I thank the Senators who tabled this motion for my daily visit to the Seanad. Before I get to the substantive issue of the motion, I wish to refer to the robust debate we have had. It must be that way sometimes, but I am always impressed by the level of debate in this House.
It is important to point out that, in an era of political online campaigning where politics are increasingly fought in a different arena, financing in our political system has a significant influence on the outcome of elections, referendums and political narratives.
It is important that we have this debate this evening.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate and I thank Senator Ward for bringing forward this motion, which at its core seeks to strengthen our electoral laws to ensure that donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political processes. The Government is not opposed to the objectives of the motion and is committed to safeguarding our democratic processes from any undue or hidden influences. I am aware this motion concerns the death of a British citizen in a nursing home in Wales in January 2018 and the donation of significant funds from his considerable estate to the Sinn Féin Party. While I do not wish to comment in any great detail on the specific case, I would like to take the opportunity of the debate to clarify for the House the extent of existing legislative provisions in respect of political spending and donations.
As Senators will be aware, the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides the statutory framework for dealing with political donations and sets out the regulatory regime covering a wide range of inter-related issues, such as funding for political parties, reimbursement of election expenses, the establishment of election expenditure limits, the disclosure of election expenditure, the setting of limits of permissible donations, the prohibition of certain donations, the disclosure of donations, and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purposes which exceed €100. The Act also provides for the independent supervision of these provisions by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, which has published a number of detailed guidance documents to inform candidates standing for election, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament, political parties, corporate donors and third parties of their obligations under the Act. A core objective of the Act is to ensure that there is transparency in how our political parties and the wider political system are funded. As all Senators will acknowledge, transparency in political funding is of particular importance during the holding of elections - that point has been well made here this evening - which are at the very heart of our democratic process, to enable the electorate to make informed choices when casting their votes on the one hand and to ensure a level playing field, as mentioned by Senator McDowell, between candidates and political parties on the other.
It might be useful to recall what is required when a donation is made for political purposes to any person or political party obligated under the Act. As many Senators will be aware, a political donation is broadly defined and is taken to mean any contribution given for political purposes by any person, regardless of whether the person is a member of a political party, to a candidate standing for election, a serving politician, a political party or a third party. Such a donation may include all or any of the following: a donation of money; a donation of property or goods; the free use of property or goods; or the free supply of services; he difference between the usual commercial price and the lower price charged for the purchase, acquisition or use of property or goods or the supply of services where the price, fee or other consideration is less than the usual commercial price; and a contribution made by a person to a fundraising event organised for the purpose of raising funds for a candidate standing for election, a serving politician or a political party. The donation is that proportion of the contribution attributable to the net profit, if any, derived from the event. A donation can also be a payment by a person on his own behalf or on behalf of one person or more than one person of a fee or subscription for membership or continued membership of a political party. Finally, it also includes a donation in kind, that is to say, a person or organisation pays for work or expenses from its own resources outside of party funds. This is considered a donation in kind for the cost of work of the donee. Donations-in-kind or national donations are to be valued at the usual commercial price charged for the purchase, use or acquisition of the property or goods or the supply of services donated.
Where a monetary donation in excess of €100 is received, the recipient must open and maintain an account in a financial institution in the State. Any subsequent monetary donations, irrespective of value, must be lodged to that account. A donation statement must be furnished to SIPO by the deadlines prescribed in the Act. For serving politicians the deadline is by a date not later than 31 January in each year. For political parties the cut-off point is by a date not later than 31 March each year. We are all well familiar with this. A donation statement must show whether a political party received from the same person a donation exceeding €1,500 in the preceding calendar year. The corresponding amount for a candidate standing for election or a serving politician is €600. If a person makes multiple donations to the same political party or a serving politician, the aggregated amount applies. A number of statutory statements and supporting documents must also be submitted to SIPO in support of the transparency measures provided for under the Act.
The Act also prohibits the making or receipt of certain donations, including a donation exceeding the value of €100 if the name and address of the donor is not known; a cash donation exceeding the value of €200; a donation is prohibited from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons that does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed; a donation of whatever value from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland is prohibited; a donation exceeding the value of €200 in any calendar year from a corporate donor is prohibited unless the corporate donor is registered in the register of corporate donors maintained by SIPO and a statement on behalf of the corporate donor confirming that the making of the donation was approved by the corporate donor is furnished with the donation by the donee; or a donation or donations from the same donor in any calendar year exceeding, in the case of a candidate at an election or a serving politician, an aggregate value of €1,000, or in the case of a political party, an accounting unit of a political party, or a third party, an aggregate value of €2,500.
While the Act does not set an overall threshold in the number of donations that may be received, the amounts that can be received from individual donors are capped at an absolute maximum of €2,500. This is a point of significant difference from the position that applies in Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom, where there is no maximum threshold in respect of political donation. As I have already set out, donations from abroad are also prohibited unless made by Irish citizens resident outside the State. In Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom, the position of foreign donations is broadly similar to that which applies here in Ireland.
As I have outlined in the House previously, yesterday evening was the most recent occasion, my Department is currently finalising the general scheme of an electoral reform Bill which will establish an independent statutory electoral commission, provide for the modernisation of the election registration process, introduce new regulatory provisions to ensure transparency in online paid political advertising, which has been mentioned this evening, and facilitate the holding of electoral events during Covid-19 restrictions. The plans to establish an electoral commission are now at an advanced stage in my Department. In accordance with the commitment in the current programme for Government, Our Shared Future, it is intended that an electoral commission will be in place by the end of next year. My Department is working to meet this commitment and is confident that it can be met. With this in mind, the proposed general scheme of an electoral reform Bill will be brought to Government shortly for consideration.
It is envisaged that one of the initial functions assigned to an electoral commission following its establishment will be a policy research and advisory function, which will inform and advise the Government and the Oireachtas in the consideration of reform to our electoral laws. In this context, Senators may recall that the programme for Government commits the electoral commission, when established, to undertake a number of items of research, such as the use of posters at elections and referendums as well as the expansion of postal voting provisions. In addition, the Government is of the view that a comprehensive review of the Electoral Act 1997 is required and that the proposed electoral commission, once established, would be best placed to undertake such a review in an objective and independent manner. The purpose of the review is, in the first instance, to progress the commitment in the programme for Government to review current electoral laws and the conduct of politics in Ireland to ensure that donations and resources from non-citizens outside the State are not being utilised to influence our elections and political processes. We will legislate to prevent this if necessary. These are matters that are directly relevant to all political donation regimes as provided for in the Act. The review would inform the further transfer of functions to the electoral commission.
In accordance with international best practice and the recommendations of the former Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht in its report on the establishment of electoral commission, published in January 2016, it is proposed that the commission would have a limited set of functions during its initial set-up period. Nevertheless, it is intended that additional electoral functions will transfer into the commission as its capacity and experience builds over time.
Some of the functions recommended for a later transfer by the aforesaid Oireachtas committee are those associated with political donations and electoral expenditure regimes as provided for in the Electoral Act.
Thirdly and finally, the review will assist in addressing a number of broader issues that have been raised in connection with the Act. This will include, for example: the concerns of civil society around the definition of "political purposes" which was debated in this House only last month by way of a Bill brought forward by Senator Ruane; the duration of election spending periods; the definition of a candidate; spending limits at referendums; and political party accounts for small Exchequer-funded parties. These are all issues which deserve careful consideration. Against the broad range of issues involved, as well as the complex and integrated nature of their interactions under the Electoral Act, it is considered that a comprehensive review of the Act in its entirety would deliver a better and more efficient outcome than a focus on foreign donations only, or a series of separate reviews on each of the individual issues just mentioned. Ultimately, it is envisaged that the proposed review by the electoral commission would deliver a wide range of recommendations which would aim, among other matters, to strengthen our electoral laws and to ensure that political donations and resources from non-citizens resident outside the State are not being used to influence our electoral and democratic processes. It is envisaged that the proposed review would be completed within a relatively short timeframe following the commission’s establishment.
In conclusion, the motion before us today seeks to address issues that are both complex and integral to maintaining transparency for our political donations regime and ensuring the integrity of our elections remain fair and free from any foreign or hidden influence. In this regard, the Government is committed to a full and comprehensive review of the Electoral Act 1997 by the electoral commission with a view to ensuring the necessary provisions are in place to prevent any undue influence on our political and democratic processes that may arise from the use of foreign donations and resources during and outside electoral periods.