is the very point that I am making. The House must be capable of amending an Order in Council. It is ludicrous that if one reads an Order in Council and notices a glaring, obvious mistake—one that every hon. Member might accept is an error—it still cannot be changed. There is no method to change it; the Government must withdraw it and come back at a later stage. It is right that the House should be able to amend that Order in Council. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is his intention.

Given the consensus that appears to have broken out on both sides of the House about the need to move quickly on the issue and to introduce changes quickly if the deadline for devolution is not met, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea now for the Government to enter into discussions with the parties in the House? Discussions are going on in Northern Ireland—some are more fruitful than others—but such a discussion would be extremely fruitful, so that the ideas that my hon. Friend is suggesting could be gone into in more detail.

Yes, and in fact the Government already accept the principle that they should do so in this very Bill. The Bill is centrally designed by the Government to introduce proposals for the devolution of criminal justice and policing matters, which can only be devolved to an Assembly that does not exist, so the Government recognise the need to look ahead on these matters. They recognise that preparatory work needs to be done and that legislation needs to be passed.

If it is right, even before the change in legislation that will be necessary for an Assembly to exist in Northern Ireland, that the Minister should be looking ahead to policing and justice powers being devolved, I am sure that the same Minister would be very content to open up discussions on those matters in the circumstance that many of us do not want—devolution not occurring in Northern Ireland. Although devolution in Northern Ireland might be the Minister’s priority, he should not close his eyes to the possibility that it might not happen. We want it to happen and the Minister knows the circumstances in which it can happen.

I am sure that the Minister was as disappointed as we were when he read the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that indicated the ongoing criminality that still exists not just with ordinary paramilitaries from the loyalist side and from the dissidents, but from those who, according to the Minister, are suitable to be in government. Of course, that information will militate against our getting devolution up and running. I hope that the Minister will look at the alternative.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but as a general rule I have always found in the House that the more consideration given to a Bill and the more scrutiny of legislation that goes on, the better the end product. If that is generally accepted as a rule, the Minister must introduce legislation to change the Order in Council procedure, so that we might get better legislation in Northern Ireland. I welcome the move that the Minister has made.

With regard to amending Orders in Council, does the hon. Gentleman recall that a miscellaneous provisions order, which covered two completely different subjects, was considered just two or three weeks ago? Does that not demonstrate how very difficult it is to govern any part of the United Kingdom in that way?

Over the 27 or 28 years that I have been a Member, I have seen the House pass some legislation in an hour and a half, sometimes at 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, with barely any Members present, except for Northern Ireland Members. That is no way to deal with legislation. Some of these orders, even though they have might have two different elements, can be very important to the lives of people in Northern Ireland. Our business should not be treated in that way and I trust that the Minister’s undertaking, which I hope will be strengthened in his response, will soon be put in place if devolution does not occur in November.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for welcoming the proposals that the Government announced both in Committee and in another place last week and that I have confirmed to the whole House today. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. They are aware from the discussions that we have had on this matter that, as I have said previously, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly—I emphasise the word “quickly”—introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable, including the opportunity for an amendability stage in the parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council. It is my intention—we can discuss this matter on the return of the House—to initiate discussions on those matters with the usual channels, to consider how we can examine the procedure in the event of devolution failing to occur on 24 November.

Again, I reconfirm to the House that I intend to focus my time and that of my officials on ensuring that we get the Assembly back for the 24 November deadline, because that is the key element where the decisions that we deal with by Order in Council should be made. I remind hon. Members that I have said that the Order in Council procedure is not satisfactory on every occasion that I have moved the motion on such an order during the 15 months that I have held my position. It is not a satisfactory way to proceed.

I appreciate what the Minister says about you the procedure not being satisfactory. Will you then explain why you used Order in Council procedures to push through an education order when the same Labour Members were being urged to go through the Lobby to keep selection in England three weeks earlier? You used the Order in Council procedure to put that education order through in two and a half hours.

The Government have taken this decision on policy issues relating to this matter, and a key point for my hon. Friend and all hon. Members is that although the Order in Council procedure was unsatisfactory, there was a debate and a vote on the education order upstairs in Committee. The Opposition prayed against the education order in Committee. There was a vote, of all Members who wished to participate in that vote, on the Floor of the House, and the Government were supported and the proposals were agreed to. So although the Order in Council procedure is unsatisfactory, there was even in that controversial case an ability for all Members, if they so wished, to vote on that matter in the House today.

We have had a degree of consensus on the matters under discussion. It is not for me to break that consensus, but I wish simply to state that although I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) who speaks for the official Opposition, after 10 years of a Labour Government we have brought forward proposals to amend the Order in Council, but in the previous 20 years of Conservative government—from 1972, and up until today—no changes were made. As I do not wish to break the consensus because that would add a sour note to the proceedings, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I thank him for his support for the measures and I commend the Government proposal to the House.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Clause 12

Extension of categories of permissible donors

Lords amendment: No. 1.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As somebody once said, “They all look alike after a while.”

The impact of these amendments on Northern Ireland politics would be serious. They would remove clauses 12 and 13—the permissible donors clauses would be entirely removed, which would have the effect of barring Irish citizens and bodies from donating to parties and regulated donees in Northern Ireland from November 2007. The Government firmly believe that Northern Ireland parties and regulated donees should continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies who can currently donate to Irish parties—as well as accepting donations from those who can donate in the UK, of course—following the end of the “final disapplication period” in October 2007.

That policy is consistent with the Good Friday agreement. It reflects our belief that Irish citizens should be allowed to make such donations to take account of the special role Ireland—including the Republic of Ireland—has in relation to Northern Ireland’s political culture. That would still represent a significant step forward from the current position in Northern Ireland, under which donations may come from anywhere and anyone in the world and there is no obligation on anybody or any party to disclose such donations.

The Minister is trying to put a gloss on what is clearly a discriminatory provision, against Unionist parties and Unionist people in Northern Ireland in particular. How can the Minister justify a special provision that allows Irish citizens and organisations to donate to parties in Northern Ireland, when he knows full well that those donations will be completely one-sided and will have no benefit whatever for Unionist parties or the Unionist population? If the Good Friday agreement or the Belfast agreement is supposed to be about equality, this clearly flies in the face of equality.

I genuinely say to the hon. Gentleman that I cannot estimate who or what or when or where any of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland might wish to donate in respect of parties in the north during any election. I expect that potentially there will be significant donations to the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein and other parties, but it is perfectly possible that there are individuals who live in the Republic of Ireland who wish to donate to any party that represents individuals and stands for election in Northern Ireland elections for the Assembly or any other body.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I simply put it to him that, in this context, if we were to speculate upon percentages and try to arrive at a view as to the proportion of any donations that would go to Unionist parties, there would be several noughts after the decimal point before a positive figure were reached?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but it is not for me to determine the what, who, where and when of any donations to any parties from citizens of the Irish Republic or businesses that operate in the Irish Republic. It is for me to be consistent with the Good Friday agreement, which recognises that there is a significant step forward in these measures and that the potential for donations from citizens of the Republic of Ireland to political parties to the north is a part of that.

I know that concerns exist both in this House and in another place about how the permissible donors clauses would operate in practice—in particular, in relation to the conditions that Irish citizens and bodies who can donate in Ireland would have to meet in order to be able to donate to Northern Ireland parties, and how those donations would be checked and verified in the future by the Electoral Commission. I, and my noble Friend Lord Rooker in dealing with this in another place, have recognised those concerns and have sought to address them when they have been raised, both here and in another place. As I have explained to the House on a number of occasions, the detail of how the permissible donors clauses would work will be set out in UK secondary legislation, following consultation with the Electoral Commission—it is important that the commission has a key role in this matter. This detail, which would include the criteria on how we check individual Irish donors and Republic of Ireland companies that wish to donate to parties in the north, will then be specified by an order that will have to be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The Lords and Members of this House would therefore have an opportunity fully and publicly to debate these issues further when an order was made.

Therefore, for a range of reasons I oppose Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 as they are not compatible with the Good Friday agreement to preclude Irish citizens and bodies from making political donations to Northern Ireland political parties or regulated donees.

I am conscious that this debate finishes at 3.25 pm, and I know that many Members wish to participate, but may I make one final point? Today is a day for retirements, and the Clerk of the House has recently retired. Today is also the final day that a Northern Ireland Minister has received advice from Jonathan Margetts. He is a member of the Northern Ireland Office staff, and he has been acting as head of parliamentary legislation and has been involved in that in the NIO since 1972, after working for the Home Office for nine years previously. If this is my last opportunity to speak in this debate, I wish him and his family every success in his retirement, and I thank him for his long service to 15 Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland during that time.

I echo the Minister’s words of congratulations to the retiring adviser. I do not wish to speak for long, as a number of other Members wish to contribute on this issue and there are two more amendments to consider in not many minutes.

The Minister referred to the fact that the Republic plays an important role in the politics of Northern Ireland. That is undoubtedly the case. When this Bill was before us a few weeks ago, we tabled an amendment suggesting a five-year limit to the continuation of donations from the Republic. One of our concerns was that it was having a disproportionate effect on the politics in Northern Ireland. We did not seek to end it immediately; we put in the five-year limit to allow parties to re-establish. Our concern was not entirely to do with the amount of money or the sources of the money from the Republic. We were also concerned about money coming from America, because there is no doubt that in the past, not only has the Republic had a role in the politics of Northern Ireland, but NORAID—for example—has played an unfortunate role, too. We discussed that matter at great length at that time and I do not intend to speak any longer now, but I wish to hear what is about to be said by Members of Northern Ireland parties.

The Minister will see how strongly Liberal Democrats feel about this matter by the increasing number of Members on our Benches to listen to this debate. [Interruption.] Yes, and perhaps to listen to me as well. Those Members include my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for Cambridge (David Howarth), for Colchester (Bob Russell)—and even my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has come into the Chamber to lend his support to my words this afternoon.

Throughout our discussions on the Bill in this House and another place, we have been at pains to stress to the Government that we do not object in principle to the proposed extension, but we are concerned about how it will work in practice. We have raised some specific and—dare I say it?—reasonable questions about the proposed scheme, but what has been frustrating is that Ministers, particularly in another place, have been unable to give any coherent responses. We have either been greeted with silence or with answers so vague that they simply raise suspicions that we were being sold a pup.

I am glad to see that the Minister is effectively trying to fill in the blanks and to provide some clarity in the fog of confusion that hung over these clauses until now. We understand that the additional categories of donors would have to meet prescribed conditions, which would be set out in an order once consultation had taken place with the Electoral Commission. However, even now, we have not really been given an indication of what such conditions might be. It is not enough to expect Parliament to agree to such a huge change in the arrangements for donations to political parties, given that we know so few details about how those arrangements are to work.

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. For example, someone who is an Irish citizen would have to produce his passport for verification as a potential donor, and companies would have to be registered in the Republic of Ireland in order to make donations. That is the sort of issue that we are discussing with the Electoral Commission and, hopefully, we can tighten up the situation and thereby address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

The Minister’s response is helpful. Perhaps he could put on the record, by way of a further intervention, a specific commitment that before any such legislation is implemented there will be full consultation not just with the Electoral Commission, but with anyone and any organisations that have an interest in this matter, so that they can make specific representations to the Government and to Ministers as the legislation progresses. Can the Minister give us that assurance right now?

As I have said, this matter will be subject to an order, which will be debated in this House and published accordingly. I am very happy to receive representations on it, as is the normal practice. Potentially, it could be an Order in Council dealt with post-24 November, and would qualify for discussion on the ground that we debated earlier today.

I am pleased in two ways with that response. First, the Minister suggests that this could be the first of the amendable Orders in Council. That is important, because it gives us something of a time frame for the matters that we have just discussed. Secondly, I am encouraged to hear that he would be willing to accept formal representations on these matters. Let me underline the importance of the Minister’s response—we now begin to get a time frame for when the Government must make the amendability proposals, which is encouraging.

It is important to be assured that the Government are thinking about these conditions. The Minister gave us two examples, which is helpful. We need a coherent strategy that ensures that the loopholes are dealt with. It would also be useful to know over time what avenues of communication will be set up between political parties in the north of Ireland, the Electoral Commission and the agencies in the south of Ireland, so that sufficient checks can be made.

Our donation system is at least sometimes fairly open and transparent, but this is new territory for the United Kingdom, in the sense of working across a national boundary. It would be unreasonable to expect the Northern Ireland Office to operate solely as a single agency to set these precedents. I hope that silo thinking will not prevent a strategic approach from being taken.

In essence, we simply want to be sure that the Minister will expect a political party in Northern Ireland to take specific steps in order to satisfy itself that a donation was from someone who is genuinely an Irish citizen. On the basis that the Minister has given some useful examples by way of interventions, and an assurance that this legislation, if it comes forward through an Order in Council, will be amendable, we are happy to support it today.

I should confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the likely avenue is affirmative resolution in the House, rather than an Order in Council, although the latter is possible.

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention and I understand why he wants to make that point clear; nevertheless, I still feel that we are beginning to see a timetable for amendable Orders in Council, which must be roughly the same timetable as the one for this legislation. That is helpful.

I rise to oppose the Lords amendments, which would narrow the list of political donors, restrict funding and strangle parties such as my own. In the light of an earlier question, it is important to point out that we are not talking only about parties such as the Social, Democratic and Labour party. Unionist parties derive a small but nevertheless significant amount of money from across the border with the Irish Republic.

A law that outlaws the raising of funds for Northern Ireland parties on the island of Ireland as a whole is a bad, ineffective and unworkable law. Moreover, it runs against the grain of relationships within these islands between Britain and the Irish Republic that have improved so much in the past 25 or 30 years. It not only makes no sense for legitimate parties in Northern Ireland to be banned from raising legitimate funds anywhere else in the island of Ireland; it also undermines democracy and the existing support for it.

My party survives financially because of good people south of the border. We derive a lot of our funding from within the north, which we require in order to help out. I am glad to note from recent records that our party is now in the black for the first time in a long time, thanks, in part, to donations. I regret that other parties are in some difficulty, but, if they sought a little help from across the border in the Irish Republic, they could perhaps bring themselves into the black.

The issue is not only large-scale fundraising. The ridiculous nature of this law is particularly apparent along the border. Our small branches and associations in places such as Derry hold an event of some sort, yet Muff is 2 or 3 miles down the road. Ballyshannon is 2 or 3 miles down the road from Belleek in Fermanagh. It is just not humanly possible to implement this law. It is like introducing a law that says that Labour associations on the English border with Scotland are not allowed to make such requests of people across the border. The same point applies to Conservative or Liberal Democrat associations. That is the significance of this measure at local level. [Interruption.] Does someone wish to intervene? [Interruption.] There is so much muttering going on that I would rather give way.

The hon. Gentleman is well aware from what was said in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the dangers and difficulties associated with money laundering and the amount of money sloshing around the Irish Republic. Will he tell me, in the course of his self-serving speech, how, in his view, if this provision goes through, it will be impossible to launder money for Sinn Fein from south of the border into their coffers in Northern Ireland?

Unfortunately, Sinn Fein will manage to launder money whatever we do in this House. Indeed, it is aided and abetted by the shennanigens of the Democratic Unionist party at every turn. The reality is that we have to bring back devolution to Northern Ireland. There is a competition on at the moment between the DUP and Sinn Fein to see who can be disruptive and who can be the greatest wreckers. Frankly, primarily this is about regulating and creating transparency. My party, the SDLP, is legal and believes in the rule of law, legitimacy and openness. We believe that, rather than creating bad laws that are porous and dysfunctional, we should create good ones that are inclusive. The Lords amendment makes this a bad law that will not work, and in my view it should be rejected. We should continue to try to make laws that are as comprehensive, open and transparent as possible.

I see that the Minister is starting to tidy his papers—he is already thinking of his holidays. Indeed, he probably has his swimming trunks on under his suit, ready to go—[Laughter.] I suggest that when he is on the beach he should not bury his head in the sand in the same way as he has in the Chamber today. He had a credulous gape on his face when it was suggested that there might be a minuscule amount going to Unionist parties as opposed to the amount going to nationalist parties, which indicates that either he is hiding the real intent of his measure or he is completely out of touch with the politics of Northern Ireland.

I suspect that it is the former. The reality is that the Minister is doing this for one party—the Labour party’s sister party, the SDLP. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) is right. Sinn Fein does not need this measure. It can just use the Northern Bank proceeds or the proceeds from all its other gangsterism and other illicit means. The hon. Gentleman admits that Sinn Fein is still involved in criminality, but he wants us to go into government with it. Clearly, it is a measure designed principally to help the SDLP. It is therefore a discriminatory measure. It will discriminate against Unionists and in favour of the SDLP.

I did not go to Clontibret. I did not have my fine paid for me in punts. My name is not Peter Punt.

It shows how the hon. Gentleman’s mind works when he makes an intervention on an irrelevant issue that has nothing to do with the funding of political parties. It shows that he is attempting to cover up the fact that it is the SDLP, and the SDLP alone, that is the reason the Government are introducing this measure.

Why was there a prohibition placed on parties elsewhere in the United Kingdom? It was because those who were resident in and citizens of countries outside the United Kingdom should not be allowed to influence the politics of the United Kingdom. But the Government are providing for precisely that in Northern Ireland, where they will allow people from another jurisdiction to have a direct influence on the politics of Northern Ireland. The Minister is saying that the principle is good generally for the United Kingdom, but that the Government are prepared to throw their principles out to make the politics of Northern Ireland go in the direction that they want.

I oppose this change by the Government and support the suggestion made by the House of Lords for the way forward. We intend to force the issue to a Division.

I am grateful for hon. Members’ contributions. I am sorry that we have such a full House to hear the different tone—in terms of the context of the debate—of the contribution by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). This Bill is about the special circumstances of Northern Ireland and relationships with the Irish Republic and individuals who live and work there. It is consistent with the Good Friday agreement to allow citizens of and businesses in the Irish Republic to donate to political parties that operate in Northern Ireland. It is fair and proper, and an acceptable proposal for the Government to support. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith put the remaining Questions required to be put at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].

Lords amendment No. 2 disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 6 agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 3, 1 and 2: Mr. Michael Foster, Mr. David Hanson, Lembit Öpik, Mr. Laurence Robertson and Lynda Waltho to be members of the Committee; Mr. David Hanson to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the Quorum of the Committee.—[Liz Blackman.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to Lords amendments Nos. 3, 1 and 2 reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.