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Lord Glentoran: I seem to be alone on this one, for some reason that I am not quite sure about, perhaps because I have not been here in the past few days, doing some homework and drumming up support. I thank the Minister for her response, which I shall read with care, but I suspect that I shall return to this group of amendments on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: This amendment will bring the appointment and role of the chief electoral officer into line with equivalent appointments elsewhere. The Comptroller and Auditor General in the UK holds office under good behaviour and can be removed from position only following resolutions of both Houses. It would appear to me to make perfect sense for the position of the chief electoral officer to be standardised in the same way. I beg to move.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I believe that I covered the points in this amendment in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. However, I shall read carefully and, if I have anything to add, I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan.
The noble Lord said: This amendment is intended to regularise the situation on political donations more quickly in Northern Ireland than has heretofore been the case. Although the matter is being progressed, as it is the Government's intention that it should, one believes that there is little justification not to bring the disapplication period forward more expeditiously. It makes sense now that Northern Ireland has moved away from the period when intimidation was rife and regular and when people were concerned for their safety. Now that we have moved beyond that, we would wish to regularise and become like the rest of the United Kingdom more urgently.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 22 in this group, to which we have put our names. As we said at Second Reading, we are disappointed with the provisions of Part 4 of the Bill. Although we recognise that the Government are taking positive steps in at least ensuring that donors will be notified to the Electoral Commission on a confidential basis, that still does not achieve the full transparency that we all want. Under the Bill, full disclosure cannot take place until 2010. That is why we are particularly concerned to see that under Clause 14(3) the Secretary of State can delay full disclosure coming into effect by extending the prescribed period during which the parties need to disclose their donations to the Electoral Commission. It seems almost as if the Government are planning for failure rather than success in building in that proviso. We are very concerned that this could be a long-term arrangement as there is no end date on the Secretary of State's ability to extend the prescribed period. It could just go on and on being renewed biennially by statutory instrument without this provision ever having to come back before Parliament as primary legislation.
Of course, we are aware of the difficulties that gave rise to Northern Ireland parties being exempt from the legislation in the first place and we would not want to put any individual in danger. We are simply concerned that there is no end point to this scheme. Ideally, we would want a system in Northern Ireland that is as close as possible to the one operating in the rest of the UK, and we would definitely want to achieve openness and transparency as soon as possible.
Lord Hylton: I support the thrust of Amendment No. 21. The Bill, as drafted, gives the maximum
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incentive to political parties in Northern Ireland to get in as many foreign donations as they possibly can in the coming 12 months. The way in which that is probably likely to operateor so it seems mewill be for nationalist and republican parties to try to drum up the maximum they can get from the United States. That is contrary to public policy and injurious to the normal balance of political life in Northern Ireland.
Lord Glentoran: I have listened intently, and with a great deal of sympathy, to noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment. We all share the hope that the political situation in Northern Ireland can be normalised as soon as possible and that the special provisions that have been in place for so long will no longer be needed as the peace process progresses. As such, I am happy to see the end of the disapplication period in sight. I hope that the prescribed period will similarly be brought to a swift conclusion. The powers that the Secretary of State will have to lengthen the prescription period may be a useful back-stop precaution, but we must resist the temptation to continue putting off the day when Northern Ireland political parties can continue to enjoy privileges and perks that are considered harmful to democracy elsewhere in the world.
Transparency is one of the great necessities of a vibrant democratic system. It ensures continuing public trust in the political system, it is the only effective way of preventing fraud and corruption, and it allows effective checks against disparities in the system that would allow one party to benefit at the expense of others. All those reasons are doubly true in Northern Ireland, where there is a history of certain political parties being involved in organised crime and corruption.
It is certainly true that there is still a threat to some people who donate to certain parties, and we have to consider that. Therefore, we reluctantly accept that there needs to be continuing protection for donors. We agree with the Government's decision that donations above £5,000 must be reported to the Electoral Commission. However, the political process must not be held hostage to those who continue to act illegally and refuse to accept the democratic process. If there is still danger to donors, we should concentrate on improving the system of law and order. The time limit should therefore be met and, if possible, brought forward. I support these amendments.
At present, political parties in Northern Ireland are exempt from the requirements of Part 4 of the 2000 Act, which regulates donations to political parties. That exemption is due to expire on 14 February next year; that is built in. That comes underit is a hell of a mouthfulthe Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Disapplication of Part IV for Northern Ireland Parties, etc) Order 2005. This disapplication is, of course, because of the special circumstances that have existed in
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Northern Ireland as regards the possibility of donor intimidation and the desirabilitywhich we will come to laterof allowing Irish citizens to make donations to Northern Ireland parties consistent with the principles of the Good Friday agreement.
It is the Government's strong view that eventually Northern Ireland parties should be subject to the same levels of transparency in respect of donations that exist in the rest of the UKwhich is exactly the point made earlier by the noble Lord. We have made that clear on several occasions. However, a number of political parties have expressed concern to the Government that the risk of intimidation of donors in Northern Ireland is ongoing and remains very real; we cannot ignore such concerns. We have therefore decided that Northern Ireland's current exemptions should be extended until October 2007. They were due to lapse in February anyway and have been extended until October 2007, at which point the political parties will be required to provide information to the Electoral Commission, as do political parties in the rest of the UK, but initially on a confidential basis. We will call this the "prescribed period".
The extension of the disapplication from February until October next year is necessary in order to allow us, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, to determine the detail of how the arrangements will work during that prescribed period and the conditions which Irish donors will have to meet in order to be able to donate to Northern Ireland parties. We will then have to legislate for those procedures by order, which, of course, will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. The prescribed period will allow political parties to become accustomedtrue, in a private sphereto the requirements that the rules on donations place on them before we move to full transparency, which is what we intend to do.
The purpose of the prescribed period is also to take account of the risk of the intimidation of donors in Northern Ireland. Our hope is that that concern will have diminished by the end of 2010, at which point Northern Ireland will move to full transparency in the regulation of donations to political parties. However, if there are indications at that time that the timing is not rightfor example, if the concerns about intimidation have not reduced to the extent that we hope they willthe Secretary of State will need to consider carefully how to proceed. In the light of his consideration, which may involve taking the views of political parties and others, he may decide that the time is not right for Northern Ireland to move to full transparency as in the rest of the UK. In the event of such a decision, it is important that he has the power to ensure that the confidentiality of donors continues to be protected.
The order-making power contained in this clause allows transitional periods to be extended by up to two years at a time, but, as the noble Baroness made clear, that can go on for ever, and we have to listen to that point. Any order made under those powers will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, and I can imagine the sorry state that the then spokesman for Northern Ireland will be init will not be mehaving
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to come forward every two years, ad infinitum. It can be argued that that would not be sustainable, as it would tell us something about conditions in Northern Ireland that would have ramifications across the political sphere.
It is not a position that we find satisfactory, but we have had to build this provision into the Bill in order to be realistic. We are legislating for the electoral process in Northern Ireland. We have legislation for devolution, which may or may not come about, but the political parties are active, as they are entitled to be. New parties develop and old ones go and, with the Electoral Commission, we have a better system of control over the transparency of political parties. It is important that Northern Ireland is part of that, but it also clear that we cannot go off the cliff edge. We can not move immediately from the position that we are in now to full transparency. So we are building a system with a degree of flexibility to help to build trust and inform the political parties about the way the system works but which will operate in a non-open way. Political parties will still be accountable to the Electoral Commission and will have to answer lots of questions but full transparency is our target. We have a target date and, if we miss it, we can extend it for a couple of years. If miss it again, then people will ask about the broader position in Northern Ireland rather than in the narrow confines of the Bill.
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