The recent LucidTalk poll published in the Belfast Telegraph showed that, of those who expressed an opinion, 57% of people believe that the same or more information on donations to political parties should be made public in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.
Since my election to Westminster, I have been working actively to have this information made available to the public. Before the summer recess, I proposed a series of amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in the House of Commons, which would have seen us brought into line with rules in the rest of the country at the earliest opportunity.
At present, Northern Ireland’s parties have to disclose all donations from a single source of £7,500 in one year to the Electoral Commission as their counterparts in Great Britain; however, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, this information is not published, so the public never get to judge for themselves whether such payments are influencing the decisions which parties make about policy and governance.
Parties claimed in evidence to the NI Affair’s Select Committee that they receive very few such significant donations; however, such is the extent of secrecy around donations in Northern Ireland, that the Electoral Commission could not either confirm or deny whether this is the case. Neither can they publish even entirely anonymised information, such as the size and number of donations received, which poses a threat to no-one.
For as long as secrecy continues, so will the suspicion that money buys influence in politics – suspicion which may be unfounded but which, in the absence of transparency, is hard to disprove and is totally corrosive to trust in politics.
Parties can, of course, voluntarily disclose this information. Alliance has taken a lead in publishing our returns and a small number of others do likewise – but this is still the exception rather than the rule. I believe that must change.
The poll also showed that some people were still concerned about security. Whilst I do not believe that such concerns outweigh the right of public scrutiny, they were addressed in one of my amendments which still made meaningful progress towards the full transparency which most people want.
That amendment, supported by the Electoral Commission, would have ensured that any donation made after January 1, 2014 would be published once the Secretary of State decides that it is safe to end the current restrictions, due for review in October of next year. That way everyone – the parties, the donors and, most importantly, the voting public - can have confidence that the permanent secrecy which people have today will end.
The Government blocked this change in the House of Commons; however, in a recent letter to me the Minister of State has indicated that they are willing to review their position in advance of the next stage of the Bill. I have set up a petition on my website at www.naomilong.com, to allow the public a further chance to make their views known to Government before the Bill completes its passage through the Lords.
We have a real chance to lift the veil of secrecy on party political donations here. Let’s grasp it.