HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc1395-6
1. Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP)

If he will make a statement on the funding of political parties in Northern Ireland. [153155]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar)

We began a review last year of the rules governing funding arrangements of parties in Northern Ireland. I shall make a statement to the House shortly on its outcome. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the concerns being voiced about funding arrangements for political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dodds

I thank the Minister for his reply. In the light of continuing revelations about the scale and extent of paramilitary and criminal activities carried out by the republican movement in support, in particular, of Sinn Fein, the Minister will be aware of the great need to reassure the public, to prevent further corruption of the political process and to ensure that all political parties in Northern Ireland operate by the same democratic methods. Can he assure us that his review will be conducted speedily and proposals brought forward as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman will remember that the concerns he has just expressed were also expressed at the last Northern Ireland questions from all parts of the House, including the Front Bench. I will make my statement shortly, and we shall then receive representations from all political parties. I look forward to receiving representations from the hon. Gentleman's party and others. We recognise that there is widespread public concern, and we will engage in dialogue on it.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

Does the Minister accept that if Sinn Fein's protestations about party funding are to be accepted, the answer lies in that party subjecting itself to the same rules on donations and on the disclosure of donations that apply to the Minister's party and to mine? Will the Government acknowledge, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was a mistake to exempt political parties in Northern Ireland from the rules that apply to political parties in Great Britain? Will the Government look sympathetically at rescinding those exemptions so that political parties in Northern Ireland have to comply with the same rules as every other political party in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Spellar

I do not expect to receive representations only from Northern Ireland parties when I announce the review. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps note that there were major considerations regarding whether Northern Ireland should have legislation similar to that of the rest of the United Kingdom, not least the question of potential intimidation of donors and whether that would lead to disorder or discourage people from funding the political process. I accept that things have changed since then, both in the number of concerns expressed about funding in Northern Ireland and because of changes to legislation in the Republic of Ireland, which we will have to take into account. We will consider all the factors and I shall make a statement shortly. We will then receive representations and will go on to announce the outcome of the review. I shall take account of the points that the hon. Gentleman and others in the House have raised.