HL Deb 02 December 2004 vol 667 cc544-5

11.10 a.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the Written Statement by the Lord President (Baroness Amos) on 18 November (WS 77–78), whether they will consider publishing the annual accounts of political parties in Northern Ireland without disclosing the names of major donors.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the main Northern Ireland political parties, like other UK parties, are already required to submit an annual statement of accounts to the Electoral Commission, which publishes these statements.

However, Northern Ireland parties are not required to submit information to the Commission on the sources of their income in line with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Disapplication of Part IV for Northern Ireland parties, etc) Order 2001.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the Lord President for her reply and I thank her too for facilitating a meeting between myself and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to be briefed by her officials.

We are very concerned that there will be this two-year extension. I fear that the same argument will be deployed in two years' time. It is part of the mañanaism of Northern Ireland politics. Does the Minister not agree with me that there must be some movement towards greater transparency of party finances? Would she consider requiring donations to be published annually in £1,000 bands—from £1,000 up to whatever it is—so that there is at least some transparency in the amount of political donations?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that I entirely recognise the strength of feeling on this issue. As I said to the noble Lord in consultation, we are of course committed to greater transparency with political donations, but in the current time-frame it has not been possible to move to more transparent arrangements.

On the specific proposal put by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, I shall of course take that back. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot give a commitment today, but his proposal has merit. I will take it back and of course come back to the noble Lord on it.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the whole exercise of accountability is quite futile when a party such as Sinn Fein declares not quite single figures in terms of thousands of pounds spent on elections and we know that the figure that it declares and the figure that is accepted is less than it would spend on posters? Is there any way in which we can get beyond the stage where we have to cover up in order to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA to stay at the political table?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. I think that the issue of accountability is important; I do not think that it is futile at all. We have to continue to work to gain greater transparency. We are seeking to have some time to enable us to consult and to do that.

I entirely recognise that there is a different context in Northern Ireland and that there is the wider question of intimidation of donors. Of course we recognise that, but we will be working with the political parties to seek to find a resolution to the matter.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Glentoran, I join the noble Lord, Lord Smith, in expressing thanks for the meeting with the Lord President. What is the Government's intention with regard to bringing the provision of foreign and anonymous donations to political parties in Northern Ireland into line with those for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as I said in response to the previous question from the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, we will be consulting on the matter with political parties and other key stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission. This is not an easy issue. In previous consultations concerns have been expressed, but I think that the general view is that we need more time. In addition, negotiations on a longer-term settlement are at a sensitive stage at this moment. It would be wrong to do anything which might undermine that process.