HC Deb 25 January 2000 vol 343 cc522-52

Not amended in the Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

5.27 pm
Mr. Mike O'Brien

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Having had a fairly friendly afternoon of it, I do not want to be too controversial now. Let me just say that I do not think that the last 24 hours have been very helpful to the situation in Northern Ireland, or shown the House of Commons at its best.

The Conservative Front Bench did not oppose Second Reading. It seemed to me that it lost control of a number of its dissident Back Benchers, who then created an entirely new situation which took the Front Bench down the garden path. At various stages of the debate, I was not entirely clear about how Conservative Front Benchers were approaching the matter. At one point, they were saying that this was not a constitutional outrage; on other occasions, it seemed almost as though other Conservative spokespersons were suggesting that it was.

Mr. MacKay

What unites Conservative Members—and, I believe, Liberal Democrats and Unionists—is our belief that it is an outrage to arrange a Second Reading debate on the Monday and then, after the Minister has said—in response to me—that the Bill constitutes neither emergency nor urgent legislation, to bulldoze the measure through, allowing a Committee stage and a Report stage with no time for reflection. That, I think, unites all the Opposition parties, and I believe that it also unites certain Labour Members who are disgusted with the way in which the Government bulldoze through legislation while ignoring the House of Commons.

Mr. O'Brien

Given the unreasonableness of his intervention, I am sorry that I felt disposed to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. This is not emergency legislation; it is a Bill that was given broad support on Second Reading, by a vote of 300 to 17. The Conservative Front-Bench team did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. It is a short Bill of three clauses and has been available since just before Christmas. Many amendments to it were tabled.

When the timing of the Bill was put before the usual channels, there was no protest from the Conservative Front-Bench team. It could have protested if it felt that it was a significant matter, but the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks on Northern Ireland for the Conservative Front-Bench team, said that he did not regard it as a major constitutional Bill. He has been clear in that view. Therefore, it seemed that, at that stage, Conservative Front Benchers did not object to the way in which the House was proceeding.

Mr. Hogg

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

No. I am dealing with a point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). I hope to give way later to hon. Members, but I do not want to detain the House too long; in many ways, it has already been detained too long.

The Bill became a matter of principle at the late stages yesterday. It was only when a number of Conservative Back Benchers decided to deal with it in a certain way that others got dragged along.

The Bill is essentially a small step in building a closer relationship between the Irish Republic and the UK as a whole. Whereas, under present law, Northern Ireland is treated uniquely—its citizens can have dual membership of the Irish Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly—under the Bill, it will be treated broadly as the rest of the UK is in its relationship with the Irish Republic. If we do not pass the Bill, the current law will remain and Northern Ireland will continue to be the only part of the UK with that special link.

It is surprising, then, that an essentially fairly modest little Bill has produced so much controversy. It says more about the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland than the Bill itself. It is not surprising that there are sensitivities in Northern Ireland, given the history of the past 30 years, but we must be aware that seeing threats in changes that are not really threatening is not helpful.

I understand that lives have been blighted, murders committed, atrocities have taken place and rightful anger engendered. I understand the concern that each move must be carefully reciprocated. All those things make the whole Northern Irish process a painful journey away from violence and, I hope, towards a better future. Sometimes, the price for some can seem high. The so-called concessions sometimes appear great to some Members, until we consider that, if we do not continue the process, we will face the prospect of more lives blighted and more widows created. I think that the whole House would share that view.

It is understandable that, sometimes, both sides say, "So far, but no further," and that there are suspicions. Sometimes, people in England may not understand some of those feelings, but if they remember the history and the families who have been directly affected, perhaps they will.

We are engaged in a process of reconciling the two communities and two heritages in Northern Ireland within a wider institutional structure. Essentially, the Bill is a small step in ending the anomaly with regard to Northern Ireland and in recognising the need for closer links between the UK as a whole and the Irish Republic. It is not about unification, or even a step towards it. It is about two countries with many shared concerns working out, within the context of the British Isles and the European Union, a closer working relationship on a number of issues.

Several hon. Members


Mr. O'Brien

I promised to give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I shall then give way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Then I shall move on.

Mr. Hogg

It is kind of the Minister to give way to me.

I take the Minister back to the points that he was making about the nature of the Bill and opposition developing late last night. Perhaps he would remember that, in business questions last week, I said to the Leader of the House that what she was doing was wrong. The Bill raises questions of considerable constitutional importance and it was offensive in principle for the Committee stage to follow Second Reading so quickly. The hon. Gentleman will see that I said that to the Leader of the House last Thursday. It is wrong to suggest that that point was not anticipated by Conservative Members.

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was one of those who took a somewhat different view from that of Conservative Front Benchers on the importance of the constitutional issues raised by the Bill. My point was about Conservative Front Benchers. Although I entirely accept the point that he makes on his own views, which are shared by one or two other Opposition Members, that was not the view adopted by Conservative Front Benchers.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister is right to say that Liberal Democrat Members agree that the Bill will iron out an anomaly in relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, will he tell us who—we have not yet been told—last year, in 1999, proposed that the anomaly should be ironed out, and when—in which month—the matter was first put on the agenda? Did the initiative come from the United Kingdom Government, from Northern Ireland or from the Irish Government?

Mr. O'Brien

Perhaps I should explain the broader context to the hon. Gentleman. I cannot tell him the month that the issue was raised or even who raised it, as I did not see the initial representations on the matter. However, if I write to him on it, perhaps he will be better informed of the context. I am not able now to give him the precise information that he requests.

The Bill is not a huge constitutional concession, but a minor development in line with the forging of the special relationship between us and the Republic—our European partner, which is also a part of these islands.

No new principle is involved in the Bill. Dual membership is already possible between the Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. Cash

On a point of order, Mr. Lord. Is it in order for the Minister continuously to say that the Bill raises no major constitutional issues, although it has been determined by the House—on the advice of the authorities of the House, and at the insistence of the Speaker—that it is a constitutional Bill and debate on it must be held on the Floor of the House? How can the Minister say that the Bill is minor and non-constitutional legislation?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

That is not a point of order, but a matter for debate.

Mr. O'Brien

The Bill is not a huge constitutional concession. That point was made by Opposition Front Benchers, who also took the view that the Bill does not entail major constitutional innovation. At least to some extent, Opposition Front Benchers and I share that view—which, unfortunately, is different from that held by the hon. Gentleman. Then again, it is not for him to have different views from those of Conservative Front Benchers. However, many other Conservative Members seem to hold different views from those of their spokesmen.

Dual membership is possible also between Common-wealth legislatures and our own. There are those who say that there should be no dual membership between sovereign states, but it has existed under our constitution for decades. Those who protest about it now did nothing about it when they were in government.

The Republic of Ireland has unique geographic, historical, economic, family and cultural ties with Britain. It is a special relationship, closer in many ways than our relationship with any other country outside the Commonwealth. Under our constitution, Irish nationals other than TDs have long been in the same position as Commonwealth citizens and have been able to stand for and vote in elections to the House of Commons.

In the previous century, there were constitutional issues to resolve, but the Good Friday agreement, and the British-Irish agreement, which came into effect on 2 December 1999, and our membership of the European Union make it clear that there is more that draws us closer than needs divide us.

The Bill is a small move, and it is now timely to take that step. As part of a bigger picture, it reduces anomalies and clarifies relationships. It is a small step that will give perhaps a little help—I claim no more for it—in the broader context of the peace process. The British-Irish agreement enabled the change to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and changes to British constitutional legislation.

With the new agreement between the Governments on some of the constitutional issues, it is more appropriate that treatment of the Irish Parliament should be on the same basis as the most favourable treatment accorded to some Commonwealth legislatures.

Whether constituents want their MP to sit in two Parliaments and represent the views of two different constituencies is an issue on which many hon. Members have views. Some disapprove in principle; we believe that it is a matter for the electorate in each case to decide. We do not propose to bar Commonwealth legislators from standing for this House. We were also reluctant to leave section 36 of the 1998 Act unamended, and now we have decided to extend it to the UK as a whole.

Several hon. Members


Mr. O'Brien

I give way to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

Mr. Brady

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me. Earlier in his speech he made clear the importance that he attaches to the taking of reciprocal steps. How can he then justify the stone wall of opposition erected by the Government against amendments that would have achieved exactly the reciprocity of which he spoke? There is an inconsistency between his behaviour and his remarks over the past 24 hours.

Mr. O'Brien

I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman participated in the debate on reciprocity, although I know that he was in the Chamber at other times last night. However, it was pointed out that, when it came to reciprocity, there was a bar against Members of the Irish legislature belonging to this legislature. I shall not go into the whole issue of citizenship: rehearsing that argument would not be useful.

The 1998 Act recognises the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Government remain committed to working through the political process there, and to full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. That represents the best and only way for us to put the past behind us, to bring conflict to an end and to establish real partnership. We want local politicians in Northern Ireland to be in charge of their destiny.

Our clear message must be that politics and violence do not go together. Devolution and decommissioning go hand in hand. The Government will not fail to act in the event of default on either decommissioning or devolution.

The Bill is part of the broader political process, Government to Government, but it is not part of the Good Friday agreement. We should not seek to import into that sensitive and balanced agreement clauses that it did not contain before. If we did that, we would be treading into a dangerous political minefield. It is better to recognise that decommissioning belongs in the context of the Good Friday agreement. It is an integral part of that agreement, and is about the collateral strengthening of the special relationship.

The Bill is not about unification, decommissioning or great constitutional innovation. It is not a huge or major constitutional Bill, as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman agreed. It is about building a closer special relationship between London and Dublin, in the light of shared interests. It is about ending the anomaly that means that Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK on the issue of dual membership.

Most importantly, it is a small step on the longer journey towards creating the institutional structures that in the long term will help to create peace. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.44 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack

The Minister made many remarks with which the Opposition are in sympathy, as we are totally committed to the peace process. It is very important that he registers that. If I may say so, his opening remarks were nothing short of disgraceful. He said—implied, certainly—that the peace process had in some way been jeopardised by what had gone on in the House over the past 24 hours. The Leader of the House, who was muttering from a sedentary position, said something similar, which has been reported in the news media.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I most certainly did not say that this situation had endangered the peace process. I said that it was unhelpful in the wider political process. That is different. The hon. Gentleman must not play with fire here—the situation in Northern Ireland is much too serious for party politics.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The Member who has been playing party politics is hardly the one currently speaking at the Dispatch Box. The comments of the Minister and of the Leader of the House in her broadcast have cast aspersions on the wholehearted support that the Conservative party has given, is giving, and wishes to continue to give the peace process. It is important to have that on the record.

There is another matter on which I should like to take the hon. Gentleman to task. He said that the situation over the past 24 hours had shown the House of Commons at its worst. What patronising claptrap. I have been in the House somewhat longer than he has and can remember the Parliament of 1970, when, quite rightly, the Labour Opposition took the Conservative Government through the night time after time on the Committee stages of the Industrial Relations Act 1972 and the European Communities Act 1972.

That has happened many times over the years—it is a perfectly legitimate use of parliamentary time by the Opposition. If the Opposition believe that what the Government are doing is inimical to the interests of the country or the constitution, they have a manifest duty to use every legitimate parliamentary weapon at their disposal to delay the progress of the legislation concerned and try to persuade the Government to think again. The tactic has been used with consummate brilliance by such people as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whom we are so glad to see back in the House—not today, but this week. It was used with great brilliance by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) when he represented Ardwick. I remember past masters such as Michael Foot and John Mendelson, who kept the House up night after night. Their brilliant speeches were devastatingly disturbing for the Government of the day but they were, nevertheless, a proper use of parliamentary time by the Opposition.

As I listened to my right hon. and hon. Friends—and I single out my right hon. and loquacious Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—I thought of the late Bernard Braine, much-loved former Father of the House. [Interruption.] That was a most unworthy and disgusting remark for the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) to make from a sedentary position. Bernard Braine was a distinguished Father of the House and the hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark. [HON. MEMBERS: "What did he say?"] He said that he was bonkers. Anyone who can utter such a remark is beneath contempt in the opinion of decent people.

I can remember many others. Ivan Lawrence, thankfully, is not the late Ivan Lawrence, although he is sadly no longer a Member of the House. Such people used these weapons time and again, perfectly legitimately. What has been done? The past 24 hours have seen an exercise of parliamentary good manners—not bad manners—and an expression of parliamentary frustration. That frustration is shared by Liberal Democrat Members. They have not seen eye to eye with us on all the Bill's aspects but they believe, as we do, that for the Bill to be taken through all its stages in two consecutive days was wrong.

It has been pointed out that Prime Minister's Question Time was lost today. The fault does not lie with the Opposition. At any moment during Committee, it would have been possible for the Government, with the cohorts at their command, to move that further consideration be adjourned, or not to have moved the 10 o'clock motion last night. If Government Members had wanted Prime Minister's questions to be held, it could have been done. However, they were obviously afraid of the devastating ridicule that would have been heaped on the Prime Minister by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend is being barracked by Members sitting on the Treasury Bench. Is that because they are embarrassed by the fiasco they produced by moving the 10 o'clock motion and trying to force the business through because they believed that we had no stomach to pursue the matter?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am not one to be intimidated by the embarrassment of Government Members. One of the most notable features of the debates of the past 24 or more hours has been that, with one exception, no Labour Back Bencher has spoken in support of the measure. One or two Labour Members have expressed some disquiet—most notably, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—but Labour Members have not supported their Government.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department condemned himself when he admitted that this is not emergency legislation. Had it been, he would have received the unequivocal support of the Opposition. I have sat through the debates on every piece of emergency legislation introduced during the past 30 years; most of it was introduced by my party, although some was introduced by Labour.

For example, we were summoned back to Parliament after the terrible bombing in Omagh a couple of years ago, to rush through legislation that has, I understand, never been used. Nevertheless, we accepted that there was a prima facie case for the legislation. We supported it, inconveniencing ourselves to do so; that was right. It was our duty.

The Minister would not have had to ask the Opposition to support emergency legislation; support would have been given at every stage of the proceedings.

Mr. Hogg

Although it is always right that the House should respond to an emergency, it should never deprive itself of the duty and obligation to scrutinise legislation. It is our business to ensure that Bills leave this place in a perfect state.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Of course it is. The point made by my right hon. and learned Friend is wholly compatible with mine. When we were summoned back to consider that emergency legislation, one of the best speeches that I have heard for many a long year was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He had grave reservations about the measure and said so, quite properly.

In cases of true emergency legislation, we are happy to co-operate to ensure passage through the House. However, by any stretch of the imagination, the Bill is not an emergency provision. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department admitted as much and suggests his continued agreement.

Throughout those long hours in Committee, we asked for whom the legislation was being introduced. What is it for? Who wants it? As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, who is it to please? I do not blame hon. Members who did not want to sit up all night, but I want to make it plain to those who were not in the Chamber that real fear and concern were expressed that the legislation is being pushed through the House at the behest of two gentlemen. They were elected to the House, but have never chosen to take their seats. They want to enjoy the facilities of the House without taking the Oath or making the Affirmation, which we all do. There is fear that the measure is being introduced to accommodate those two, even though they have done nothing to signify their complete agreement to the peace process.

We have had no decommissioning, and we have still not had General de Chastelain's first report. In the context of the remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, it would at the very least have been politic to wait for that first report before introducing the Bill. We were told on Second Reading that the Bill would in some way facilitate the peace process—that although the Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement and no one said that it was, nevertheless it is tangential and complementary to it, and will assist its development. The Under-Secretary is nodding at those comments. [Interruption.] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office laughs. I do not consider it a laughing matter in any sense.

We have had a Bill presented to us, but at no stage has either of the two principal Ministers, for both of whom we have a high regard, told us who asked for it, what precisely it is for, why it has to be enacted now and whether it is part of another series of suggestions by Senator Mitchell. If it is not, is it because it has been specifically requested by Messrs Adams and McGuinness? That is what is suspected by Opposition Members, especially Ulster Unionist Members.

I remind everyone that we would not be talking about any peace process were it not for the bravery—some even think the foolhardy bravery, although I do not—of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party, because without Ulster Unionist co-operation there could be no peace process and no prospect of its success. So why upset the Unionist community by doing things that make them feel under pressure from those who have not yet properly subscribed to the democratic process?

During these debates, we have talked much about the dual mandate. I am told that the Labour party has in its constitution a clause that says that no member shall have a dual mandate—that no member shall be, for instance, a Member of the European Parliament and a Member of this Parliament. I am also told that most of those who currently enjoy a dual mandate in either the Scottish Parliament and this House or the National Assembly for Wales and this House, are encouraged to make a choice as to which they would prefer. That is a perfectly proper thing for the Labour party to say to its members, but it is an extension of that that has been debated over the past two days. Many Opposition Members ask how someone can be a Minister in a Government in one country and a Back-Bench legislator in another. That is seen to be an anomaly in a Bill that is riddled with anomalies.

Another thing that has caused great concern on the Opposition Benches has been the Government's unwillingness to contemplate any amendment that touches on reciprocity. Even amendments for which the Ministers have expressed some sympathy—both hon. Gentlemen have done so for certain amendments—have not been accepted.

Had we had a normal timetable for the Bill and a Report stage in a few days' time, there would have been an opportunity for amendments to be tabled on Report; and then, as frequently happens, Ministers could have said, "We do not quite like the way that you have phrased that amendment, but we shall table an amendment that will not only be sympathetic but will echo your wishes." We have had none of that, and nor have we even had a promise of amendments in another place.

Therefore, what are we to think but that we have a Government who are totally obdurate on this issue, and who are not prepared to do more than pay lip-service to the deep and abiding concerns of those who know this problem inside out, many of whom have lived their lives and lost many of their friends in Ulster? The Government are not prepared to accept a single amendment here or in another place. That is most unfortunate, to put it mildly. It is small wonder that many Opposition Members fear that this is the thin end of the wedge.

Many Opposition Members were less than happy about the Minister's perfectly sincere comment on Second Reading about the Oath. He was prepared to say that there were no current plans to change it, but he was unable to give the sort of categorical commitment that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Shadow Home Secretary, asked for, quite reasonably, in her opening speech.

It is against that background that we must decide how to advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote tonight. We did not vote officially against the Bill on Second Reading, as the Minister knows. We supported a number of amendments that we believe would have gone a long way towards allaying the legitimate fears and concerns of Opposition Members, particularly our friends in Ulster.

Not a single one of those amendments has been accepted, and we have not even had a promise to table amendments along those lines in the other place. We are left with a Bill that is manifestly unsatisfactory and riddled with anomalies. We believe that the Bill will send out many wrong signals in Ulster.

We do not wish to send out wrong signals on the issue of the peace process. Therefore, I want to end where I began. I want there to be no doubt in any quarter of this House as to the Opposition's full support for the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and my noble Friend Lord Mayhew played a significant part in the peace process. That work has been generously and properly acknowledged by Labour Ministers, as I acknowledge the work of the Prime Minister.

Let no one say that what has been said by the Opposition over the past 24 hours is in any way designed to undermine the peace process. Quite the contrary—we believe that the Bill is itself so full of anomalies and fears for the Ulster Unionist community that it could be a problem. We hope that it will not be a problem, and we know that it is not the intention of the Government that it should be.

We underline our support for the peace process but, in view of the fact that we have had no satisfactory answers to the amendments, I must advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.

6.3 pm

Mr. Winnick

I do not challenge the right of the Opposition to oppose, or their right to exploit every parliamentary opportunity. For me to say otherwise would be humbug and hypocrisy. I spent 18 years on the Opposition Benches, and I cannot now say that the Opposition should not do what they believe they should do.

There is, however, the question whether the Conservatives' actions at a sensitive time in Northern Ireland are right and proper. I take the view that this has been a disastrous day for Parliament. I believe that what the Opposition have done today—I do not challenge their right to do it—was most inappropriate, and I will explain why.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—whom I greatly respect—said that his remarks should not in any way given the impression that the Conservative party is against the peace process. Those are very important words, and all of us on the Labour Benches appreciate the widespread support for the peace process, including among many Opposition Members.

The hon. Gentleman was cheered on various occasions during his speech—but when he referred to the peace process, there were no cheers. That in itself is rather alarming.

Opposition Members said that no Labour Back Bencher had spoken in favour during the debates. However, I know of no one on the Labour Benches, apart from one hon. Friend, who does not agree with the sentiments of the Bill. As Opposition Members know, it is not unusual for Government Back Benchers not to speak when Opposition Members take up so much time. We are not against the Bill, so why should we have spoken? The silence of Labour Members on Second Reading and in Committee should not be taken as a lack of support for the Bill.

The Bill will end several anomalies. However, it is also important because it will further normalise relations between this country and the Irish Republic. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke about the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the former Prime Minister. I am pleased that in the past 15 years—I do not say from when we were elected—there has been a substantial improvement in relations between this country and the Irish Republic. That is right and it is the way to proceed. I have always paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Huntingdon for the way in which he initiated the peace process. I may have some criticisms, but what he did was in the national interest and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consolidated the process in ways that the large majority in the House support.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Is not the Irish Republic a sovereign independent state with its own Parliament and a constitutional court? Did it seek the Bill? No one has said that it did. What does the hon. Gentleman mean by normalising relations when that will involve opening up the House of Commons, with its responsibilities to the British electorate, to foreign citizens who are proud of who they are and whom we respect?

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend the Minister has explained that both on Second Reading and in his remarks just now.

I am suspicious of some of the opposition to the Bill. I excuse those on the Opposition Front Bench; I know that they are in favour of the peace process. We have differences of opinion and criticise each other, but I take their word that they are in favour of the peace process. However, four Unionist Members are in the Chamber, and three of them are against the peace process.

Mr. Donaldson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Winnick

No, I shall be very brief. Three out of the four Unionists in the Chamber were against the peace process and the Good Friday agreement from the very beginning. As we all know, some Opposition Back Benchers are against the peace process and the agreement.

Much of the opposition today and throughout the night came from hon. Members who have opposed the Good Friday agreement and from others who have a great deal of anti-Irish spite. They have used the opportunity to prolong our proceedings. The Bill is right. It will help the peace process and further normalise relations with the Irish Republic. I hope that it will receive a large majority on Third Reading.

6.9 pm

Mr. Maginnis

There was a difference between the Minister's opening and his closing remarks. In his opening remarks, he emphasised the special relationship that existed between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom and suggested that the Bill was a necessary concession based on that relationship. The Minister need not go to the trouble of looking up the reference: I can tell him that the phrase "special relationship" occurs twice in the opening paragraphs. That should enable him to concentrate on my speech. On Third Reading, the Minister tells the House that the Bill represents a minimal constitutional and procedural change—one that is of no great import. How does he reconcile those two attitudes, struck within 24 hours of each other?

Mr. Mike O'Brien

If I had made such diverse remarks, I would have to reconcile them. However, if the hon. Gentleman reads my remarks on Second Reading with care, he will see that they are on all fours with my remarks on Third Reading. The Bill represents a small step in the broader context of the creation of a stronger special relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole. I said that on Second Reading and I have now repeated it. I have never suggested—indeed, I have denied throughout—that the Bill makes a big constitutional change.

Mr. Maginnis

I have considerable sympathy for both Ministers who have borne the burden of taking the Bill through the House. However, their performance, while gutsy, has betrayed the fact that they do not in their hearts believe that it is a good thing, not only to divide the House down the middle, but to have in their party's ranks many Labour Members who have, in the past 24 hours, told me that they wonder what the Government are about.

People are understandably confused by what we have heard, for the simple reason that we have not been given a clear exposition as to who was involved, not in consultations, but in creating the concept that Members of the Dail want to be patronised by the UK Government acting as though they were old colonialists. People do not want to be so patronised. I have been in Dublin on numerous occasions over the past three weeks; I spent 48 hours there last week, during which time I spoke to journalists, to business men and professional people and to Back Benchers from all the political parties, as well as to political leaders. Not one person with whom I spoke expressed any desire for the Bill and most of them denied having any knowledge of it. The Government are being foolish, not only in terms of the Opposition parties, but in terms of their own Back Benchers.

In the past 24 hours, the question has been asked several times why a Bill that is not emergency and urgent legislation has had to be rushed through in two consecutive days. Why could the normal processes whereby legislation passes through the House not be employed? I do not know whether the answer has anything to do with the fact that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and other old Labour Members were high on the list of questions to be put to the Prime Minister on his 1,000th day in office. Proceedings on the Bill gave Ministers a useful lesson in avoiding the scrutiny of dissidents on their own side.

To sustain their position, the Government have had to be "misleading"—I cannot think of a better word. However, the Government have not clearly enunciated how we reached our present position. It is time that there was a little frankness about the part that was played by my party and my party leader. The Minister has suggested that consultation took place. When I pressed him on the issue and said that consultation after the event and after decisions had been made was not proper consultation—I tried to intervene but was not permitted to do so—he said that he was not really there so he did not know what was going on. The hon. Gentleman cannot say to the House, "There was consultation with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party but I am not terribly sure because I do not know what was going on and when that consultation took place." It is an issue that he might reasonably clarify. I hope that he does so with the sort of frankness that I would expect from him.

Mr. O'Brien

I shall be entirely clear with the hon. Gentleman. If he wants to discover precisely what discussions the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) had with Ministers, he should first approach his right hon. Friend rather than trying to get the information first hand from me. However, as I understand it, clause 2 is entirely the result of the consultation that took place with the right hon. Gentleman who is the leader of his party. The views of Ulster Unionists have been recognised within the context of the Bill, but that may not be all that the hon. Gentleman wanted. I do not know, because I did not hear all the representations that he made. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman could alert him to the precise nature of the representations that were made.

Mr. Maginnis

I think that there is a degree of frankness in what the Minister now says. When the proposal was put to my right hon. Friend, he expressed clearly his antipathy to it. He said that it was entirely unnecessary. I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland nods with some vigour. Not being able to make the impression on Downing Street that he had hoped to, and to have the proposal withdrawn, my right hon. Friend pointed out there would be a conflict of interest and hence—

Mr. George Howarth

To put the record straight, neither my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department nor I said at any stage that the First Minister, the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party, wanted these measures. Nor did we say that as a result of consultation he wanted them. He was consulted and he expressed reservations. Some of those reservations were taken into account and embodied in clause 2.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful. My right hon. Friend voted against the Bill on Second Reading. The reality is that we were concerned not with recent events but with how we reached a situation in which an unnecessary and patronising piece of legislation came before the House and occupied us in the Chamber for more than two days, and almost three.

We have heard also that there was consultation with the Irish Government. I have no knowledge—I stand to be corrected—that the Irish Government sought to initiate legislation that they could not reciprocate. Indeed, they had no desire to reciprocate and no ability to do so. These matters have been well and truly illustrated throughout our hours and days of debate.

We now approach the nub of the issue: who negotiated with Her Majesty's Government? The answer is Sinn Fein, which is the only Irish political party that could have an interest in the Bill. Sinn Fein will be disappointed that my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann and my colleagues managed to get clause 2 included in the measure, because that party's objective is to portray itself as the only all-Irish party with governmental responsibility in both jurisdictions. However, as I said on Second Reading, the Taoiseach—the political leader of the Irish Republic—has made it clear that he does not want unreconstructed terrorists in any coalition Government that he may lead.

That lesson could be learned by those in this House who would smuggle members of Sinn Fein-IRA—unreconstructed terrorists, associated with terrorist organisations, who retain guns and bombs—around the protection that Madam Speaker gives the House, and provide them with offices, telephones and £50,000 a year each. I am pleased that common sense prevailed throughout the House and that the Government, whatever excuse they may proffer, have been persuaded not to usurp the power of the Chair, which protects us all and has traditionally done that, both during my time in the House and long before.

Ministers claim that the Bill is not threatening, but that is a subjective view. It would be more objective to consider whether the Bill is a reconciling measure. Little reconciliation has occurred in the past few weeks at the Government's behest. I do not want to stray from the Bill, but the Government have taken the one action on policing that would alienate most people in Northern Ireland. As part of their decision-making process, the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary will disappear. That has achieved nothing. Ministers refused to comment on that. Perhaps we can—

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not want to depart from the Bill but promptly did so. We are on Third Reading, and the hon. Gentleman should confine his remarks to the Bill.

Mr. Maginnis

I acknowledge that point. I said that I did not want to enter into a discussion on the RUC, but I should have liked to refer to the matter. However, I accepted your guidance, Sir Alan.

I have shown the Government's carelessness of the sensitivities of ordinary, decent people, not only in Northern Ireland, but in the Irish Republic. The Government must abandon the notion that a majority of 170 heralds the return of colonial times.

We have to ask ourselves whether any recent event, including the introduction of the Bill, is likely to help with the one issue that is important to all our striving to achieve lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Everyone knows that I am referring to the dismantling and disarmament of terrorist organisations. The laziest member of the family who does the least work—whether at university or in his job—can lie in bed to dinner time knowing that the registered envelope will arrive on the doormat. By enamelling on to the periphery of the Belfast agreement concession after concession to the IRA, the Government have presented that registered envelope to the organisation so that such people do not have to work, as the rest of us have to, at moving things forward—often at our own inconvenience and soon to our own embarrassment.

Mr. Donaldson

My hon. Friend talks about striving for peace in Northern Ireland and I welcome his comments. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made remarks, which he repeats at every opportunity in the House, about those of us who have concerns about aspects of the process—concerns that he has just expressed. We may have concerns, but does my hon. Friend agree that that does not mean that we are against peace in Northern Ireland? Many of us who voice them have suffered at the hands of terrorists and want to end terrorism in Northern Ireland. That is why we express our worries. The objective of my hon. Friend and I is the dismantling of terrorism in Northern Ireland, which is the only way to achieve real peace.

Mr. Maginnis

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. Although we want the same thing for those whom we represent, we find it difficult to reconcile on a means by which to achieve it.

Mr. Winnick


Mr. Maginnis

I shall not give way because I must end my speech.

The Government must recognise the difficulty that ordinary people have in trying to move the process forward. By introducing such legislation, they do nothing—absolutely nothing—to help.

6.28 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

The way in which the Bill has been debated has shown the importance of the issues that it raises. It relates principally to Northern Ireland, but also to Ireland and to the United Kingdom, so we all have a duty to take it seriously. It is clearly part of a constitutional process and part of and related to a peace process. There can be no one of good will in the House who does not want the peace process to succeed and the constitutional relationship between this country and Ireland to be on the best and most secure footing. They therefore want a Bill that improves that constitutional link as well.

The Bill could have been better explained, and would have been more welcome, had it been part of a parallel process in Ireland and the United Kingdom, particularly because Ireland is evaluating what constitutional changes it might want to make. A report is due this year. We have all had to judge the Bill on what has been presented to us, even though there is clearly a much bigger agenda all round. My hon. Friends and I voted for Second Reading and have been in the Chamber throughout the past day and a bit, tabling a new clause and supporting or opposing amendments on their merits. We regret that we have not managed to amend the Bill.

On Third Reading, the question that we must ask ourselves is whether the Bill contains two proposals of merit. Irrespective of the way in which the Bill has been presented and handled, should we support it on Third Reading, given the words that are on the Order Paper? The answer is that we will vote for the Bill on Third Reading, because the two specific proposals that it contains seem to us, on balance, to have merit. Those two proposals are, first, that the relationship between people in the Irish Parliament and people in this Parliament should be at least on the same footing as the relationship between people in the Parliaments of the Commonwealth and people of this Parliament; and secondly, that the anomaly which allows people to be in the Irish Seanad and the Northern Ireland Assembly should be corrected to allow people to be in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in either House of the Irish Parliament. We shall therefore support the Bill.

The approach of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), the Minister and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) was entirely reasonable. I cannot say the same for the approach of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He unjustifiably criticised people who have a perfectly valid point of view, and attributed to them motives that he could not justify given their activities over many years.

The Bill has not had better support because it tries to gain the confidence of the republican minority in Northern Ireland without at the same time seeking to gain the confidence of the Unionist majority. The peace process and the constitutional process require both communities to be more confident as a result of the Bill.

Ministers know our position. We do not blame the two Ministers for the way in which the Bill has been handled. They have been assiduous and, like us, have served their time during the many days and hours that we have considered this measure. However, the Government are in charge of the timetable, as you and your colleagues have often told us, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They decided that the Bill would be brought before the House for Second Reading on one day, for Committee stage the following day, and for Report and Third Reading on the third day—at least in chronological time—without interruption and against all the usual conventions of the House.

When considering constitutional Bills, it is especially important that we follow the usual constitutional timetable and give time for proper consideration. We need to be particularly careful with short Bills to ensure that they are not hiding a multitude of future difficulties. We have been down that road before during my years in the House.

The Bill was not in the manifesto or the Queen's Speech. It was not in the Good Friday agreement. It was conceived in mystery sometime before December, published without explanation in December, presented on the day the House rose— for the recess, introduced without justification in January, and pushed through the House without agreement on three consecutive days, during the last of which we have sat for 24 hours. We have still not been given an explanation for or justification of why this measure had to be handled in that way.

As the Minister and I had cause to reflect in the middle of this afternoon, it is a bizarre outcome that on the 1,000th day of the first Labour Government for almost two decades, instead of the Prime Minister putting his record to Parliament for the scrutiny of the House, we had to have a Committee stage of a Bill that two months ago no one envisaged we would be debating.

I repeat the question. We can guess, but we have never had an answer: why this Bill? The Minister said—I took careful note—that it was a small step to improve the constitutional relationship. I accept that, but why was the measure not introduced in the Northern Ireland Act 1998? Why was it not introduced in 1999? Why was the Bill not in the Queen's Speech, the Good Friday agreement or the manifesto? Why now and in a way that requires us to drop all other business, defer all other activity, eliminate Prime Minister's questions and Department for International Development questions and to delay other legislation? What is the urgency? No one has answered the question. No one has ever told us the facts.

I have tabled a set of questions to the Home Secretary and a set of questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland today to try to obtain the answer to those questions. Before the House rises, I will table similar questions to the Prime Minister. If the two Secretaries of State do not know the answer, perhaps the Prime Minister knows it.

I believe that, although the Bill is clearly not formally linked to decommissioning—it should not be—it is probably informally linked. That may not be a bad thing, but we ought to have been told. I say to my colleagues on the Ulster Unionist Benches that if the truth of the matter was that the measure was an initiative of Sinn Fein, we might still have supported it, but we would rather have been told. Our Ulster Unionist and other colleagues would have rather known where the measure came from than have to speculate and never receive an answer.

Mr. Hogg

If the hon. Gentleman is right in supposing that the measure is linked to decommissioning, would he not be wise to defer voting in favour of it until we see whether decommissioning takes place?

Mr. Hughes

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks a good question. We had a debate earlier about whether the Bill and decommissioning should be formally linked, and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) made it clear that we did not think that they should. We said that the Bill was about the rights and liberties of people and that that ought not to be linked to an on-going, part-public, part-private process.

Like the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I hope that decommissioning works. The Bill may be the trigger to make it work better. We do not know, but we do not believe that we ought to withhold our support on the ground that only if decommissioning happens will it be right to implement the Bill. If the Bill is right on the face of it—the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer and he understands the point—we believe that we ought to vote for the Bill, even if some reasons for it have not been shared with the House.

In my almost 17 years in this place, it has often been the short Bills and those introduced with least warning that have been the most controversial and the least satisfactory.

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Hughes

On a minor matter, the legislation to deal with dangerous dogs was unsatisfactory. On a more severe matter, the emergency legislation introduced the summer before last was unsatisfactory. I was not here at the time, but I understand that the Bill dealing with the Official Secrets Act 1911 was a two-clauser. It was certainly a one-page Bill.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke)

It was introduced by a Liberal Government.

Mr. Hughes

Indeed, it was. It was pushed through the House in one day without the scrutiny that it should have had. We believe that the shorter the Bill, the more the House needs the explanation and justification for it and the more the Government need to carry their colleagues with them. That is why I say to the hon. Member for Walsall, North and the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) that, when the Government control the timetable, to suggest that it is wrong for hon. Members to question, argue, and, if necessary, vote and delay progress, is to undermine the only basis that we have in this place for making sure that when the Government propose something, Parliament has a chance to do at least a half-decent job.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman should be careful. I started my remarks by saying that the Opposition have every right to explore and use every opportunity to exploit the parliamentary situation. I then went on to say why, on this occasion, they were wrong. I in no way included the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, please let it not be said that I in any way deny the Opposition's right at any given time to use whatever parliamentary opportunities there are. In my judgment, they were wrong on this occasion.

Mr. Hughes

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and if that is his position I accept it.

We have had an extended debate because the Bill has never been explained and the proper procedures of the House have not been followed. If we have taken more than 24 hours on the Bill, approaching a record sitting since the war, it is because the Government should not behave in the way in which they have, whatever the legislation's merits. When we are talking about peace in Northern Ireland, they should be more sensitive and have greater respect for all hon. Members.

6.41 pm
Mr. Forth

Unfortunately, this is a bad Bill which has been badly handled by the Government. The Government have only themselves to blame for the mess that they have got themselves into, if that is the way in which they see it.

If the Bill illustrates nothing else, it is that yet again even a Government with a gigantic majority cannot treat the House with contempt and arrogance, that they must respect the traditions and procedures of the House, and that they must expect that their Bills, long or short, large or small, will and should be properly scrutinised by due process in the House.

That has not been the case with the Bill because the Government thought that they could slip a bad and controversial Bill through without proper scrutiny and, as a result, they have received a bloody nose. I hope that the House will be able to demonstrate again and again that, if the Government are not prepared to allow their Bills to be scrutinised in the proper way, that, or something similar, is likely to be the result.

I opposed the Bill on Second Reading and I will oppose it on Third Reading because it does something that is unnecessary and dangerous, which undermines my concept of nationhood, of national identity and of the role of a legislature in an independent sovereign nation state. It may be a small Bill, but it manages to do all that in just two substantive clauses.

Worse than that is that after more than 24 hours of debate we have failed to get to the bottom of the Government's motives in bringing the Bill to the House at this time. On the one hand, on 24 January the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who has played a distinguished and responsible role in our proceedings, said: The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) should not labour under the delusion that the Bill is the product of some arrangement between Ministers and Sinn Fein."—[Official Report, 24 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 72.] Yet towards the end of our Committee proceedings, we dragged from the Government the admission that the real motive behind the Bill was that the Government had felt compelled to do a deal with the Irish Government and Sinn Fein.

Mr. Hogg

Will my right hon. Friend consider the proposition that one reason why the Government have put forward two Under-Secretaries to advance the Bill through the House is that they do not know the deal that lies behind the Bill, and that had the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland been on the Front Bench, he might have found it embarrassing to answer the kind of questions that my right hon. Friend and I have asked.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. and learned Friend is typically more generous than I am prepared to be on this occasion. I cannot contemplate or conceive of two Ministers, be they Under-Secretaries, Ministers of State or whatever, taking a Bill through the House without properly knowing its background and provenance. If my right hon. and learned Friend is correct, we can partially exonerate the Ministers who have taken the Bill through. I am not prepared to believe that. It is a sad day when Ministers in a Government who profess to believe in open government, honesty, accountability, transparency—call it what one will—are prepared to sit through this length of proceedings without telling the House why they have introduced the Bill, its provenance and why it has to be pushed through in such a hurry.

Those are the reasons why I am angry about the Bill, why I have been against it, and why I still believe that, although we have been able to give it some degree of scrutiny, the Government have been less than honest with the House and the people of this country, and will live to regret it.

6.45 pm
Mr. Cash

I will, of course, vote against Third Reading. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I am glad to note the change of heart by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who, I understand, are now going to vote with us on Third Reading.

It is a pity that my amendment did not receive the support that I expected. [Interruption.] I did not hear what the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said from a sedentary position, but perhaps that is just as well. In any event, I strongly believe that the Committee should have supported my amendment, which would have required anyone, before taking a seat in this place or, indeed, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to disavow terrorism. I remain firmly of that opinion.

As a number of speakers have eloquently pointed out, we have been given no answers, and we do not know who is behind the measure. I personally believe that the Secretary of State is not present because he would have found it impossible to answer some of the questions that have been posed—not because he could not have answered them, but because he would not have wanted to do so. To be pressed continuously would, I think, have been a source of considerable embarrassment.

I suggest that the appropriate Select Committee—the Home Affairs Committee or, indeed, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—summon the Secretary of State and, in the course of formal proceedings, put questions to him that these junior Ministers have neglected to answer during the past 24 hours. I trust that the members of those Select Committees will take up my suggestion with the appropriate Chairmen, and put it on the agenda.

The passing of the Bill to the House of Lords will give that House, in its present form, an opportunity to prove its worth. The question of whether the House of Lords is prepared to act on behalf of the country as a whole— given the electoral dictatorship that we have witnessed during today's proceedings—provides that House with an ample opportunity to prove whether it really has constitutional spine. If it is prepared at short notice, following all the arguments that we have rehearsed, to improve on those arguments, to examine the Bill's implications and to demonstrate that, as a second Chamber, it is worthy of the opportunities offered to it, I for one will give it my full support.

Much as I like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I disagree with his reasons for supporting the Bill. The hon. Gentleman represents a great party—a party which, with some leapfrogging and some diversionary tactics, goes back to the origins of this home rule question. It was, after all, Gladstone himself who, in November 1886, defeated the Conservative Government and introduced a Bill whose object was to exclude Irish Members. I found it ironic, to say the least, that the hon. Gentleman argued exactly the opposite case.

Having said that, I must add that the real questions that lie at the heart of the Bill have not been answered. Whether the Bill can be linked to decommissioning is, in my view, a bit of a red herring; I think that the real issue is the substantive question whether it would be right and proper for us to pass a Bill of this kind, on this notice, with this apparent urgency, without being given any explanation. There are means open to the House to ensure that those questions are put and to insist that they are answered.

6.50 pm
Mr. Robathan

I shall not detain the House for long, not least because I have sat through more than half the 25 hours of the sitting, although I have not served the House and the country as well as some of my hon. Friends. I have been privy to a unique sight today: the House managed to sit in two places in the same building at the same time, but, theoretically, on different days. The House needs to deal with that.

Having listened to so much of the debate in what has been a long sitting, I have been convinced that I need to vote against the Bill. I am delighted that we will do so with the support of our Front-Bench team.

I did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading because I wanted to see what it was actually about and was advised that we could improve it, but, sadly, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of my hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), we have not been able to do so. The more one has heard in the past 25 hours, the worse it has become. Hon. Members who have not attended the sitting should have come to discover what the Government want to do in their name because it is shabby legislation.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a very good speech. To correct my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), the Liberal Democrats belong to a once great party; it no longer is. Having made a good speech, the hon. Gentleman drew completely the wrong conclusions as to what he should do. [Interruption.] I hear a little barracking from hon. Members who have recently arrived at the sitting.

I shall give an example of the grubbiness of the measure. We in the Conservative party have heard a lot about our treasurer, Mr. Ashcroft, who we are told cannot serve two masters, yet that is exactly what the Bill wishes someone in Ireland to do. That is completely illogical, but I will not stray down that road.

The Minister said that it is not an important constitutional Bill. It is an important constitutional precedent. That must be obvious to even the dimmest person on the Treasury Bench. As with so much other legislation, the Government have tried with the Bill to have constitutional change off-the-cuff. It may have two substantive clauses, but it is off-the-cuff, not thought through and confused.

In the Second Reading debate, we heard that the Bill was part of the complementary business to the Belfast agreement. Indeed, clauses 2 and 3 refer to the agreement, or the Northern Ireland Act 1998, yet we now know that it is entirely linked to the agreement through deals behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms, in underground bunkers in Armagh, or wherever the deals may have been made. The Bill is entirely linked to the 1998 Act and the agreement.

Those of us who genuinely want peace in Northern Ireland find it appalling that we should be asked, as a proud House that is respected throughout the world, to pass such dreadful legislation at the behest of two former, or possibly still practising, terrorists who happen to have been elected to the House.

From the long title to the end of the Bill, it is badly written, badly thought out and a hopeless piece of legislation. If I were a Minister presenting it, I would be embarrassed. At the beginning, there is a misprint. It states: "To to". Then it says "remove the disqualification". That is a double negative. Even I know, therefore, that it should be cited as the qualification Bill in the last clause. From the beginning to the end, it is a rotten bit of legislating. We are legislating in haste—although not as hastily as the Government would have wanted—but the Government will repent at leisure.

Excellent points have been made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I do not want to labour those points. We need to know whose idea the Bill was and what its genesis is. What is the motivation? All Opposition Members know that the Bill is yet another deal, yet another sop, yet another bribe to Sinn Fein following the emasculation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Does the Minister know about clause 63 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which will exempt Noraid funding from north America to a political party in the United Kingdom? If he does not know about it, he should: the provision is an absolute disgrace. If we do not want foreign funding for political parties, why will that clause exempt Noraid?

If we want genuine peace, we have to realise that it cannot be built on sand. If we want it, we shall have to have genuinely firm foundations, and be willing to be firm and to stand up and make tough decisions. Furthermore, peace must be built on trust. The Disqualifications Bill demonstrates that we cannot have trust when we do not even know, for heaven's sake, whose idea it was to introduce this shabby little piece of legislation.

6.55 pm
Mr. Thompson

On Second Reading, I said that this was a squalid little Bill. After all we have been through, I say that it is still a squalid little Bill.

There are those who said that this type of Bill would help the peace process. I can only say that it will harm the peace process by undermining the Unionist people's confidence in the peace process. All they see in the Bill is another concession to Sinn Fein-IRA. Therefore, rather than helping the peace process, the Bill will greatly harm it.

After all our proceedings, the Government have made no changes to the Bill, although Ministers said that they would re-examine some of its provisions. I ask Ministers to re-examine one of the Bill's aspects in which I am particularly interested—its wording on the "legislature of Ireland", the "Government of Ireland" and "other than Ireland". Hon. Members should describe Ireland by its correct name—the Republic of Ireland—so that there is no disagreement on what we are talking about.

It is a bad Bill, and I shall vote against it.

6.57 pm
Mr. Fabricant

I remind the House that, if we carry through constitutional change without examining it in considerable detail, we frequently find that once the legislation is on the statute book, we end up with wording that may not be exactly be what we foresaw. Those are not my words, but comments on the Bill made yesterday by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

This is a constitutional Bill, which is why its Committee stage was taken on the Floor of the House. Throughout the night, however, we heard nothing but misleading statements from Ministers. At one point, when we were asking for reciprocity, we were told that it is not needed, as there is not the equivalent in the Dail of the House of Commons Disqualifications Act 1975. Subsequently, however, we were told by Ministers—we had to drag it out of them—that one has to be a citizen of the Republic of Ireland to sit in the Dail.

Time and again, Opposition Members asked why we need reciprocity. The answer was that we need it because of the breach of trust. Why has there been a breach of trust? It occurred because the Government have made concession after concession to Sinn Fein-IRA, with no reciprocity from them.

This is a bad Bill, which has been handled unconstitutionally in the House. I shall vote against it.

6.58 pm
Mr. Hogg

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—who introduced the debate on Third Reading, but is no longer in the Chamber—started his speech by saying that the past day's events have shown the House in a bad light. I do not agree with that at all. What was wrong was the Government's decision to schedule Second Reading for Monday, and to push forward consideration in Committee. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, the Committee was right to exercise its powers to scrutinise legislation.

This is an important Bill, and it is untruthful to suggest otherwise. To make that clear, one has merely to state what it will do—it will enable a Member of the Irish Parliament to sit in this House. That is an important proposition, but it is one with which I disagree. It raises inherent problems of conflict with regard to duty and confidentiality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) made clear.

Precedents have been cited. The House was told that similar provisions apply to Commonwealth legislatures. That is true, but if we were to start again, we would not give the Commonwealth Parliament the sort of power that is being given to the Ireland Parliament.

Moreover, we are creating a precedent for the future. If these provisions are to apply to Members of the Irish Parliament, how can we deny a similar dispensation for their equivalents in France, Spain or Italy? I doubt that a majority of hon. Members would consider that right at all.

Another problem is the lack of reason. Conservative Members have pressed Ministers to explain the reason for the Bill, but no proper explanation was given. It was put to us that the Bill tidies up a constitutional anomaly, but I do not believe that. I believe that a deal has been done. One reason for the Secretary of State's absence from the Front Bench is that he would have been constrained to reveal the nature of the deal. I do not believe that we should make concessions to Sinn Fein—not now, and probably not at all.

Finally, I must tell the hon. Member for Walsall, North that I come from a family, both sides of which have been deeply concerned with Ireland for many years. My mother was born in county Galway. I have supported the peace process to the extent that I have voted in the Labour Lobby against my own party. However, I do not believe that this concession—if that is what it is—should be made.

The Bill does not normalise relations; rather, it makes abnormal relations. We are departing from the principles that should govern our relationships with sovereign states, and the constitution of the House.

I am glad that there will be a Division on Third Reading, and that my colleagues on the Front Bench will vote against it. I shall do the same.

7.2 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

The Government have sought the authority of the House for what has proved to be a controversial Bill. I cannot remember when a Secretary of State has not taken a constitutional measure at least through Second Reading. The absence of the Secretary of State characterises this Government's insolent disregard for the proprieties of proper constitutional consultation, which call for consent across the House for a constitutional measure.

I bless the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who first brought the problem into my consciousness. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I am grateful, too, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for his monumental work in examining the propositions contained in the Bill.

The House's only purpose is to give consent—to raising money and to legislation. The Government are indifferent to the propriety that requires a Secretary of State to come to the House to advance this remarkable piece of legislation.

In a curious way, I am grateful to the Government. They have exposed what was unknown before Monday's Second Reading debate to the House, to my constituents and, I regret to admit, to me. The Government propose that Members of another sovereign nation's legislature could become Members of this legislature. Some people have asked who the master is, and others have wondered to whom we owe our responsibility and allegiance.

The Bill is not a shallow or trivial matter. It touches on the most profound questions of citizenship, which involve who we are, to whom we have duties and responsibilities, and why we demand obedience to the law from everyone in this country. As elected representatives, we are responsible to British citizens and accountable to them at elections. We make laws on their authority, but the Government are introducing—through the back door and in a quiet and surreptitious way—a Bill that they say amounts to nothing other than a couple of substantive clauses.

The Minister suggested that the Bill was merely making good an anomaly. I am grateful for that, because it allowed me to discover an anomaly. I was unaware—as, I think, are most people in this country—that, theoretically, Members of other legislatures across the Commonwealth can stand and represent this country through this Parliament. That is the anomaly—a post-colonial anomaly. It should be dealt with, yet this supposed reforming Government of spin doctors try to maintain that the anomaly should extend, dilute and reduce the function of an elected Chamber and its responsibilities and accountabilities. I share the pleasure expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that we shall be voting against Third Reading. This must resonate further than the Chamber.

I noticed on the news on the wireless that no one is giving the reason for people's agitation that Members of a foreign power—a good and dignified friend of ours, honourable and proud in their associations and nationality—can represent this country, even though they do not claim to seek membership of the House. No one has adduced that Members of the Irish Dail or the Irish Government are asking to become Members of this House, yet we—off on a trip, this new Government of ours—ask why should they not, because it merely tidies up an anomaly.

I am grateful to the Government for telling us that they are trying to impose this diluted measure for the benefit of the constituents of places such as Walsall, North and Aldridge-Brownhills. I shall joyously vote against Third Reading. I hope that the House of Lords takes note and rejects the Bill as well.

7.6 pm

Mr. MacKay

I think it important, as we conclude the Third Reading debate, that I make it clear from the Dispatch Box why we are voting against Third Reading and why we have taken some twenty-five and a half hours to see through the Bill's Committee stage and Third Reading. It is, quite simply, because the Government have behaved very shabbily.

It is normal practice to have a Second Reading debate on a Bill and, after a weekend has elapsed, to consider the Bill in Committee.

Mr. Winnick


Mr. MacKay

No, I am not giving way. There are two perfectly good reasons for this. First, it is an opportunity for the Minister and other Members to reflect on what has been said on Second Reading. Secondly, it gives ample opportunity to table amendments for us to consider and take soundings on before reaching a final decision. There is, and should be, only one exception to this practice—when the Government believe it necessary to bring urgent emergency legislation before the House. I asked and asked whether the Bill was either urgent or emergency legislation. Finally, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department admitted that it was neither urgent nor emergency legislation. Therefore, there was no excuse for bouncing the Bill through so quickly.

As a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House said, legislation that is rushed through is bad and incomplete, particularly when it is rushed through for no good reason in a very small and narrow Bill. I regret that that is all too typical of the Government, who behave in an arrogant and cavalier way towards the House. The Government have had a bloody nose because of their actions. I hope that, in future, the Deputy Chief Whip will think twice before behaving in this way again. Had he behaved correctly, he would not have lost his business.

7.9 pm

Mr. George Howarth

First, let me say a brief word about the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I think that he knows from previous encounters that I hold him in high regard. On this occasion, however, there was an element of hyperbole in his comments. He described certain things that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I said. I hope that he will read our words in Hansard and reflect on some of the points that he made. I do not take issue with him, but hope that he may feel that he misrepresented some of the positions that we took. I accept that, if he did so, it would have been inadvertent.

The Ulster Unionists have contributed throughout the proceedings. I have been in the Chamber for the whole time-25 hours or whatever it is—I was away only briefly, as was everyone who took part in the Committee proceedings. Ulster Unionist Members have genuine concerns about the measure; they have repeated them throughout our consideration of the clauses and amendments.

Since he became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has bent over backwards to accommodate the Ulster Unionists, whenever he could—[Interruption.] Hon. Members say that I am off-message. It is not a question of being off-message—it was rather a ticklish moment.

On this occasion, I realise, as does my right hon. Friend, that Ulster Unionist Members disagree with him; they do not accept the motives behind the Bill. However, I ask them to accept—as I think the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) has accepted—that between us we have put the record straight. Although the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), was consulted on the measure, we did not imply that he agreed with it. However, as a result of the consultations, clause 2 was added to the Bill. That was the result of direct representations made by the right hon. Gentleman.

Many contributions have been made by Opposition Back-Bench Members. Not for one moment would I suggest that any of the Back-Bench Members who contributed were out of order in any way. Mr. Deputy Speaker would be quick to correct me if I made such a suggestion. Nothing that is on the record, apart from those remarks for which the hon. Members were pulled up by the Chair, was not appropriate for them to say. As individual Members of the House—as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) agreed—they have a right to say what they feel is appropriate. I do not criticise them for that.

However, Opposition Front-Bench Members must answer a slightly different point. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary, opened the debate on Second Reading for the Opposition. She made it plain that they would not oppose the Bill's Second Reading, and they did not. She said that they were not opposed to the principle behind the Bill and that they hoped to be able to support it through its remaining stages. I paraphrase the right hon. Lady's remarks, but not, I think, inaccurately. The right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), Opposition Members and the Opposition Chief Whip knew last week what this week's business would be. They had every opportunity to make representations through the usual channels, if they felt that the business was being handled inappropriately. That is why the usual channels exist. They made no such representations.

Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that there is no co-ordination between what takes place on the Opposition Front Benches and what has been happening on their Back Benches. To make that point absolutely clear, let Conservative Members hear what their leader had to say. The Leader of the Opposition wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister today, saying that the Government should have used our huge majority in the House to push this legislation through. Seemingly, he attaches much greater urgency to the measure than do those on the Opposition Front Bench or Back Benches. That shows not only that Opposition Front-Bench Members have lost touch with Back Benchers, but that they have lost touch with the Leader of the Opposition.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman is indulging in a mischievous prank. He knows very well that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that in the context of the lost business, and was saying that there was no need for Prime Minister's questions to be lost, and that it was the Government's mishandling that led to that fiasco.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is very gallant in the defence that he mounts of the Leader of the Opposition. What I have said about the content of the letter is true, and the hon. Gentleman needs to explain why the Leader of the Opposition has to rely on us to get business through the House, while his Front-Bench team and his Back Benchers are willing to sit through the night to ensure that it is opposed. It simply does not add up.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No; I will not. I think that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would accept that, throughout the night, I have been willing to give way repeatedly. I am losing my voice now, and I do not intend to prolong this matter much further.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I will say that I recognise that he raised some sensible points throughout and has been constructive throughout the Bill's progress so far. I am grateful for the support that he has now agreed to give us on Third Reading.

I have a final point to make, and it is a very serious one. The right hon. Member for Bracknell has said that the official Opposition still support the Good Friday agreement and the peace process. I accept that. I accept also that the Liberal Democrats supported—and that some Ulster Unionist Members, in slightly different ways, accept—that peace process. I accept also that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have not set out to damage that peace process in any way over the past 24 hours.

However, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to reflect on the fact that, whatever their intentions are, during the next few days—as the right hon. Gentleman knows full well—some very serious matters will be discussed. General de Chastelain, whom he and I have praised, will be presenting his report on progress on decommissioning. I believe that what has happened in the House over the past 24 hours, instead of helping to lower the temperature in Northern Ireland, has succeeded, albeit unwittingly, in raising the temperature. For that reason, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will have reason to regret what he has been involved in over the past 24 hours.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 326, Noes 141

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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