HC Deb 29 July 1998 vol 317 cc377-510 3.43 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a person lawfully elected to the House of Commons to take his seat without swearing the present oath or affirming; and for connected purposes. On 4 December 1997, following a meeting with the Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), you informed the House, Madam Speaker, as follows: 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 … in the House. You said that it was their refusal to swear or affirm that prevented them from taking their seats, not any action by the Speaker. Madam Speaker, you further explained 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."—[Official Report, 4 December 1977; Vol. 302, c. 487.] I beg leave to introduce such a Bill. I do so with some trepidation, because the taking of an oath and the act of its swearing or affirmation is a matter of great moment in the life of a person or of a nation. No democratic institution would demand that its participants take an oath without reason. No person seeking election to perform a public service would take an oath without understanding the significance of such an act. It is considered a public, solemn and sacred undertaking. Believers swear on their holy books, which is why I always ask for the Douai testament.

I seek to challenge the reason and purpose of the current oath, and suggest an alternative for those who may not wish to take it. The era in which it was thought to be appropriate or fit for legislators to set a political or religious test for those deemed acceptable to enter the parliamentary club has long since passed. Our vision, and that of the Government, is inclusive representation. Parliament must be open not only to Catholic, Protestant or dissenter, but to involvement and engagement with those of all religions or of none.

We aspire to a democracy in which discrimination on grounds of race or religion might be assigned to the history books. The only test for inclusion and membership of this House should be the will of the electorate, freely expressed. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. Article 21.2 provides: Everyone has the right to take part in the Government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives". We recognise that the law must, without discrimination, respect the rights of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organisations, to ensure that the will of the people serves as the authority for government. We also recognise that parliamentary privilege is not for the benefit of Members, but protects the rights of the electorate, who depend on those whom they have elected to uphold their rights and interests in Parliament.

When we are heralding the potential of the Belfast agreement to advance an agenda of human rights and equality for all, to transform that sad political landscape and the political landscape of these islands, and to create a new framework for the reconciliation of a divided country, it is ironic that we can be so unaware of the need to be seen to get our own house in order.

Every hon. Member understands that at least one source of the alienation and disaffection in Northern Ireland stems from the belief of a substantial number of the population that their identity is Irish, not British; that, given the choice, they would prefer to live in a united Ireland, rather than the United Kingdom; and that they do not want to be British, whether citizens, subjects or stakeholders.

Successive Governments have rightly proclaimed the superiority of the ballot box over the Armalite, and demanded that those from the Irish republican tradition renounce the use of violence and seek change exclusively by democratic and peaceful means. Is it not hypocrisy of the first order to argue that Irish republicans should contest elections, only to find when they have succeeded in winning that they are denied the right to fulfil their mandate and represent their electorate?

I have used the word "republican" mainly in an insular and Hibernian sense, but republicans from the rest of these islands are denied access to this House not only in that sense. For what democratic reason should a person of republican beliefs be required to renounce his or her political opinions to take a seat in this Parliament? How can a law requiring Irish or other republicans to take an oath of allegiance to a British sovereign be compatible with the principle of parity of esteem or equality of treatment?

Whether Sinn Fein republicans, because of their party's constitution, would or would not take their seats if the oath were removed or an alternative supplied is beside the point for the purpose of setting out the principles that should govern the law of admittance to this House. The question whether they would choose to take their seats is a matter for them and their constituents; it is not for this House to pose a barrier to them.

The law should require that all discriminatory barriers to participation in the political process be removed; as it stands, it denies access to the political process to people who elect republican Members of Parliament. Such a barrier protects Parliament from hearing the voices and views of sections of the electorate that sometimes it would prefer to ignore, but I do not believe that the Government would want to be associated with a policy of ignoring uncomfortable truths. After all, they boast about the tough decisions that they have had to take.

I believe that providing an alternative to the oath as it stands is a vital part of the modernisation of our democracy and of the House. To treat the oath as "traditional" in the sense of a folklore heritage would be to undermine and trivialise the significance of such a solemn undertaking. As with the great debate on the televising of proceedings of the House, once change was accomplished, a return to the old system would be inconceivable.

We should not duck this issue. Individuals, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), may add their own personal preface to the oath of allegiance. Others, such as the Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), may regress to infancy in the belief that crossed fingers can undo a promise that they do not want to make. Who knows what other unheard or unobserved acts hon. Members have performed when taking the oath? The oath is a serious and public matter. It may assuage the consciences of individuals to act in that way, but it does not resolve the issue of how we, as a Parliament, deal with this problem. If we provide an alternative, we could overcome that difficulty. We could draw upon the oath taken by Scottish constables, who must swear before a sheriff or a justice of the peace: I hereby and solemnly and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable. We could do that as Members of Parliament. We could adopt the oath proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, which stated: I do solemnly Declare and Affirm that I will, to the best of my ability, discharge the responsibilities required of me by virtue of my membership of the House of Commons and faithfully serve those whom I represent here. I am not suggesting anything revolutionary. I am merely saying, in good conscience, that we should provide an alternative for those who, by taking an oath of allegiance to the sovereign so as to take their seat in the House, may be starting their parliamentary career on a note of deception and hypocrisy.

3.51 pm
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Madam Speaker, I thank you for affording me the opportunity to oppose the motion proposed by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). He was the first Member of the House to make representations to me in person when I became a Minister, and he has always been assiduous in pursuit of his constituents' interests, but he is perhaps even more widely known in the Chamber for his attention to Northern Ireland affairs, and to Irish issues in general.

By seeking leave to bring in the Bill, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt enlarge that reputation. His Bill addresses a larger constitutional issue at the strategic level, but alludes to a particular Irish dimension at the tactical level. The larger issue is whether the oath of allegiance, which has passed through many vicissitudes and variations, not least in the oaths that have sometimes replaced it and sometimes accompanied it, since the eras of Henry IV and Henry VI, should be changed again.

In 1964, an article in the Table—the journal of the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments— said: the modern wording of the Oath, as settled by the Promissory Oaths Act 1868, and of the affirmation permitted by the Oaths Act 1888, now conforms fairly closely to the medieval Oath of Allegiance. The circle is therefore complete: the old Oath of Allegiance which had disappeared was replaced by a series of religious Oaths; but the religious contents of those Oaths has been steadily purged away, until nothing remains but an Oath of Allegiance very nearly in the ancient form. This has always been essentially a matter for the House. The legal cases ring down the ages: Burdett v. Abbot; Stockdale v. Hansard; and Bradlaugh v. Gossett—Gossett being the predecessor in 1883 of our present much-respected Serjeant-at-Arms. Blackstone says: The whole of the law and custom of Parliament has its original from this one maxim, that whatever matter arises concerning either House of Parliament ought to be examined, discussed and adjudged in that House to which it relates, and not elsewhere. As Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, in the judgment on Bradlaugh v. Gossett, said: the jurisdiction of the House over their own Members, their right to impose discipline within their walls, is absolute and exclusive. He went on to quote the words of Lord Ellenborough: they would sink into utter contempt and inefficiency without it. I am not a lawyer, but it was on that rock of Parliament's exclusive jurisdiction within our own walls that the application for judicial review of your decisions, Madam Speaker, of 14 May last year with regard to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), fell in the High Court in Belfast last October, although I read in the press that, after the two hon. Members visited you in December last year, they were intending to challenge you at the European Court of Justice. I have no further intelligence on the progress of that case.

Her Majesty's Government made it clear last summer that they were not minded to take action in these matters. In answer to a question from a Government Back Bencher about the oath of allegiance, the then Leader of the House said: I do not accept the basic idea behind my hon. Friend's question: that we should either abolish or change significantly the oath itself."—[Official Report, 17 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 115] That does not mean that the idea has not been visited in recent years—most notably, as the hon. Member for Hull, North said, by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). He would pale at any suggestion on my part of verisimilitude to an archdeacon, but he is a venerable Member, and his views, though sometimes idiosyncratic, are venerated throughout the House.

Rather in the manner of an elderly gentleman in Hampstead in my youth, who used, at regular intervals, to walk through private gardens in order to preserve an ancient right of way, so the right hon. Member for Chesterfield ventilates his views at intervals of a decade in Bills entitled, in 1988, Democratic Oaths, and, in 1998, Parliamentary Declaration, which are presented, printed and published, but then lie on the Table as written statements without further oral advocacy.

The oaths have been changed in the past. It was a predecessor in my constituency who was the first professing Jew to serve in the House as a result of just such a change. But if and when we come to make the change, it should be a considered judgment and not to solve a local difficulty.

In so far as there is a current local difficulty, we are accused by commentators outside of hiding behind the oath as a way of either excluding those we do not like or punishing those who voted for them. As I got into some trouble myself during the first ceasefire for saying that I thought that the hon. Member for Belfast, West, as he then was not, had been courageous in helping to create the ceasefire, I hope that I stand personally acquitted of that charge.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster himself has accused some British politicians of not adequately understanding Irish history; but it is not unreasonable for us to ask those who pride themselves on their Irishness and their Irish history to pay some attention to our own history.

The oath of allegiance cannot be regarded as a recent instrument of Parliament. In one form or another, it has been part of our constitutional procedures for centuries.

Anyone standing for Parliament knows the obligation that the oath involves. It may not have concerned those who wish to be abstentionist Members, but they cannot accuse us of having invented it to exclude them. Even Bradlaugh was not initially excluded because he would not swear the oath: it was Parliament which would not let him swear it. No such prohibition is present today.

Moreover, the Belfast agreement, to which the hon. Member for Hull, North alluded, which I acknowledge follows on from last year's events and upon the threat to take Madam Speaker to the European Court, underlines, underpins and copper-bottoms the principle of consent within the United Kingdom. If a man or woman seeks to sit in the House, the oath of allegiance is essentially the password to entry. Once the password has been uttered, it does not prevent an hon. Member from seeking to change the arrangements of our constitution, as the hon. Gentleman is seeking to do today, having himself sworn the present oath a year ago.

I call on the House to reject the motion moved by the hon. Gentleman: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a person lawfully elected to the House of Commons to take his seat without swearing the present oath or affirming; and for connected purposes.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 137, Noes 151.

Division No. 350] [3.58 pm
Atherton, Ms Candy Dalyell, Tam
Austin, John Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Baker, Norman Dean, Mrs Janet
Ballard, Jackie Dismore, Andrew
Barron, Kevin Dobbin, Jim
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bennett, Andrew F Efford, Clive
Berry, Roger Ellman, Mrs Louise
Best, Harold Etherington, Bill
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Fearn, Ronnie
Brand, Dr Peter Fitzpatrick, Jim
Brinton, Mrs Helen Flynn, Paul
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Foster, Don (Bath)
Buck, Ms Karen Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Burgon, Colin Fyfe, Maria
Butler, Mrs Christine Gardiner, Barry
Cable, Dr Vincent George, Andrew (St Ives)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gibson, Dr Ian
Canavan, Dennis Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Cann, Jamie Godman, Dr Norman A
Caton, Martin Goggins, Paul
Chaytor, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Clapham, Michael Gorrie, Donald
Clark, Dr Lynda(Edinburgh Pentlands) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Harris, Dr Evan
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cooper, Yvette Hepburn, Stephen
Corbett, Robin Hinchliffe, David
Cousins, Jim Hopkins, Kelvin
Cox, Tom Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Crausby, David Iddon, Dr Brian
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jones, Ms Jenny(Wolverh'ton SW)
Cummings, John
Cunliffe, Lawrence Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Kemp, Fraser
Kidney, David Ryan, Ms Joan
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Salmond, Alex
Kingham, Ms Tess Salter, Martin
Kumar, Dr Ashok Sanders, Adrian
Laxton, Bob Sarwar, Mohammad
Levitt, Tom Savidge, Malcolm
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Sawford, Phil
Linton, Martin Shaw, Jonathan
Love, Andrew Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McAllion, John Skinner, Dennis
McDonnell, John Soley, Clive
McNamara, Kevin Southworth, Ms Helen
McWalter, Tony Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Mallaber, Judy Stinchcombe, Paul
Marek, Dr John Stunell, Andrew
Maxton, John Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Todd, Mark
Mitchell, Austin Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Moffatt, Laura Vis, Dr Rudi
Moran, Ms Margaret Webb, Steve
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) White, Brian
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Willis, Phil
Naysmith, Dr Doug Winnick, David
Olner, Bill Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Plaskitt, James Wise, Audrey
Pollard, Kerry Wood, Mike
Pond, Chris Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Pound, Stephen Wyatt, Derek
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Prosser, Gwyn Tellers for the Ayes:
Rapson, Syd Mr. Gerald Bermingham
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) and
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Mr. Alan Johnson.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Fallon, Michael
Allan, Richard Flight, Howard
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Arbuthnot, James Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Fox, Dr Liam
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Fraser, Christopher
Beard, Nigel Gale, Roger
Beggs, Roy Garnier, Edward
Beith, Rt Hon A J Gibb, Nick
Bercow, John Gill, Christopher
Beresford, Sir Paul Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Body, Sir Richard Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Boswell, Tim Gray, James
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Green, Damian
Brady, Graham Grieve, Dominic
Brazier, Julian Hague, Rt Hon William
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Browning, Mrs Angela Hammond, Philip
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Hancock, Mike
Burnett, John Harris, Dr Evan
Burns, Simon Harvey, Nick
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Hawkins, Nick
Chapman, Sir Sydney(Chipping Barnet) Hayes, John
Heald, Oliver
Chope, Christopher Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Clappison, James Horam, John
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Hunter, Andrew
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Collins, Tim Jenkin, Bernard
Colvin, Michael Johnson Smith,
Cormack, Sir Patrick Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Cotter, Brian Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Cran, James Keetch, Paul
Donaldson, Jeffrey Key, Robert
Duncan, Alan King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Duncan Smith, Iain Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Evans, Nigel Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Faber, David Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Fabricant, Michael Lansley, Andrew
Leigh, Edward Ruffley, David
Letwin, Oliver Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Lidington, David Sayeed, Jonathan
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Sheerman, Barry
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Loughton, Tim Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Luff, Peter Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Mcintosh, Miss Anne Spicer, Sir Michael
MacKay, Andrew Spring, Richard
Maclean, Rt Hon David Steen, Anthony
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Stewart, David (Inverness E)
McLoughlin, Patrick Streeter, Gary
Madel, Sir David Swayne, Desmond
Major, Rt Hon John Syms, Robert
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Malins, Humfrey Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Maples, John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Mates, Michael Thompson, William
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Tredinnick, David
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Trend, Michael
May, Mrs Theresa Tyrie, Andrew
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Viggers, Peter
Moss, Malcolm Wells, Bowen
Öpik, Lembit Whitney, Sir Raymond
Ottaway, Richard Whittingdale, John
Paice, James Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Paterson, Owen Wilkinson, John
Pickles, Eric Willetts, David
Powell, Sir Raymond Wilshire, David
Prior, David Woodward, Shaun
Randall, John Woolas, Phil
Redwood, Rt Hon John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Tellers for the Notes
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. Stephen Day and
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Mr. Nigel Waterson.

Question accordingly negatived.

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