needs to be more effective regulation of donations to political parties

The NIO Minister for Political Development, David Hanson, has announced the government’s intention to introduce new legislation on the electoral roll and, the issue I’ll highlight in this post, donations to political parties.. the accompanying PDF file, available here, also reveals some of the responses from the political parties themselves.. perhaps most interesting amongst them is the response from Sinn Féin to the proposed increase in transparency around individual donors – page 22 of 25.This is the response from SF –

32. Sinn Fein’s response was clear that fears of corruption in electoral and other political processes were still continuing with regard to private funding.

Its preference was for option (ii). It wanted to see full transparency for all donations over £50, a ban on all corporate donations, and a limit on the amount that any individual donor could make. The Sinn Fein response additionally recommended that other countries’ systems should be examined and supported the rights of Irish citizens overseas to be able to donate (subject to the same restrictions and transparency applicable to individual domestic donations).

The other political parties also made their preferences clear –

30. The Alliance Party believed that the exemptions for the Northern Ireland parties with regard to donations should be progressively removed. Its response therefore indicated a preference for option (i), which the party hoped would ultimately facilitate the creation of a common regime across Britain and Ireland for political donations. However, the Alliance Party did indicate that it would be prepared to accept option (ii), particularly if its detail were amended so that all donations over £5,000 would be declared. Finally the party’s
response suggested that the point regarding intimidation of donors had been exaggerated.

31. The DUP’s response argued that the time was not right for full transparency. The party’s preference was therefore for option (ii): it would
support a system that would allow donations to be reported to the Electoral Commission in London who would maintain donation details on a confidential basis. However, the DUP was strongly opposed to a system that would allow donations from Irish citizens. The party’s response explained their view that this would disproportionately favour nationalist and republican parties.
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33. The SDLP’s response affirmed its view that the threat of intimidation to donors was still strong and highlighted a number of security concerns. Its preference was for a continuation of the current status quo as it feared that the proposed changes might significantly reduce political fundraising in Northern Ireland and potentially damage the democratic process. In addition to this, the SDLP response raised concerns about the role of the Electoral Commission, arguing that it could do more to ensure transparency and openness of accounts. It also reaffirmed the party’s belief that there should be no restrictions on donations from Irish citizens and companies and non-Irish citizens who reside in Ireland.

34. The UKUP’s response argued that Northern Ireland should have the same controls as in the rest of the United Kingdom, and therefore favoured option (i). It did not support allowing Irish citizens to donate, on the basis that the Irish system of regulation was not compatible with that of Northern Ireland.

35. The UUP’s response expressed the party’s strong wish that Northern Ireland should eventually be subject to the same controls as exist in the rest of the United Kingdom. It therefore also supported option (i), which it believed would help parties to compete for funds on a level playing field.

In the concluding section, the government sets out what it calls The Way Foward

38. The consultation paper made clear that the Government has been seeking to develop a more transparent set of arrangements for political donations in Northern Ireland which also take into account the need to allow Irish citizens to donate to Northern Ireland political parties (consistent with the Good Friday Agreement). The responses to the consultation revealed a wide spectrum of views among those responding. The Government believes that it would be extremely difficult to justify continuing with the current arrangements, which do not provide for any degree of transparency in the regulation of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. The Government is also conscious, however, that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the risk of donor intimidation, make it difficult to move to full transparency straight away. The Government therefore intends to legislate for a new system in Northern Ireland on the following lines, broadly reflecting option (ii) in the consultation document:

i. The core provisions of the PPERA scheme will extend to Northern Ireland. However, as set out in option (ii) in the consultation paper, the information provided by parties will be held by the Electoral Commission on a confidential basis. The Commission will be empowered to check the legality of individual donations, as is currently the situation under PPERA in Great Britain. If a party refuses to hand back an impermissible donation, the party and donor will be named by the Commission;

ii. These new arrangements will operate for a period of three years. In order to provide sufficient time for the parties and the Electoral Commission to prepare for the new arrangements, the Government will seek to extend the current exemption for a period of 8 months, to October 2007. As a result, the new arrangements would last until October 2010;

iii. At that point, the provisions will lapse and Northern Ireland will move to a full PPERA regime on declaration and publication of donations, broadly the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom, as envisaged in option (i) of the consultation paper. However, in order to allow the Government of the day to take account of the prevailing circumstances in Northern Ireland, legislation would contain a power to extend the new arrangements by Order for up to 2 years at a time. Any exercise of this power will require the approval of Parliament;

iv. Donations will be permitted from Irish citizens and Irish companies that have an office in the island of Ireland from which one of their principal activities of business takes place. However, the Bill will give the Secretary of State the power to adjust the list of permissible donors. This will allow the Government to revisit the question of who should be allowed to donate in the light of experience with the new scheme;

v. Irish citizens will only be able to donate to parties registered in Northern Ireland under these arrangements.

39. The Government is clear that there needs to be more effective regulation of donations to political parties operating in Northern Ireland to
begin bringing arrangements in Northern Ireland into line with those operating elsewhere in the United Kingdom. At the same time, the Government recognises the need to take account of the legitimate concerns that have been expressed about the continuing risk of intimidation of donors, and to ensure that the special place of Ireland in the political life of Northern Ireland is respected. The Government believes that the approach set out above represents an effective balance between these concerns, and will ensure that the mechanisms are in place for a transition to a fully transparent system when circumstances allow.

The current PPERA legislation relating to donations to political parties is available here

The full Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 can be read here.. the detail on donations etc is in Part IV.

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