Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Elton: My Lords, is it not clearly obvious that the pressure on prison space is inexorably increasing because of the volume of crime in society? Is it not becoming glaringly obvious that the way to stop that is to get to people before they become criminals and avoid spending all of the money on those people after they have become criminals? Are not the Government in the position of someone who is so busy baling that he does not have time to stop the hole in the boat?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is being somewhat simplistic in his response to a very complex problem. The Government have a policy of being tough on crime--we have made that plain from the outset and we have been tough on crime. We are putting more resources in place to ensure that criminals are detected. We are of course investing in education, for example, to ensure that people do not slip into a world of criminal activity because they do not have the training, education or resources to make a better life for themselves. We are dealing with all of those problems all the way through. We should be a poor government if we were to neglect--I am afraid to say that previous governments have done so--investment in the prison estate to make the best possible use of that estate.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there is much confusion among the public as a result of the comments of the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary? Is there not a strong case for a further discussion between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice without delay? It is no good for my noble friend to state that he regards the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary with respect. There is a great deal of confusion among the public, including the informed public.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it would not be right for us to hold back on an important debate on the use of prisons, the future of the Prison Service and the way in which the prison estate should develop. There are good relations between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice. They have the friendliest of exchanges on such matters. It is important, and in society's best interests, that we have a wide-ranging debate about the use of prisons and the future of prisons. It would be a sad day indeed if we hid away from that debate. Too often in the past, prisons have been unthought of and uncared for. We need to think more about what we are doing with prisons.

Asylum Seekers Arriving from France

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington asked Her Majesty's Government:

15 Feb 2001 : Column 339

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had a full discussion at the summit on asylum and illegal immigration with his opposite number, Lionel Jospin. They agreed that a solution to the responsibility for considering asylum claims could best be found at EU level. The United Kingdom and France have worked closely to achieve that. Detailed discussions on those topics were also held between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the French Minister of the Interior, M Vaillant. They reached agreement on the introduction in June of juxtaposed controls on Eurostar services, whatever the destination of the passenger, and on further co-operative action to combat drugs and people-smuggling from the Balkans.

In reporting the outcome of the summit, President Chirac concluded that positive outcomes had been reached to further enhance UK/French co-operation on asylum and immigration issues. Current arrangements for returning asylum seekers to France and other EU countries are made under the Dublin convention agreed by the previous administration in 1990. The previous administration also agreed that the existing more effective gentleman's agreement between the UK and France should be terminated for the return of asylum seekers.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether illegal asylum seekers, when returned from this country to France, simply remain in, for instance, Calais, where they can have another go, or does France return them to their country of origin? I am not at all sure that the Minister has explained the policy of France as regards asylum seekers.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, what happens to illegal immigrants when they return to France is a matter for the French authorities. We are trying to establish and develop clear and effective communications with our French colleagues to ensure that such problems are dealt with between our two countries on a bilateral basis, and across the EU as a whole. It is only by having effective EU relations on such matters that we can tackle the problem together in the most effective and co-operative way.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, perhaps I may thank the "mighty Baroness Trumpington" for raising this matter and allowing me to comment on it. I do so seriously, as the grandson of four people who today would be regarded as asylum seekers. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend and the Government to deal with asylum seekers with fairness, and with strictness in appropriate cases, but also with compassion, decency and respect.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I hope that I always deal with such matters with compassion,

15 Feb 2001 : Column 340

decency and integrity. Perhaps I may add that yesterday's debate on asylum seekers was a credit to your Lordships' House because it was conducted in exactly those terms. I wish that debates could be conducted in such terms more frequently.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, during yesterday's debate, the Minister boasted about the Government investing to create a modern and efficient system to handle immigration cases. A few hours later we read in the newspapers that they have just stopped the investment altogether. Did not the Minister know about that or did something else happen?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I hope that I am not a boastful Minister in your Lordships' House. Yes, I am aware of the problem to which the noble Lord alludes. It should be put on record that the computer system in Croydon, to which I believe the noble Lord refers, has helped us to achieve a great deal. It was a major contributory factor to over 110,000 asylum decisions being made last year. The system may have shortcomings, but it has demonstrated considerable flexibility. That was how it was originally designed to be and what was intended when the contract was set, back in 1996.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I should declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Is my noble friend aware of the proposal to fine UK rail freight operators, rather than SNCF, for importing illegal immigrants when preventive measures are unable to be taken in France, and that that will probably cause the rail freight services through the tunnel to close? Is not that contradictory to the policy of the DETR; that is, to encourage, through the SRA, the promotion of cross-channel rail services?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for declaring his interest in the matter. It is important that we encourage the transportation of goods by rail. I cannot believe that measures which we have put in place, and which are designed to be effective in tackling the problem of illegal immigrants, will act as a disincentive to rail freight. As regards the longer-term nature of enforcement, if the noble Lord and the interests that he represents continue to have concerns, I shall be ready to facilitate any meetings necessary to deal with some of the problems.

Barclays Group Reorganisation Bill [H.L.]

Read a second time, and referred to the Examiners.

National Australia Group Europe Bill [H.L.]

Read a second time, and referred to the Examiners.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 341

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Disapplication of Part IV for Northern Ireland Parties, etc.) Order 2001

3.37 p.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th January be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order exempts political parties in Northern Ireland from registering the source of their donations and from the specified list of permissible donors contained in the Act. The exemption will last for four years. It can, of course, be revoked earlier if it is no longer required. If it is thought to be needed after four years the Government may seek further exemptions from the House.

I know that this section of the Act was debated at length in your Lordships' House and in another place. The Government are well aware of the continued concerns about the principle of the order and I hope to explain to your Lordships today why we believe it is necessary. The order is based on certain recommendations produced in the 5th Report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. The noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Shore of Stepney, also served on that committee. All three spoke in the Second Reading debate in your Lordships House. They did not draft this order, but it is based on the best possible interpretations of the two specific recommendations in respect of Northern Ireland.

Following evidence given to the committee when it visited Belfast, the first of those recommendations acknowledged that there were real possibilities of intimidation of those who made donations to political parties there. As a consequence, the Neill Report suggested that a short term and reviewable exemption from the reporting requirements in respect of donations should be made for political parties in Northern Ireland.

The second recommendation acknowledged the importance of the Good Friday agreement and our relations with the Republic of Ireland. This prompted the committee to suggest that a definition of a permissible source should include a citizen of the Republic of Ireland in residence in the Republic, subject to compliance with the Republic's Electoral Law Act 1997.

The Government accepted that recommendation, as they had accepted the first. Unfortunately, as the House is now aware, it did not prove possible to draft the clause in respect of the Republic of Ireland in quite the way suggested. This is because the Electoral Commission, as a UK-based organisation, would not be able to verify whether those in the Republic of Ireland who make donations are in fact in compliance with the laws of that country.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 342

Your Lordships will know that it was not the intention of the clause to permit overseas donations for the Northern Ireland parties. Nor was it the intention that this clause should benefit one particular section of Northern Ireland life or one particular party.

The need for anonymity has been acknowledged by most of the parties in Northern Ireland. Even those which would prefer to see a list of donors' names being given, in confidence, to the commission recognised that the very existence of such a list might constitute a threat for some people.

It is an unfortunate consequence of the second recommendation, which suggested that donations should be permitted from the Republic of Ireland, that we cannot, in reality, police the source of that money and ascertain without doubt that it did not come from some other international source.

I would, however, stress to your Lordships that the other parts of this Act do extend to the Northern Ireland parties. That means that all the Northern Ireland parties must register with the Electoral Commission; that they will have a duty to keep full and detailed accounting records as directed by the commission; and that their campaign and other expenditure will be controlled.

These exemptions are being put before your Lordships' House because of very genuine fears for the safety of those who are named as donors. Equally, we all recognise the role of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland's political life. This is entirely consistent with the Good Friday agreement.

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, George Howarth, has had two rounds of consultations with the Northern Ireland parties about these exemptions. While a number of concerns were expressed by the parties, there was an acknowledgement of the possibility of intimidation and the impossibility of policing donations which came from another country.

As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State mentioned in a debate in another place, the Government of the Republic of Ireland have already given some indication that they are considering introducing legislation similar to that contained in this Act. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on or to prejudge the matter, but as my honourable friend in another place acknowledged, if there is a change in the law in the Republic of Ireland it may well have implications for these exemptions.

I can confirm to your Lordships that the Government would be happy to review the need for these exemptions or for any particular part of them if they were able to do so in the light of any changes in the law of the Republic of Ireland. They would also consider revocation or amendment if there were any material change of circumstance.

The order has a life span of four years. If it can be revoked before that time, the Government will be happy to do so. Alternatively, if after four years we

15 Feb 2001 : Column 343

believe that the situation calls for a renewal of the exemptions we will come again to the House with an affirmative order.

In the meantime, I suggest that while these exemptions have a regrettable side they are in the short-term very necessary if the democratic parties in Northern Ireland are to prosper and thrive. I therefore ask your Lordships approve the order today. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 25th January be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

3.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but that this House regrets that the draft order allows political parties in Northern Ireland to receive funds from foreign donors; dispenses with the requirement for political parties in Northern Ireland to keep records of donations and to report them to the Electoral Commission; and allows foreign funding to be used by Northern Ireland political parties when participating in future United Kingdom referendums and in any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the terms of the amendment make clear the three aspects of the order about which we have reservations. The first is that it allows Northern Ireland parties to accept foreign donations not only from the Republic of Ireland but also from elsewhere in the world. As the noble and learned Lord acknowledged, that is against the spirit of the legislation and the recommendations of the Neill committee.

Secondly, the order means that no records will be kept of donations which can allow foreign donations to be understood. The third aspect concerns the effect on referendums, to which the noble and learned Lord did not refer.

As regards overseas funding, all parties in the United Kingdom agreed with the Neill committee on the proposed ending of foreign donations to our political parties. The Conservative Party implemented that measure before it was recommended by the Neill committee and continues to support it.

However, there has been wide recognition of the special position of Northern Ireland parties. The noble and learned Lord said that the changes that will be implemented by the order are based on the recommendations of the Neill committee, but they go much further. The Neill committee recommended that Northern Ireland parties should continue to be able to receive donations from the Republic of Ireland. That is discriminatory in favour of those parties whose views are likely to be more acceptable in the Republic of Ireland. In any event, the order goes further in allowing donations from anywhere in the world.

The noble and learned Lord again said that the problem is that the measure cannot be policed. He indicated that because of the difficulty in investigating matters in the Republic of Ireland to the satisfaction of

15 Feb 2001 : Column 344

the commission, we cannot police "without doubt" that donations do not come from outside the Republic of Ireland. That is not a strong reason for saying that we cannot do so at all; that we cannot state that it is illegal to receive donations from outside the Republic, even though the exemption cannot be policed satisfactorily all the time. We understand that in some cases there might be an element of doubt--that it cannot be "without doubt"--but that is not a strong enough reason for taking no steps at all.

We all know that for many years donations have been collected in the United States ostensibly for humanitarian or political reasons but have then been diverted to terrorist purposes. Therefore, in the Northern Ireland context, it is especially dangerous to allow the fig leaf of political donations to continue because the money can flow into terrorist hands. Although the United States is often mentioned in this context, terrorists have received support of all kinds from countries such as Libya. Such support is not confined to the United States.

I have for a long time believed that the extraordinary momentum behind Irish terrorism is not connected only with politics but to some extent with finance. We know that that was the case with, for instance, the Mafia, which began as a political organisation and then turned to rackets. They are now primarily financial organisations. In my opinion, that has happened to some extent to Northern Ireland terrorism. That is why, when I was a Minister in the Province, I did as much as I could to fight the rackets that were taking place. Sadly, neither I nor others in both governments have been very successful and those rackets remain a series of problems. But there is a danger that money will come to Northern Ireland from overseas to parties that are connected with terrorists. Similarly, we do not want money from rackets to go into politics, but that is more difficult to control particularly if there is no reporting of donations.

That brings me to my second point: reporting. Obviously, I recognise the problem. To play any part in Northern Ireland politics can be very dangerous. Those of us who were in another place for some years will remember our colleague the Rev Robert Bradford and the numerous attacks on others over the years. We sympathise with the need for restrictions on publicity, but that should not rule out reporting in confidence to the Electoral Commission. I believe that it shows lack of confidence in the commission and the way that it conducts itself to suggest otherwise. We entirely sympathise with restrictions on publication, but that is quite different from sympathising with what the order does in this respect; namely, to eliminate all requirements for records of donations.

My third point concerns referendums which are of particular importance within Northern Ireland but also have repercussions in the rest of the United Kingdom. The first general point is whether foreign money should be spent in referendums. Obviously, we agree that it should not be spent in support of one side or another in future referendums, but that is not what the order achieves; indeed, it opens up loopholes. The order also confers on registered political parties in Northern Ireland benefits over other groups, because

15 Feb 2001 : Column 345

a cross-community group that may be set up to campaign in a referendum but is not registered as a political party--it should not need to be--will suffer all the restrictions in the Bill which have been criticised and accepted as far as concerns Northern Ireland. Therefore, the order is defective in not allowing some people the freedom that others will have in a Northern Ireland referendum. In that context one is always conscious of the fact that, as on a number of occasions in the past, there may be referendums on the future government of Northern Ireland and so on.

During the debates on the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, conceded the point and said:

    "I do not pretend that the position is ideal".--[Official Report, 21/11/00; col. 768.]

That is "Bassamspeak" for saying that it is not very good but the Government do not intend to do anything about it. That is what has happened. The order means that the position has not been corrected.

The other aspect of the matter is the loophole that the order creates for UK-wide referendums. There has been recent discussion on the timing of a possible referendum on the euro should the Labour Party, unfortunately, be re-elected, but I do not want to become involved in that this afternoon. It will be possible for money from all over the world to come via existing or new Northern Ireland parties to fund campaigns for a UK-wide referendum on one side or another of the question in the referendum. All of that seems to us to be potentially deeply unfair to one side or other in the referendum. It is not a loophole which respectable parties like those represented in this House would follow, but we all know that there are less reputable--or more disreputable--people who are capable of using loopholes which are created. This order creates a loophole which allows foreign money to flow into one or other, or both, sides of any UK as well as Northern Ireland referendum.

For those three reasons we do not regard the order and the policies which it represents to be satisfactory. We did not at the time when the Act was as a Bill, and we do not today. I beg to move.

Moved, That, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but that this House regrets that the draft order allows political parties in Northern Ireland to receive funds from foreign donors; dispenses with the requirement for political parties in Northern Ireland to keep records of donations and to report them to the Electoral Commission; and allows foreign funding to be used by Northern Ireland political parties when participating in future United Kingdom referendums and in any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland".--(Lord Cope of Berkeley.)

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page