HL Deb 18 October 2000 vol 617 cc1034-108

3.19 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.) On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 65 [Special Provision for Northern Ireland parties]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 177: Page 41, line 36, leave out ("each") and insert ("a").

The noble Lord said: This clause has already been debated. I understand that other noble Lords wish to dissent. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor

On an earlier occasion, we debated a group of amendments of which this amendment formed part. However, subsequent to the government answers and other government amendments added to the Bill, I have two points to make. I gave the Minister notice that I wanted to speak on the amendment.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish made clear his opposition to the large group of amendments that the Committee considered last week relating to various Northern Ireland issues. It is regrettable that such a large grouping did not lead to a detailed debate on the application of Part IV to Northern Ireland, with which these amendments are concerned. It is an issue of the utmost importance and I hope that your Lordships will allow me to make some limited points on the amendments.

I apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. He is today attending the funeral of the late First Minister of Scotland, Mr Donald Dewar. I hope that my noble friend will be joining us later today or the next time that we consider the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 177A and 178 allow for a blanket exemption of Northern Ireland from Part IV. Perhaps the Minister will consider the words of the Minister in another place, Mr Tipping, who said earlier this year: I hope that one day soon the situation will be normalised and the provisions in the Bill will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. However, that has not yet been achieved".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee G; 1/2/00; col. 190.] Last week, the Minister here said: Political developments in Northern Ireland have undoubtedly taken an important step forward since the Neill committee report was published, but there remain special factors which cannot be lightly dismissed".—[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 246.] It is important for Ministers to spell out what they mean by the situation in Northern Ireland being "normalised" so that the exemptions allowed by the amendments can be ended. Who will define normalisation? Will it be the Assembly, the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister? How will normalisation be achieved? What will be regarded as normal? What are the special factors that the Minister referred to last week? We do not know the criteria that will be used to make the judgment. I am not asking the Minister to pre-judge the issue. I simply want him to explain the criteria on which it will be judged. We need to know how the terms are defined before we deal with the issues again on Report.

There is one other issue that I should like the Minister to address. In so far as the amendments allow for a complete exemption from Part IV, will they allow the foreign funding not only of political parties in Northern Ireland, but of referendum campaigns? In that case, will foreign funding be allowed in the rest of the United Kingdom as well?

It seems possible for a political party to be set up in Northern Ireland, to receive foreign funding from America, Europe or even Australia and to use that funding not to contest elections in Great Britain, because that is ring-fenced under the Bill, but to campaign in a referendum in Great Britain. What is to stop that? I cannot find any means of preventing it. I am sure that the Government do not intend that to be permissible. Perhaps the Minister will consider whether there is a loophole. There might be a provision elsewhere in the Bill to prevent it, but if not he should consider the issue.

Those two short points are important. I should be grateful for a response from the Minister.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I support what has just been said. There is a great deal of unease about the position, even with the government amendments. There is also a great deal of confusion about the separation of Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, from the regulations that will apply in the bigger island. There are some other issues that I hope to touch on in a clause stand part debate, if that is possible, but at the moment I confine myself to supporting what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, has said.

Lord Glentoran

I should like to add my voice to the debate. I am not speaking from the Front Bench, but I am the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. We do not see a need to differentiate once again between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. We do not feel it necessary for the Government to complicate the issue of the funding of political parties with the amendments.

The provisions will cause confusion. They are already sending the wrong messages and giving one party in particular, Sinn Fein, which is probably the richest party in Ireland, an even greater advantage over other parties in the democratic processes, such as they are.

Devolution is working in Northern Ireland and I can see no reason why the amendments should be necessary now, let alone for an open-ended period. I should like a clear explanation from the Minister of why the Government feel that Sinn Fein needs special help to keep its coffers full.

Lord Goodhart

I do not wish to repeat the substance of what I said during the earlier debate, but I should like to emphasise one point. If the Government intend to proceed with Clause 65 in an amended form, they will get stronger support if they insert a statutory provision that no order made under that section could last for more than four years. Any order would therefore have to be renewed within the normal electoral cycle.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We have already had the debate and, like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I am reluctant to rehearse old territory, although I do not want to belittle the concerns that have just been expressed.

I reiterate that the exemption is not about favouring a particular party in Northern Ireland or in Ireland as a whole in any way, shape or form. It is not about helping Sinn Fein—far from it. As I said when we debated the amendments, the Government have made it patently clear over the past two years that we seek the development of more normalised politics in Northern Ireland.

We would be foolish to ignore the special factors that exist in Northern Ireland. Although the peace process has made tremendous progress over the past few years, we have to recognise that normal political rules do not yet apply. We hope that there will come a time when they do. That is why we have said that we want the situation to be reviewed.

Perhaps I should try to respond positively to the suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made. We are ready to consider it between now and Report and shall do so. I can give the noble Lord no commitment, but it is certainly a matter we need to review. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, mentioned the possibility of a sunset clause. That is something to which we need to pay close attention.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned the criteria by which we might decide whether a state of normality in politics had been reached in Northern Ireland. Standing here today at the Dispatch Box, it is difficult for me to describe what that might be. But obviously there must be continued improvement in the strength of the political institutions, increased levels of participation and a further retreat from violence as a means of resolving political differences. I do not believe that violence can ever resolve political differences. Strong political institutions and effective political parties are required in Northern Ireland, and that is what we seek in the Bill. Clearly, a decision on whether normalisation had been reached would be for the government of the day working with all the political interests and, not least, the elected Assembly of Northern Ireland.

A particular question was asked about referendum campaigns. The Bill deals with donations to parties; it does not deal with the purposes for which those donations are required or are to be used. We shall have a debate on donations for referendums. I suggest that we tackle those issues when we come to them and when we consider Amendment No. 234YHA later this evening.

I understand the strength of the views expressed about these matters and I recognise their importance. They are difficult issues but we seek to resolve them. We hope that over time they can be resolved and also that we can move to a happy situation where the normal rules of political engagement in the United Kingdom apply to Northern Ireland.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

Before the noble Lord sits down, if he is unable to answer me now, I wonder whether he will write to me to explain exactly what is so different about the electoral processes in Northern Ireland compared to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Is it not a straight negotiating point between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and people involved in the paramilitaries in maintaining the peace process? If it is, perhaps the Minister would also be good enough to include that, if not now, then in the letter to me.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am always ready to correspond with noble Lords, as many Members of the Committee will be aware. However, we have set out our position, and this amendment is not concerned with negotiations. I believe that it recognises, as did the Neill committee, the political realities that exist in Northern Ireland, and we are trying to deal with those. That is the heart and source of the argument. Of course, I am happy to set out those views in writing for the noble Lord, but they are also contained in Hansard.

Viscount Astor

The Minister answered helpfully the questions about the political situation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we welcome his commitment to consider either a sunset clause or a limit on the exemption. I asked the noble Lord a specific question about whether Northern Ireland political parties can use the foreign money which they obtain. Members of the Committee will remember that English parties will not be able to receive such money in the way that, for example, Sinn Fein can. Can the money be used for English referendums? It seems to me that, under the Bill, a Northern Ireland party, for example, although prevented from using the money in an English election, could use it for a referendum.

The Minister said that we shall be discussing referendums later in the course of the Bill. I accept that. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he will consider the position before we reach the amendment concerning referendums. Perhaps he will either come back to me with a reply later this evening or write to me. We should like an assurance from the Minister that what we see as a possible loophole does not exist. Alternatively, we should like an assurance from the Government that, if there is a loophole, they will consider whether they can tighten up the situation. If it suits the Minister, I shall be happy to leave this matter until later in today's proceedings.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I like to be straight with your Lordships' House. The information I have from officials is that Northern Ireland parties can use the fruits of money raised abroad in a UK referendum. That may well present difficulties. Obviously we need to keep the matter closely under review and I shall give it further consideration. I believe that the noble Viscount has raised a useful point on which we shall reflect further.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 177A to 181: Page 41, line 39, leave out from ("for") to second ("to") in line 42 and insert ("disapplying any specified provisions of this Part, for such period as is specified, in relation"). Page 41, line 43, at end insert— ("( ) An order under subsection (1) may provide for any specified provisions of this Part to apply, in connection with any provision made by the order in pursuance of paragraph (a) or (b) of that subsection, with such modifications as may be specified."). Page 41, line 43, at end insert— ("( ) Each order under subsection (1) shall be so made as to—

  1. (a) apply to every Northern Ireland party, and
  2. (b) make the same provision with respect to every such party.").
Page 41, line 43, at end insert— ("( ) Where—
  1. (a)at a time when any order is in force under subsection (1) a donation is received by a registered party which is registered in the Great Britain register, and
  2. (b) the order provides for this subsection to apply to any such donation,
section 49(2)(c) shall have effect in relation to the donation as if it referred only to a registered party which is registered in that register.").
Page 42, line 1, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert— ("(2) In this section— Northern Ireland party" means a party registered in the Northern Ireland register; specified" means specified in an order under subsection (1)."). On Question, amendments agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 65, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

If the Committee will bear with me, I want to make a comment about the troubles in general. In the interval since the Committee last approached this matter on 12th October, intelligence sources have confirmed recent reports that a notorious terrorist supporter and American fundraiser by the name of Martin Galvin, who is well known internationally, having originally represented Sinn Fein/IRA, has now announced rather dramatically that he is diverting his support and the large sums of money he has raised in America to an amalgam of Real IRA and Continuity IRA, both of which have pledged themselves to destroy the Belfast agreement.

That ungodly coalition is already preparing to contest the elections next year, thereby placing a very large question mark over Clause 65. In the light of those worrying developments, might it not be prudent to reconsider whether Clause 65 should be set aside, given that, in view of the information that I have disclosed, it is now at worst obsolete and at best a threat to democracy? Surely it would be far better to heed the pleas made from various parts of your Lordships' House to treat the United Kingdom as the one constitutional unit that we all know it to be.

Throughout the United Kingdom there is deep concern over this clause, which exempts Northern Ireland political parties from provisions which will apply in Great Britain to restrict overseas donations. The effect of the Bill's exemptions for Northern Ireland parties will be to enable Sinn Fein and the new amalgam to which I have drawn the Committee's attention to gain access to funds raised in America.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As ever, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution to these sensitive debates. I certainly understand the view that he has expressed. However, it is not a view which I feel able to accept. I believe that it is important that we proceed as we have determined to do. I believe that to be the right course for all the reasons that we have rehearsed briefly today and during our earlier discussions and deliberations on the exemption that Northern Ireland parties will enjoy, if "enjoy" is the right word.

We need to make progress towards normalisation. We need to have secure political institutions in Northern Ireland. We must all undertake to stand strong against the sort of intimidation which regrettably takes place within part of that political process. We need to monitor carefully the situation which Mr Galvin seeks to exploit and try to use, or perhaps more correctly abuse, politically.

I am content with what we have in our amendments to Clause 65 and I urge the Committee to support the Government in relation to that.

Lord Rogan

In the light of that information, I still have grave reservations about Clause 65.

Clause 65, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 66 agreed to.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 182: After Clause 66, insert the following new clause—

    1. cc1040-63
    2. Tax relief on political donations. 12,136 words
    3. cc1063-108
    4. Sponsorship 22,009 words