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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in addressing Amendment No. 86, the Minister has also dealt with the other important amendments to Clauses 67 and 68 in this group which stand in my name. I shall not say much on Amendment No. 86 which, frankly, does not seem a terribly important amendment in the grand scheme of things. However, the general issue introduced by Amendment No. 86 is, I believe, one of the most important parts of the Bill.
In Committee we discussed these matters at some length. Indeed, after the amendments made by the Government in Committee, Clause 68 is far more broadly drawn than when it came to your Lordships' House from another place. Paragraph (b) of Clause 68 now allows the Secretary of State to disapply any--I repeat the word "any"--of the provisions of Part IV or to apply them with such modifications as may be specified. Those amendments mean that the Bill goes much further than it did when it came here. It would not just allow Northern Ireland parties to receive foreign funding, and Sinn Fein, the IRA, and the political wings of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA to receive cash from their supporters in the United States; that is bad enough. It would also allow the Secretary of State to modify or disapply anything
The Minister must spell out in detail--he did not do so in Committee despite our endeavours--the situations in which he believes that both those powers will be exercised. If, as he said, the intention is to exempt all Northern Ireland parties from all of Part IV completely, then why is there the need for the provision which envisages partial application but with modification? What is partial? What are the modifications envisaged?
The Government's intention to allow for a complete exemption from Part IV means that, for example, when Clause 60 is disapplied, Northern Ireland parties will not even have to report to the electoral commission the kind of donations they are receiving. So not even the commission will be in a position to know what is going on. If I may paraphrase the noble Lord's defence of that, it was that the commission could not be trusted to treat the matter in confidence. That does not say much about the confidence of Government in the electoral commission, or in the people they will appoint to it. I should have thought that if the signal being sent out to all our parties is that they cannot treat any information they give in confidence to the electoral commission as likely to be kept in confidence, I think that all our parties will be pretty horrified. That is particularly so in Northern Ireland. If that is the best argument that the Government can come up with, it is an appalling reflection on the commission that they are setting up.
Further to that, the Secretary of State will have the power to increase the £5,000 limit for public disclosure and the criminal offences in Clause 59 relating to the evasion of restrictions on donations will be disapplied.
As in Committee, the Minister has repeatedly referred to the special factors that apply when we consider Northern Ireland. We know that there are some special factors, but many of us are unconvinced that they lead us inexorably towards removing Northern Ireland from the whole of Part IV. In Committee on 10th October, at cols. 246 and 251, the Minister attempted to justify the provisions almost exclusively on the basis of the need to ensure the personal safety of Northern Ireland donors by not making public their names. He repeated those arguments today.
However, the Minister appears not to have understood the clause, which provides for far more than just the exclusion of donors' names from the public register. The clause will allow the Secretary of State to drive a coach and horses through not only the ban on foreign funding, but all the requirements of this part of the Bill, including the requirement to make donations reports and the criminal offences related to the restrictions on donations.
The Minister was kind enough to admit that if donor anonymity was the Government's only concern, my Amendment No. 125 to Clause 67 and the deletion of Clause 68--or at least of the blanket exemption powers in subsection (1)(b)--would be sufficient. Indeed, I think that he said that the Government had considered similar wording. However, they have made a great leap--I was going to call it a leap of faith, but it is a leap of bad faith--from donor anonymity to all the other aspects of the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland. That principally means a leap to the foreign funding of Sinn Fein/IRA, but the Government cannot bring themselves to be open and honest with the House.
I have accepted the Government's argument about donor anonymity--although I find it very hard to accept that the commission should not be told in confidence--but there is no justification for allowing Sinn Fein/IRA to accept foreign donations when no other political party in the United Kingdom will be allowed to do so. If the Government admitted that they had made a deal to allow Sinn Fein/IRA to continue to receive money from the United States because it is very important for them, at least we would have honesty and transparency--two words that the Government are so keen on--but we do not even have that. It would at least be pleasant to hear that explanation. We may not like it or agree with it, but at least it would be open.
I have agreed in my amendment to the creation of a separate register in Northern Ireland--although I am not happy about it--to allow for anonymity. However, I am bothered by the next leap from donor anonymity to receiving money from abroad. My amendments would prevent that.
Amendment No. 125 is fully consistent with the Neill committee's recommendation. To be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said in Committee that, although he was not entirely happy with the Government's proposals, he was not happy with my amendments either. I am sure that he will give us the benefit of his advice later. I believe that my new amendments go a long way to help him and the Government with the problem of anonymity.
I accept that, despite my best endeavours to allow contributions from citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are on the electoral register and resident there--that is an attempt to take another step towards the problem that the Neill committee addressed--I am risking a seepage of donations from North America. However, the same seepage of donations could arise for any party. Anyone in the United Kingdom could receive money from a foreign backer of one of our great parties and pass it off as his own donation. What is the difference? I am prepared to take the risk. If donations were reported in confidence to the electoral commission, it would be much more difficult for somebody in the Republic to be used as a conduit for American money. At least we would be seen to be trying to stop foreign donations. The Government are not just not trying to stop foreign donations; they are encouraging their continuation.
In Committee, I asked why a Scottish American who wanted to help the Scottish National Party should not be allowed to donate to it when an Irish American living next door could donate to Sinn Fein/IRA.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do know the answer as well as my noble friend, but I want the Government to admit it, because that would show how cowardly they have been. I find it hard to explain to my fellow countrymen, some of whom support the Scottish National Party--I do not understand why, but they do--why they should be deprived of foreign money when Sinn Fein/IRA is not to be deprived.
Amendments Nos. 129, 130, 131 and 133 would limit the duration of orders under Clause 68. The Government and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, have suggested four years. That is far too long. A debate every four years is not enough. At the least there should be annual renewal of exemption orders. Amendment No. 133 would require a vote every four years--roughly once per Parliament--on whether the powers should continue. It would be a kind of sunset clause. The amendments would provide for more parliamentary scrutiny and more flexibility.
When the amendments were discussed in Standing Committee in the other place, the Minister, Mr Tipping, was quite supportive and said that he did not discount annual renewal. Can we have the same encouragement from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam?
Like many noble Lords, I consider the Government's amendments unacceptable. In the other place, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Ulster Unionists made very clear in debate and in the Division Lobbies their disgust at what the Government were doing. Mr Willie Ross, the Ulster Unionist Member, said:
I am sorry that I have spoken about this for a long time but it is of vital importance to the consistency of this piece of legislation. If this peace process means anything, it means that all the political parties in the North of Ireland come into the same sort of political activity as the parties in Great Britain, which means that they come under the same rules. I believe that my amendments go a long way towards addressing the concerns which the Government expressed in Committee. It would be honourable for the Government to accept the amendments today so that we may move forward in agreement on the question of funding political parties in Northern Ireland.
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