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Political Parties

8.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,

I am grateful for the opportunity offered by this debate to explain why the Government believe that the order is necessary.

During the debates on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, clause 70(1), which permitted the Secretary of State to exempt the Northern Ireland parties from part IV of the legislation, was covered at some length.

In some parts of the House, the strength of feeling about those exemptions was made clear, so I want to explain why we think they are still necessary if all the parties in Northern Ireland are to function on a fair and equal footing with their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

In the course of my speech, I hope to demonstrate that the only way to ensure fairness and equality for political parties in Northern Ireland is to recognise and allow for the special circumstances in which politics has to operate there.

First, I briefly remind the House of the purpose of the order. The order exempts political parties in Northern Ireland from registering the source of their donations and exempts them from the specified list of permissible donors set out in the Act. The exemptions are to last for four years but can be revoked before that time, although they may also be renewed after the four-year period.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The four-year period is an upper limit. Given that we really want to move on from these provisions as quickly as possible, will the Minister consider reducing the time to two years?

Mr. Howarth: Later in my speech, I intend to address the circumstances in which we might need to consider a review of the legislation. As matters stand, a review could be triggered by events rather than at a particular point in time. I shall reflect on the hon. Gentleman's comments and if we see some merit in the argument, we could return to it when the order is debated in another place.

The order is based on the recommendations of the Neill report. After taking evidence in Northern Ireland the Neill committee made two specific recommendations. The first of these was that

That recommendation reflected the widespread concern expressed to the committee that the publication of names and other details of donors could and, in some cases, probably would lead to intimidation. The recommendation has been accepted because we have no intention of endangering people's security, nor of inadvertently discouraging them from donating to political parties.

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The second recommendation acknowledged the importance of the Good Friday agreement and of our relations with the Republic of Ireland. As a consequence, the committee recommended that

Again, we accept that recommendation. It is a matter of some regret, however, that it did not prove possible to draft the definition of a permissible source in quite the way that the Neill committee envisaged.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate that the Minister said that it was not possible to define the phrase, "permissible source", but can he tell us what definition is used in the Republic's electoral law? Which circumstances govern such subscriptions there?

Mr. Howarth: At the moment, the Republic of Ireland has no equivalent legislation. I intend to comment further on that matter as I develop my speech, and I shall then cover the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

The Electoral Commission--a United Kingdom-based organisation, which will have the responsibility for policing the arrangements--could not reasonably be expected to verify whether those in the Republic of Ireland who made donations were in compliance with the Republic's law, even as it stands.

A consequence of accepting the second recommendation--that donations from the Republic of Ireland were to be permitted--was that there was no way of preventing donations from elsewhere in the world being routed to Northern Ireland via the Republic.

Although we recognise that we are making an exception to our own policy on party funding, I hope that the House will understand, and perhaps agree, that we should not make provisions that would be impossible to police. It must be recognised that if anonymity is needed and donations from the Republic of Ireland are to be allowed, the amount of checking that can be completed in an entirely separate jurisdiction is very limited.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) at moment ago, I am aware that the Irish Government are examining the arrangements regarding foreign donations to political parties. That is clearly a matter for that Government, and it would not be appropriate for me to express a view one way or another on what they should do. However, I recognise that such a change in law in the Republic of Ireland would have implications, depending on how it was framed, for the exemptions listed in the order. I therefore acknowledge that, in those circumstances, it would be proper to review the exemptions, and I am happy to assure the House that we would do so in the light of any changes in Irish law.

To ensure that the exemptions were considered necessary, I undertook a round of consultations with many of the political parties in February 2000. To be fair, that round of meetings revealed that there was a range of views among the Northern Ireland parties about the matter. On the whole, however, a majority of the parties at that time expressed fear for the safety of those who were named as donors--whether individuals or businesses--and thought that anonymity should be

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permitted. There was also a general recognition of the role of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland's political life, which is, of course, entirely consistent with the Good Friday agreement.

As the House will probably remember, because of the concerns expressed about the exemptions--not least by the official Opposition--we promised that there would be a second round of consultations before the order was presented to the House. To fulfil that commitment, I invited all the Northern Ireland parties to a second round of meetings, which took place in January this year. During that round of meetings, it became apparent to me that the consensus for the exemptions has, to some extent, broken down. Nevertheless, even those parties which thought that complete anonymity was not warranted still sought an assurance that names could be given on a confidential basis to the Electoral Commission.

I hope that the House will understand that it is no reflection on the Electoral Commission when I say that no such assurance of complete confidentiality can be given. In any case, some of the parties have already indicated to me that a list compiled on a confidential basis, not to be published and available only to the commission, would still be enough to frighten away their donors on the grounds that there may be a leak and inadvertent disclosure.

As a Government, we have a responsibility to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can make contributions to political parties without fear of reprisals or intimidation of any kind. We also have a responsibility to ensure that democratic parties are allowed to flourish. In my view, the only way that we can achieve this is by allowing complete anonymity for four years, so that the democratic process in Northern Ireland is not vulnerable in any way to those who would intimidate or inflict violence on others.

Similarly, there are sound reasons for allowing contributions from the Republic of Ireland. The truth is, however, that we do not have any realistic or reliable way of checking whether such money originated outside the Republic of Ireland. So, while we regret that these exemptions are necessary--I say that in all sincerity--there is a need to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can be allowed to show their support for their chosen political parties without having any reason to fear for their own safety. Even those Northern Ireland parties that wished for full transparency acknowledged the need for some protection for certain groups of people.

For the reasons I have just given, we will obviously, as I said earlier, keep the need for the exemptions under review. If the political situation changes in the Republic of Ireland or the fears for the security of donors recedes, we will come back to the House and revoke the order. On the other hand, if, after four years, the Government's view is that the exemptions are still needed, we will seek to renew them for a suitable period and will come to the House with an affirmative order as we have done tonight.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Although we respect the way in which the Minister is moving the order, many of us think that, at heart, it is a miserable measure. Does he not accept that the conduct of politics is not only about political parties but, not least in the context of Northern

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Ireland, about cross-community organisations? Will he confirm that, if the order is passed and there is subsequently a referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will be able to take money from abroad, but a cross-community organisation that is manifestly and indisputably committed to peaceful means will not be able to do so?

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