HL Deb 06 November 2000 vol 618 cc1322-8

(". Any person who is elected as a member of both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the legislature of Ireland shall receive no more than 50 per cent. of the office costs allowance payable to a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are self-explanatory. They may be regarded as frivolous or light-hearted. They provide that any dual members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the legislature of Ireland should have no more than 50 per cent of the salary and the office costs allowance of a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I would not have spoken to the amendments if we had heard a satisfactory explanation of the Bill. The Minister may well tell me that we do not reduce the salary of a Member of the Scottish Parliament who is also a Member of the House of Commons, or a Member of the European Parliament who is also a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly or of the House of Commons, let alone of those who are Members of three assemblies. I am well aware that there are several such examples.

However, the Government have made a threadbare case for the Bill. We have simply been told that they judge it to be right. They are not prepared to say why and think that it is no business of Parliament, although the Minister insists that we are scrutinising the Bill. I do not know how we can scrutinise anything if we do not receive any answers. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told us that the Bill had been scrutinised with enormous care in the House of Commons in an all-night sitting. The fact is that there was so much outrage in the other place that they went on all night but they did not have adequate time to consider the Bill or to have a Report stage. The Government have made an inadequate case for the Bill, so an inadequate salary ought to be paid. I beg to move.

Viscount Cranborne

It may come as a surprise to my noble friend Lord Lamont, but I feel constrained to disagree with him on the amendment for two reasons. First, were this absurd Bill to become law—I sincerely hope that it will not—any Member of both the Dail and the British House of Commons would be taking on a heavy burden if they were to carry out their duties satisfactorily. I suspect that, for purely practical reasons, the job may be impossible without adequate support.

If this absurd Bill were to pass, the eventuality set out so clearly by my noble friend Lord Cope would follow as night follows day. Various members of Sinn Fein/IRA would attempt to represent their Northern Ireland constituencies in the Dail and would sit in the Dail by virtue of their 26 constituencies. If they were to do that, we should certainly find that they would be highly stretched if they were not able to finance adequate administrative support to sustain both offices. I suspect that, rather than needing only 50 per cent of the allowances from each Parliament, they would need rather more than 100 per cent in order to sustain not only their travel arrangements but also the substantial staffs that they would require.

Therefore, I advocate the reverse of my noble friend. I advocate that perhaps 150 per cent of the allowances should be available to such people. I do so secure in the knowledge that that would draw attention to the manifest absurdities of the provisions of this Bill in such a way as to ensure that the peoples of both the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom would laugh this measure to the scorn it deserves instead of giving it the lack of attention which so far they have done.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick. With his vast Treasury experience, I am sure that he will have sounded out the Exchequers n both capitals and that they will be only too willing to finance this added expenditure. They may even be able to take on board the suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. It may involve a modest increase in income tax in both jurisdictions, but I am sure that this is such a precious Bill that no one would balk at that additional expenditure and imposition of taxation.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

While deferring to the noble Viscount, I should like to recall the words of the previous Speaker in order to support this discussion. When, as Speaker, she made her decision to refuse facilities to the two Sinn Fein Members who would not take their oath, she said: I declined to allow those Members passes to the Palace of Westminster, because that would provide automatic access to many of the facilities not open to them. I told them that they were in effect asking for associate membership of this House. Such a status does not exist". It seems to me that anything that condones the idea that they might simultaneously fight an issue in the Dail and speak to an issue in the House of Commons is so absurd that it needs to be highlighted. That is why I see the point of the intervention of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. However, I still believe that we have had a clear indication that it is not proper that they should receive such allowances. I assume that they could receive them only if they were carrying out the necessary duties, which they cannot do.

Viscount Cranborne

Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask her a question. She suggested rightly that it might be difficult for a Member with a dual mandate to be in two different places at once. Does my noble friend believe that it would be possible to introduce a form of electronic voting so that, if there were a three-line whip, someone with a dual mandate could vote electronically in Westminster if they happened to be in Dublin?

Baroness Park of Monmouth

Perhaps the Committee will allow me to reply to that. It rather reminds me of the recommendations of the Foreign Policy Centre that, instead of having embassies, we should have websites and virtual embassies. Therefore, if we are talking about virtual Members of the House of Commons and of the Dail, there is a great deal to be said for that idea.

Lord Laird

I have a slight difficulty with this proposal. Over the past few seconds I have given considerable thought to this amendment a rid am rather torn between the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and that of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I understand the status of the two Sinn Fein Members in another place to be that of MPs elect. They are not currently taking their salaries. Therefore, there does not appear to be much pressure on the recipients of this piece of legislation to look for financial reward.

On the other hand, I was very taken by the argument of the noble Viscount regarding the amount of work that would be involved in being in at least two, and possibly three, places at one time. I was then persuaded by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, with regard to the Exchequer—particularly in Dublin, which appears to be the recipient of a large amount of tax as a result of the Celtic Tiger.

I speak from my own experience as chairman of an Ulster Scots agency which is part of a cross-Border language implementation body. I have been to Dublin on a number of occasions to discuss matters with the authorities there. It is possible to do so without being a Member of the Irish Parliament. I have discussed with them issues that are of interest to the cross-Border body, such as the fact that every sign throughout the island of Ireland will have to be in Ulster Scots as well as in Irish. It is stated in the Belfast Agreement that parity must mean total equality in the North and South. Such a move will be very expensive as every sign must be changed.

Parity also means that when legislation such as this refers to the name of the Irish Parliament in Irish, it will also have to refer to it in Ulster Scots. The Ulster Scots word for Parliament is "Tolsel". Therefore, I would require future legislation of this type to refer to the Irish Parliament not only in Irish but in Ulster Scots as well. I repeat that it is stated in the Belfast Agreement that parity must mean total equality in the North and South.

As chairman of a cross-Border implementation body, I would not be prepared to cherry-pick the Belfast Agreement. I am sure that no one in this House would like me to do so and no one in Dublin wants me to do so. However, I recognise, and wish to place on the record in your Lordships' House, the generosity of taxpayers in the Irish Republic. In implementing the Belfast Agreement they will put up billions—not millions—of pounds in changing signs throughout the Irish Republic so that they appear in Ulster Scots as well as in Irish.

In addition there is the whole business of changing the curriculum. It will be necessary to ensure that in history as taught throughout the Irish Republic references to the British and the Ulster Scots are treated in a positive, not a negative, fashion. That may also prove to be expensive. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in relation to this matter. A large amount of money can be put into implementing the Belfast Agreement.

We would also need to ensure that, wherever people seek a job in public service in the island of Ireland—nowadays they require qualifications in Irish—parity—

Lord Dubs

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way because I am about to make another hostile comment. I cannot follow what the noble Lord's speech has to do with the amendments. I understand the point that he makes, but not in relation to the amendments.

Lord Laird

In his time, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was one of the most popular Ministers to have come from this House. In the past I have regaled many stories about the noble Lord and, given the time, I am sure that I could do so again.

However, my point is that I am interested in the concept of expenses. As I understand it, this amendment concerns expenses. I am talking about the availability of funding in the Irish Republic to implement the Belfast Agreement. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that there is plenty of money available in the Irish Exchequer to implement the Belfast Agreement. I cited proof of that from my involvement as chairman of the language implementation body. It will cost the southern Irish taxpayers billions of pounds.

The television company in the south used to be called RTE but it will soon have another Ulster Scots name. It has recently introduced another version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Anybody who is lucky enough to be elected to three assemblies should, in future, be part of that process and perhaps we should suggest that they can phone a friend and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, might be that friend.

I am very taken with the arguments put forward by the noble Viscount. I have listened carefully to my distinguished colleague here, my noble friend Lord Molyneaux and the point which he made about the Exchequer. We should not be reducing expenses for anybody who falls into the category of being a multimember of as many parliaments as he possibly can.

9 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, was looking forward to future amendments, perhaps to be tabled on Report, which we may have to consider. In no way do I want to equate myself with Solomon but, to a certain extent, I am in a similar dilemma to that in which he found himself on one occasion, in that my noble friend Lord Lamont supports the amendments and my noble friend Lord Cranborne opposes them.

I do not believe that anybody need worry about the Exchequer because, if my expectation is correct that it is the members of Sinn Fein who will take up those opportunities and they will not take up their seats at Westminster, then they will not receive the money for that half of their duties. No doubt they will earn whatever is paid to them by the Dail.

Viscount Cranborne

Of course, my noble friend is right about that and in his usual gentlemanly way did not point out directly that I had failed to observe that. Nevertheless, we are talking about tidiness here. I am sure that my noble friend will admit that it is at least theoretically possible that circumstances might change and in any piece of legislation we should anticipate that, if not a member of Sinn Fein, some other dual mandate person might find it possible to take the oath in both places.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

Yes, indeed. We are not excused from addressing the point behind the amendment. But in that regard I support my noble friend Lord Cranborne on Amendment No. 9 and my noble friend Lord Lamont on Amendment No. 10.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The power to determine the salaries and expenses of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members, which is what these two amendments relate to, is in the Northern Ireland Assembly itself. It would therefore be for the Assembly to determine whether or not the salaries and allowances of its members should be reduced, as proposed in those amendments, or increased, as proposed by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. No legislative provision is required to allow the Assembly to achieve this.

The Committee will know that Section 47(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires a reduction in the salaries where a member is not only a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly but also a Member of the House of Commons and/or the European Parliament. Members of the Committee will know that the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has a discretion in relation to what the deduction should be, reduced by two-thirds the salaries of Northern Ireland Assembly members who also had mandates elsewhere.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that explanation. I am grateful also to my noble friends who have spoken. When the noble and learned Lord said that salaries are in the hands of the Assembly, I began to get very alarmed because I thought that that could be a real licence to print money if the members there could determine their own salaries. But then I recalled that that, of course, is the situation in the House of Commons where Ministers, rather as the noble and learned Lord has reminded us regularly in this debate, remind the House of Commons and the House of Lords that that is a matter for them to decide. Of course, that is not so in Northern Ireland because, in fact, the Executive rules, so the dictum of the noble and learned Lord that the Assembly determines salaries may not be quite as alarming as it appears at first sight.

I am not entirely surprised that my noble friend Lord Cranborne took a different view. At one stage, I thought he was going to suggest a manuscript amendment. Indeed, while I am speaking, it is still possible for him to write out a manuscript amendment and I am sure that we should be able to have a further debate on the opposite proposition.

My noble friend Lady Park rightly referred to the ruling of the Speaker and the attempts that members of Sinn Fein have made to enjoy the benefits of the facilities of Westminster and the office costs allowance without taking their seats. We are all extremely grateful to the Speaker of the House of Commons for having taken such a robust line. That was one reason for tabling these amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, spoke about cross-border institutions. That made me reflect that one of the points to which we object in this Bill is that the Government are seeking to make the Northern Ireland Assembly into a cross-border institution. That is the effect of this Bill: to make the status of Northern Ireland ambiguous; to make the Assembly into a cross-border institution. That is why we feel so strongly about this.

I do not propose to press these amendments to a Division, although if we ever reached the stage where the salaries or office costs allowances were being paid to Sinn Fein members, goodness knows where the money would end up. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Lord Lamont of Lerwick moved Amendment No. 11: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—