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Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc. (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2010

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc. (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2010.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the order would make a short extension to the period in which donations and loans to Northern Ireland political parties may be made confidentially. Noble Lords will be aware that political parties across the United Kingdom must report to the Electoral Commission donations and loans received above certain thresholds. Political parties in Northern Ireland also must abide by these reporting requirements. However, due to ongoing concerns about intimidation in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 made provision for details of any donations reported by Northern Ireland political parties to be held confidentially by the Electoral Commission.

The Act, however, was also clear that these confidentiality arrangements would apply only for a temporary period—referred to in the Act as the prescribed period. The prescribed period is scheduled to expire on 31 October 2010 unless an order is made to extend it for a period of up to two years. The order before us today would make such an extension to the prescribed period, but only for a period of four months. I shall briefly explain why. I understand that the previous Government had committed to a full public consultation before a decision would be taken on whether to extend the existing confidentiality arrangements or provide for increased disclosure. That consultation was delayed due to the talks at Hillsborough Castle earlier this year, and then by the general election.

There is clearly now an expectation in Northern Ireland that the current prescribed period will not be allowed to lapse without full consultation. It is important for the Government to take full account of the views of all interested parties on the issue before coming to a decision on how best to proceed. However, there is now insufficient time to conduct such a consultation and to prepare and pass any subsequent necessary legislation in advance of the current confidentiality period expiring on 31 October 2010. For this reason, I believe that a short order extending the prescribed period for donations and loans to Northern Ireland parties for a further four months is needed. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the order so clearly. This is my first opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, to his new post. I wish him well in what I have always found an absorbing and fascinating brief on Northern Ireland matters. I make clear from the outset that we support the order, but I would like to put one or two questions to the Minister. I am of course happy for him to write to me on more detailed questions if he wishes to do so.

As I said, we support the order. This is a very important issue and it is vital that there is a proper period of consultation with the political parties and the wider community. The extension of the prescribed period enables that consultation to occur. I ask the Minister to confirm when the consultation period will start and when he anticipates being able to reach a conclusion about the way forward. Importantly, will he be meeting all the political parties during that period? Of course, we recognise that these are early days for the new ministerial team, but have the political parties in Northern Ireland expressed any views to Ministers about the best way to proceed?

We all want the system of political loans and donations to be as transparent as possible. At one time, there appeared to be an emerging consensus that the prescribed period should be allowed to lapse, to reflect the political progress that had been made in Northern Ireland over recent years. In view of the heightened threat level and increased attacks on the police, is that view changing? Perhaps the Minister would say a little more about current thinking about the threat level.

Specifically, what assessment have the Government made of the research into party and election finance carried out by the Electoral Commission and published last July? The majority of groups who took part in that survey acknowledged that the threat of intimidation remained an issue, but felt that Northern Ireland had moved on sufficiently to make the details of donors public without major repercussions. Does the Minister agree that, whatever the outcome of the consultation, there will be no justification for extending the prescribed period simply on the grounds that political donations should be regarded as a personal matter?

Can the Minister confirm whether, if the decision is taken to end the prescribed period, the reporting of loans and donations will start at the point when the period ends or at the point when the legislation originally came into operation? I am sure he will appreciate that it is important that this is made absolutely clear during the consultation as there may be a view that while confidentiality should end, those loans and donations already made in good faith and in confidence should remain protected.

As the Minister will know, loans and donations to political parties in Northern Ireland can be made by Irish citizens and a range of Irish registered organisations. Given that the confidentiality arrangements extend to them as well, how will the ending of the prescribed period affect their donations? What discussions have the Government had with Ministers in the Irish Government on this issue and what weight will the Government place on any representations that they might make? This has always been a sensitive aspect of the issue and it is important for noble Lords to understand the Minister’s approach to this specific element of the consultation.

Finally, these are complex issues and I am sure that the Minister appreciates how important it is that noble Lords have a clear understanding of how the Government are approaching this important consultation and the decisions that will flow from approval of the order today.

My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, to the first occasion on which he is to take a statutory instrument through this Committee. We are delighted to see him engaged in matters regarding Northern Ireland, and I hasten to assure him that if anything I say during the next few minutes appears in any way critical of Ministers in Northern Ireland, it does not refer to him or, indeed, to the other present incumbents of the Northern Ireland Office.

I cannot resist the temptation to refer to paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum. The phrase that leaps out from that paragraph is the reference to,

“time to conduct a full consultation exercise”.

The word “exercise” is either redundant or a Freudian slip. It is quite different to say that a full consultation is to be conducted as opposed to a consultation exercise. The emphasis and meaning are quite different, and I hope that as a result of this, we will never see the word “exercise” again. I am satisfied in my own mind that the officials who wrote this meant “exercise” and not “consultation”. That observation may be more pointed than perhaps it should be, but it reflects my feelings on the matter.

I noted the references in my noble friend’s speech introducing the regulations to their genesis in the 2006 Act, and that evidently this issue was raised in the talks that took place at Hillsborough earlier this year. That underlines the highly political nature of this, not just because it refers to political parties but because it is a highly political matter. I know that the legislation simply provides another four months in which to conduct the consultation, but I feel entitled to make some comments on the underlying issue of the exemption from the publication of political donations.

This of course is advantageous to those parties which have something to hide about the nature of their finances, and there is a political party in Northern Ireland whose published finances have never been accurate or, in my view, truthful. Thus the regulations enable that party to continue to conceal some aspects of its finances. That reflects, if I may say so, what I am quite satisfied is the dominant attitude of the Northern Ireland Office—that all issues relating to Northern Ireland should proceed on the basis that the first concern is to keep Gerry happy. That has been the dominant influence on policymaking in the Northern Ireland Office for several years—more years than one would like to refer to. If that seems somewhat exaggerated, just remember this: there would not have been an agreement on Good Friday if the Northern Ireland Office had had any influence in the negotiations that week. It was its exclusion from the negotiations that generated the possibility of there being an agreement. We who took part in that will never forget the great contribution made by the then Prime Minister in coming over and excluding the Northern Ireland Office from the discussions and conducting them himself.

Regrettably, in subsequent months and years the Northern Ireland Office regained its influence over policymaking, and the bad advice and bad influences which flowed from that. At the beginning of this century, the settled attitude of the Northern Ireland Office was, as I have mentioned, reinforced by evolving the doctrine that one had to bring in the parties at the extremes, at the expense of those moderate parties that had actually made progress, in order to “cement” the situation. Of course, bringing in the extremes has not cemented the process in the way the NIO said it would. The uncertainties have remained, and they have been touched upon already.

I hope that the change of Government will produce a change of outlook and of policy. I hope too that Ministers will get control of the department and ensure that the attitude which states that “everything has to be done to please Gerry” ceases to be the case. This reinforces the point made by the noble Baroness: the consultation should be with all parties, and all parties should be equal in it. We cannot have a situation where one party is more equal than everyone else. That has to end. Until it does, the Northern Ireland Office will continue to be the unhappy place for the people of Northern Ireland that it has been for far too long.

My Lords, before I come to the substance of the order, I want to draw attention to a process issue that I hope the Minister might clarify. On today’s Order Paper there is reference under this order to the first report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Those who read the record of today’s debate might think that it was funny that there was no reference to that report. The answer, of course, is that the excellent committee that does such wonderful work on behalf your Lordships’ House found that there was nothing in the order that needed reference. In future, should we not have some reference of that sort? Otherwise, it is quite misleading to make reference to a report that says that there is nothing to report.

I am grateful that my noble friend Lord Trimble went before me, because he speaks with a great deal more personal and practical experience of the situation in Northern Ireland than those of us whose political experience is all on this side of the Irish Sea.

We should put on record that Members in all parts of your Lordships’ House must be disappointed that it is judged necessary to bring this order forward in this format today. I and my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches have pressed for the greatest possible transparency in relation to donations to political parties in all parts of the United Kingdom. The point that my noble friend has just made should in due course apply equally throughout the United Kingdom. In that context, it is important that we recognise that this is, we hope, a temporary situation that we are dealing with, and it should not continue a moment longer than necessary.

The measures that have been in place since October 2007, where political parties in Northern Ireland have had to report donations to the Electoral Commission but full publication has not been required, are clearly a step in the right direction. This, however, surely still falls far short of full transparency.

As other Members of your Lordships’ House will no doubt refer to today, we all recognise that the situation in Northern Ireland is far short of the ideal that we would all like to see there. I notice that the Independent Monitoring Commission, in its report of 26 May this year, said that dissident republican groups,

“remained highly active and dangerous. They were responsible for one murder and for numerous other incidents in which victims might have died, as the dissidents clearly intended that they should. They were involved in a wide range of other non-terrorist crime and sought to increase the capability of their organisations”.

In those circumstances, we should not underestimate the serious consequences of full publication of donations to all political parties in Northern Ireland.

There is reference in the Explanatory Memorandum to a full review and consultation, to which the noble Baroness referred. It is deeply frustrating that the previous Government were unable, for good reasons, to carry out that review as originally intended. We are now effectively faced with a fait accompli in this order.

During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in 2006, concern was expressed by my noble friends about the ability of the Secretary of State to extend the prescribed period by order. Indeed, we tabled amendments in both Houses to remove this power from the Bill. We were anxious that this could turn into a long-term arrangement whereby the Secretary of State could just go on and on renewing this provision, with no impetus either to review the situation or to come back to Parliament with primary legislation. We recognise and support—and I am sure that all Members in this House will give credit to—the new Government in facing up to this situation.

As has already been said, priority had to be given to the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont in the talks at Hillsborough earlier in the year. However, we cannot allow that delay to getting on top of this problem to continue ad infinitum. The fact that the previous Government were unable to move on this should not mean that we do not now move as fast as we can. In that context, I am delighted that only a four-month delay is being talked about, rather than the possibility of a delay of up to even two years.

However, as the noble Baroness has said, it would be helpful if my noble friend indicated exactly when the full review is to take place and what sort of consultation is intended. The Explanatory Memorandum simply states that that will begin “shortly”. That is the most misused word in the parliamentary lexicon, and I hope that my noble friend will give us more advice on that.

Can my noble friend also tell us what role the Electoral Commission will have in this process, looking of course at the whole of the United Kingdom and the relevance of the order in that context? I should declare an interest as a member of the informal advisory group of parliamentarians to the commission.

It is also important to recognise that the longer-term aim must be to achieve full transparency and equality across the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend indicate what the terms of reference for the consultation will be? Will the emphasis be on securing a change in Northern Ireland to bring the arrangements closer into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, or will the objective be to maintain the status quo?

Finally, it is the Government’s clear intention to carry out a full and proper review of the legislation in the near future, and I am delighted that a relatively short period is being suggested for that. A prescribed period of four months is more acceptable in this context than the usual many, many months. I hope that the result of the consultation will be that we can move forward, because the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and which other Members may make, are extremely important. We should be very careful that we move forward responsibly, but we should be clear about the destination that we seek to reach.

My Lords, I, too, am very glad to have the opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, to his position at the Dispatch Box with responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs. This is a relatively uncontroversial proposal. I am glad that we are talking about only a four-month extension. Like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I hope that the short period of four months indicates the seriousness of intent of the new Government, and the fact that they will not allow this matter to drift. I understand also that any new Government must take account of the difficult security situation in Northern Ireland, and that there are complexities that require a degree of consideration. However, there are reasons why the current situation is an unhappy one, and I will briefly remind the Committee of them.

One reason is that our electoral law is characterised by increasingly greater transparency. It separates Northern Ireland from the broad process of UK electoral law. However, people arrive in this Parliament from Northern Ireland in a context where the circumstances of their election are different. This could have been very dramatic after the last general election. For example, if a rainbow coalition had been formed, the role of the Northern Irish MPs who had been elected under a significantly different electoral law would have been very significant. The position of the five Sinn Fein MPs—whether or not they had come to the House—would have been particularly important and a matter of public controversy. Commentators would have said, “Hold on, these chaps were elected in a different context in which the whole financial basis of their campaign was not open to normal public scrutiny”. The Government were on thin ice on this point. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, conceded this in 2007 when he stated:

“I fully accept the point … that, come the next general election, people will be able to question legitimately from where the parties have got the money”.—[Official Report, 23/7/07; col. 636.]

The Government were well aware of this and took a calculated risk. In the extreme form that we faced, in which a Government might have been formed which was influenced by MPs who had been elected under an essentially different electoral law, the crisis did not eventuate; but it came close enough for the matter to be taken very seriously.

The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, hinted at another point concerning the role of Irish citizens and their ability to make donations. I understand that it is a reasonable position that the meaning of the Good Friday agreement is broadly to give a new recognition to those who consider themselves British, British and Irish or Irish. There is a certain logic to opening the door to contributions from Irish citizens; but the difficulty is that the definition of citizenship in the Irish constitution goes well beyond those who live on the island of Ireland to include a large chunk of Irish America. The Good Friday agreement does not give a new recognition, or new rights, to people who consider themselves Irish and American—but this legislation does. Again, the question that I hope the Government will take into account when they look at the matter is whether it is wise to continue with that arrangement. As I said, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, to his new position and say that this proposal is uncontroversial.

My Lords, I was made aware only this afternoon that this order was going to be discussed. I hope that the Committee will allow me two or three minutes to add my voice of approval to everything that has been brought forward by the Minister. I am delighted to see that at least one other chartered accountant is taking good care of the financial and other affairs of Northern Ireland. I attempted to do so in my time, but received a stern admonition from the noble Lord, Lord Bannside—with reference to Matthew’s gospel—to remember who was Caesar and who was God.

I looked at the policy notes. My noble friend Lord Trimble referred to paragraph 7.2, but I looked at paragraph 7.1. In the fifth line, noble Lords will find the magnificent words “donor intimidation”. I say to noble Lords who I think in Northern Ireland we call “of the minority community”—in Scotland, we call them left footers—that those who have received spiritual guidance from our pastors will know that donor intimidation is one method whereby funds tend to be allocated towards the church. However, since then I have had a stern rebuke from one Member of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland, who pointed out that many a true word might be spoken by me in jest, but there is a serious problem in Northern Ireland when certain individuals are disclosed as contributing to a political party. That, I regret, used to be the case, even before my time in Northern Ireland, which is 25 years ago.

My noble friend Lord Trimble mentioned this, but the noble Lord, Lord Bew, went far beyond the island of Ireland to America and elsewhere. How one can make the legislation, of which all of us approve, bite and be effective, if one has to seek whence come those contributions globally—perhaps even wider than America or Canada—will be appallingly difficult. I hope that the Minister will in the period of four months be able to take the first step. I am not sure what the first step will be until 1 March 2011. At least if the first step can be taken, we should no doubt get some opportunity or report before full reform of your Lordships’ House takes place, when hereditary Peers such as me may no longer be here. Then we may get some answers to the query that came to my mind. Donor intimidation can be a frightening prospect. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure me on that aspect.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in particular for the kind words that they have said about me. I trust that I can deliver, as some say in Ireland, in my response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, made several points. As is often the case, several noble Lords asked when the consultation is to start. In the early summer? We can say that it will be within weeks rather than months. That is the timescale. The whole consultation will last for 12 weeks. The noble Baroness asked whether Ministers will meet the parties. That may well be part of the process. When we consult, a document is produced. We ask people to come forward with ideas and say what we are consulting on. In response, people can write, but it may well also be appropriate for the political parties to meet Ministers to express their views. I am not aware of any views that have been expressed so far, but I am clearly aware of the recent problems in Northern Ireland and the bouts of violence that have occurred in the past week or so. Of course, one never knows how things are moving in that area. A consultation will take place within that 12 weeks. I hope that it will be a wonderfully peaceful 12 weeks, but if it is not, that will obviously have some bearing on how the consultation goes and what people have to say at that time.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I think that that was the point I was making: because of the particular circumstances at present in Northern Ireland, a slightly more active consultation rather than a passive one, including all the parties, would be preferable, from a senior ministerial point of view, to just waiting for responses to come in.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. I have to say that Ministers will be happy to talk. That is on the record. She said that she hoped that we would not accept that making donations to political parties was just a personal matter and no one else’s concern. That would not wash at all; such a position is not taken by anyone and, clearly, the whole basis of this legislation is to make the whole process transparent.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the situation regarding old donations and old loans made prior to a potential change. That is part of the consultation over whether there would be retrospection or whether the clock would start at a particular time. One cannot prejudge this. That issue must be part of the consultation.

She then mentioned Irish citizens. This consultation is not about changing that relationship. Reference has been made to it, but if the position is to be opened up, it will be opened up as far as Irish citizens are concerned. There is no sense that there will be a secret position for them and not for others. The rules would affect them in exactly the same way.

The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to the consultation exercise. I understand exactly what he said. In plain English, the word “consultation” would do in Greetland as I suspect it would do in Northern Ireland. Perhaps “exercise” could well be deleted; “consultation” would do for me. In Northern Ireland one always has to be careful to have a policy of “steady as she goes” and do one thing at a time. The noble Lord mentioned his concerns about the position of the Northern Ireland Office, and said that he hoped that there would be a change in policy. All that I can say now is that we are talking about this order, about this period of four months and about whether or not there is publication. I do not think that I can go too far down the track in dealing with the entire work of the Northern Ireland Office. I had better leave it at that—a little at a time.

My noble friend Lord Tyler referred also to timing, which I think I have dealt with. The emphasis is on trying to open up the position. The consultation is not to ensure that the status quo in Northern Ireland continues but to open things up. It demonstrates the Government’s clear commitment to greater openness in politics. It is to find out whether donors will feel safe participating in the funding of political parties if confidentiality is removed. So we shall have to see what the consultation does indeed bring. The Electoral Commission will be fully consulted, and the commission itself certainly supports the draft order. The period of 12 weeks for the consultation is in line with government best practice, and all interested bodies will be invited to respond.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, also talked about greater transparency. He said that he thought there could have been a crisis at the most recent general election because of the situation of the different funding regimes as far as openness is concerned. I understand and accept what he has said about that, but this is a consultation in order to ensure that that is not the case. We hope, therefore, that this can be the way forward, but consultation is consultation; we have got something to consult about and we will have to see how it goes. We cannot pre-empt the results but we do not want to have any trouble in terms of compromising the security of individuals in Northern Ireland.

I conclude by referring to the contribution from my noble friend Lord Lyell. I think that there are chartered accountants in the Box, but I do not know whether those particular resources will be used. I spotted his reference to donor intimidation and I wondered whether he might be thinking about the ways in which donations are made. I understand that rather than coins, “soft” is also an important matter. Indeed, I thought that might be what he would have used.

I want only briefly to interrupt the kind words that my noble friend is using about me. I happened to be in Northern Ireland on Christmas Eve. When I took out the smallest note I could find to put in the collection box at the Catholic church, the man said, “My God, that’s generous. Are you wanting change?”. With that, I thank my noble friend.

Donations are made in all sorts of ways—in coins, in “soft”, by cheque and, we are told, in a few years’ time we will have to do it in yet another way, which of course will require its own tracking. However, this order is about consulting on extending the status quo for a mere four months—for good reason—in order to find out what people believe is the right way forward and to give the Government time to legislate if legislation is needed. I trust that, in those circumstances, the Committee will support the order.

Motion agreed.