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Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman must have misinterpreted my facial expression to reach that conclusion. I am sorry to have misled him in that way. I agree that there is a good relationship in the socialist international between my party and the Labour parties of these isles.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate that clarification. I did not have my glasses on, so I put the hon. Gentleman's response down to a facial aberration. However, he merely confirms what the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) suggested--that it is possible for the SDLP to get money and use it to promote the Labour party's position in Great Britain. I hope that a miracle will happen, and that a Conservative party in Northern Ireland will get £500,000. I should be especially glad to take the crumbs from the table if that happened in Belfast, South.

Finally, I turn to the matter raised by the hon. Member for South Down. I do not challenge his quotations, but he said that he had noticed a change in the submission made by the Ulster Unionists. In evidence to the Neill committee, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Allen--my party's former president and current treasurer, respectively--said that we would be reluctant to have a public register for security reasons. However, we can still argue for transparency coupled with security. A register could still be maintained by the electoral officer or the Electoral Commission, so that the security of donors would not be compromised for transparency. It is important that the books are clearly open, so that no one could be hoodwinked in a general election.

9.38 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I recognise that the Minister wants an opportunity to respond, and I simply wish to put on record my party's position on this matter.

First, I thank the Minister for the courtesy that he has extended to my party in our meetings on this matter and other electoral issues. He has kept us abreast of the Government's thinking and he knows our views. We have been on common ground for the most part, but there is a degree of difference in regard to this motion that we must set out.

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It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) talk about amounts of money that might be put into a Northern Ireland context. Most hon. Members from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would probably roll around on their Benches with laughter if they knew just how little political parties survive on in Northern Ireland. It is a pittance compared with the funds available to parties on the mainland. Therefore, a level playing field becomes all the more important, because the position is easily distorted when a party or group is capable of bringing in resources from outside Northern Ireland.

That is why funding from outside Northern Ireland becomes particularly important. It has distorted the position to the detriment of the SDLP, although it would not admit it. Substantial funds from outside Northern Ireland have assisted Sinn Fein-IRA in bettering the SDLP in almost every by-election in recent times, and increasing substantially its share of the votes in every general election as well. Such distortion is a result of the influence of those outside the territory of Northern Ireland. That is wrong. For that reason, and a number of others, we are opposed to foreign donations.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who has left the Chamber, that Northern Ireland is different from other parts of the United Kingdom with regard to the dangers of people being identified with a political party. If people are seen to donate money to a Unionist party, they might believe--correctly or not--that there is a danger of being targeted by a republican organisation. Equally, if a firm is seen to donate to a nationalist party, it might see itself as open to being targeted by what are described as loyalist paramilitaries. This will ensure that firms do not easily give money to political parties.

I find it laughable that the hon. Member for South Down raised the issue. There is a recent instance in which a firm identified itself with a democratic political viewpoint and the SDLP hounded it. The Ulster Unionist party has had a discussion within its ranks about matters relating to the Belfast agreement. A firm--McCann Erickson--provided a viewpoint which was consistent with those whose views are against the Belfast agreement, and did so publicly. It was hounded by the SDLP. When I was Minister for Regional Development, I received questions from SDLP Members wanting to know how much McCann Erickson was getting in Government contracts. The clear implication was that if a firm was against the views of the SDLP or the First Minister, it should not receive contracts from Departments in Northern Ireland. More than that, the SDLP went to Mr. Hennessy, the controller of New York, and got him to apply pressure on McCann Erickson, threatening the job of the person who had been prepared to put his head above the parapet.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his illustration of what happens in Northern Ireland is true of businesses throughout the kingdom, and that it is regularly said in company reports that no charitable or political donations have been given during the year?

Mr. Robinson: Yes, indeed. There is clearly a difficulty with firms putting their heads above the parapet and identifying themselves, albeit by subscription, with political parties. That is a reality with which we have to live.

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There is an element of the Bill that is too important for us to allow it to be overcome. Our submission to the Minister and the body that considered it was that we should allow firms to have their donations recorded and the Electoral Commission should be told the nature of those donations to each of the political parties, but there should be no publication of that list. That would have ensured that the political parties were acting in the best interests of the electorate, and that people in the United Kingdom would have the safety of knowing that the matter was properly scrutinised.

I think that the issue of what happens when a matter is brought to court was rather bogus. Almost daily, the courts in Northern Ireland decline to allow the names of individuals and groups to be published. The case would be against the political party, not against the organisation which subscribed to it. That could easily be kept out of the public arena. It could be overcome by the Minister, while allowing Northern Ireland to stay as far in step with the rest of the United Kingdom as possible, given the special circumstances.

I regret not being able to speak for a longer time; I realise that the Minister is keen to respond to the debate. It is important, however, to record our opposition. We are opposed to permission being given for nationalists--we should be clear about that--to receive foreign donations. We oppose the refusal for publication to be withheld; the Electoral Commission should receive details of all donations to political parties in Northern Ireland.

9.45 pm

Mr. George Howarth: The debate has been genuinely useful. Differing opinions have been expressed--indeed, every possible variation of opinion on the matter has been expressed during this short debate. It is both useful and important that those voices are heard.

I shall deal with two or three of the points that have arisen. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) said, in effect, that the order was a sop to Sinn Fein. He may think that. He may even doubt the sincerity of Sinn Fein; he is entitled to do so--as, no doubt, will others. I can only tell him that in the two consultations on the issue that I have held with Sinn Fein during the past 12 months, its publicly stated position, repeated to me, is that the party is content with complete transparency and that it does not seek exemptions for Northern Ireland.

I realise that there will be scepticism in some parts of the House as to whether Sinn Fein's private position is the same as that stated publicly. However, if I was planning to give a sop to Sinn Fein, it would be somewhat surreal to offer something for which the party had never asked. I should certainly receive no credit from Sinn Fein for doing that, so such speculation is bizarre.

I do not doubt that Sinn Fein, along with every other party in Northern Ireland, will benefit from the exemptions. That is unquestionably the case. My major concern is that the SDLP, both in representations to the Neill committee and to me during two rounds of consultations, has made it absolutely clear that there are legitimate grounds for the exercise of an exclusion for four years.

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The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has been entirely consistent. Last month, he repeated what he told me 12 months ago. His party has concerns, although its members believe that they could be addressed in a different way.

We should listen carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who made an important contribution. It is not for me, for the right hon. Member for Bracknell or for any Member to say that the requirements would pose a particular problem for the SDLP. It is right, however, that we listen to the SDLP. Its position has been perfectly consistent. From the beginning, the SDLP has pointed out that, in an ideal world, the party would want complete transparency with no exemptions, but that, in its particular circumstances in Northern Ireland, such exemptions are right and proper. My hon. Friend put that case fully and well.

I have been persuaded not by Sinn Fein but by my hon. Friend and by a party that is represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly--the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. It, too, feels that the matter is important and that if the exemptions did not apply, the party would be damaged.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has made it clear that there was some movement in his party's view on the issue. In no way do I condemn his party for that; any party is entitled to change its point of view over time, and I accept that his party had genuine reasons for doing so. The hon. Gentleman is a serious politician and he takes such matters seriously. I hope that he will accept that our intentions are not to favour nationalists or anyone else. The order was drafted and the exemptions exist because we have a concern for all of the political parties in Northern Ireland.

I shall make a brief point in response to the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East. He believes that foreign funding can be separated from registration. He has repeatedly told me that on behalf of his party. Frankly, the difficulty is that if there is not a register, it is impossible to track whether or not foreign donations are being made to any political party--one piece of information depends on having the other, and it is not possible to separate the two. The hon. Gentleman would concede that that is the case. However, he says that he would like the Electoral Commission to hold that information, but not to publish it. That is his party's stated position. In no way do I wish to impugn the commission's integrity, but I have to say in all honesty that there can never be any guarantee that the information will not leak out in some way or another.

I shall give the hon. Gentleman a perfectly reasonable example. If there were reason to believe that a donation was made improperly and the commission felt that it had to investigate the matter, the very act of launching an investigation could prejudice the secrecy of the register. The hon. Gentleman well knows that, in Northern Ireland, a rumour has only to start in Coleraine in the morning and he will probably hear about it in Belfast in the afternoon. Such is the nature of all political information. If an investigation were under way, there could be no guarantee that the information could be kept entirely confidential.

On referendums, I simply say that such matters are set out in schedule 14 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Of course, political parties could be involved in referendums, but equally, as I said earlier, they are subject to strict limits. I will not trade

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reminiscences with the right hon. Member for Bracknell about where we were respectively during a referendum in 1975, but when he was campaigning for a yes vote, I was the leader of the Huyton no vote campaign, which consisted of me, as the secretary of the Huyton young socialists, the Huyton Communist party and two Conservatives, who ran a ballroom dancing academy. What else we had in common, I do not know.

Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 304, Noes 123.

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