(Clauses 1 to 9)
[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, HC 1003, and the Government response, Cm 8621.]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 8, page 2, line 37, leave out ‘October’ and insert ‘January’.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘(2A) In section 71E of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (duty not to disclose contents of donation reports) after subsection (3) insert—
(3A) Such information may be disclosed where a donation received by a Northern Ireland recipient on or after 1 October 2014 exceeds £7,500.
(3B) Such information may be disclosed where the total donations received by a Northern Ireland recipient from a relevant person in a year exceeds £7,500, save that no information on donations received before 1 October 2014 may be published.”.’.
Amendment 6, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘(2A) Section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is repealed.’.
Clauses 1 and 2 stand part.
My amendments 7 and 8 aim to ensure that all donations made to Northern Ireland political parties from January 2014 will eventually be subject to publication. That would not interfere with the Secretary of State’s right to make a decision to extend the period of secrecy and non-publication that currently applies to donations made to political parties. That would remain in the Secretary of State’s gift even if amendments 7 and 8 were accepted. However, they would make it clear to the general public that anything donated after January 2014 will eventually be made public, once the Secretary of State deems the security situation to be appropriate.
I believe that there is a lack of transparency in Northern Ireland politics, which causes significant public concern. That is reflected by the views of the Electoral Commission, which has commissioned a series of surveys on the matter. They show that a significant proportion of the public believe that this is a matter of concern to them. They want to know how their political parties are funded, and whether that funding has an impact on what the parties say and do in office. It is hugely important that we should move towards transparency as we try to normalise the situation in Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to confirm that the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland, which is held in high esteem there, supports her amendments and does not believe that the deadline of 1 January 2014 gives sufficient notice either to political parties or to donors?
The hon. Lady is correct to say that the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland supports the amendments and believes that they would be practical in providing adequate support and advice to donors and political parties to make them fully aware of the change by January 2014. No substantive reasons have been given for this move not being able to proceed by 2014. Given all the issues surrounding transparency, and the public concern about the opaque nature of political funding in Northern Ireland, it is important to take this opportunity to make it clear that we want maximum transparency for the public there. We want the kind of transparency that the rest of the United Kingdom already enjoys, but which, for security reasons, we have been unable to enjoy until now.
For me, this is a matter not only of amendments 7 and 8, which I have tabled. I also want to refer to the other amendments in this group. Amendment 2 differs from those amendments, in that it seeks to set in stone the lifting of the veil of secrecy on party political donations in Northern Ireland by October 2014. It would not entirely remove the Government’s ability to extend the period further in an emergency. The Bill could, for example, include an order-making power to ensure that the Government could come back to the House in an emergency and reinstate the existing provisions, but they would need to have a substantive reason for doing so and they would have to bring their argument to the House and gain its support.
I put on record at Second Reading, and I want to do so again today, that this is not about being cavalier or dismissive about the security situation in Northern Ireland. Nor is it about dismissing the potential threat to those who donate to political parties. It is about accepting that that should not automatically, as of right, outweigh the public’s right to scrutinise donations to political parties. If we lift the bar and allow donations over £7,500 to be published, in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, people will factor in that decision when deciding whether to make such donations. Given that all the political parties have said that they get very few donations of that size, the proposal would not impede the normal democratic fundraising capacity of the Northern Ireland parties.
It is also important to confidence and trust that the public should believe that their elected representatives are not available for sale. The only way to convince people of that is to maximise transparency around these issues. No political party can defend itself against that charge while the secrecy continues to exist, because the information will not be in the public domain and available for scrutiny. My own party reveals such information voluntarily, and we encourage other parties to do so, but I believe that as of October 2014, we should be moving towards a more normalised situation for donations. The onus should be on donors to decide whether they wish to donate, knowing that their donation will be made public.
I shall listen carefully to what my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party say about amendment 6. My understanding is that their intention is to remove entirely the possibility of donations to the Northern Ireland political parties from the Republic of Ireland. I cannot support that, and I want to explain why. Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances are reflected not only in our constitutional arrangements but in the fact that some parties operate on a Northern Ireland-only basis, some on a UK-wide basis and others on an all-Ireland basis. Taking that into account, I believe that it would be unfair completely to close the door to donations from the Republic of Ireland. A situation could be created in which parties that operate on an all-UK basis could receive donations from Dundee, Devon and Derby, while those that operate on a Northern Ireland-only basis would be unable to receive donations from Donegal or Dublin. I think that would be unfair.
I have a degree of sympathy, however, with the concerns expressed by the Democratic Unionist party on Second Reading about the potential for overseas donors to put money through the Republic of Ireland, essentially circumventing the rules on foreign donations. Indeed, I supported the Select Committee recommendation in paragraph 44 where we set out our concerns about that. Although we stopped short of recommending that all donations from the Republic of Ireland be stopped, we did recommend that the Secretary of State should seek to include provisions in the Bill that would close that particular loophole. I would be happy to support measures to do that, but I do not feel that it would be just or right to support measures that would simply put a bar on any donations from the Irish Republic, even if those people are resident and are donating to a party that operates on a Northern Ireland basis. That would not be fair or just.
I encourage all Members to consider amendments 7 and 8. Some might not agree with amendment 2, but I do not believe that the hands of the Secretary of State are in any way tied with respect to security judgments. I believe that amendments 7 and 8 will ensure clarity for donors, who will know that any money above £7,500 donated from January onwards will be subject to publication at whatever point in the future the Secretary of State decides that it is safe to declare the information. Clarity will be provided for members of the public who will know that we are moving in the direction of full transparency, in the same way as any other region of the UK. This draws the line under what has been a very tortured issue for a very long time. I hope that when the opportunity arises, Members will vote in favour of increasing transparency on these matters.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I rise to speak to amendment 2, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and myself. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady’s speech, and I am grateful to her for supporting the amendment that I proposed—one that is obviously consistent with the recommendations of the Select Committee on the matter of transparency for larger political donations. This recommendation was not disputed in the Committee and there was no vote or dissenting voice, as can be seen in the report. Looking back over the evidence given to the Committee by every Northern Ireland political party, it becomes clear that there is little evidence that the parties are receiving many donations above this specified amount, so it is not as if we are talking about a large number of people potentially at a security risk.
A fair number of the parties favoured transparency, and the hon. Member for Belfast East has pointed out that her party already publishes its donations, while the Green party and Sinn Fein said they were in favour in the evidence given to us. It is not quite so easy, however, to find on Sinn Fein’s website all of its donations. Some of us have tried and have asked, but the information does not quite seem to be there.
I am very impressed with the hon. Gentleman’s comments so far. Will he confirm for the record that the Conservative party, which organises in Northern Ireland, is now going to be fully transparent in respect of all the donations received by that august body?
If only that were not so far above my pay grade, I would be happy to answer the hon. Gentleman. It is a matter that he will have to put to party officials. I have never had the pleasure of campaigning for my party in Northern Ireland, so I have not been made aware of those rules. I think that transparency is the right thing and that such matters should be disclosed, but I have no problem saying that the hon. Gentleman would have to ask somebody else about how my party operates in Northern Ireland.
The issue before us today is how to find a balance between transparency and the security threat. It is right that the Committee should have a say on that today. We should be reflecting on the fact that it is 15 years since the Good Friday agreement, and on how much progress has been made. The G8 summit in Northern Ireland was held without a hitch; and we had the Queen’s jubilee tour last year. I had the pleasure of being there to see it, and it was amazing to see that Her Majesty did not need to go around with all the bullet-proof glass of the past. That shows all the progress we have made, yet we seem to be saying that 15 or 16 years on from the agreement, we still do not dare publish the largest donations made to political parties.
The amendment refers to donations of more than £7,500. I think all the parties agree that that is a rare event, but there must come a point at which the level of a donation is such that members of the public begin to suspect that it is buying some kind of influence. There should be a threshold beyond which the public are able to see what donations are being received, so that they can be sure that no influence is being bought.
I have no reason to doubt that all the parties in Northern Ireland are entirely fair, that they are not for sale, and that they do not change their policies to suit donations. I am not sure that all the people in Northern Ireland are quite as confident of that as I am, but it is for them to be cynical. Their view on the subject may not have been greatly enhanced by a BBC programme that was shown in Northern Ireland last Thursday evening, and which I believe has prompted some doubt about the entire propriety of what happens.
It is possible that those who wish to make small donations will not be able to risk the threat to their security, but those who choose to donate more than £7,500 should do so in the knowledge that the fact that they have done so will be published, on the basis that it may be suspected that they are buying some kind of influence. We want to ensure that it is absolutely clear that they are not doing that, that none of the parties would do that, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.
If it is not robust enough now and will not be robust enough in October 2014, when does the Minister think that the security situation will be robust enough to allow the publication of information about larger donations? What must change between now and the point at which we shall be able to publish that information? What criteria will the Government use under their new power to bring about more transparency? I am not certain that anyone fully understands what the obstacles are now, and what improvements would be necessary for us to provide that increased transparency, which I think every party that gave evidence to the Select Committee agreed was, in theory, desirable.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Select Committee has discussed this issue on many occasions. Our party, along with nearly all the others, wants transparency, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that in parts of Northern Ireland today, to be a Unionist is to be an outcast. Subscribing to a political party could still put someone’s life in danger.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, but surely he agrees that such people can choose whether to donate a large amount to a party. If my amendment were passed, they could still donate £7,499 every year without their names being published. Surely he agrees that a donation can reach such a level that the donor must accept that it should be subject to transparency, because of the amount of influence that that donor might be exerting. The amendment provides that, in just over 14 months’ time, any donation that exceeds £7,500 will be made public. That would give an individual 14 months in which to make any large donation to a party that he or she wished to make—without the information being published—which would presumably tide the party over.
This topic is very important to those of us who are involved in the political process in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is necessary to balance the security risk against the public good, and that in this instance the public want transparency and accountability in politics?
Yes. I made that point at the outset. The need for absolute security must be balanced against the need for transparency, and I decided that the level at which the balance tilted towards transparency was £7,500. The hon. Lady might choose a different figure, but there must be a point at which donations are seen to buy influence, and the details should therefore be published.
The leader of the hon. Lady’s party gave some of the most compelling evidence to the Select Committee. He said that his big fear was that if a small business man gave £1,000 to his, and her, party, another party might knock on the door and demand £2,000, because that business man was clearly willing to donate. I think that there is a risk at that level. That is why I did not table an amendment proposing that all donations should be made public, and I think that that is why the Select Committee recommended the £7,500 threshold as well.
Fifteen years after the Good Friday agreement, with all the progress that has been made, can we really justify maintaining the secrecy of all the large political donations to Northern Ireland parties when in the rest of the UK we have the publication of much smaller donations with no trouble? We accept that there is a unique situation in Northern Ireland. The security situation there is clearly different from what those of us representing seats in the mainland face, but for how many more years can we tolerate there not being this transparency in politics in the UK?
Even if we judge that the risk now is high, the point is that there will never be a point at which we can say there is no risk. This provision is about transitioning and saying that the donor must now take some responsibility for judging whether to take that risk, and that that risk should not always outweigh the public interest.
Absolutely, and if this amendment were passed, a donor would still have 14 months in which to make any donations they wanted to make and have them not made public. I suspect that would get the political parties through the 2015 general election, and that if they planned things carefully, they could get enough funds to get through the 2016 Assembly elections, so there would be no detriment to party funding until perhaps the 2020 elections in terms of the need for very large donations. That would give everyone a large amount of time to adjust to these new transparency rules.
I therefore ask the Minister to set out why the Government are apparently reluctant to go down this route even for the largest donations. I note that in their response to the Select Committee they said they would carefully consider any restrictions on transparency after October 2014. It would be useful to understand what their criteria are for making that decision. I accept, however, that the Minister cannot, and should not, tell us the specific intelligence he has about security threats.
Northern Ireland Members obviously understand Northern Ireland politics better than I do, but it is my understanding that the details of anyone who nominates a candidate or who stands for a council are published. If we have not had any evidence that there is a real security threat to people participating in those aspects of Northern Ireland democracy, why do we have this threat in respect of donations? It is worth asking how credible it is to have those two opposing situations, whereby it is safe to nominate or stand but it is not safe to donate money. I am not sure whether there is a very convincing argument for that.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have the privilege of sitting on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. When we took evidence on this issue, we took evidence privately and in public session, and we took it in written as well as oral form. Did we ever receive evidence from a donor to any political party or to any independent Member of the Parliament that they felt at risk of being targeted by terrorists or anyone else for donating?
No, of course we did not receive any such evidence. We do not know who the donors are, so we could not go and ask them. That question was raised with some of the parties; they were asked whether they had any evidence from their donors that could be put on an anonymous basis, and I do not recall any evidence along those lines being received.
A few moments ago the hon. Gentleman drew comparisons between elected representatives and donors, but elected representatives chose to put their names forward—in the same way as some of us on this side of the House chose to wear the uniform of the Crown, and served in Northern Ireland. That is a choice we made. The donors do not necessarily make a choice to have their names and addresses and businesses all known. That is the difference. The difference is between those who make these choices and those who donate and do not want to make anybody else aware of that. Derbyshire is not like South Down. Amber Valley is not like Belfast. They are two different places—there are different situations and different circumstances—and, with the greatest respect, I am a wee bit unsure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of all the background in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, people who make donations before October 2014 should not have their details published, as that would not be their understanding of what would happen. My argument is that if they choose to make a large donation after 1 October 2014, they would be doing so on the understanding that they will be named—they would be choosing to be in that situation. I have no desire to force someone into a position that is not what they understood it to be, as it would be entirely wrong to do so.
I do not doubt that my constituency is very different from that of the hon. Gentleman and I do not want to underestimate his understanding of those risks, as they are clearly far greater than those in my constituency will ever be. However, we are all asked, as Members of Parliament in the UK, to vote on this Bill and to make these choices. We need to be in a situation where there is sufficient normality in Northern Ireland to be able to publish details of these donations. I am not convinced that we have not reached that point now and that for large donations it would not be the right way in which to tip that delicate balance, especially when we are not getting credible evidence from anybody that there is a real threat or that any past incidents would give us real cause for concern. Perhaps that evidence exists and just cannot come into the public domain. I have no doubt that the Minister will have information that is far stronger than the Committee could get its hands on or perhaps should get its hands on.
On the current balance of the arguments, I think we should be publishing details of those larger donations. I accept that we are not in a position to do that in respect of smaller donations, but let us make that change. Let us say that we have progressed far enough, 15 or 16 years on from that historic agreement, to think that the situation in Northern Ireland is strong enough for us to be able to publish details of those large donations. Let us go for transparency for the whole political process, and let us show that it is clean and that people cannot be bought. Let us not continue any longer with this fear or misunderstanding that the process is corrupt. That is where we are, and the events of last week and that television programme have raised again fears that something is happening which should not be happening. We all sincerely hope that it is not.
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. First, I wish to discuss amendment 6, which stands in my name and that of my colleagues, and then I will comment on the other proposals in the group. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) put a legitimate point of view, one that had support in the Select Committee but has not found favour with the Government, so I look forward to hearing the Minister speak on it. It is also worth making the general comment in relation to all these matters that the Bill did go through pre-legislative scrutiny. That is not to say that it cannot be improved or that we cannot debate it and tease out the various issues—that is what we are here to do. The hon. Gentleman referred to recent programmes and, of course, we also have to bear in mind the recent “Panorama” programme and The Sunday Times exposure of issues relating to Back-Benchers here and members of the other place. All these issues are very pertinent and need to be examined, too.
Our amendment 6 would repeal section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Political parties in Northern Ireland currently follow different rules from parties in Great Britain. Many people in the UK—UK taxpayers and voters—might be slightly surprised that a different set of rules applies on donations to people who can be elected to the House of Commons to make laws for the whole of the United Kingdom if they are in political parties in one part of the UK. The 2000 Act was passed to prevent foreign influence through donations being made without transparency, openness and all the rest of it and to ensure that donations were made by legitimate donors—donors who reside in the United Kingdom or who have locus in the UK, because, after all, the political parties to which they are donating are making laws for the UK. By logic, therefore, the same rules should apply across the UK to all the political parties represented in this House. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve.
In Great Britain, donations are permissible only from individuals or bodies in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland parties, exceptionally, are allowed also to receive donations and loans from the Irish Republic. The amendment would end that exemption and put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom. One argument that is made over and over by many people, quite validly and properly, is that Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Usually, that argument is applied to the question of transparency and the revelation of the identities of donors—I shall come to that in a short while—but it never seems to be raised in the context of this glaring loophole, which preserves a special position, effectively for the benefit of nationalist parties. Let us be frank: that is why it was brought in originally and why it was lobbied for.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and I understand where she is coming from. I understand the argument she advanced and the way in which she advanced it. Her concern was more to do with the loophole whereby donations come not so much from citizens or organisations in the Republic but from individuals or companies who are used as a conduit for political donations to parties in Northern Ireland from outside the Irish Republic—from the United States, or wherever. That is the real problem. It was identified by the Select Committee, which recommended that the loophole be closed.
The purpose of our amendment is to highlight that glaring loophole. We cannot have an exception that allows donations to come in from abroad and thereby allows them to come in from even further afield than intended—from America, Australia, Canada, other parts of the European Union or wherever else. That issue must be addressed. It is entirely unacceptable, when we talk about transparency, openness and all the rest of it, that in Northern Ireland parties that are represented or may be represented in this House could be funded by bodies, individuals and organisations in other parts of the world yet we would never be able to find out because of this exception.
I appeal to the Minister to consider the issue, to consider very carefully not just what we have said but what the Select Committee has said and to take the matter away and see how the loophole can be closed. If we are trying to move forward and bring the law on donations gradually and cautiously into line, we must do it across the board, not just on the issue addressed by clause 1 and the other amendments but on the issue we are raising through amendment 6.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I need some assistance in making up my mind about whether to support the amendment, so I would like him to explain precisely the remit of section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, as amended. Does his amendment affect only donations from Irish citizens outside the United Kingdom, or would it apply equally to those who believe themselves to be Irish citizens living in the UK, and who might even wish to donate to the Democratic Unionist party?
The hon. Lady asks for clarification; I think the position is pretty clear. The position of those who would see themselves as Irish, or who hold an Irish passport and live in the United Kingdom, would not be affected at all. The exception allowed for in the 2000 Act as amended allows people who do not reside in the United Kingdom, but who do reside and have a residence qualification in the Irish Republic, to donate to Northern Ireland parties. We are saying that that is a back door route; the donations may be from individuals, companies and organisations in the Irish Republic, but that money can come from wherever—there is no regulation whatsoever. That is why we have tabled the amendment.
I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about international donations, but does he not agree that closing down all donations from the Irish Republic for parties that operate on an all-Ireland basis would not be fair, when parties that operate on a Northern Ireland or UK-wide basis can still get donations from the whole of the UK? Is it not more important that the Minister of State goes away and looks at how we can deal with the international issue in collaboration with the Irish Government, who manage their rules?
I have asked the Minister to take the matter away and consider it, but the fundamental point is that we are talking about the United Kingdom. When it comes to laws on donations, the electoral system for this House, and the way in which Members of the House are treated, right across the board, I believe that we are a Parliament of the United Kingdom, and Members of the House should all be equal, regardless of where we come from.
As far as the political set-up in Northern Ireland is concerned, there is absolutely nothing to stop political parties getting donations from any part of the United Kingdom, although I have to say that it is not common for Northern Ireland parties—the hon. Lady can bear this out—to be inundated with donations from other parts of the United Kingdom. I think that parties on this side of the water have that market well and truly cornered, whatever the source of the donations. We certainly do not get donations from the unions in Northern Ireland, either.
This is a point of principle for us, I suppose. The hon. Lady may not agree with it, and she has a perfectly valid perspective, but our view is that we are part of the United Kingdom, and we should all abide equally by the rules of the United Kingdom. The fundamental point is that the situation is not only wrong in principle but wide open to abuse; a coach and horses could be driven through the provisions, in ways that run contrary to the reasons for introducing the measures in the 2000 Act. They were brought in to pander to Sinn Fein in particular. Whatever the reasons may have been for that, years ago, those reasons have long since ceased to apply, and everybody should be on a level playing field.
I have sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. One of the concerns of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was that his amendment would effectively contravene the provisions of the Good Friday agreement—that freedoms allowed there effectively enable an all-Ireland party to operate, and what he is trying to do would stop that happening—and that is perhaps not the way Parliament ought to go.
Nothing in the amendment, or in our proposal, would prevent a party from operating in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Likewise, there is nothing to stop a party from operating on a UK-wide basis, if it wished to. All the provision does is put Northern Ireland parties in exactly the same position as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, so that we are subject to the same rules and scrutiny. That is a perfectly legitimate point of view, which the Minister needs to consider.
Amendment 2 in the name of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) means that after 1 October 2014 all protected information should be published in relation to all donations over £7,500. Protected information is anything that could identify the person or organisation that made a donation during the prescribed period of donor anonymity. The amendment would remove the protection after 1 October 2014 and would remove all discretion from the Secretary of State so that, as the hon. Gentleman said, after that date all donors and their details would be published.
We discussed the issue generally on Second Reading and the Government set out their position, which was opposed to that of the hon. Gentleman. Generally speaking, we welcomed the Government’s approach, which was one of caution but of cautious progress. We made it clear in the House that we want to see Northern Ireland on all fronts—not just, as some people have it, selectively—moving forward and coming into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Right across all fronts we wish to see that.
We welcome the fact that amendments 7 and 8, as well as amendment 2, safeguard the anonymity of those who have donated up till now. Some have argued that that should not be accepted, but it is accepted by everybody and rightly so. The question is whether the Government should still have regard to the circumstances in October 2014, or whether we should make a decision now that as of that date, regardless of the situation or circumstances, the discretion is taken away.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about clause 1(3)? He said that people who had made a donation up till now have their anonymity guaranteed, yet clause 1(3) seems to suggest that there might be circumstances in which the anonymity of those who gave before the Bill is enacted might be breached.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I flagged that up on Second Reading and the Minister may want to look at it. The Bill is a tidying-up exercise, and the matter will have to be addressed in another place or on Report. The question is whether the clause leaves open some kind of discretion. When the Select Committee considered the matter, it recommended that the clause should be tightened so that there was certainty that anonymity would be preserved. There should be no room for doubt.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The protection of people who have given donations to a political party in Northern Ireland cannot be lifted retrospectively unless they give permission. If they are happy for their data to be released, the Electoral Commission may wish to do so. That, I think, is what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to. I will look at the provision again, but there is absolutely no intent whatever to release data on anybody retrospectively unless they agree to that.
I very much welcome what the Minister has said. I think that is the intent of everybody. The slight concern is about the drafting and the need for the intention to be explicitly spelled out in those terms. Some commentators have pointed out that the current wording is somewhat loose with regard to the possibility of some discretion. Given the situation with regard to litigation on these matters, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that somebody will test it in court. The provision needs to be tightened up.
This is an important aspect of the Bill that we must thoroughly ventilate. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that although data may not be available for release, they do exist? If data are collated, stored and placed in a silo of information, there is always the fear and concern that they could be released. Examples at the moment from the other side of the Atlantic indicate that point. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any suggestions about how we could address that concern?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about data that are held and not meant for publication yet somehow find themselves in the public domain, and we can all cite many examples of that happening in recent years. There are, of course, criminal sanctions, but that does not necessarily guarantee anything. The fact of the matter is that it depends on the good will and good faith of those who safeguard such information, and on proper security to ensure that what Parliament intends and enacts is followed through. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that rightly concerns people, and the Government may wish to comment on what steps they are taking to ensure that information does not enter the public domain when people have been guaranteed that it will not.
Returning to amendment 2, which would remove the discretion, we put on record our concerns that donors to political parties in the rest of the UK do not face the same problems as donors to parties in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) pointed out the tremendous progress that has been made, which we all recognise, value and celebrate, but there is still a serious threat in terms of terrorism and public safety. Not long ago there was the murder of a prison officer, David Black, and there have been other serious incidents, disruptions and bomb attacks. We operate in a different climate—it is much improved and better than it used to be—but most people accept that we are still in a situation in which caution must be exercised.
As we move forward to a more normalised society, we hope that the threat from dissidents and others will recede and continue to be dealt with. As we put the violent past behind us, it is right and proper that we move towards a system of donations and loans, as employed in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we support the normalisation process for political donations as outlined in the Bill.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking so many interventions. Will he kindly reflect on a question that I asked on Second Reading? While we all accept and do not query the dreadful times that all of us of a certain age have lived through in Northern Ireland, we are now in more peaceful times. Will the right hon. Gentleman quantify in numbers—this will be helpful for people at home watching the debate—the threats to current donors to the Democratic Unionist party? Is it in half dozens or dozens, and can he quantify that in changed circumstances and—thank the Lord—quieter times in Northern Ireland?
A point was made earlier—I do not know whether it came from the hon. Lady or someone else—that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee did not hear from a donor saying how afraid they would be if their identity was made public. It is not easy for people in that position, and there will not be lots of people coming forward and making their position clear. By necessity, some of these things will be done with the least publicity and information as possible from the donor’s point of view, because they want to protect their anonymity.
The Select Committee heard from the First Minister—I have already cited his evidence—from David McClarty, an independent MLA, and from representatives of my party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the UK Independence party, which of course is becoming a major force in the rest of the United Kingdom, although not particularly in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Unionist party. They all urged the Secretary of State to exercise caution when modifying the current confidentiality arrangements for political loans and donations in Northern Ireland. As the Committee’s report states:
“They argued that the security situation in Northern Ireland presented a barrier to implementing the same transparency regime as Great Britain because donors remained at risk of violence and intimidation”.
On Second Reading I quoted what the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), the leader of the SDLP, told the Committee. He encapsulated his party’s concern and it is worth putting it on the record again:
‘Our difficulty is that we feel that we were particularly vulnerable in the past, in that some of our donors felt vulnerable and threatened… Sometimes, the threat is not even direct, but people are put under pressure and told, “You gave the SDLP £1,000 this week; we think that we are entitled to £2,000 this week”. The threat is at that level. In a situation in which there are still a handful of people moving about with guns, that threat is there.’
The Committee also heard from Mike Nesbitt MLA, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who expressed concerns that commercial donors would face recriminations in the form of boycotts of their businesses or violence. That is something that is very hard to pin down, because it is spread by word of mouth and those individuals might ask, “Why are people not coming in?” His party colleague Tom Elliott MLA, who represents Fermanagh and South Tyrone, told the Committee that “a number of businesses”—he could not quantify it—were being boycotted because of their affiliation to particular political parties. He said that two of the UUP’s commercial donors had recently contacted the party asking it not to send further correspondence to the company’s business premises in case the employee responsible for opening the post made public the fact that the company had donated to the party.
Those are real fears. They are not made up or designed to camouflage or cover up anything. Nevertheless, bearing all that in mind and exercising caution, I think that it is right that we support the provisions of the Bill, which are about moving towards greater transparency and openness when the situation allows.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a number of very important points. A number of the Committee’s witnesses where asked why donors would be at greater risk than candidates, for example, or those who support candidates in other ways, perhaps by delivering leaflets, displaying posters, canvassing or signing the nomination papers. Why does he think that donors would be at greater risk that those participants?
It could be argued that donors are at as great a risk as those who put themselves forward as political representatives and stand for political parties. I suppose that one reason why they might choose to be a donor, rather than a candidate, is that they do not want to attract the sort of public attention that being a full or part-time public representative brings in Northern Ireland. They want to be involved in the political process, to support it and to have their political interests advanced and their views reflected, but they do not necessarily want to get involved in politics directly. However, even being a donor can attract problems for those people. There is a difference between being a donor and standing for election as a political representative. Not everybody wants to be a political activist. I think that there is a significant difference in the level of public attention that people want to attract, and that is human nature.
I want to take the right hon. Gentleman back to the quotes he gave about the commercial risk of a boycott if someone is exposed as a political donor. The leader of the UUP and the First Minister both said that it was the security risk that justified the lack of transparency and that the commercial downsides of a boycott alone would not be a sufficient threshold. Does he agree that it is only the security risk that justifies the lack of transparency?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I refer him to paragraph 23 of the research paper on this matter produced by the House of Commons Library, which says:
“Mr Robinson, Mr Nesbitt and Mr Elliott all argued that security and commercial risk to donors were intrinsically intertwined”.
The responsibility for setting the timetable for removing anonymity must, in our view, remain with the Secretary of State, as is the current position under the Bill. We would urge caution as to when the decision is considered, as we noted on Second Reading, when the Secretary of State gave us an undertaking that there would be consultation not just with the Electoral Commission but with the security forces and political parties. That is absolutely right and proper.
For those reasons, we support the consensus behind the Bill and urge colleagues to consider carefully the importance and significance of our amendment 6.
It has been a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). They made very thoughtful contributions, and I appreciate being able to listen to them.
I entirely appreciate, from my own family experience, the challenges as to why there had to be anonymity in Northern Ireland for so many years. I entirely support that, for the reasons that others have mentioned. I have a great deal of sympathy for amendment 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley and the hon. Member for Belfast East, which refers to a £7,500 threshold and has a provision giving people 18 months or so to make whatever substantial donations they make. A lot of thought has gone into the amendment, and in many respects I instinctively understand and appreciate it. The right hon. Member for Belfast North argued for allowing the Secretary of State to have flexibility up until October, because, sadly, the reality in Northern Ireland is that even though there have been enormous advances, things can change on a sixpence. The arguments are therefore very finely tuned.
A key part of normalisation is to make everything as equitable as possible between Northern Ireland and the UK. I fully understand the reasons for the length of time that the process has been given. I think that we are being very sensible in drawing to a close on this. If the Government cannot accept amendment 2, will the Minister categorically assure me that come October 2014 they would be absolutely cognisant of the fact that if another inappropriate excuse for a delay were implemented, it would be a very sad day for this House and for Northern Ireland? I suppose that some eagle-eyed observers will recognise that I am struggling slightly with this and reading between the lines. I would welcome our having equalisation come October 2014. That transparency is vital, and it is the next and final stage. I urge the Minister to make it very clear that while we retain the discretion up until 2014, our default position is to move towards normalisation expeditiously.
On amendments 7 and 8, tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I sympathise with the argument that if we stick unquestioningly to the date of October 2014 there is a danger that the same excuse will be given that the security situation does not permit us to move to more transparent arrangements. It is as if the date has been picked almost as a gesture to pseudo-transparency and the hon. Lady is testing that by proposing that it be brought forward. I sympathise with that, but January 2014 would be cutting it a bit fine, given that I assume the Bill will only get to the Lords this autumn.
I believe, however, that there is a case for bringing the date forward from October 2014. Bills are often enacted at the beginning of the financial year and I see no reason why that should not also be the case with this Bill. Members might point out that there are elections due next year, but I would have thought that a starting date of the beginning of the financial year would adequately and competently address the problem. I certainly do not think that the starting date should be after next year’s two intended elections, because that would make it look as though we were legislating with them in mind and almost allowing last orders for donations.
If January were the only date available before October, I would support amendments 7 and 8. I ask the Minister to consider bringing the date forward, because it looks as though the date of October has been set with next year’s elections in mind. Many people are also concerned that, come October, the can will be kicked down the road yet again.
Amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and the hon. Member for Belfast East, seeks to ensure that the real commencement date for transparency is made absolutely clear and unambiguous. We heard on Second Reading, and the Minister has told us in an intervention today, that there is no intention retrospectively to reveal donations, even those made in recent years. A signal has to be sent, however, that there will be a date from which a record of all donations can be revealed when the circumstances allow it. That needs to be made clear and explicit. That is what amendment 2 calls for and I support it, because I do not think the public believe political parties when we tell them that transparency, definition and certainty are not possible and that we cannot give them an unambiguous commencement date for transparency. Amendment 2 goes someway to addressing that deficit in public credence.
As I indicated on Second Reading, I am sensitive to the many risks and threats that people may have experienced because of their involvement in Northern Ireland politics, whether as a candidate, the family member of a candidate, an activist, a member or a donor. However, there comes a point when the public feel that the arguments about security are overdone and are an excuse for secrecy. They are not sure whether secrecy is in the interests of the parties or whether it truly ensures the safety of the donors.
There is even blurring as to what the donor sensitivity is. There might be commercial or customer sensitivity if somebody is seen to be giving to a particular party. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) pointed out in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, when people are known to have given to one party, it makes them susceptible to approaches from other parties. I am not sure that that fully answers the question, if the point is that we will know that somebody gave £1,000 to X party one week and £2,000 to us the next. A lot of that information seems to circulate and get out in Northern Ireland anyway. Many people have impressions, reliable or not, of who are the significant donors to various parties.
People often attend party dinners or events at constituency level and are not particularly sensitive about appearing at such events in various publications. There are people who attend events that are attached to several parties. They have their own reasons, justifications and rationales for doing so. It is therefore not the case that everybody is paralysed about doing anything that shows support for or engagement in political parties. We must weigh carefully how far the genuine arguments about commercial sensitivity and security can be deemed to override the compelling requirements for transparency.
I also said on Second Reading that transparency is not needed just so that people can see who is supporting the election costs of particular parties and might therefore have influence on them; it really matters when parties are in a position to take or influence key decisions. The case for transparency has become more compelling in the context of devolution, because many parties take many different decisions. Indeed, parties not only take decisions, but have the ability to prevent Ministers of other parties from taking decisions. Those powers of veto can be exercised on behalf of vested interests as much as they can in the interests of Ministers’ Executive powers or people’s powers at Assembly or local council level. Of course, the councils will be taking on more powers, including over planning. That makes these matters more sensitive.
Other hon. Members have referred to the recent television programme and the issues that have arisen from it. On Second Reading, I put it on the record that my party colleague, Alex Attwood, took the initiative when he became the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland of saying that he would tell officials if he was aware that the person behind a planning application or the person who made a significant objection to a planning application was a donor to his party, so that the information could be recorded and the officials could handle the matter at a sufficient distance from the Minister. The officials made the point that that had not happened before and that it was not necessarily required, but in his view it was required. When we now hear stories, impressions and accusations ricocheting around in relation to companies and political parties and who may be on donor lists, the public concern is palpable. We cannot in this House ignore that. The parties in Northern Ireland, even those who have defended extending security cover and security sensitivity, cannot ignore that. When there are so many questions, people cannot take as the answer, “Well, there is still a compelling need for secrecy and we cannot afford transparency at any level.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On his point about the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland notifying officials when a potential SDLP donor is involved in a planning application, does he know whether that information, when lodged with officials, is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and is it available to a member of the public?
As I understand it, it is not, not least because it is not a compelling point. He informs his officials and the matter is handled in a particular way, but that does not put anybody at any risk. I do not believe that Alex Attwood is inadvertently trying to find a way around the provisions and the whole question of protecting things on a retrospective basis; it is about him as a Minister being honest with his officials and with the responsibility entrusted to him to exercise good, clear, honest and independent judgment. It is also about allowing his officials to do that as well, because many of the issues that have arisen in recent days involve concerns that Ministers are intruding into what officials are doing—that Ministers are being overactive in their Departments in relation to matters being handled at an official level. Questions arise about who meets Ministers and whether they record and declare those meetings fully, and whether they account for those meetings in response to questions in Committees. When those questions are being asked, we need to address transparency requirements.
It will not fall to this House and the Bill to provide all the answers to remedy the situation: the Executive and the Assembly will have to address tightening the ministerial code on ministerial meetings and donations. On Second Reading, I made the point that this issue does not just relate to planning decisions, and recent events relate to significant public contracts and public appointments. There have been a lot of questions on whether public appointments in Northern Ireland always follow the standard they are meant to follow. Many people would anecdotally suggest that there is too much coincidence and pattern in some public appointments.
Those are all reasons why we need more transparency. The fact that Northern Ireland is a small place is often used as a reason why we cannot have too much transparency. When I was a Minister, I would have made it known to a civil servant if a relative of mine was appointed to something. I would not have made the appointment, but it would have been for me to take official note of it. I wanted to disclose that, rather than have somebody else find out later on. Where relatives might have had a perceived interest in a particular project, or even a rival project, I would again have made a point of always declaring it. Of course, I was often told by civil servants, “Look, you can’t do that every time. Northern Ireland is too small a place. You can hardly walk down a street without bumping into people. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting somebody that you know or are related to.” [Laughter.] That is not particularly good advice and is not the way I would usually want to make contact with people—even I might tweet first before doing that. The smallness of Northern Ireland can become an excuse for not having proper standards of transparency. That smallness is one of the reasons why it is necessary. The danger is that slippage in one area becomes an excuse for slipperiness in another. We should not allow that to happen. I have been definite about my support for making stronger moves on transparency, which is why I support amendment 2.
That could well be a pertinent point; the shadow Secretary of State makes a very good point. When it comes to security concerns, in many other instances, we treat the Chief Constable almost as an oracle. No doubt, the Minister will tell us that in any decision that he and the Secretary of State take, they reference information from the Chief Constable and other intelligence assessments, but it would be useful if that was in the Bill. Similarly, there is the role of the Electoral Commission; we know of its support for the amendments.
Amendment 6 would remove the right of anybody resident in the south of Ireland to make a donation to a party operating in the north of Ireland. I addressed this issue on Second Reading. I represent a border constituency in a regional city that serves both sides of the border in the north-west and which has strong links with neighbouring towns and areas. As such, the economic interest of the north-west is of cross-border economic interest. The same goes for the social fabric of the north-west: most families have a strong cross-border dimension, with many people living and working on a cross-border basis. Many people who work in the north live in the south, and vice versa, which is reflected in complicated—more so than they should be—arrangements for cross-border workers in respect of tax credits and other things.
When such cross-border life is part of the come-and-go flow of life, it extends to politics as well, because people have a strong interest in what happens in the region and want to offer political support, particularly if they are living temporarily in the south, but are from the north originally and might live there again or if they live in the south and have strong business interests in the north. It is natural. They do not regard themselves as being abroad when working or living in Donegal or Derry. They do not regard themselves as engaging in daily international travel.
No, I’m not. Donegal is well placed where it is, so close to Derry, and Derry is well placed and well favoured where it is, so close to the bounteous beauty of County Donegal.
At a wider level, there are parties in Northern Ireland that see us as being part of the body politic of the island as a whole—it is our natural body politic, just as the population of the UK as a whole is the natural body politic for those of a Unionist identity in Northern Ireland. The idea, therefore, that when it come to our politics—our political agenda, our political offer, our appeal for support—our natural broader political hinterland, our natural political family, should be precluded from giving political donations to us would be wrong and unequal. It would be absolutely wrong if Unionist parties were able to receive donations the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, including the whole of the island of Great Britain, to which they have such affinity, but nationalist parties in Northern Ireland could not receive contributions from people throughout the island of Ireland who want to support them.
There are some parties, such as Sinn Fein currently, that are organised on an all-Ireland basis. They should not be precluded by any new arrangement from being supported in that way. The option is available for other parties as well. My party operates support groups in the south, and always has done. The ability to operate support groups in the south was one of the things that gave many people in the south of Ireland a responsible and effective channel through which to back constitutional nationalism and support the sorts of things that we now have in the Good Friday agreement during the dark years of violence from physical-force republicans and intransigence from “No! Never!” Unionism. It is important that the wider contribution—the literal contribution—of people throughout the island should be respected.
However, I note the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s concerns that, in allowing continued donations from the Republic, care must be taken to ensure that only legitimate donations pass muster and that donations cannot be used as any sort of cover for getting round the wider provisions on truly international donations. That can be addressed not just by clearly requiring that donations can come only from those on the register in the Republic, but by adding clearly that anybody making a donation must make a formal declaration, for which they will be liable, that it is their money and has not been given to them by anybody else from anywhere else. Similarly, that declaration should have to be made by those receiving the money.
The system has to be made compelling in that way, because we have had enough of all the pseudo-transparency, where parties say, “Oh, our money comes this way and that way, and we publish things on the website.” However, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, when we go looking for the things that are supposedly published on the website, they are not there. I therefore totally oppose amendment 6.
I assure the hon. Lady and her party colleagues that I certainly did not want any stray fire to land on their reputation in that regard, so I am glad to affirm that point.
However, our opposition to amendment 6 is about putting things on a level playing field for all the parties in Northern Ireland, whether nationalist, Unionist or neither. As political realignment hopefully takes shape over the years to come, there will be all sorts of shifts in how parties present themselves, on either an all-Ireland or a wider-UK basis, and how far their nationalism or Unionism is emphasised. That is why donations should be available for parties from throughout the UK and from throughout the island of Ireland. That seems to me to be fair.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about both the donor and the recipient making a declaration. Currently, the rules mean that individuals or companies in the Irish Republic can provide funding to Northern Ireland parties, but that is not permissible when it comes to funding for parties in the Irish Republic, so the position is even worse. How does he think his suggestion can combat that problem?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a point that throws up the conundrum that, although we are trying to legislate for Northern Ireland in broad conformity with UK legislation as it is applied for parties here, because of the circumstances in Northern Ireland, the exception is to allow donations from the south. Then there is the discrepancy in the donations rules for people in the south, whereby they can donate under one set of rules to parties in the south and under another set to parties in the north. Perhaps there is a case for saying that we should try to arrive at some conformity on donations across the island of Ireland, or that donations from the south of Ireland should conform to the southern Irish rules as well. I do not have a problem with trying to finesse some of these issues so that we are not left with too many obvious conundrums. However, the answer to the question that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has asked is not provided by amendment 6. It is not the answer to his very valid, pertinent and relevant question about the different standards for people from the south contributing donations.
I made the point on Second Reading that there were many people in the south who were originally from the north, or perhaps from this island, who had a valid and benevolent interest in the affairs of the north and who continued to make a contribution there, often through membership of public bodies. I also made the point that not all of them had been appointed to such bodies by nationalist Ministers. If such people are seen to have a valid role and to make a credible input in the best interests of Northern Ireland by way of a public appointment, I do not see why they should be precluded from doing so by way of donations to political parties.
It is a pleasure to follow all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far. I intend to make only a brief contribution to the debate, as many of the points have already been raised. I note that amendment 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), uses the word “may”, rather than “shall”, which is in keeping with the rest of the clause that he is seeking to amend. The Select Committee feels that we should move forward in this respect, and that we should try to normalise politics in Northern Ireland. I know that that was the ambition of the previous Secretary of State and the previous Minister, and it is fair to say that it is also the ambition of the current holders of those positions. It has been our guiding principle. Each and every political party that the Committee spoke to during the course of the inquiry approved of moving towards greater transparency.
Everyone on the Committee, myself included, recognises that there is a different security situation in Northern Ireland. The Committee has had a sufficient number of meetings, and paid a sufficient number of visits to Northern Ireland, to understand that fact. Further to my earlier intervention on the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), a question that has frequently been asked is: why should the arrangements be different for donors and for those who participate in the elections? The right hon. Gentleman gave an explanation for why people might want to be donors but not candidates, and I understand that, but I am still not clear why a donor should be at greater risk or under a greater threat than someone who is standing for office for a political party. I would have thought that it was the other way round. People who support a candidate, largely by signing nomination papers, would surely expose themselves to the same risk.
It has been pointed out that if a business makes a donation, it could put them at a commercial disadvantage, but it is up to the business to make that decision. There is a Co-operative store close to my office in Tewkesbury. The Co-op has supported the Labour party for many years, and I have to make the decision whether to go and buy a carton of milk and a newspaper from that shop. It happens to be close to my office and very convenient, so I do that. I do not think that businesses should be able to hide behind the argument of a security risk in order to protect their business interests. If they make a donation to a particular party in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in Great Britain, they should take that commercial risk. That should be part of the normal run of politics.
I am somewhat intrigued by the substantive clause inasmuch as it allows the Secretary of State to increase transparency, but does not allow her to reduce it. Having looked very closely at the provisions, I am still slightly confused on this point. If the Secretary of State increases transparency, can she reduce it at some later date? In other words, she cannot reduce transparency from where it stands now, but can she reduce it if she has increased it in the future?
I make that point because if she cannot reduce it, where have we got to? What would be the difference from what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley proposes? Let us say that the Secretary of State increases transparency, but in the year after that, the security situation—heaven forbid—got worse, so that she had to come back to introduce primary legislation to change that position. In those circumstances, I do not really see what would be any different from my hon. Friend’s proposal.
The Select Committee and I would certainly be against the publication of any information retrospectively when donors have made donations in the belief that that would not be the case. I am slightly concerned about the wording in clause 1, however, which it states:
“Such information may be disclosed if the Commission believe, on reasonable grounds, that…the relevant person has consented”.
We tried to strengthen that provision, saying that there had to be evidence that the person had consented. The Government response was that if they adopted our proposal, it would create an absolute offence and a mistake could be made. I am not completely persuaded by that argument. I think that the clause does need strengthening to ensure that a mistake cannot be made in this respect and that there has to be a clear indication from the person or organisation that made the donation that permission has been given for any such disclosure. I thus seek clarification from the Minister on those points.
I would like to say a few quick words on amendment 2, as proposed by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), and to put a different perspective on it. First, however, I wish to say that I have had a number of discussions with the hon. Gentleman and that we have served in the Finance Bill Committee together, as we have on Delegated Legislation Committees. I know that his interest is sincerely held and it is one that I respect. I was nevertheless struck as I read the briefing for this debate by its tone, and I would suggest that there is a reason for caution—anything further being an exaggeration.
My party, the Democratic Unionist party, is very much in favour of openness and transparency. We are also well aware of the security situation in Northern Ireland and of the fact that the dissidents are still very much on operations, which means that we cannot have one-size-fits-all legislation. It cannot happen; it is not like for like. Those who say that the people should stand up to intimidation show only the fact that they do not care or perhaps do not understand that people in Northern Ireland still live a life that carries a degree of anxiety—not just in historical cases, but in issues that are still ongoing today for communities across the whole of Northern Ireland. I accept that it is not to the same extent as in the past, but none the less there are still threats in my constituency and in others across Northern Ireland.
As someone who, like others, works within the community, I understand the real fear that people experience and I do not believe that it can be so easily dismissed as some people have suggested. Our security situation cannot be regulated to a date, as dissidents certainly do not respond to deadlines. Although I fully understand and agree with the necessity for transparency that has been put forward, this cannot be put before the security concerns of people and businesses, which are real and justified. To suggest otherwise would be to hope naively for the best, which is a good thing in principle, but not when people’s lives are at stake.
I have to say—I hate to say it, as well—that extortion of a sectarian nature is not a thing of the past when it comes to Northern Ireland. It still happens today; incidents are taking place. There is a very real possibility that if a business is seen to be donating to political parties, it might come under pressure to donate to other groups, perhaps those of an unsavoury nature. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said to the Committee, businesses can feel that they have been boycotted by customers whom they have had for years. There is a real issue for those people; it is not an exaggeration or a remote ideal. Is this what is intended by the legislation before us tonight? I do not believe so. I do not believe that the Bill is intended to scare off people who wish to contribute to a party. However, that will be a side-effect of it. People will fear that their homes, their businesses or, indeed, their families will be at risk, and that cannot be ignored by any Member in any part of the House.
I do not believe that we have reached a stage at which people can freely publicise their political ideals in any circumstances without fear of reprisal. As I have said before, in this debate and in others, security concerns are paramount for me, and they should be paramount for the House when it legislates. Can I, in all conscience, legislate in a way that would put people at risk because they support a political party, as is their right? I do not believe that I can, and I sincerely ask all other Members whether they can do likewise.
We must be open, but we must also be wise. I believe that wisdom dictates that the status quo should be extended for a further two years, as proposed by the Minister and by earlier speakers, and that it should be judged again at that stage. I do not believe that we will never reach a stage at which publication becomes safe, and I firmly believe that that is the direction in which we should be heading, but the fact that we see a signpost to a destination does not mean that we have arrived, and in this instance “better safe than sorry” definitely applies.
I cannot support amendment 2, but I commend amendment 6, which was tabled by members of my party and presented very eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North. I believe that it presents us with a way forward in the Province.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I wish to speak to amendments 7 and 8 and amendment 6.
Given that we are living in a more normal society in Northern Ireland—although the degree of that normality varies, and we have seen it ebb and flow over the last few months—I believe that the anonymity relating to donations could now be lifted, not necessarily next October but perhaps at an earlier date, as suggested by the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills).
I cannot disagree with what I understand to be the intended purpose of the amendments. It is important that, in trying to achieve a greater level of political maturity and in the practice of politics generally, we strive to achieve the highest standards of public life, whether we are serving our constituents or executing our parliamentary duties here at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The public ask us to serve them, and the duty to serve them is in our contract with them when we are elected as members of political parties. The electorate rightly demand from us the highest standards in public office in the execution of that contract, and it is important for the guiding principles of transparency, openness and accountability to constitute not just the pillars on which our fledgling democracy is built, but the rules that govern donations to political parties serving us in public life and wider civic society.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I acknowledge that there may be concern about security issues—concern that was expressed by the leader of our party when he gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is a need to protect donors, because some of them—and some parties —fear that they may might be at risk from a terrorist or other threat. However, if we have learned anything over the last few months—and over the last few days, when television programmes have contained revelations about alleged political interference in certain bodies—it is the importance of giving some form of resilience and confidence to the public.
In that respect, I do not have any problem in supporting the amendments of the hon. Member for Belfast East, although it will not come as a surprise to learn that I do not support the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) because like my party colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I believe we live in the island of Ireland. I believe that fervently as a democratic Irish nationalist, but notwithstanding that, I represent a border constituency, and many people at the southern end of it daily travel to places of employment in County Louth. They pay taxes sometimes in both the north of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They also have their children educated in the north, and they buy goods and services in the south and the north. There is that exchange of ideas and people. They view people in County Louth, albeit it is in the south of Ireland—in the Republic of Ireland, a different jurisdiction—as their neighbours and friends. In those circumstances, with that exchange of people and ideas, I cannot support this amendment. I am sure DUP Members will perfectly understand where the parliamentary party of the SDLP is coming from in that respect.
I also believe that we need to see progress on a whole range of matters, however. Mr Haass has been appointed today to chair the all-party talks on flags and emblems and reconciliation. It is important that we move towards that in the next phase of devolution so we can see the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, including support from the British Government for a Bill of Rights that is dedicated to the needs and requirements of Northern Ireland.
May we clarify one little point of conflict between the hon. Lady and her colleague, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)? He supported the thrust of the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), but he suggested that January was a bit too soon and perhaps the tax year would be better. However, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) has just said she supports the amendments of the hon. Member for Belfast East, so is it January, or is it March and the tax year, or has the hon. Member for South Down got further ideas?
It was my very clear understanding that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle said that if the hon. Member for Belfast East were to press her amendment to a Division, he, like me, would support her—although I think I might be a Teller in such a Division. We in the SDLP believe that there is a need to move towards greater transparency and accountability. That can be balanced against the political progress we are making in the interests of the public good and, above all, the wider needs of society in Northern Ireland, because the experience of the last few weeks tells us that the public want politics to move in that direction. They want us, while serving them, to exercise our job in the right and proper and accountable manner.
We have heard a great deal this evening about the threats and dangers that could possibly be attracted to party political donors. It is perhaps salutary to mention that if such threats exist to those who donate to political parties, credit should be given to those who have the courage to participate fully in the democratic process as candidates and elected representatives, and perhaps we in this House do not give enough credit to those who sit with us in this Chamber and who take the most extraordinary risks in conditions that are frequently beyond the imagining of us on this side of the water. Many right hon. and hon. Members sitting here tonight have had very close personal experiences in that regard, so when we talk about the threat to donors let us also salute the courage of those who participate fully in the democratic process.
May I, in these brief remarks, say that I thought that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) showed his fine—I was going to say almost Jesuitical subtlety but he probably would not thank me for that—analysis of the situation when he referred to the need to advance incrementally and organically? It is one thing to legislate, but we cannot legislate for human behaviour; we cannot demand that people’s behaviour and instincts change, and that society and culture change, because a piece of law has been approved in this House. A cultural change, an organic change, has to take place, and that is, of necessity, a slow process; it is an incremental process. None of us disagrees with the desirability of the destination; we all want to be in that place. It is the road map and the route we are talking about today. In the particular circumstances of politics in Northern Ireland, proceeding festina lente—I hope hon. Members will forgive me a spot of Latin—should be our watchword on this occasion. In recognition of that, the proceeding slowly and cautiously option is by far the best one. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, possibly also on the subject of transparency of the Conservative party in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee of the whole House under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As usual, we have had a wide-ranging debate on the provisions. I wish to make two personal comments. First, may I apologise on behalf of the Secretary of State, who would have been here but for the fact that, as Opposition Members know, it is right and proper that she is in the Province this evening as there are important matters to be dealt with there? It is right and proper that I acknowledge that she would have been here and she particularly wanted to deal with clauses 1 and 2. May I also say a personal thank you to right hon. and hon. friends in the House who have sent me notes and stopped me in the corridors following the tragic loss that my family have had in the past couple of days? The comradeship of this House has helped me through, especially as I was giving evidence to the Select Committee when my father-in-law passed away.
This debate has taken place with the perfect tone, and people watching this debate, particularly if they are doing so in Northern Ireland—I hope they are and I hope the BBC covers it properly—will be impressed. We probably all disagree about many of the issues; one of my colleagues came up to me saying, “Who agrees on what here?” We all agree that Northern Ireland has come a huge distance in the past 15 years but still has quite a long way to go. I would love to be able to stand here and say that I can agree with amendments 7, 8 and 2, but I cannot.
The office I hold means that I see things that I had hoped I would never see, and there are things I cannot repeat on the Floor of this House. May I pay tribute, as the shadow Minister did, to those who stand for office in Northern Ireland, whether in this House or any other elected body, because they stick their head about the parapet? As so many in this House, in the Assembly and in local government know, that very often puts them and their families under threat. We heard on Second Reading about the terrible atrocities of the past. Sadly, some of those threats remain today. Of course I add the caveat that we have come an awful long way but, as I said on Second Reading, I have to look daily at protection for people—close protection weapons, home protection and so on. Some of these people are elected but the vast majority are just going about their normal work to protect us. Sometimes they are not even in the public sector. I know we will never be in a perfect situation in which there is no threat to anybody, but while there is a threat I must be very careful to ensure that those who wish to donate and their loved ones are not put at risk by revealing their identities. Clauses 1 and 2 move us forward, slowly but surely, as we have for the past 15 years, and I thank the shadow Minister for supporting me in that regard. As I said, we would all love to be in a completely different position. I know that some hon. Members do not agree with me, and I completely respect them and their view, but the Bill moves us forward, although perhaps not at the speed that some would like.
I acknowledge that the Bill moves us forward. That is welcome and I welcomed it on Second Reading. Will the Minister clarify exactly how my amendments 7 and 8 would pose any threat to security, given that all they would provide is that from January any donations made would be subject to publication once the Secretary of State deemed it was safe to publish?
I completely understand where the hon. Lady is coming from. The whole Bill went through pre-legislative scrutiny, and we are not discussing semantics —it is much more serious than that. We are saying that the Secretary of State will take the powers and that, if we are in a secure position, we will move forward. As mentioned earlier—I think the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), asked about this—the Secretary of State also has the statutory power to revoke.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for taking a second intervention so soon after the first. I was very concerned when the Minister wound up on Second Reading and used an expression that struck me—and, I am sure, other right hon. and hon. Members —at the time:
“If one person is put at risk, that is not right.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 118.]
Although I cannot speak for others, I inferred that if one donor felt he or she was at risk the transparency measures would not be lifted by the Northern Ireland Office. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify when it will ever be the right time—when we have no risk at all?
That is a good intervention. I read what I said the following day, as all good Ministers should—as all good Members should, to be honest—and I was speaking metaphorically. I was not speaking about an actual physical individual, because of course that would be a crazy situation. We would never, as hon. Members have said, get into a position where there was no threat to anybody. Let me clarify: I was speaking in general terms, rather than individually.
Let me touch on the threat. My job is not only to ensure, along with the Electoral Commission, that the electoral system in Northern Ireland runs properly but to ensure the national security of Northern Ireland. There might be concerns about individual businesses, and I think that this applies to businesses that give donations to any political party in the UK—we have talked about the Co-op—and they suffer any consequences, but that is completely separate from the intimidation and personal threats I see daily.
The shadow Secretary of State asked whether it should be on the face of the Bill that the PSNI should be a consultant. This subject is much more wide ranging than the PSNI; we could do that, but we do not need to. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, it is more wide ranging and involves the other security services that are helping us and that helped us so brilliantly during the G8.
Amendment 6 stands in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I am told that I should not say this, but I have some sympathy with the argument, in that we need to move forward. I will not accept the amendment—he probably understands that—but if we are talking about normalisation, I accept that there need to be discussions between the Government in the south, us, and all the political parties on how we can get to a slightly better position. I very much take on board the point that the Good Friday agreement set out that there is a different situation in Northern Ireland when it comes to donations and political parties. Of course, there is a cross-Ireland political party that has had Members elected to this House, but it is not represented in the Chamber today.
I am committed to ongoing discussions, and to seeing how we can move the issue forward. I cannot accept amendment 6, but as that commitment is, I think, roughly what the right hon. Gentleman asked me to give, hopefully he is happy with that. I ask hon. Members to withdraw amendments 7, 8, 2 and 6, and commend clauses 1 and 2 to the Committee.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. When we discuss this issue, it is natural that we focus heavily on the threat to donors from terrorism. I do not dismiss that, and I do not dismiss the point that the threat level is severe. However, no compelling evidence was presented to the Select Committee during our inquiry to show that the threat specifically targeted donors. People remain willing to sign councillors’ nomination papers—people who do not want to lift their head above the parapet and be elected representatives, but who are willing to have that information published.
The Chairman of the Select Committee highlighted clearly that a boycott could happen in any part of the United Kingdom, and that that is not a compelling reason for the current arrangements, so we need to be cautious about conflating those two things. However, although we naturally focus heavily on the security threat, we must also focus heavily on the wider threat to the political process that the lack of transparency is becoming in Northern Ireland. The suspicion that politics operates for the benefit of those with the means to buy influence is utterly corrosive to the democratic process. It taints all of us as politicians, and it puts the institutions under threat, as the public disengage from politics as a result of that perception.
Confidence in Northern Ireland politics is at a low ebb, and only through increased transparency, and increased speed of delivery of transparency, can we meaningfully address that. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said, and while I understand and accept many of his points, I cannot accept that a coherent argument has been made to say that amendments 7 and 8 would pose any threat to the security of any individual.
I know that the Select Committee took evidence, but a lot of the evidence that could perhaps have convinced the hon. Lady could not be given to the Select Committee. She cannot see the evidence that we see daily. Nobody in this House is more determined that there should be democracy than I am, but to push something forward without that knowledge is dangerous.
The evidence that I am seeking is not evidence of the security threat. The evidence that I am referring to is evidence that amendments 7 and 8 would in any way compromise anyone’s security. The amendments leave it to the Secretary of State to decide when that information should be made public—she currently has that power—but make it clear that anyone making a donation after January 2014 will eventually have that fact made public when the Secretary of State and the Minister of State are confident that it is safe to do so, in the light of all the information that they see and we ordinary Members of Parliament do not. There is no compelling argument against amendments 7 and 8; they are supported by the Electoral Commission, and I would like to press them to a vote.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the events of recent days mean that the concerns that lie behind her amendments are clear and present concerns of the public, and are felt profoundly? It is a bit much for the Minister or anybody else to conduct this debate as though those concerns were not there.
I agree entirely. There is a serious risk if people no longer trust their politicians and no longer trust their institutions to act in the public interest. The only way we can overcome that is by clearing the matter up. No party can easily defend itself while this information remains secret. I am willing to accept the Secretary of State maintaining the discretion as to when the information will be published, but I see no risk to anyone from a decision being made now that makes donors and parties aware that anything donated after January will be made public, when the Minister of State and the Secretary of State are convinced that it is safe to do so.
To be absolutely clear, what the hon. Lady is talking about is bringing forward the date from October to January. That would not have any effect on any donations up to now or any donations before January next year, so in relation to the wider issues and the context in which we are speaking about this, the measure would take effect only from next year. Is that right?
That is absolutely correct. I made it clear on Second Reading that I would be in favour of any measure that retrospectively exposed donors to publication. I believe that would be unjust while there is a legal question about whether they had the expectation that donations made in the prescribed period would not be made public. At a very personal level, they understood that to be the case. If we are to have honour and integrity in politics, that should extend to people’s understanding of agreements that have been made, so I would not favour retrospective exposure. Only donations made after January would be affected and that would come about only after the Secretary of State had ruled that it was safe to do so. I therefore wish to press the matter to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
MPs to be disqualified for membership of Assembly
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 11, page 4, line 7, after ‘Commons’, insert ‘or House of Lords’.
Amendment 12, page 4, line 11, at end insert—
‘(2) A person who becomes a Member of the House of Lords is not disqualified under section 1(1)(za) at any time during the period of 8 days beginning with the day the person becomes a Member of the House of Lords.’.
Amendment 13, page 4, line 30, leave out from ‘members)’ to end of line 31 and insert ‘leave out “either House of Parliament.”.’.
Clause stand part.
Amendment 14, page 4, line 36, after ‘Ireland)’, insert ‘or Seanad Éireann (the Senate of Ireland).’.
Amendment 20, page 4, line 36, at end insert ‘or Seanad Éireann (Senate of Ireland).
(dc) is a member of the House of Lords.’.
Amendment 15, page 4, line 38, after ‘Éireann’, insert ‘or Seanad Éireann’.
Amendment 3, page 4, line 41, at end add—
‘(3) In section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 (disqualification of holders of certain offices and places) before paragraph (a) insert—
“(za) is a member of the European Parliament;”.
(4) After section 1B of that Act (as inserted by section 4(2)) insert—
“1C Members of the European Parliament
A person returned at an election as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not disqualified under section 1(1)(za) at any time in the period of 8 days beginning with the day the person is so returned.”.’.
Clause 4 stand part.
Amendment 16, in clause 5, page 6, line 13, leave out from ‘MPs’ to end and insert
‘, members of the House of Lords or members of the Oireachtas).’.
Amendment 17, page 6, line 28, leave out from ‘MPs’ to end and insert
‘, members of the House of Lords or members of the Oireachtas); and’.
I intend to keep my remarks on this group of amendments brief. I welcome the fact that the Government have acted on their promise to ensure that double-jobbing between MLAs and MPs will now be brought to an end. I also recognise that, as a result of discussions in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Government have moved to include within that provision Members of Dail Eireann so that TDs, too, will not be able to hold a seat in the Assembly. I think that it is right that they have done so and welcome that move. [Interruption.]
Order. I am trying to enjoy what the hon. Lady is saying, but unfortunately there is a lot of chatter coming from behind the Speaker’s Chair. I am sure that hon. Members would like to hear more clearly the very important points she is making.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone.
As I was saying, I welcome the fact that the Government are dealing with and resolving the issue of MP-MLA double-jobbing. That is a huge improvement. As a result of the Select Committee’s discussions, the Government have also moved to resolve the issue of TDs, who could also sit as MLAs, and to equalise the situation. That is also important and I welcome it at the outset.
The Government did this for good reason, which is the challenge of being in two legislatures at the same time—
Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. It is unfortunate that the noise blotted out all the praise that I was heaping on the Government, because I am just about to stop and start to highlight areas where they have not been quite so generous. However, I do appreciate that these issues are being addressed. I very much support that, as did the Select Committee.
These provisions are being proposed for a very good reason. Serving in two legislatures involves the physical challenge of being in two places at once. The conflict in sitting times between the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly means that Members who wished to be here today for this business would have to be absent from the Assembly, where they could be questioning Ministers and holding them to account. There is significant evidence that that creates a democratic deficit either there or here.
The problem is not restricted purely to Members who sit in the House of Commons. I recognise that the House of Lords is not structured in the same way as the Commons. Its Members do not have an electoral mandate and therefore do not have the same demands on their time with regard to constituency business. However, as a revising Chamber with a primary focus on legislation and scrutiny, it is hugely important that its Members are free to dedicate themselves to that task without the interference of a constituency burden and the other legislature that they would have to deal with when they are at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Does she accept that, as I propose in amendment 3, this must apply even more to the European Parliament, which is even further away and has some kind of elected legitimacy, at least while we are in still in the European Union and it is relevant to us? I cannot see how someone can serve in Brussels and in Belfast at the same time.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s amendment shortly. I understand that European Parliament legislation precludes people from serving in the Assembly at the same time as in the European Parliament. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) would be able to advise whether that is the case. If not, I would welcome the issue being resolved in the Bill and would support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment if it achieved that.
It is not only about distance but about simply having the time to commit to doing the job that one is supposed to be doing. The House of Lords plays an important role in acting as a revising Chamber for this House. Someone who is a peer and also an MLA will not be able to commit themselves fully to either body, and that is unfortunate. The situation is exacerbated by the direct conflict between the sitting times of the Assembly and the House of Lords, particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays but also extending into the rest of the week, when people would be on committee business in the Assembly. The Assembly committees are extremely powerful instruments, and it is therefore important that Members play a full and active role in them.
I also recognise that remuneration for the work of a peer is different, which reflects the fact that many peers have careers outside Parliament that may on occasion conflict with the sittings of the House of Lords. I made it clear on Second Reading that I was content for this matter to be resolved in the context of wider reform of the House of Lords, and it was initially indicated that that would be the case when we discussed this during and after the Bill’s consultation period. However, given that House of Lords reform has not progressed and looks unlikely to do so in, let us say, the short term, it is important that the Government revisit the possibility of taking action in this Bill in order to ensure that Members of the House of the Lords and those who are elevated to it do not continue to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If membership of this House disqualifies people from serving in the Assembly, I believe that the same should be true of membership of other Parliaments.
I do not believe it is acceptable that someone who sits in the Seanad, the upper House of the Dail at the Oireachtas, is technically allowed to hold a post—although no one does—in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I think that is wrong. I am glad that the Government have addressed the issue of the Dail, but I believe they should address the Oireachtas as a whole, so my amendments also seek to exclude Members of Seanad Eireann from being able to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I believe that that would be consistent with the approach to the House of Lords. Both deal with legislative matters, which the Government gave as their primary reason for excluding MPs and TDs.
I would suggest that all those arguments also apply to Members of the European Parliament. I have been unable to unravel—let us put it that way—precisely whether Members of the Assembly are specifically excluded from being MEPs, but history shows that any Assembly Member who has been elected to the European Parliament has stood down. I therefore support amendment 3, tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), which would clarify the issue in domestic legislation and make it clear that it is not the will of this Parliament that people should be able to hold both posts.
The report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee acknowledges that those are important issues. We note in paragraph 66 that legislation on dual mandates
“should be applied consistently across both Houses of Parliament”
“that the Government include a provision in the substantive Bill to this effect.”
Moreover, in paragraph 75 we say that it would be “illogical” to allow
“a position whereby a member of the UK Parliament was excluded from being an MLA but a member of another legislature was not.”
I think that that stands the test of scrutiny and hope that even at this stage the Minister will be able to offer us some comfort on these matters.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady and I agree with most of what she said. Indeed, when the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee considered the Bill we welcomed the Government’s decision to legislate to abolish double-jobbing between this place and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we suggested that if the Government were going to go down the route of legislating on one lot of double-jobbing, they should do so for all manner of double-jobbing in order to be consistent. It is welcome that the Government listened to the Committee on the issue of Members of the Irish Parliament. If it is right to block Members of this Parliament from being Members of the Assembly, it would have been iniquitous to not also block Members of the Irish Parliament. That is a welcome change.
We accept the need to legislate to end double-jobbing between the Parliament in London and the Assembly in Belfast, but I find it difficult to understand why the Government think there is no need to end it in the context of the European Parliament in Brussels. I see from the Government response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report that they see no need for that because no concern has been raised.
The Government consider that if that was done, it should apply across the United Kingdom and not just in Northern Ireland. However, the same argument would apply to ending double-jobbing between this place and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, but the Government are proposing legislation only for Northern Ireland. I believe that legislation is planned for Wales, but I am not sure of the position on Scotland.
It is therefore hard to see the logic of legislating to stop Members of Parliament sitting in the Assembly, but not to stop Members of the European Parliament sitting there. Surely if we think that that is wrong, we should legislate on it as a matter of principle and say that people can choose whether they sit in the Assembly or another Parliament, but they cannot do both. That is the simple logic behind amendment 3.
I see no reason to detain the Committee. The hon. Member for Belfast East set out all the good reasons for banning double-jobbing. The people of Northern Ireland think that that should happen and all the parties over there have voluntarily agreed that it will happen from the next general election. In my view, that should also apply to the next European Parliament election, which is due to take place in just under a year. I therefore commend amendment 3 to the Committee.
The intention of amendment 20, which appears in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), is to achieve exactly the same effect as that outlined by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) in respect of her amendments. The Clerks said that amendment 20 would be the best way to achieve the principle of one Member, one Chamber. However, I am open to supporting the other versions that would get us to the same point, namely the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast East. I also note the extension of that principle in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), which refers to the European Parliament.
Oddly, the provisions on Members of Oireachtas Eireann being Members of the Assembly date back to a situation involving a prominent and senior member of my party, Seamus Mallon, who was deputy leader of the SDLP. In the 1980s, his membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly was challenged on the basis that he was also a Member of Seanad Eireann. Of course, when my party stood in the election to the Assembly in 1982, we made it clear that we would not take our seats and would not sign on for salaries, allowances or anything else. It is therefore not comparable to Members of Sinn Fein not taking their seats here, but taking allowances. When Seamus Mallon was subsequently appointed to the Seanad, a member of the Ulster Unionist party saw fit to make a legal challenge to force a by-election so that a Unionist could take the seat in an Assembly that had no real powers.
On the back of that controversy, Sinn Fein made the case in the early years of the peace process for a gratuitous piece of legislation that was put through this House, which provided that Members of either House of the Oireachtas could be MPs and/or Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Fein was the only party that sought that piece of legislation. That was because, in building the party and selling itself to its supporters, it wanted to use its heavy hitters as abstentionist MPs and as candidates for the Dail. It was entirely a confection to support Sinn Fein’s ambitions and pretentions in building the party and the movement. This House was convinced to legislate on that basis. Of course, Sinn Fein has not activated the change it sought, and rightly so. Whenever its more prominent elected representatives in the north decided to seek election in the south, they did so on the basis of giving up their seats in the north. They too seemed to accept the standard of one Member, one Chamber. We should therefore ensure that when there is an opportunity to legislate, we should take it.
The Government were right to move on the dual mandate between Westminster and the Assembly, not least because they had served notice that if the parties did not move to rectify the situation, they would move to legislate. They have done that and I support them. As I indicated on Second Reading, I took my own decision on the dual mandate and it is right that legislation sets a clear, common standard.
That is permitted under the legislation. In my view, legislation should clearly not allow that; a party leader should not be under pressure to say that, because they are in one and can be in the other, they should sit in both because the law allows it. There is pressure on people because being able to sit in both helps to protect a second Assembly seat in the constituency, but such tactical considerations should not enter into it. The best way to spare everybody from those sorts of considerations is to have one clear, uniform standard in law.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s party has Members who sit in both the Assembly and this Chamber. Indeed, they have one Member who sits in Westminster and the Assembly while serving as a Minister in the Executive. I have always argued—when I was a Minister and subsequently —that any Minister should solely be a Member of one Chamber and be fully accountable to that Chamber. I have consistently argued that one should not be a Minister in one Chamber and a Member of another.
No, that is not a fact. When I was a Minister in Northern Ireland I was not an MP. I became a suspended Minister—I was a suspendee, not a suspender —in October 2002, and I was not elected to this House until 2005. I subsequently made appointments when I was a Member of this House; I was the leader of my party and had the power to appoint Ministers. I made it very clear well in advance that I could not appoint myself as a Minister, no matter how many seats we had won and how many Ministers we might have had to appoint in the Assembly. I was an MP and could not be a Minister. That was our party rule, and the party standard has been consistent. Similarly, when my hon. Friend the Member for South Down, who was a very able Minister for Social Development in the Executive, was elected to this House, she resigned as a Minister. That was consistent with that principle: we have consistency and form on this issue.
Regardless of what justification Members or parties might be able to give for having coped with the dual mandate in the past, circumstances are different now. We have an absolutely settled process. It is important to give the public the confidence that we believe it is a settled process by moving on dual mandates. That would indicate that we do not believe that there is any uncertainty surrounding the institutions which might give an excuse for having a foot in two Chambers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention, but may I run one suggestion past him? I have never had a dual mandate and I do not particularly favour them. However, in the context of a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland that is sustainable and will continue, is there not an argument to be made for the Finance Minister in that devolved Administration to be present in this House, particularly for the Budget, financial statements and the comprehensive spending review, so that he or she can address the key issues across the Dispatch Box to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on that day and on those issues?
No, having been Minister for Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, I do not believe there is such a compelling reason. I would have regarded it as a distraction from my full-time day job if I had been operating in another Chamber as well. The limited opportunities we have here to ask questions on a statement or the Budget do not compare to the effective opportunities a Minister and his or her officials have via the other channels to the Treasury, such as joint ministerial committees that exist for engagement between Governments. Those are adequate for Scotland and Wales, so I do not think we should create an exception in Northern Ireland if someone happens to be the Minister for Finance and Personnel.
The hon. Gentleman has obviously missed my point. We want to legislate so that there are no special cases, no special pleading and no tactical pressure on anybody, be they a party leader or anybody else. That is why we should legislate to a standard, not on an ad hominem basis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous with his time. He alluded earlier to a direction of travel and the destination we all want to reach: a single mandate for each Member. I think there is unanimity there, but would he agree that Scotland and Wales seem to have got there without the need for legislation?
Perhaps they did, but the fact is that notice was served to the parties in Northern Ireland that, if such a change did not happen, the Government would move to legislate, as they have now correctly done. It would have been wrong for the Government to give the signal, and then not to use the Bill to address the matter. We discussed this on previous Bills, because it came up whenever we considered the question of constituencies and voting systems, as well as House of Lords reform.
That would be a discrepancy as well. If the principle is one Member, one Chamber, it should apply all round. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that those of us who tabled amendments should have included the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, so that there was no question of somebody deciding to be in several Chambers.
That was discussed at length in Select Committee. One reason we did not do it was that, this being the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, there would have been no argument for including it. I think the Secretary of State for Wales is intending to introduce legislation creating that bar, although whether the Secretary of State for Scotland chooses to do the same is a matter that perhaps he could clarify better than me. Either way, this matter should be resolved.
I fully take the hon. Lady’s point; it was a helpful intervention, but the point that the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made was also a good and valid one. If we were using the Bill, in the pedantic sense, to make it truly perfect and to cover all the options, we could have included the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we did not, for the sorts of reasons she mentioned.
If we are moving, rightly, towards precluding dual mandates in this Chamber and the Northern Ireland Assembly, the same should apply to the other place as well. If it is to be one Member, one Chamber, it would be wrong if somebody could be in another Chamber in this Parliament—a Chamber which, because of the strange rules, procedures and fixations that people have here, seems at times to have more impact on legislation, by way of amendments, than this one.
The argument then arises about why somebody should be allowed to sit in another Chamber simply because they are not elected and have no mandate. The fact that they are there on an unelected basis does not make their dual membership of two different legislative Chambers any more acceptable than it would be for somebody who had been elected to both Chambers. Indeed, we have heard the Democratic Unionist party make the argument that there is more legitimacy if someone is elected to two Chambers, because the public, in electing that person, know that they are in two Chambers and knowingly give them that mandate. In many ways, the least defensible position is to say that someone can be an elected Member of one Chamber and an unelected Member of another at the same time.
The same thing has to apply to the Oireachtas. If people have rightly been precluded from being a Teachta Dala at the same time as being a Member of the Assembly, they should also be precluded from being a Member of the Seanad Eireann at the same time, whether as a Taoiseach’s appointee or as someone elected through the panels by the electoral college system that exists in the south for the Seanad. Again, if people are sitting in one legislative Chamber, that should be their sole place. That is the point of amendment 20 and the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast East.
I fully take the point made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, who wants to extend that position to the European Parliament. Some of us had thought that that was already provided for, but I understand that it applies more specifically to membership of this House—to national Parliaments, as opposed to regional or other territorial Assemblies. In practice, when the parties in Northern Ireland have run Members of the Assembly as candidates for the European Parliament in recent times, they have usually done so on the basis of a full declaration that, if elected to the European Parliament, that candidate’s membership of the Assembly would cease. However, in taking a belt-and-braces approach, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point with amendment 3.
I repeat the point that if we want to have one Member, one Chamber, we should apply that to the second Chamber of Parliament and the Oireachtas, as well as to the first Chambers of both.
We do not have an amendment in this group, but I want to speak to a number of the amendments that have been tabled.
I, along with others here, held a dual mandate for some time, being a Member of Parliament and subsequently being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. At times I think it pushes the boundaries a little to suggest that there is huge public opposition to the concept of dual mandates. When I was elected for two terms in the Assembly, I was a Member of Parliament, but I was elected—I do not share this for any reason other than to illustrate my point—with the highest number of first preference votes of any candidate in the Assembly elections on both occasions. No one voted for me on the basis that they did not know that I was already a Member of Parliament, yet they deemed it appropriate to elect me to a second Chamber. The idea that the public were always entirely opposed to dual mandates is therefore spurious, because the facts do not support it.
Because of the development of the peace process in Northern Ireland, we needed people in the Assembly who had the experience of serving as Members of Parliament. That was important. I recognise that we have now moved on and, on the basis of voluntary undertakings given by parties in Northern Ireland, we now have very few Members who hold a dual mandate between this House and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and by the next election there will be none. To say that there is a need for these changes is therefore stretching the point, to say the least. Indeed, this issue would be way down my list of priorities for inclusion in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made the point that the Government said they would legislate on moving to a single-mandate position only if the parties did not move in that direction voluntarily. Is it not the case that the parties have so moved, yet the Government are still proceeding with the measure?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government have already legislated—as, I think, the Assembly might have done—to ensure that a Member of this House who is also a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly receives no pay for holding the office of Assembly Member and has a much reduced office costs allowance. There is already provision to deal with the issue. The reality is, however, that the proposal is also incorporated into this Bill.
I would like to say on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party that we oppose the amendment that would exclude Members of the House of Lords from the opportunity of serving in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we have valid reasons for doing so. The House of Lords is an appointed second Chamber in the United Kingdom Parliament. In making appointments to it, there is a desire to achieve a degree of regional representation. I happen to think that it is to the benefit of devolution to have a connection between this Parliament and the devolved legislatures. I accept that it is not preferable for that to involve Members of this House, because we are elected and there is the question of the dual mandate and because certain issues can arise at constituency level.
Those matters do not pertain to Members of the House of Lords, however. Even in a reformed House of Lords, there would be value in making provision for some Members of the devolved legislatures also to be represented, if they so chose, in the House of Lords. That would help to bind the United Kingdom together, and to recognise the special position of the House of Lords. As a body, it is not necessarily representative in geographical terms, but it is widely representative of society. Why should we not have in the House of Lords legislators from the devolved regions of the United Kingdom? We do not accept the need to amend the Bill to exclude Members of the House of Lords from having that dual representation—if not a dual mandate—in the separate Chambers.
The House of Lords is a key part of the legislature of the United Kingdom and, as someone who is very keen on devolution, I believe that the Assembly is an essential part of the Government in Northern Ireland. Can the right hon. Gentleman honestly say, with his hand on his heart, that a person—or multiple people—sitting in the Assembly and in the House of Lords can do justice to both roles and sit in both places simultaneously?
I can say, hand on heart, that I believe they can. When I was a Member of the Assembly and of the UK Parliament, my attendance record on Committees in the Assembly was far superior to those of single-mandate Members of the Assembly. When I chaired the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I had a 100% attendance record—I was the best attendee on the Committee. We have to weigh these things up and strike a balance.
I certainly do not dispute the fact that the right hon. Gentleman’s Assembly Committee attendance record was good, but we should look at the disparity between the average voting records of those in this House who do not have a dual mandate and those who do. According to “The Public Whip”, the average voting record of those of us who do not hold a dual mandate is 413 to 414, compared with 259 to 260 for those who do have a dual mandate. The Assembly might not suffer, but the attendance of those Members in this House seems to do so. I am not suggesting that that is the only metric we should take into account, but it is an important one.
I come back again to the issue of mandate. If the people of East Londonderry decided that they wanted someone other than the current Member to be their MP, because the current Member also happens to be a Member of the Assembly, they will have made that choice. The reality is that the choice they made at the last election was to elect someone who was also a Member of the Assembly and who has, by the way, an excellent voting record in this Chamber and participates well in debates. In all those issues, we have to strike a balance. What we are recognising is that we accept the argument that in respect of Members of this House there is a greater weight of opinion that says that it is difficult to do both tasks. In respect of the House of Lords, however, I believe that having a small number of MLAs who also happen to be Members of the House of Lords is something of value to the Assembly and to the people of Northern Ireland.
I know this is probably academic, as I recognise that we are moving in the same direction. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) singled out voting records. That is one and only one element of performance. If we look at oral contributions, written questions and the tabling of motions, we see a very different picture. It is worth looking at theyworkforyou.com which can show us who is performing well and who is not.
I would also say that a constituent, whether it be in Limavady or Lisburn, is well able to make a judgment about whether the person they elected to a particular chamber better serves the interests of the people by being here to vote on the Mersey Tunnels Bill, which is of no relevance whatever to the people of Limavady or Lisburn, or by dealing with an issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly that is of relevance to them.
We have moved on from the question of dual mandates between the House of Commons and the House of Lords or the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I do not believe that the same arguments apply in respect of being a Member of the House of Lords and being a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As I have said, I think there is real value to the Assembly in having a small number of Members who are also Members of the United Kingdom Parliament by virtue of their membership of the House of Lords. Equally, I would hope, the House of Lords can see the value of having that sort of representation, albeit on a small scale.
We nevertheless support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) because the European Parliament is an elected chamber, and we draw a distinction between an elected and an appointed chamber. If the argument is made that it is difficult to be in London and in Belfast, I would say that it is even more difficult to be in Brussels or Strasbourg and in Belfast. None of the Northern Ireland parties pursue the option of having their MPs as an MLA, but if the argument goes that we are legislating to prevent dual mandates for the House of Commons because we want to prevent it happening in the future, I suggest that the same principle should apply to Members of the European Parliament as well. It may not be the practice at the moment, just as I believe the practice of dual mandates in this House is coming to an end, but if preventive measures are called for, we have to be consistent and look at the position of the European Parliament.
We are minded to support amendment 3, tabled by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, but to oppose the amendments that include the House of Lords in the excluding provisions. We believe it is right to include the Irish Parliament within the exclusions, given that it is an elected body, and I think that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is seeking to extend that to include the Irish Senate.
The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Irish Senate is not actually elected in a public sense. Indeed, some of the seats are appointed by the Taoiseach. Those of us who are backing these amendments are being consistent: whether or not a chamber is elected is not what matters; what matters is whether it is a legislative chamber.
That is a fair point, but my party approaches the matter from a very different perspective. The Parliament of the Irish Republic is in a separate jurisdiction, outwith the United Kingdom, and we have always taken the principled view that a member of a Parliament that is outwith the United Kingdom’s jurisdiction should not be entitled to membership of a devolved legislature or of this Parliament.
My right hon. Friend is making a valid point. Surely it would be ludicrous for a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly also to be a member of Dail Eireann or of a Senate with a different constitution, a different aspiration, and a different way of looking at things from an Assembly that is in the United Kingdom.
Indeed. I do not know what affirmation new members of the Irish Senate make, but it is surely a contradiction for people to come to either of the Houses of Parliament here and affirm their allegiance to the United Kingdom, and then to go to the legislature of another country and affirm their allegiance to that country. That is why, on principle, we cannot accept the concept that a Member of the Parliament of another country could also be a member of either a devolved legislature in the United Kingdom or, indeed, of this Parliament.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and I firmly believe in one Member, one Chamber. I declare an interest as a former Member of, and Minister in, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, and also as a former district councillor in Northern Ireland. As such, I know very well that Members must serve only one Chamber if they are to do the job properly and adequately.
The proposal to extend this legislation to the upper chambers, the House of Lords and the Seanad in the Irish Parliament, has my full support. I believe that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in contending that dual mandates must end while ignoring the practice in respect of other legislative bodies. The current approach is inconsistent, and leaves us with an untidy arrangement.
There was a period during the early years of the Assembly—back in 1998—when dual mandates were an important part of the political system, but given the changes in our political system in Northern Ireland and its evolving maturity over the past 15 years, there is clearly a different political climate as well as a different expectation on the part of the body politic. While I am not convinced that this legislative route is the most appropriate, the direction of travel is clear, and my party supports it.
As we move towards the new system, however, we must ask why we are preserving the practice in some arenas but not in others. Why are we creating this imbalance? I accept that the House of Lords operates differently because it has no constituencies, but the important point—emphasised a few minutes ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle—is that it is a legislative Chamber. If we are legislating to prevent people from being members of two different legislatures, that is exactly what we should do.
Surely part of the rationale for the structure of the House of Lords is the fact that it can serve as a revising Chamber, and scrutinise legislation in a robust way, because its Members are not being lobbied by constituents as we in the House of Commons are when we are dealing with legislation. Could not an electoral mandate expose Members of the House of Lords to that kind of lobbying, and prevent them from acting as we expect a Lord to act?
That was a useful intervention, because it illustrated the role of Members of the House of Lords. While they have clear legislative responsibilities, they also do very in-depth work. We can cast our minds back to the work done in respect of the Welfare Reform Bill, and its ping-pong nature, with the Bill going back and forth between us. Lords come from many varied backgrounds, but they do their work. The Lords may not be elected, but they do have legislative responsibilities, which naturally would clash with the responsibilities of an elected Chamber such as the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is the very problem that this measure is meant to address. I would not hold my breath about this House finally taking on the much-needed reform of the House of Lords, but if, and hopefully when, it does, would it be desirable that people can run for election and hold office, namely by having a dual mandate between the Assembly and an elected House of Lords?
It is important that this issue is sorted out now within the terms of the current Bill. I note that that position is supported by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In so doing, we come to this issue with the premise of one Member, one Chamber. Having had the experience of serving in other Chambers, and knowing the extent and breadth and depth of work and investigative intelligence that is required of Members in all those Chambers, particularly in terms of legislation, we not only support our own amendment—amendment 20—but we also support those of the hon. Member for Belfast East.
On clause 3 and the ending of the dual mandate between Members of this House and Members of the Assembly, our party made it clear some time ago that we would be bringing this matter to the point that by 2015, as was recommended, dual mandates would be ended. We are working towards that, and it needs to be made very clear in this Committee tonight that this Bill does not end dual mandates; the parties in Northern Ireland are ending dual mandates, and they are doing so for the reasons that have been advanced, which are that we have now moved forward to a position where politics is much more stable, and the Assembly and the Executive are up and running. We are therefore in a very different position from the one we were in only a short time ago, when dual mandates were not only preferable, but essential, for the reasons laid out very clearly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and because of the leading political figures in this House who were playing the important—the crucial—role of bringing about peace, stability and devolution in Northern Ireland. That would not have worked if there had not been that dual mandate at that time; that is absolutely the case.
There is a tendency sometimes to look at situations from the perspective of today, rather than looking at the context of the time. I want to pay tribute to all Members who held dual mandates at that time. I want to do so not because I was one of those Members who held a dual mandate, but because they put themselves and their families under enormous stress and strain in terms of the work load, but still carried out an immensely powerful job, as was recognised through the votes of the people, who consistently voted for them. Therefore it is only right and proper to pay tribute to those politicians who did that in very difficult circumstances, and who had their pay cut, we must remember—it was not as if they were doing it for two salaries. It was done for the reasons set out, and also because, to return to an earlier discussion, there were very real threats against politicians, and not too many people were prepared to come forward and put their head above the parapet. Every Member in our party, and Members of other parties as well, including the SDLP and the Alliance, suffered very severe threats at that time, and actual attacks on their person, their offices and on people close to them. That was the reality of the situation we lived in.
That point was also made by the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues on Second Reading, and it is important to put on the record that nobody is suggesting that people who served during that period did not have a justification for doing so. Those who seek fast reform make the point that that period is now at an end.
Yes, that is the point that I was making and it is important to put it on the record. We are talking about the difficulties of having a double mandate, but I recall that back in the late 1970s and during most of the 1980s the original three MEPs from Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, John Hume and John Taylor, had three mandates. Nobody is going to say to me that they did not do a very good job for Northern Ireland in Europe. I know that there was a different context and a different set-up then, but they worked very well together. I had some experience of that through working with Ian Paisley in the European Parliament, and I know that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will know about it from first-hand experience of working with John Hume. That arrangement was necessary and they did an immensely powerful job for Northern Ireland. Indeed, I recall one of those MEPs, not the one from my party, saying that on one occasion he managed to speak in Strasbourg in the morning, in the Belfast Assembly in the afternoon and in the House of Commons in the evening. I asked him whether he used the same speech, but it was not a single transferable speech. Those were different days and we accept that we have moved forward, but it is important to put on the record where we are coming from.
Let me deal with the issue of the House of Lords. The explanatory notes talk about “dual mandates” and people prevented from being a Member of both this House and the Assembly, as is right and proper. What mandate does a Member of the House of Lords have? They do not have any mandate. We have a mandate because we are elected, but a Member of the House of Lords has none because they are appointed. So this legislation does not apply to the House of Lords because it is in a different position. If the House of Lords were elected, there would be a strong argument for saying that we should be legislating to prevent dual membership there, but it is not elected and it is different. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why people opposed reforming the House of Lords, because to do so would put it on the same level as, or make it equivalent to, this House, and that would threaten the authority of this House. So this matter is summed up in the very phraseology used about ending “dual mandates”. It is right and proper to do that in respect of the House of Commons, but Members of the House of Lords do not have a mandate. They have a legislative role, but they do not have a mandate.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not trying to create a class of Members of the House of Lords who are Members of that House and sit there without a mandate, but who nevertheless have a mandate by virtue of sitting in another Assembly? He is trying to have it both ways; if he is making a virtue of their having no mandate, leave them without a mandate.
I think that when the hon. Gentleman reads that over again in Hansard, he will perhaps want to reflect on that contribution.
It is clear that we are legislating to end dual mandates. As Members of the House of Lords do not have any mandate, it does not apply to them. In any case, for the other reasons that have been set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, there is a difference. Interestingly, when the Secretary of State for Wales made his announcement in March, he did not include a bar on membership of the House of Lords and the Welsh Assembly; he confined it to the House of Commons. So for all those reasons, the Government are taking the right approach.
On the issue of membership of the Irish Parliament, we very much welcome the Government’s decision to follow the position of the Select Committee and to take on board the representations made on that matter. It is right and proper that that should be the case.
Finally, let me turn to the issue of non-representation—I raised this on Second Reading and return to it now—by people who have seats in this House but who do not take them and do not do the work of parliamentarians. The Minister will know that the issue has been raised and is being pursued. The Bill is not necessarily the vehicle or the means by which it should be pursued, but the Minister should rest assured that, as we talk about dual mandates and about representation and people being fit for jobs and about the jobs they are or are not doing, there remains the outstanding scandal of all—the Members of Parliament who are elected, who get money to run their parliamentary business and who get representative money for which they do not have to account in the way that we do as parliamentarians and that they can use for party political purposes. That is an issue that the House still must, and, I am sure, will, address.
It is a pleasure, Ms Clark, to work under your chairmanship for the first time this evening. Yet again, we have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate—some of it within the scope of the Northern Ireland Office’s remit and some outside it. Perhaps I can address straight away one of the areas of debate we have had this evening because, although I fully respect the view, it falls outside the scope of the Bill and of my portfolio. The question of whether an MLA can sit in the European Parliament is a matter for the Cabinet Office and the UK Government as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) can take it up with the Cabinet Office, if he wishes, but I have been strongly advised that it falls within its remit and not mine and that I therefore cannot accept the amendment.
If I may, I will make some progress. We have a lot to get through this evening and not a lot of time, even though it looks like we do. We have not made much progress down the list of amendments.
The Government listened to the Select Committee and changed our mind about whether someone could be an MLA and a Member of the lower House in the Republic. We listened carefully to the debate and accepted that suggestion.
I completely agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). My personal view, as well as that of the Government, is that there is a difference between a person elected to this House with a mandate—the words in the explanatory notes were put there for a reason—and a Member of the House of Lords. Members of the House of Lords do not have a mandate: they are not elected; they do not have a constituency; they do not have constituents. However, the Government’s view is not fixed and if, when the Bill passes to the other place, the House of Lords has a view on that, we will consider what comes back to us. At present, the reason behind the change is to do with mandates and not to do with whether Members are in another Chamber.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the explanatory notes, so beautifully quoted—selectively—by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), go on to quote the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which reported in 2009 after the horrendous scandal of MPs’ expenses. It states that
“the Committee questions whether it is possible to sit in two national legislatures simultaneously and do justice to both roles”.
It does not use the word mandate at all and uses the word “legislatures”, so will the Minister revisit that?
It is very important that we consider what the electorate have decided to do. The electorate elect people to this House and to the Legislative Assembly. I pay tribute to those who had more than a dual mandate when there was a need for people to put their heads above the parapet and stand for office when things were enormously difficult in Northern Ireland. We have moved on. We accept that MLAs should not be able to stand for the lower House in the Republic, but we do think, at present, that they should be able to sit in the Lords. MEPs are a matter for another Department, on another day, and another Bill, in the Government’s opinion.
Exactly the same applies: that situation will be addressed, should the issue of the Lords be addressed. At present, the Government are not addressing the issue of the Lords; we will oppose the amendments on that subject. The Government oppose amendments 10 to 17, and recommend that clauses 3, 4 and 5 stand part of the Bill.
I think the argument regarding dual mandates in the House of Commons and the Assembly has been fought and, largely, won. People may well say that the public do not mind double-jobbing, but it was a live issue in the 2010 elections, which is why all parties made the commitment publicly in their manifestos, before those elections, that they would not maintain dual mandates. People were elected on the expectation that they would leave the Assembly during this term. Everyone has said that that is the point that we want to get to. I know why I feel the need for legislation, but I do not know why the Government do. Perhaps it is because every time we discuss the matter, even those who say that they are in favour of such legislation in principle continue to put up quite a spirited defence of double-jobbing—and are still here to do so, three years after the last Westminster election and two years after the last Assembly election. However, I would not want to speak for the Government on that point. It is important that the Government, having made a commitment to legislate on this subject, follow through on that.
On the other amendments that I have tabled, the issue for me is whether we are applying the rule consistently. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made a compelling point: the concern when the issue was raised was not simply about dual mandates, although that became a shorthand for it; it was about serving in two legislatures and the challenge that presents with regard to people being able to do both jobs properly. There is a further point, in that in the House of Lords, the expectation is that people are not fettered or influenced by constituency responsibility. However, if they have that responsibility because they have an elected mandate in another legislature, they are no longer free in that way. That distinguishes elected posts from other forms of employment outside the House of Lords in an important, fundamental way.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that in the context of Northern Ireland, there is a significant point to make about the House of Lords, in that no nationalist political representative takes a seat there? My party will not nominate to the House of Lords, precisely because its Members are not elected, and because of various other constitutional attributes it seems to have. Only Unionists or others who are not nationalists go to the House of Lords. If we make an exception for the House of Lords—an exception that I would not seek to make for Seanad Eireann—we end up with unequal legislation, because it ends up being only Unionist Members, and not nationalist Members, who are able to sit in two Chambers.
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s right to advance that case, but it is not my case, or a case that I would choose to make, because if people are elevated to the House of Lords, they have the option of taking up that post. They are not barred from doing so because they have a nationalist perspective, or an Irish Republican perspective, for that matter.
Will the hon. Lady accept from me that there is at least one Member of the House of Lords who would claim to come from a nationalist background and whose spouse, I believe, happens to be a member of the same party as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)?
I understand the point that is being made. However, it is not my job as a member of the Alliance party to pigeonhole Members of the House of Lords and to count Unionists and nationalists, given that I do not want elections to be conducted by such distinctions.
Let us be clear. In my remarks I referred to a nationalist representative. Somebody who was appointed as a working peer because of the competence and skill they have and the clear independence and service to the whole community that they demonstrated against much grudging from other quarters is entirely able to defend themselves as being there not as a representative of my party or even with the designation that my party confers on itself in the Assembly.
Indeed. I was on my last sentence when I took the intervention.
I believe that the exclusion of Members of the House of Lords, the Seanad and the European Parliament from sitting in the Northern Ireland Assembly is an important point. Having listened to what the Minister said, I do not accept that there is a strong argument for maintaining the current position and I seek to press amendment 10.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Reduction in size of Assembly to be reserved matter
I beg to move amendment 4, page 6, line 37, at end add—
‘7B The alteration of the number of members of the Assembly required to express
their concern about a matter which is to be voted on by the Assembly, such
concern requiring that the vote on that matter shall require cross-community
This paragraph does not include the alteration of that number to a number
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 5, page 6, line 37, at end insert—
7B The subject matter of Sections 16, 17, and 18 of this Act.
‘(2) In Schedule 2, paragraph (b) after “sections” insert “16, 17 and 18”.’.
Clause stand part.
The purpose of clause 6 is to move the decision on the reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly from the category of excepted matter to that of reserved matters, which I think has received reasonable assent in Northern Ireland. The purpose of amendments 4 and 5, which stand in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is simply to move into the category of reserved matters, as opposed to excepted matters, decisions relating to the appointment of the Executive and the way it is formed. Given that the number of MLAs will be reduced, we propose that all matters pertaining to the appointment of the Executive, its composition and make-up and the way the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected, and matters pertaining to opposition in the Assembly, should also be reserved matters. We believe that this would allow any political agreement negotiated by parties in Northern Ireland to be legislated for in the Assembly. It would give the Assembly the tools not only to discuss these matters, which do need to be discussed by the parties in Northern Ireland, but to agree them, of course by cross-community vote and by the normal mechanisms that require that to happen in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That would act as a bit of an incentive to allow and promote greater debate in relation to these matters.
The other amendment is consequential. If the number of Assembly Members is reduced, we have to take account of the numbers required for a petition of concern. Again, that matter would be decided by the Assembly. We are not saying that this should be decided here and now, in this Bill, but simply that we should move these issues into the category of reserved matters so that they could be decided by the Assembly under the cross-community procedure. If we are going to allow the Assembly to decide on its size, we should allow it that further responsibility in relation to wider aspects of the political process in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in Committee about this very important, if small, Bill. I feel a little in fear of being in splendid isolation on these Benches, although I am also surrounded by a phalanx of Northern Ireland politicians—something that I am not entirely unused to.
This has been an interesting debate. Perhaps, in referring to clause stand part, I could reminisce a little about why the Assembly has a membership that many believe is rather large, at 108. We could compare that with, for example, the Welsh Assembly. Wales has a population roughly double that of Northern Ireland but its Assembly has roughly half the number of Members of the Assembly in Belfast. There is a reason for that. It came about, as it so happened, on Maundy Thursday 1998 at 3 o’clock in the morning or thereabouts, when we struck an agreement with the parties—although of course at that stage the DUP was not involved; I think they were getting rather cold marching to Stormont in the snow.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will recall, the initial belief was that there should be a membership of 95, but in fact it went up to 108. The final figure was reached quite quickly by the then Prime Minister, and we as Ministers, on the basis that although the idea of having five Members per constituency, making a total of 95, had some merit, increasing it to six would give smaller parties that had been involved in the talks on the peace process the opportunity to be represented in the Assembly—the Women’s Coalition, the Progressive Unionist Party and others. That was sensible. It related to the fact that we already had ready-made constituencies in Northern Ireland that could be used as the basis of the boundaries for the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the previous debate we heard interesting reference to how things have moved on. I believe that if we had not had people in the Northern Ireland peace process and political process who did not have a dual mandate, those processes would not have happened, because those people brought an invaluable wisdom and a richness of experience to the talks. Incidentally, I am not persuaded that we should be legislating about who should or should not be allowed to stand for the House of Commons or for the Assembly, but that is another issue, and we have just dealt with it. The point is that those decisions were made at the time to ensure that the process went on. I think that the 108 figure was right for the time, because it did what it had to do. Now that times have moved on, however, it seems to me that we should ask whether that figure is an encumbrance. Is it too big? Is it too expensive? Does it work? I think that this is a matter for the political parties in Northern Ireland to decide, as opposed to this place. It should be the Northern Ireland Assembly that decides whether it should be smaller.
Incidentally, when the Government tried a year or so ago to change the boundaries of our parliamentary constituencies they completely forgot about the knock-on effect it would have on Northern Ireland. Happily, that measure has disappeared, but it would have had a profound effect on the balance in Northern Ireland. The Government had not thought about that when they considered the parliamentary boundary review, but that is another issue.
It is for the parties in Northern Ireland to decide on the size of their Assembly and that is why I support clause 6, but I issue one caveat. I understand—had I read the Bill more thoroughly I would know whether this is the case—that the Secretary of State will have to endorse such an agreement. I think that is right, because the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreements and the entire peace process were guaranteed by the Irish and British Governments and the Irish and British Parliaments, so that is another important factor. I will only be convinced, however, when the Secretary of State or the Minister, in response to this or any future debate, make it absolutely clear that no such changes should be made unless they achieve the consensus of all the parties in Northern Ireland as to what the figure should be.
I understand that the Assembly has a mechanism—the Assembly Commission, which is representative of all parties—that could initially consider any representations. Whatever happens, the decision should be reached by consensus, discussion, negotiation and agreement, and only then should the Secretary of State give her approval. Nevertheless, the principle is a wise one and I support it and hope it will be carried if it is put to the vote.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who chaired the strand 1 negotiations leading to the Good Friday agreement. The very important and patient role that he played throughout the negotiations is not often acknowledged.
Clause 6 deals with possible changes to the size of the Assembly and the right hon. Gentleman has explained why it ended up at its current size. He has corroborated many of the points that I made on Second Reading about how the figure of 108 was arrived at. The decision was made ultimately by the British Government. Some of us favoured a top-up scheme, but I remember the right hon. Gentleman and the then Prime Minister telling us during the night and early morning that the reason why they saw the option of six Members per constituency as offering the best chance of accommodating smaller parties was that if they went with the option of a top-up of 10 it would be too complicated for them to work out all the different permutations of top-ups. That was significant at that stage of the negotiations. We need to understand why that decision was taken. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly said that it can be revised and reviewed; indeed, the review mechanism of the agreement itself allows for that.
I do not think that there is any disagreement between the parties that the size of the Assembly needs to be addressed. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee has previously kicked it about, but we have still not seen any substantive moves. There are sensitivities involved in decisions about the size of the Assembly. A reduction to five seats per constituency would probably be broadly supported. A reduction to four seats per constituency would be much more sensitive, because it would make a serious difference to the capacity for proportional representation.
There is a question over the degree of gerrymandering that will be possible when the Assembly or the key parties therein have the power to settle the number of seats per constituency. The parties could abuse that power. That is why it is right that there should be a reserved power for the Secretary of State. However, some of us are not reassured that the Secretary of State would use that reserved power in an alert or effective way, because when Sinn Fein and the DUP come along, the attitude of the Northern Ireland Office seems to be, “Whatever you’re having yourselves.” That seems to account for sufficient consensus on such matters.
In fairness to the current Secretary of State and the NIO as currently constituted, will the hon. Gentleman reflect the fact that what he describes has always been the case, even when his party and another party were in the position in which the DUP and Sinn Fein now find themselves?
I am not aware that we tried any such thing. I certainly never agreed to any such moves, not least when I was Deputy First Minister. When my fellow leader suggested that there were things that we could do to ensure better political patronage, I made it very clear that I was not for doing any such thing, regardless of what the NIO wanted to do. I used to spend much time in disagreement with NIO Ministers who had wheezes that they were working out with the First Minister. I did not go along with any of the Jonathan Powell, John Reid, David Trimble, Tony Blair wheezes on further ensconcing the position of the then leader of the Ulster Unionist party. It seemed to me that messing about with the institutions and playing those sorts of games was not the way to do things, either for that party or for the process and institutions that we had.
I think that privately I was the first to make the comparison with Bobby Ewing in the shower. I know that others said it publicly, but I think that the memoirs will show that I made that observation first because it was an obvious one to make. I did not agree with such wheezes. When it came to my election as Deputy First Minister alongside David Trimble as First Minister in the autumn of 2001, I did not agree with some of what the then Secretary of State said about the circumstances in which that election would take place. I made it very clear that, as far as I was concerned, if the Assembly fell and there was an election, that should be that.
Similarly, to correct a misrepresentation that was made on Second Reading, we did not agree to the wheeze of moving the date of the Assembly election. Under the agreement, the date of the second Assembly election was meant to be May 2003, because the first Assembly was to sit for five years to allow for bedding in. We did not agree with the date being postponed from May 2003. The right hon. Member for Torfaen, who was Secretary of State at the time, will remember that we said we were opposed to moving that election date. We have not agreed with any of the wheezes. When things are said, they should remain.
Lest we rewrite the Second Reading debate, I wish to place it on the record that the point I made was merely that there is a precedent for extending the Assembly to five years. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now accepts that the 1998 Assembly was extended to five years to, as he describes it, bed in. The point that I made on Second Reading and that I reiterate now is that there is a precedent for extending the life of the Assembly to five years.
I will do that, Ms Clark.
On the number of Members in the Assembly, the parties seem to be agreed in principle that that can and should change. The agreement provided for a review, just as the agreement provided that the first Assembly would last for five years. The first Assembly was not extended. There was provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and in the agreement, for the first Assembly to be five years, and four years thereafter. We did not agree with the date being changed.
We must ensure that making membership of the Assembly a reserved matter does not create a situation where the dominant parties can start to have undue influence on the electoral architecture of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the DUP already abused that position on local government boundaries, when a Bill to appoint a boundary commissioner actually fixed the boundaries. It was a complete misrepresentation to say it was a Bill to appoint a local government boundary commissioner when the parties themselves fixed the boundaries. There was no vigilance on that from the NIO or anywhere else: no concerns from the British or Irish Governments. The salient point made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen was that the British and Irish Governments are meant to be protectors and guarantors.
I will not rehearse the point I made on Second Reading on the move by Sinn Fein and the DUP, supported by both Governments, to change the rules on inclusion so that the only parties that voted for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be entitled to go into Government. That was their plan, which thankfully we were just about able to stop in the St Andrews agreement. Simply trusting these matters to the lead of Sinn Fein and the DUP gives the rest of us misgivings. We want more assurances about the role of the Secretary of State on reserved powers that she, or any successor, would have.
Making significant matters reserved and moving more of them into the locus of devolution raises an issue about an outstanding part of the agreement that we have still never arrived at: a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights was meant to protect people against any egregious decisions made by a party or parties collectively, or a Minister or Ministers collectively. That was to be part of the protections included in the Bill of Rights, and we still do not have them. When the Secretary of State and the NIO seem to be inert and indifferent to having a Bill of Rights, some of us have difficulty in relying on the reserve protection of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State need to address this, and other issues, as the Bill progresses.
I understand that these amendments will not be pressed to a Division, and I am glad of that. The same would apply to any amendments in my name, I hasten to add, and to the relief of the Committee.
This part of the debate has been enhanced by the presence and knowledge of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). He has saved me from going through half my speech to explain how we came to 108.
Clause 6 is a huge nudge to the Executive and the Assembly. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, there is general agreement that trying to— [Interruption.] I am sorry if I promoted the hon. Gentleman in a way that perhaps he would not want to be promoted. I do apologise. There might be general agreement, but there is not consensus. Until we have consensus, this cannot be addressed, which is why, sadly, I will oppose both amendments. I am sure that the amendments were tabled with the right feel for what is going on, but we have to get the decisions made. The Secretary of State will have powers under the new reserved matters, but this is another stage forward, another movement on. If we want continued normalisation under the devolved Administration, it is important that the Government do everything we can, with the help of Her Majesty’s Opposition, to get consensus, rather than just general agreement.
Does the Minister accept, however, that some of the smaller parties, if the veto rests with them, will always be tempted to veto any change, including this necessary change to the structures and numbers of people elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly? All that could be vetoed by small parties with a party political interest in ensuring that there is no change, and of course that prevents Government from becoming more efficient in Northern Ireland.
I understand exactly where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but at the end of the day, 108 seats were created to ensure that the smaller parties were represented. It is for the people of Northern Ireland to work out among themselves, in a mature democracy, what that number should be—for instance, whether it should be five per constituency, as the hon. Member for Foyle said. I have heard the concerns about going down to four, but that is not for us to dictate. At the end of the day, this has to be decided in Northern Ireland, which is why, sadly, I ask Members to oppose the two amendments and support clause 6.
I have listened carefully to the Minister. Clearly, the contribution from the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) has been received warmly because we recognise the part he played as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and as Minister of State before that; he was widely praised for his efforts during his tenure, and we thank him.
There is a view across most of the parties in Northern Ireland, with the exception, I think, of Sinn Fein, that the Assembly is too big and should be reduced in size. Until we can get that cross-community support in the Assembly, we are where we are, but at least the Bill recognises movement, in that it makes this a reserve matter, rather than an excepted matter, and so puts it more within the Assembly’s bailiwick. Our view, in tabling the amendments, was that the more that was done, the better; it shows maturity and demonstrates that the Assembly is developing. It shows that issues such as the make-up of the Executive, how it is appointed and elected, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should all be more within the remit of the Assembly.
I have heard what the Minister has said, and I also heard his earlier comments that he was listening carefully to the matters being raised and would reflect upon them. In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Extension of term of Assembly
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I approached clause 7 by way of a probing amendment that was not selected. I sought information on Second Reading about why the mandate of the current Assembly was being extended from a four-year term to a five-year term, given that the people of Northern Ireland voted for parties on the basis of four, not five years.
Many political representatives, including the current Secretary of State and the former Secretary of State, have stated that there is insufficient consensus on extending the term, while the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee compiled evidence that clearly suggested there was insufficient evidence and did not agree with extending the term to five years. I understand that three parties—at the centre, shall we say—supported extending the mandate: the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party. On the other hand, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party did not.
I believe in democracy. Members were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the basis of four, not five years. That is a very different position from that in Scotland and Wales. In November 2011, when people stood for election and sought mandates in Scotland and Wales, they did so on the basis that those terms would be five years. It was very different in Northern Ireland. I did not get that mystery unlocked on Second Reading, so I now ask the deputy Secretary of State if he will provide me with an explanation; I am sure he will be happy to do so.
I want briefly to put on record our view, which we also stated on Second Reading.
We believe that the argument for moving the date of the Assembly election is strong, not least because that is what is happening for Scotland and Wales. There is no logical, coherent reason at all to challenge the Government position—that we should also extend the mandate for the Northern Ireland Assembly by one year, to ensure that a Westminster election and an Assembly election are not held on the same day. That is important because they are probably the two most important elections that are held. Council elections are obviously significant, as are elections to the European Parliament, but when we are electing the legislature and the Executive for the Northern Ireland Assembly and also representatives in this House, it is inevitable that one of those elections would dominate the media and the political debate to the exclusion of the other, to a much greater extent than with other elections. For that reason, clause 7 is important.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that some issues that are relevant for the people of Northern Ireland can be dealt with only by the Northern Ireland Assembly—as opposed to international issues, for instance—and that a clear division between the two election dates would prevent muddying of the water?
Yes, I agree with that. The decision was taken for Scotland and Wales when we debated the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, while the position in Northern Ireland was left open to allow for further consultation and discussion with the political parties there. That discussion was held. It was carried out in a very full way—indeed, in many respects there was more consultation and discussion about this issue than many others. A view was reached that is supported by a clear majority among the parties represented in the Assembly, and it is also a cross-community view. Of course, not every party agrees with it, but that is a significant development.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s proposal as it stands not only ensures that the next set of elections will not happen concurrently, but reduces the opportunity for that to happen in future, with the result that there will be less ad hoc-ery—for want of a better term—in setting election dates? The Government’s proposal will ensure that they no longer coincide, which is to be welcomed.
The hon. Lady anticipates the exact point I was going to conclude with. Clause 7 takes care of the problem for 2015, but by permanently fixing the Assembly term at five years—again, as in Wales and Scotland—it also takes care of any future problems with overlaps between Assembly and Westminster elections.
For those reasons—and also because the clause ensures that Northern Ireland is absolutely four-square in line with the other devolved legislatures, in Scotland and Wales, as part of this great United Kingdom—I am more than delighted to support the Government on clause 7.
I yield to no person in my admiration for the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), for many reasons. One is because of the marvellous new expression we have heard this evening: “ad hoc-ery”. In the past we have had “what-aboutery”, but “ad hoc-ery” is absolutely marvellous—I thought he was a Taoiseach in Ireland many years ago, but that is neither here nor there.
The clause as it stands is supported by Her Majesty’s Opposition, principally because we think it is logical and sensible, and equalises the various devolved Assemblies. However, if anyone thinks that choosing a particular five-year period will ensure that no problems occur in future, they have another think coming, because there has never been a time in European political history when so many anniversaries have been queuing up to come down the road. We can therefore pretty much guarantee that whenever the Assembly votes, it will be the anniversary of something, and whenever the Assembly votes, there will be no guarantee whatever that it will be synchronous with this House. However, it would be sensible and far better—and, I think, rather more appreciated by the democratic community—if there were a fixed term in this particular case. A fixed term for this House we can discuss later, but for tonight, the position of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition is that we support the Government’s proposal that there should be a five-year term, as there is in Wales and Scotland.
We debated this matter extensively in the Second Reading debate, during which the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to me as the deputy Secretary of State almost all the way through her contribution. I should have corrected her then, but I shall do so now. I am the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, and I am very proud of that. I have never heard of a deputy Secretary of State. It might well have been corrected by Hansard, but I thought I would mention it anyway. I also fully acknowledge that I am not going to convince the hon. Lady that no conspiracy took place that suddenly made us change our mind on this matter. In fact, 70% of the MLAs asked us to move the election by one year to 2016.
I want to make a tiny bit of progress, if the hon. Lady does not mind.
As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) suggested, we should never take anything for granted, but the provisions for the one-year extension and the five-year term should, in theory, keep the Assembly elections separate from the UK general elections. However, this is not set in stone, and nor is the five-year fixed term for this House. Parliament could dissolve and we could have an election here. That is a fact.
I am grateful to the Minister of State for giving way. Will he consider this possible evidence? The report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the draft Bill states:
“Nevertheless, we did not hear any compelling evidence to support this proposition.”
That is, the proposition to extend the mandate from four to five years. The report also states:
“We are concerned that extending the current term to 2016 would be contrary to the expectations of the electorate at the last Assembly election in 2011 and recommend, therefore, that the current Assembly term should end, as planned, in 2015.”
I would be obliged if he could explain why the proposals are now in the Bill.
I beg to move amendment 18, in page 7, line 4, leave out from ‘is’ to end of line 41 and add—
‘(2) Any provision by Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly which provides, by virtue of section 21A(3) or (3A) of the 1998 Act, for the method of appointment of a Minister in charge of devolved policing and justice functions, shall be repealed.
(3) Any Minister in charge of devolved policing and justice functions shall be appointed in the same way as other Northern Ireland Ministers.’.
Amendment 18 deals with the appointment of a Justice Minister. I shall not go through the history of the various bits of legislation that have gone through this House—many of them steered through by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain)—to provide for all sorts of permutations and models for appointing such a Minister. The main parties settled on a version that would allow the Minister to be elected by means of a cross-community vote in the Assembly. Of course, the party that gained that Ministry could then end up having a surplus of ministerial positions over and above its entitlement under d’Hondt.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) will recall the tortuous negotiations that we had, and the fact that we were determined that there should be some sort of proportional system, be it d’Hondt or Sainte-Laguë. We went through the various permutations, and d’Hondt was the one that most people were familiar with, because of their experience with the European Parliament. It was deliberately chosen as an inclusive arrangement and to create a situation in which parties were not in a position to vet or veto each other’s ministerial appointments. We actually used that language in the discussions and the negotiations; the parties did not want to be in a position of being able to vet or veto other appointments.
Nevertheless, when it subsequently came to the arrangements for appointing a Minister of Justice in the context of the devolution of justice and policing, there was a departure from that principle—for all the various circumstantial and other reasons with which we are all familiar. I shall not take the Committee’s time in either rehearsing or rebutting them this evening.
If people went for that formula, straying outside the terms, principles and promise of the agreement, they did so on the basis that it was needed to get the devolution of justice started and it was a way of breaking the impasse ensuring that there were no more standoffs. The progress made overall and in the context of justice and policing, means that we have time to consider whether the exceptional arrangements made in and around the position of the Ministry of Justice should still continue.
This clause is designed to end the aberration in the sense of a party being over-represented—over and beyond the d’Hondt entitlement—but that does not simply correct the matter in itself. As I pointed out on Second Reading, it creates other anomalies and potentially some pressures on the parties.
Does the hon. Member acknowledge that it deals with a second anomaly, too, which is that a Justice Minister could be removed from post by a cross-community vote? That could lead to a different aberration, whereby a party could end up with less than its d’Hondt entitlement to Ministries. Is not that issue relevant as well?
Yes, I recognise that. When these measures originally went through, I made a point about the unequal situation and said that the power in the hands of two particular parties in respect of the Justice Minister’s position was potentially abusable. That anomaly clearly needed remedying as well. We always believed that this should be done as part of d’Hondt, and we believed that the number of Departments could have been adjusted at the time—not to add to the number of Departments, but to keep to the 10 that had been approved, absorbing a Department of Justice. The parties chose to go this way and even to add an additional Department even though their stated position was that they wanted to reduce the number of Departments in Northern Ireland.
In our view, the future Justice Ministry—when the Northern Ireland Executive is next appointed—can be decided and allocated in the same way as other Ministries under d’Hondt. We already have a situation whereby there is more tick-tacking, contact and understanding between the parties in advance of d’Hondt being formally run in the Assembly than was originally envisaged or required at the time of the agreement. Some of the issues are about the sensitivities around who will take what post and what might be detonated by that. Those issues will have to be dealt with in the context of the negotiations.
We view d’Hondt as the mechanism for appointing a future Minister of Justice, as with all other Ministers, in full knowledge that that will create a number of difficulties and uncertainties at a number of levels—we have those problems with other ministerial appointments in any case. There are questions this week about existing Ministers, their appointments and the attitudes of parties towards the rules and the spirit of the pledge of office and so forth. It is not as though the issue of the Minister of Justice is the only sensitivity, as there is also sensitivity about the possibility of d’Hondt leading to the Minister of Justice post going to only one political party. There are clearly sensitivities in relation to other matters, which is why the position of the Policing Board and the whole Patten architecture is so important as well. There are various proofs related to the exercise of the powers and responsibilities of a Minister of Justice that have been well observed and honoured in respect of the current Minister, but they would be equally obligatory for any future Minister appointed under d’Hondt.
As I said on Second Reading, I support clause 9. I acknowledged at that time the existence of the twin anomalies that because Justice Ministers were appointed outwith the d’Hondt process, they could end up with a Ministry more than they were entitled to under d’Hondt, and could also lose that Ministry on the whim of a cross-community vote—although I must add, in fairness to parties in the Executive who may feel fearful, that that has not been exercised, or been threatened or in any other way intimated, by any of them.
I am grateful for the way in which the Government have negotiated and listened to what has been said by my party and others, and I welcome the clause. I think it important that including the Justice Minister in the d’Hondt system will result in a fairer arrangement, whether we gain or lose in party-political terms.
The hon. Lady is right to say that there has been no threat or attempt to change the Justice Minister under the current arrangement, that the Northern Ireland Office has listened, and that by and large the parties in Northern Ireland have agreed with this provision. However, in the light of what was said by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), may I ask whether she agrees with me that no attempt is being made to change the current special arrangements relating to the role and functions of the Minister vis-à-vis the Executive?
That is entirely consistent with what the Government are proposing. The issue relates simply to the Minister’s appointment and security of tenure. Concerns were raised by my own party and indeed by other parties, and the Government, having listened to other parties in the Executive, took those concerns on board and formulated proposals which addressed them. That was helpful.
I have to say that my view of how an Executive should be formed in future differs from that of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and his party. We have been open and honest about the fact that we would much prefer the reforms of the Assembly to include a move away from d’Hondt and towards the election of all Ministers by means of a cross-community vote, because we believe that that would enhance collectiveness in the Executive. There would have to be agreement among the Northern Ireland parties for that to happen. I should add that I do not consider d’Hondt to be a normal way of appointing Ministers; I consider it to be a mechanism resulting from the Good Friday agreement which was required to manage an abnormal political situation. I hope that, when we seek to reform the Assembly more widely, that will be on the table for discussion along with everything else. However, I support what the Government are attempting to do, and oppose the attempt to change it.
I welcome what has just been said by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). I hope that the Committee will forgive me for observing that the entire debate, which began so many hours ago, has been conducted in a positive, mature, sensible and serious manner, which I think is to the credit of all Members.
Let me also say on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as a matter of formality but also as a matter of personal desire, that we entirely understand why the Secretary of State has been detained elsewhere. We understand how difficult things are at present, as we approach Friday, and we understand very well that the right hon. Lady’s first duty must be to ensure peace and good order in Northern Ireland. The Opposition make no criticisms whatsoever. In fact, we feel that the Minister of State has made a very good fist of it, as he often does.
It is a great pleasure for us to hear the frequent encomiums to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). We must never forget the part that he played in bringing us to where we are at present. I think it important to recognise the contribution made by many people, not just those who are in the Chamber tonight.
If there is one theme that could be said to have run consistently through the entire debate, it is the contrast between what we would like to do and what we think we can achieve. In the various statutory instruments discussions we have had, I have invoked St Augustine, and apparently I misquoted him when I said it was the great doctor of the Church who said “Make me pure, but not quite yet.” I received a letter in English from Canon Bernard Scholes telling me I had completely misunderstood the Augustinian theory on that, so I shall look to certain colleagues on this, probably the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), to whom I always defer in matters of theological exactitude.
On a serious point, we all know where we want to be. The question that has faced the House tonight, dramatically over and over again, is this: do we proceed without full consensus—without that organic growth, without that cultural change—or do we legislate and let the people catch up, or do we let legislation follow the people? In the context of Northern Ireland, we simply have to realise that consensus is crucial. We cannot operate on any basis—on any level, in any area—without that consensus. The key point of the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement and all subsequent agreements has been a hard-fought and hard-won consensus.
Tonight’s debate has shown we can proceed in a good spirit, overwhelmingly moving in the same direction. There is no doubt about that. The only question is about the speed at which we approach that desirable place.
Having made that point, I move nothing, I criticise no one, I thank many people, and I am delighted to say to the Minister that we have supported him more often tonight than I ever thought we would in my lifetime.
May I repeat the thanks expressed on Second Reading to Her Majesty’s Opposition for the supportive way they have looked after me in my new role? I look forward to being with the shadow Minister tomorrow, up on the Committee Corridor once again, when we consider another piece of secondary legislation.
I genuinely wish I could support the amendment, but I cannot, as we are not yet in the right position to do so, as the shadow Minister suggested. This is a difficult situation, but I think everybody accepts and understands why the Justice Minister was first appointed in this way and then subsequently again in 2011. We have moved on from that, however. While what we propose in clauses 8 and 9 is not perfect, it does move us forward and address the anomaly in the position of the Justice Minister. We were formally approached by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to look at putting in place a provision that addressed this anomaly. We have done so through clauses 8 and 9, which is why I hope they will be agreed to.
I thank the Minister for what was a very straight and straightforward reply. It was exactly as expected. I would not have expected the Government to be moving. I expected that the best we would get would be mutual engagement, but no mutual adjustment. We have had mutual engagement, and there has not been adjustment. I fully understand the points made by other Members as well.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that there are provisions around the Minister of Justice in terms of the Executive locus. That is precisely what I was referring to when I talked about some of the standards that are there, which are well honoured by the current incumbent, and which apply equally to all other Ministers as well. The existing protections do not need just to apply to the means of appointment, and there are also obligations and standards in place. However, recent events show that we might have more to do either here or in the Northern Ireland Assembly in respect of increasing the robustness of some of the standards around ministerial probity and accountability.
On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 8 and 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill (Clauses 1 to 9) reported, without amendment (Standing Order No. 83D(6)), and ordered to lie on the Table.