HC Deb 26 March 2002 vol 382 cc708-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House approves the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 624), Registration of Interests by Members who have not taken their seat, and resolves that its provisions should come into force three months after the date of this Resolution.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

12.41 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Mr. Speaker, I can introduce the Standards and Privileges Committee's report very briefly. The House will recall that, on 18 December, we debated a Government motion to allow Members who had chosen not to take their seats to use the facilities of the House and to claim certain allowances. In answering an intervention from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) during that debate, the Leader of the House said: The motion will enable the four Sinn Fein Members to make an entry in the register. They are not required to do so under the rules, which provide that Members shall he obliged to make an entry only within three months of taking their seat. If that disappoints Opposition Members, I can give them the assurance that the motion will bring the four Sinn Fein Members within the scope of the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who will be able to apply the code of conduct."—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 158.] When the House reassembled after Christmas, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other Ulster Unionist, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members made representations to me to the effect that it was unacceptable for the four Sinn Fein Members to be exempted from the requirement to register their interests. I told the right hon. Gentleman that the Standards and Privileges Committee would look into the matter.

The Committee sought authoritative advice from the Clerk of the House, who explained succinctly the position of the four Members vis-à-vis the rules of the House, and made a practical suggestion for ending the anomaly that the debate of 18 December had brought to light. His memorandum is published with our report.

I should explain to the House that Members who, for whatever reason, have not taken their seat are still Members of this House. The code of conduct and the rules on registration and declaration of interests apply to all Members of this House, whether or not they have taken their seat. However, the rules are so worded that Members have three months from taking their seat to comply with the requirement to register their interests. So a Member who does not take his seat is not exempt from the requirement to register, but is, in effect, given an unlimited period within which to do so.

We propose that the rules be changed, so that Members have to register within three months of their election. For the vast majority, that will reduce by about a week the time available to complete and return the registration form. I doubt whether that will cause them any inconvenience.

I am entirely content with the proposition on the Order Paper that Members of the current Parliament who have not taken their seat should have three months' grace in which to put their affairs in order, although I understand that three of the four Sinn Fein Members have already completed and returned their registration forms. Their entries will be included in the next update of the register, which is available in the Library and will be available on the internet in a few days' time. I commend my Committee's report to the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the Leader of the House.

12.44 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I welcome the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I think that I can be at least as brief as its Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The report itself is short, just three paragraphs; it concerns a narrow point of procedure; and, as I understand it, the House is unanimous in its wish for this change. I am well aware that the House is capable of continuing all day a debate in which we all agree, but I hope that on this occasion we can protect the Easter recess Adjournment debate.

As the Chairman has said, the origins of this debate go back to the debate in December, when it emerged, to my surprise, I must confess, and no doubt to the surprise of many hon. Members, that the obligation to register runs not from the date of election but from the date of taking the Oath or affirming. That requirement has been a provision of the register ever since it was introduced in 1974 following the election of the then Labour Government. I have found nobody who can remember why the distinction was made in the drafting, and I suspect that it was regarded at the time as a distinction without any meaning.

Today, of course, it is a very meaningful distinction in that there are four Members of the House who have been elected to this place but who have neither taken the Oath nor affirmed. As the Clerk's memorandum makes clear, the fact that they have not taken the Oath does not exempt them from the obligation to register, but it gives them an indefinite period in which to fulfil that obligation.

That is plainly unsatisfactory since Members of the House, whether or not they have taken their seat, can fulfil all the functions of a Member of the House so long as it is outside the Chamber, for instance, they can make representations to a Minister in which any private financial interest might be thought relevant. It is therefore logical that they should be brought within the registration regime that applies to those Members who have taken the Oath. Indeed, it would be possible to argue that there is an even greater case for those who have not taken their seat to declare their financial interest because they do not have the opportunity available to other Members of declaring their interest when they intervene in the House.

I started by saying that I understand that the provision has unanimous support. It has support even among the four Sinn Fein Members of Parliament, who have all accepted in principle that they should register. As the Chairman pointed out, three of them have already completed a return to register their financial interests. I therefore welcome this as a sensible, worthwhile reform. I am grateful to the Committee for having given us the opportunity to take it forward, and I commend the motion to the House.

12.47 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am happy to join the Leader of the House in lending my support and that of Her Majesty's official Opposition to the motion before the House. It was rather revealing when the Leader seemed to imply that when the Government forced this measure on what, as far as we were concerned, was a very reluctant House last December, the Government had not realised the implications of it. Only now are we seeking to correct at least one of the major implications, but I shall let that slip by, because I would not dream of making this a party political occasion.

We can all welcome the rapidity with which the Standards and Privileges Committee has reacted and the elegant solution that it has brought to us. I was going to seek to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) with a question that I shall now pose to him in the hope that he might seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and wind up this very brief debate. Can we have an undertaking from the Committee that it will monitor closely the position with regard to that fourth Member, so that when the three months from today expires, it will take appropriate measures if, for any reason, full compliance has not been achieved?

It is fair to say that the Committee has at its disposal measures that it can take against any Member who is unprepared to comply with the requirements that I hope we will approve today. That being the case, will my right hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Committee, reassure us that the matter will not be lost sight of, that it will not be allowed to slip by unnoticed and that his Committee will, if necessary, consider the matter and bring to the House any recommendations that it may have?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the measure might cover the money received by Sinn Fein for the funding of the party? All Members of political parties in this House are subject to very strict rules about the amount of money that they receive and where it comes from. I wonder whether Sinn Fein might be covered as well as the other legitimate parties of the House in matters relating to fund-raising, not least from Noraid in north America.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend raises an interesting and, I suspect, important point. Although it is not really my province and I should want to seek advice from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, my initial response would be that the best test would be if someone were to make a complaint to the commissioner and that he should determine whether it was a matter for the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That would be the correct procedure and vehicle. However, as my hon. Friend raises such an important point, I am sure that it will not go unnoticed.

I am happy to lend my support and that of my party to the motion.

12.50 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

My colleagues and I fully endorse the recommendation of the Committee and the motion.

My only query relates to the fact that as the anomaly and the solution were so obvious, it is sad that it has taken several months and the precious time of a Select Committee to sort it out. I hope that in future we can find some mechanism to deal with such minor problems more effectively and expeditiously.

I hope that the Chairman of the Committee will be able to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). If all Members were required to include in the Register of Members' Interests any financial interest of their party, they would, first, have some difficulty in obtaining the information and, secondly, the register would become extremely lengthy—not least, if I may say so, in relation to the Conservative party—

Mr. Forth

I wish that it were so.

Mr. Tyler

The right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that cash is not going into the party coffers as it used to. That depends how far back one goes. It could be said that Members might be influenced by past donations of substantial size, going back several years

We should be clear that the Register of Members' Interests is just that—it is not a register of party interests. There is a different mechanism for registering party interests.

Mr. Robin Cook

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The requirement that we are placing on the four Sinn Fein Members is identical to that on all of us. Although he is correct to say that it is not an obligation to declare donations that might be received at party headquarters, it puts Members under the same obligation to declare substantial constituency funding that rests on all of us.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for those comments. I was about to come to that point. I do not have personal knowledge of what may or may not happen in Northern Ireland, but there are circumstances in which there is careful targeting, and if that is done on a constituency basis it could influence the judgment of an individual Member.

With those few words, my colleagues and I fully endorse the recommendations.

12.53 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I commend the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his colleagues on the Committee on Standards and Privileges for the report. I am sure that the whole House will want to approve it.

It is, however, a matter of regret that the Committee was forced to fill in for the Government's failings last December when they tabled the original motion on access for Sinn Fein-IRA Members. One can only conclude that the error was made in haste, as a result of the Government's desire to deal with another entry on Sinn Fein-IRA's wish list at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who signed the letter drafted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire asking for the report to be produced. I also convey my gratitude to the 71 Members on both sides of the House who signed early-day motion 678, tabled by my right hon. Friend, which also sought to bring about that result.

The motion will bring Sinn Fein-IRA Members of Parliament one step closer to being treated in the same way as normal Members of Parliament. I welcome that, but the fact remains that they are still far from the fully fledged article. Indeed, the journey of those four individuals will be complete only when they decide to go that final step by taking their seats in the Chamber. In the meantime, despite what the Government might like to have us believe, we are left with two classes of Members in the House. As things stand, Sinn Fein-IRA MPs and their staff are permitted almost unrestricted access to the confines of the Palace of Westminster and to parliamentary allowances without being made accountable like the rest of us.

Only yesterday, two Sinn Fein Members were in the Palace for meetings and refreshments, before flying back to Northern Ireland using House of Commons air warrants: all gain and no pain. That is the republican way. Interestingly, they had a guest with them as they drank tea in the area reserved for Members in the Terrace Cafeteria. His name was Martin Ferris. He, like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, is a member of the IRA's ruling army council. Maybe next time, Messrs. Adams and McGuinness will invite along one or two other members of the army council for tea and an unescorted wander through the precincts of this building. Perhaps they will even book a table for seven towards the end of the year and hold an IRA army council Christmas party in the Churchill Room. They could bring Mr. Adams's Irish tricolour down from his House of Commons office and plant it on the floor beside them. They would certainly be arrogant enough to do that.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has set out graphically the special privileges that are accorded to Sinn Fein Members, which set them completely apart from the rest of us. Is he aware that I continue to receive letters, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, about the grave offence that that has caused to people throughout the country? I wonder whether he is receiving continuing expressions of regret that the House has bent to Irish republicanism in this way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are beginning to reopen an argument that was put before the House previously. This is a very narrow matter on the registration of interests. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) should not respond to that intervention; he should confine himself to the subject of the registration of interests.

Mr. Beggs

I will be guided by the wisdom and experience of Mr. Speaker and not be further misled. Nevertheless, I have to say that there is no credible argument to justify the fact that four Members of the House have been given access to facilities without taking their seats. If any of the rest of us had asked for such a privilege, our request would have been given short shrift, and rightly so.

The fact remains that these individuals were given their new entitlements only because of the Government's unceasing desire to pacify the republican movement. The House and many others not only in this country but especially in the United States are, thankfully, beginning to catch on to the Government.

We are here today because a Committee of the House moved to stop these individuals being allowed their many privileges without at least being made to declare their interests. I sincerely hope that hon. Members will move with equal vigour to block any attempt to grant the next item that the Government are considering on the republican wish list—the odious amnesty for on-the-run terrorists.

12.58 pm
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)

The Standards and Privileges Committee has moved to close an anomaly that has existed for several months. I believe that everyone in the House should welcome it, and the Leader of the House said that that was the case. In fact, he went further. He said that the four Sinn Fein Members had welcomed the move, and, indeed, why would they not welcome it? The move, several months ago, to create the two-tier membership has advantaged them, and only them. Therefore, they would obviously want to take advantage of that. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) described the way in which advantage was taken of the House's facilities yesterday. That is what is happening, and hon. Members should be aware that, increasingly, such advantage will be taken.

The anomaly is being addressed today, but hon. Members should be aware that as the Sinn Fein-IRA machine utilises the political process while maintaining its military capability—in the past month, the IRA has murdered a person in Northern Ireland—it will increasingly take advantage of all that is on offer within the precincts of the House.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) alluded to Sinn Fein's wealth and affluence, and Members should not underestimate that. The Conservative and Labour parties would look with some envy at the resources that are available to Sinn Fein, which is the wealthiest political party in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Part of the reason for that, of course, is the fact that it not only takes all the advantages that go with membership of the House and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but acquires many resources by illegal means.

Only yesterday, I noticed that Consignia was complaining and reference was made to the fact that many thousands of people may have to be made redundant. Sinn Fein and its political alliances with the Provisional IRA have acquired many millions of pounds from the Post Office in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House should know that the issues described by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), who spoke previously, are nothing to do with the debates that took place in the Standards and Privileges Committee, which, as you have said, had a very narrow remit. I wish to dissociate members of the Committee—certainly from a personal point of view—from the arguments that have been made. I ask you to direct the hon. Member for East Londonderry to stick to the narrow confines of the motion.

Mr. Speaker

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to remind me of my job, but he is quite right. I remind the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) that we are examining a narrow issue and that he should not include other matters. The debate is about registration and nothing else.

Mr. Campbell

I accept that, Mr. Speaker. If the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) wishes to check the veracity of the comments on the millions of pounds that Sinn Fein has acquired, he may do so, but I will, of course, accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House ought to be aware that, as Sinn Fein moves into the precincts in the coming months, it will take advantage of every facility that is on offer in the House. It will do so as a means not of moving towards the political process but of corrupting it, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be well aware of that move.

1.2 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim)

As a new Member of the House, I visited Elizabeth Filkin soon after being elected to seek her advice on what I was required to register. This motion raises many interesting questions, and I look forward to reading the entries in the Register of Members' Interests relating to the four members of Sinn Fein, three of whom are members of the army council of the Provisional IRA—Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Pat Doherty. I sought advice from Elizabeth Filkin and the new commissioner, who will, I hope, advise members of Sinn Fein.

I understand the history and background of English company law; I am chairman of David Burnside Associates—a public relations company established under English company law. It declares its returns, and anyone can visit Companies House to see its audited reports. People know the legal entity that is the company. I also register the company's clients for whom I would have to register an interest in the House. I have taken guidance on my remunerated interest, and I hope that I will adhere to the rules so long as I am a Member. I also register company directorships for which I am unremunerated.

The army council of the Provisional IRA comes from the very clear, historic legal structure of an army. If I may, with respect, I would advise the Commissioner for Standards to get hold of the Provisional IRA's rule book, which is very similar to a company's articles of association. It contains guidance, rules, regulations and instructions on the operation of the Provisional IRA, three members of which have joined the House, but will not take the Oath and will not become equal Members of Parliament with the rest of us. They should come into the House and be open to the same scrutiny as I and all other right hon. and hon. Members would be if we breached the rules and standards to which we are meant to adhere. We cannot call those Members into the Chamber because they will not take the Oath of Allegiance.

The Inland Revenue does not investigate the Provisional IRA, but I think it is fair to suggest that the new Commissioner for Standards should carry out a clear and open investigation. I hope that he will invite Mr. McGuinness, Mr. Adams and Mr. Doherty to the office across the road to get the full details of their articles of association and their membership of the Provisional IRA. I also hope that the commissioner will examine its overseas fund-raising activities, including its links with the FARC, a drug-running terrorist organisation in Columbia that has international links with the Provisional IRA and the three Members whom I have mentioned.

We continue to have two classes of Members of Parliament—first class and second class. We are second-class Members because the IRA and Sinn Fein are being given rights and privileges without responsibilities. That is an insult to the traditions of the House.

1.6 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I want to place on record the parliamentary support of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party for the report. I congratulate the Committee's Chairman and its members on their work. They swiftly produced a report to plug an obvious gap in the membership rules of some Members of the House.

We supported the Government's motion in December and agree with the principle that Sinn Fein Members should use the facilities of the House, bearing in mind the particular circumstances that have arisen over many years and generations in Northern Ireland. We hope that we are taking steps towards the normalisation of democratic politics in Northern Ireland. We certainly support the report.

1.7 pm

Sir George Young

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for the support of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber for the recommendation. Some hon. Members raised issues that go broader than the motion. I understand those strong feelings, but I hope that they will understand if I do not respond to their points.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Perhaps it would help if the Electoral Commission picked up on those points that are more relevant to its remit than to the commissioner.

Sir George Young

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked about compliance, which the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) also mentioned. If all Members have not registered at the end of the period, anyone can make a complaint that will be considered in the normal way by the commissioner and my Committee. As with other reports, we would make recommendations to the House for it to decide on the appropriate action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) touched on the circumstances in which a donation to a constituency association needs to be registered. Paragraph 22 of the code of conduct sets out the circumstances in which it is necessary to register a donation to an association—namely, when it is linked to the candidacy or the membership of the House. Otherwise, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, it is a matter for the Electoral Commission.

The commissioner is an independent officer of the House. If a complaint is made, he will make inquiries in the normal way, and that would be the route for the hon. Member for South Antrim to follow.

With those remarks, I commend the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House approves the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 624), Registration of Interests by Members who have not taken their seat, and resolves that its provisions should come into force three months after the date of this Resolution.