HC Deb 04 December 1997 vol 302 cc487-8 3.31 pm
Madam Speaker

I wish to inform the House that I held a meeting this morning with the Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid—Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), at their request. I do not normally comment in public on meetings that I have with Members, but I think it appropriate to do so on this occasion, as the matter is of general interest to the House. The Members concerned made representations to me about the restrictions on the use of House of Commons services and facilities at Westminster that apply to Members who do not take their seats.

Having listened carefully to their representations, I reaffirmed my decision of 14 May that those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the benefits and facilities available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members and participating in the democratic process. I reminded them that, as Speaker, I am bound by the law. Swearing the Oath, or affirming it, is a legal requirement that cannot be set aside by whim or any administrative action. Primary legislation would be needed to change the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 or the form of the Oath. I told them that it was their refusal to swear or affirm that prevented them from taking their seats, not any action by the Speaker.

I pointed out that my decision does not discriminate against Sinn Fein: it applies equally to any Members not taking their seats for any reason. Those who do not take up their democratic responsibilities cannot have access to the facilities at Westminster that are made available to assist Members who do. I declined to allow those Members passes to the Palace of Westminster, because that would provide automatic access to many of the facilities not open to them. I told them that they were in effect asking for associate membership of this House. Such a status does not exist. There is no halfway house: they are part of the all. I reminded them that they are allowed, of course, the use of free stationery and postage, which enables them to take up issues on behalf of their constituents, and they also have access to Ministers, as we all have.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

May I ask you a question arising from your statement, Madam Speaker? I appreciate the authority of the Chair, but I put it to you that, in May, the proceedings of the House were completely altered by your statement then, because the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) was previously a Member of Parliament under the rules which would have allowed him to take advantage of the facilities of the House.

The effect of the law to which you referred—the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866—is to deny people who have elected a Member of Parliament a Member who is able to use the House, and to deny us access to the views of Members who have been elected. The whole question of the Oath needs to be considered. At one time, Jews, Catholics and humanists were kept out of Parliament. There is no oath for the European Parliament. Privy Councillors take an Oath of obedience to the Queen, and then take contrary oaths when they go to the Commission and say that they take no notice of any other Government. The time has come for the matter to be looked at.

Finally, Madam Speaker, will you recognise that even your statement today is of such major constitutional importance that you would be helped if the House had a chance to debate it and to reach a decision, rather than rely solely on a statement made from the Chair?

Madam Speaker

I am not taking questions on my statement—I am simply reaffirming what I said in May. I met the two Members at their request, and it is right that I should tell the House factually about the exchanges that took place. If there are to be any changes to the Oath, that is not a matter for me. I am sure that the House has listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—I certainly have.

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