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Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons reasons be considered forthwith.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The page and line references are to HL Bill 110 as first printed for the Lords.]

1: Leave out Clause 12

The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following reason—

1A: Because it is not desirable to preclude eligible Irish citizens and bodies from making political donations to Northern Ireland parties or regulated donees

2: Leave out Clause 13

The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following reason—

2A: Because it is not desirable to preclude eligible Irish citizens and bodies from making political donations to Northern Ireland parties or regulated donees

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reasons 1A and 2A.

The Commons have agreed to reinsert the two clauses relating to permissible donors because it is not desirable to preclude eligible Irish citizens and bodies from making political donations to Northern Ireland parties or regulated donees. As was made clear—or, probably, as was not made clear during the debates in this House, although we followed them up with letters with more detail—the Government firmly believe that Northern Ireland parties and regulated donees should continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies that can currently donate to Irish parties, as well as donations from those who can donate in the UK.

There is nothing stopping anyone in England, Scotland or Wales who is on the electoral register donating to any of the Northern Ireland political parties, if they so desire. This would follow the end of the final disapplication period in October 2007. That is the Government’s stated policy, and we believe it is consistent with the Good Friday agreement. It reflects our belief that Irish citizens should be able to make these donations to take account of the special role Ireland has in relation to Northern Ireland’s political culture.

I watched the debate in the other place, which was quite acrimonious in some places. If your Lordships agree to put these two changes back in the Bill, this change represents a significant step forward from the current position in Northern Ireland, under which donations can come from anywhere and anyone in the world and there is absolutely no obligation on parties to disclose their donations. Under the new arrangements, which the House will have the opportunity to debate in detail, donations to Northern Ireland political parties, including those from Irish donors—that is, from the republic—will be subject to regulation and verification by the Electoral Commission. That is until the end of the transitional period, we hope in 2010. Impermissible donations will be required to be returned, or indeed forfeited. In addition, all donations must be confined to the funding of political activity in Northern Ireland. That is to stop the Northern Ireland political parties being used as a conduit for what I call “GB parties”, so there is no leakage. The donations have to fund activity in Northern Ireland.

Any reasonable person outside these Houses and certainly inside both this House and the other place, has concerns about the detail of how the “permissible donors” clauses would operate in practice, particularly with regard to the conditions that Irish citizens and bodies—companies, for example—would have to meet in order to be able to donate to Northern Ireland political parties, and how these donations would be checked and verified in the future by the Electoral Commission. We recognise that these are genuine concerns, but we believe they can be dealt with. We have sought to address them when they have been raised, both here and in the other place.

As we have explained, the detail of how “permissible donors” clauses would work will beset out in UK secondary legislation following consultation with the Electoral Commission. That would be secondary legislation, as my colleague David Hanson said; not an Order in Council, but an affirmative resolution. By definition, that would be published and consulted on, both with the political parties and the wider public. That is the way legislation is done: we consult, and we have quite a long period for that. That would be after consultation with the Electoral Commission.

The secondary legislation would include the criteria that Irish donors will have to meet in order to be able to donate, and how these donations will be checked. That is, I say with respect, not the issue for today. This House, the other place, political parties and the wider public will have plenty of opportunity, when we publish that secondary legislation and consult on it, to have full, detailed explanations and debates about this issue. I have no doubt it will be of interest to the wider population in Northern Ireland. As I have said, this would be set out in an instrument to be laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament. Your Lordships and my honourable friends will have the opportunity fully and publicly to debate these issues when this legislation is published and then goes through Parliament. It will not be rushed through.

I repeat: this is a major step forward from the status quo. The status quo is quite unacceptable. It allows anyone anywhere in the world to donate in secret to the Northern Ireland political parties. I can honestly say I would get a 100 per cent vote for saying that was unacceptable. This provision closes that down. It may not do so in a way that everyone is satisfied with, but the detail of how we can regulate the closing-down will be set out clearly in the orders.

We have to put an end to the current arrangements. There have been pressures on what are called the Great Britain political parties concerning problems arising, as we know, with the openness and transparency of donations. Some of the problems have been self-inflicted, others have not. Nevertheless the system is transparent, open and a matter for public debate. That is right and proper and how it should be. We have to reach that state in Northern Ireland. We accept that it will be more than a one-step process between 2007 and 2010. But we have to close down the opportunity for anyone, anywhere in the world, to donate in secret to Northern Ireland political parties. I respectfully submit that the two clauses that the Commons have offered for reinsertion are a way forward, subject of course to detailed debate in both Houses of the legislation to bring it about. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reasons 1A and 2A.—(Lord Rooker.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive explanation of the decision in the other place. We will not challenge the decision to reverse the vote on political contributions from the Republic of Ireland. However, I should like to place on record the wish from this side of the House to see in due course the practice in Northern Ireland brought into line with that applicable to other parts of the United Kingdom—in other words, no foreign donations to political parties, full stop. I think that the Minister has indicated that the Government’s intention is to move towards that in due course.

No, my Lords, with respect, I did not say that. We are saying that because of the special relationship and political culture on the island of Ireland, we should allow in regulation those who are able legally to donate to political parties in the republic—where they have their own rules; Irish citizens anywhere in the world can donate, which is not the case in Great Britain—to do so, but it should be highly regulated as we will set out in the regulations. The current arrangements do not apply only to Irish citizens; and donations can be from anywhere in the world, and, what is more, made in secret. We have to stop the secrecy. Donations will become upfront and governed by the Electoral Commission rules.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for correcting that misunderstanding. As I say, we shall not challenge this decision.

My Lords, I too am grateful for the noble Lord’s explanation, for which we have had one or two rehearsals. I thank him for making his officials available to me further to elucidate on it. As I said to them, and through them to him, we would have preferred the provision to be in this Bill rather than waiting for secondary legislation to tidy it up afterwards. It is all rather future tense. Although we have every confidence in the Minister, it would have been better had we had proper regulations about how this will work in practice. Throughout consideration of the Bill, both here and in another place, the Liberal Democrat Benches have been at pains to stress to the Government that we do not object in principle tothe proposed extension. However, we have been concerned about how it will work in practice.

The Minister and I may disagree about whether we are going about it the right way, and, as I say, I would have preferred to have the regulations ironed out beforehand. I think that there are difficulties in practice that we will come to at a later stage and that we will be pressing. However, I recognise that this considerably improves the situation. We too will not oppose the passage.

I am most grateful for noble Lords’ responses. I do not think there is anything more for me to say as both noble Lords are agreeing to the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

3: Insert the following new Clause—

“Continued suspension of Assembly: Parliamentary control of Orders in Council

(1) This section shall come into force on 25th November 2006 unless a restoration order under section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (c. 1) has been made before that date (in which case this section shall cease to have effect).

(2) Paragraph 2 of the Schedule to that Act is amended as follows.

(3) In sub-paragraph (1)(a), for “by resolution of each House of Parliament” substitute “in accordance with sub-paragraphs (1A) to (1E)”.

(4) After sub-paragraph (1) insert—

“(1A) A draft of every Order in Council must be laid before each House of Parliament for approval before it may be made.

(1B) If either House of Parliament passes a resolution that the draft Order be approved with a specified amendment or amendments, the Secretary of State shall withdraw the draft Order in Council.

(1C) If no amendment or amendments are specified under subparagraph (1B), the Order shall be approved unamended.

(1D) If the draft Order in Council is withdrawn under sub-paragraph (1B), the Secretary of State may re-lay the draft Order in Council before each House of Parliament—

(a) with the amendment or amendments specified under sub-paragraph (1B) incorporated into the draft Order in Council, or

(b) with notice in writing to each House of Parliament of the Secretary of State’s refusal to incorporate the amendment or amendments specified under sub-paragraph (1B) and the reasons for that refusal.

(1E) If the draft Order in Council is re-laid under sub-paragraph (1D) without the amendments incorporated, the Order shall be made having been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.””

The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following reason

3A: Because it is unnecessary in view of the Government’s undertaking about parliamentary scrutiny of Orders in Council to which the amendment relates

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason 3A.

The Commons have decided that the amendment agreed to by your Lordships on how we deal with Orders in Council is unnecessary in view of the Government's undertaking on parliamentary scrutiny of Orders in Council, to which your Lordships' amendment related.

For the avoidance of doubt I take the opportunity once again to put that undertaking clearly on the record so there can be no ambiguity about it; that is, if we are unable to restore devolution on 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable, including provisions that will enable Orders in Council to be amended, in the light of views expressed by Members of both Houses of Parliament, in a way that reflects the spirit of the amendments passed in your Lordships’ House. I refer to the opportunity, agreed through the usual channels, for an amendability stage in parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council. We will also ensure that we legislate for Northern Ireland by a Bill—primary legislation—wherever appropriate. We do that when we can now and we shall make sure that we highlight it in the future. I am involved with the marine Bill as a Defra Minister—indeed, when I was in Northern Ireland I discussed it with Defra Ministers—which deals with coastal areas. I told them that we wanted to include Northern Ireland in the Bill and that the preparations for that were going ahead. It is not on the horizon at present, but we shall take the opportunity to include Northern Ireland in that UK Bill. At other times we may need to legislate separately.

Neither I nor my colleague David Hanson can go into detail about certain matters, but we have made that clear. Plan A concerns the Assembly. If the Northern Ireland members of the Assembly want to keep their jobs, keep representing their constituents, keep their salaries and keep their staff in work, the Assembly will go back. It is as simple as that. It is their choice, not ours. We can do so much to cajole them back, but we cannot force them. Nevertheless, the ingredients are being put in place. Commitments have been given. At some point people will have to decide whether being elected to office in Northern Ireland means anything, or does it mean just flying over here occasionally and dipping into Westminster? That is not governing Northern Ireland. Covering the detail here is second best. That is an excuse that elected Members of the other place will make in due course. They must be ready to be attacked for that if they want to take the soft option because they will not be able to go into the detail that they could in the Assembly, even if we have an amendability stage with regard to Orders in Council. However, it is much more satisfactory than what we have had for more than 30 years. But it is much better to have locally elected, locally accountable members. You are not locally accountable flying over to Westminster once or twice a week. Locally elected, locally accountable members of the Assembly are much better placed to deal with these issues in Northern Ireland and take charge of the ministries, as they have done in the past. That is plan A.

We shall not spend the summer having discussions and working out the minutiae of the matter. We have given a commitment. I shall not be able to stand at this Dispatch Box as a Northern Ireland Minister, and neither will David Hanson in the other place, after 24 November, if the Assembly is not back—I believe that if it is not back on 24 November, it will not be back for the foreseeable future—while we promote other changes in Northern Ireland and push the reform programme forward, which involves changes to ministries because of the consequences of the review of public administration. I shall not be able to stand here and say, “We still have to do Orders in Council because we do not have an agreement”. I will not be able to do that. The statement stated, in its first or second line, that we would quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable. I cannot be more specific than that. I refer to Orders in Council rather than statutory instruments. We have to be clear what we are talking about here—we are talking about Orders in Council. Statutory instruments would be a much more difficult matter. With Orders in Council a whole Act of Parliament is done in an hour. Fifty or 60 pages are involved with no chance to amend them. Statutory instruments are slightly different.

I ask leave of the House to mention a further matter before I sit down. I may have a chance to respond to what is said, but on the other hand that opportunity may not arise. This is an important week in the Northern Ireland Office because one of our key civil servants, who is in the officials’ box today, who has served in the Northern Ireland Office since the day it was set up in 1972, will retire on Friday. He served for nine years before that in the Home Office. He is the current Head of Legislation and the Parliamentary Unit, Jonathan Margetts. He is a really nice guy. He gives you good, firm and fair advice—such as, “Minister, you can’t do that”. I pay tribute on behalf of myself, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and other Ministers who have served with him. He has served under 15 Secretaries of State. That has to be pretty unique for a civil servant.

Of course, the Northern Ireland Office is unique in many respects. People think that it runs Northern Ireland. It does not. I got there to find that there is a Northern Ireland government with their own civil servants and 11 ministries. That is somewhat different from the Northern Ireland Office. Jonathan has served there since the day it was set up in 1972, when Stormont was abandoned, put into cold storage and there have been 15 Secretaries of State since. I want to say thank you on behalf of the Government and this House. I wish him and his family well in a long and healthy retirement.

Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 3, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 3A.—(Lord Rooker.)

My Lords, I had not intended to intervene, but I support the remarks made by the Minister about Jonathan, who I remember from my time in Northern Ireland, on behalf, not only of this side of the House and my party, but of those of us who served in the Northern Ireland Office.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. We also had the most helpful statement at Third Reading on 19 July, col. 1289, addressing the situation that none of us hope will arise—if devolution on 24 November is not possible. The Minister has assured the House that in that event measures would be put in place—I am glad that he emphasised the word “quickly” in that statement—to make direct rule more accountable. I know that I speak for my noble friend Lord Glentoran, who cannot be in his place today, in expressing thanks from this side of the House to the Minister for the way that he has handled this matter, and we certainly do not intend to object to the amendments from another place. Also, my noble friend Lord Glentoran would certainly wish to be associated with the remarks about Jonathan Margetts.

My Lords, I, too, associate these Benches with the remarks on the impending retirement of, frankly, a feisty civil servant. He has seen 15 Secretaries of State. I would have thought that that merited not the usual gong, but probably the George Cross. I put that forward for serious consideration.

I was impressed also with the robustness with which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, presented the stark choice facing the Northern Ireland parties. We, too, want to see the restoration of devolution and the time has come for that to take place, or it will not do so for a very long time. There have been rumours that, for instance, one party at least thought that it would not be there for 24 November, that its members might return at Easter and want an election. That is playing very foolish games and it may well blow up in their faces—I mean that metaphorically.

Above all, we greatly welcome the statement made here and in another place about the commitment that if plan A does not work—and we all want it to work—there is a plan B, so that we can better look at Northern Ireland legislation and be able to deal with it in a more democratic parliamentary way. We are grateful for that reassurance. We on these Benches have been pushing for more than two years for Northern Ireland business to be better handled at Westminster and so we are grateful for that assurance. However, that is a safety net. That will happen only if there is no restoration of devolution on or before24 November.

During the debate on integrated education the other night, I referred to the fact that no Ulster Unionists of either stripe were present when I spoke—perhaps they are discerning people. It is true that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was present for part of the debate, as he pointed out to me, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley. I made the point partly to express some surprise that those noble Lords had not sat through the whole debate and had not contributed on such an important subject. Therefore, I am reassured that two Members of your Lordships’ House who take the DUP Whip are here for this debate. I find that gratifying, and I hope that it portends that they will be participating in Northern Ireland debates as vociferously as their other colleagues. We look forward to that. We hope that it is a sign that there will be an engagement in the politics of the UK and, even more so, in the politics of Northern Ireland so that we have a beneficial outcome by 24 November. We will not be opposing the Motion.

My Lords, I am most grateful for noble Lords’ contributions. With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, I, too, made reference to the lack of speeches. I do not criticise anyone for that because maiden speeches are not being made at the moment. I welcome the introduction of another voice to your Lordships’ House because, as I have said before, that has been missing. I wish that there was a spread of voices in this House and in the other place. It is a false debate if you do not hear all the voices. I, too, look forward to contributions to our debates—if we need to have them in the more democratic structure in the future—from those who live, work, have a life in and represent Northern Ireland.

I am most grateful for noble Lords’ agreement. Everyone has said that the situation has been unsatisfactory, and this is a way forward. I think that when I put forward the proposal it was welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble—we had not had this for 30 years. Of course, in 1972, and I suspect at the time of the Good Friday agreement and the return of the Assembly, no one ever expected the suspension to last this long. The next set of negotiations was always round the corner and then the question was asked: why change the parliamentary process? What we are envisaging is a major change but it will apply only to Northern Ireland. It must not leak out into other areas—the business managers in both places would not be at all pleased about that.

I am grateful for the broad and deep welcome and for the nomination for a gong of our long-standing civil servant, to whom I pay tribute.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 6.22 pm to await Royal Assent.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 5.52 to 6.22 pm.]