HL Deb 06 November 2000 vol 618 cc1328-35

(". No person elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom and also to the legislature of the Republic of Ireland may become a Minister of the Crown.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 12 to 14. The amendments put forward a number of different propositions. The more we go into this Bill, the more complex the ramifications of it become and the more varied the number of situations which arise. The Bill is not at all what it first appears. It has multiple consequences. Thus, in these debates, we have been forced to table amendments which would have the effect of having no Ministers of other countries in either the House of Commons or the Northern Ireland Assembly; amendments, to which we shall come later, which ensure that Irish Ministers and chairmen of committees of the Irish parliament should not be Northern Ireland Ministers; that junior Irish Ministers should not be Northern Ireland Ministers; that Irish MPs should not be Northern Ireland Ministers; that Irish committee chairman should not be Northern Ireland Ministers, and that Irish Ministers and committee chairmen of the Irish Parliament should not be Northern Ireland committee chairmen. The combinations are infinite. However, in Amendments Nos. 11 to 14 we propose, only for dual Members of the House of Commons and the Dail, that it should not be possible to become a UK Minister. Amendment No. 12 proposes alternatively that it should not be possible for a Dail Member to be a UK Minister. This concerns the conflict of loyalties which we have continually emphasised in these debates.

Amendment No. 14 proposes that Irish MPs of either House should not be Speaker or Deputy Speaker in the House of Commons. I accept that it is for the House of Commons to determine, through an election, who should be Speaker. I was moved to table the amendment because it seemed rather bizarre that the Speaker of the House of Commons could in theory be an Irish Member of Parliament. However, I say in advance, even without hearing the Minister's reply, that that is not an amendment I wish to press.

Amendment No. 13 is important. It proposes that an Irish Minister should not be a UK Minister. I hope here that I might have some encouragement from the Liberal Democrat Benches. So far, the Liberal Democrats have not contributed to our debate in any way. However, I hope we may hear their views on this amendment. It was put forward by Simon Hughes in the House of Commons. It was presumably drafted by him or his office. Speaking for the Liberal Democrats from the Front Bench, he stated that he had gone along with the principles of the Bill, but that having done that, he drew a line. He stated In our view, no one should be able to hold simultaneously ministerial office in the Irish Government and ministerial office in the British Government or in the Northern Ireland Government … We have always argued that there is no necessary incompatibility with being a member of two legislatures. We share that view with the Government". But he went on to say: There is a strong conflict of interests. Someone who is a member of the Government in one country cannot simultaneously and without conflicts of interest arising be a member of the Government of another sovereign country. He continued that, although it would be unlikely that a British Prime Minister would choose such a person to go into his government, nonetheless, as has been evident from everything we have discussed, the Bill was dealing with things which are theoretical and probably unlikely to occur. He stated: The Minister asked me whether what I described would be likely in the real world. The entire Bill is in large measure about things that do not happen in that world. The Bill is about whether Members of Commonwealth Parliaments would be Members of the Westminster Parliament. The Minister said that there are not any such Members in that position and there never have been. I understand that no one has previously served in a Parliament in this country while simultaneously being a Member of a Commonwealth country Parliament".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/00, cols. 493 and 494.]

Needless to say, he went on to state that he supported his own amendment and that he did not believe that someone should be able to hold ministerial office in the Irish Government and the British Government or the Northern Ireland Government at the same time. That was the view of the Liberal Democrats. I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrat spokesman will give Amendment No. 13 his warm support.

Viscount Cranborne

I understand the reason why my noble friend tabled the amendments. He is right to point out that if a conflict of loyalties exists for a Back Bench Member of both sovereign parliaments, an even greater conflict of interest and loyalty will exist for people who hold any form of office, not only in the sovereign parliament but also in the subsidiary parliaments and assemblies of the United Kingdom. I do not think I need to add to the points raised by the noble Lord. They are evidence enough of the difficulties of the Bill as brought before us and why we oppose it in principle.

However, there is another difficulty which the Government need to address. It is something which I suspect has worried Members of the Committee in relation to other pieces of legislation ever since the 1997 general election. The devolution legislation, particularly for Scotland, raised precisely this point. One of the glories of your Lordships' Chamber is that every Member of it is equal. Whatever we feel about each other, our experience and our capabilities, we are all equal and theoretically are able to perform jobs open to us, whether as members of Government, Opposition Front Bench or as members or chairmen of Select Committees. I believe I am right in saying that the same is true of another place.

One of the difficulties thrown up by the West Lothian question is how it is possible effectively to create two classes of Member in another place. We know that it is possible for a Member of Parliament from a Scottish constituency to vote on matters not devolved to English regions but devolved to the Scottish Parliament. And this Bill is providing a classic locus of conflict. My noble friend and I strongly believe that there is a conflict of interest which is insoluble for members of two sovereign parliaments. As he eloquently made clear, any office holder covered by Amendments Nos. 11 to 14, will have an even greater conflict of interest. It is therefore beyond peradventure undesirable that such office holders should be members of another sovereign parliament. But at the same time, as soon as we accept my noble friend's amendments, we immediately create two classes of Member in another place. That is inevitable when we get ourselves into the difficulties that the Government have got themselves into over Scottish devolution and, equally, over this Bill.

When confronted with what seemed to me two irreconcilable matters, one had to make a choice, just as the leader of my party made a choice with his slogan, "English votes for English laws". I can understand why he did that and I am sure that, like me, he felt that that was the least bad option open to us for the West Lothian question, even though it raises all sorts of difficulties of a kind of which my noble friend will be more than well aware.

My noble friend has done us a great service by tabling Amendments Nos. 11 to 14. He is right in saying that the conflict of loyalties for office holders of this kind is greater even than it would be for members of two sovereign parliaments. But he is introducing another difficulty which will need resolution if, as I hope, he succeeds in this amendment; that is, how is another place to deal with having two classes of Member? As I repeated ad nauseam in the debates on reform of your Lordships' House, that is profoundly undesirable. There is a distinct difference between taking different routes to membership of an Assembly and, once there, having different rights within it. That is a conflict I am sorry to find. I do not blame my noble friend; I am sure he is well aware of it. And he is right that, when one is forced to make a judgment in these matters, to try to resolve the question of inherent conflict of interest seems to be more important.

That shows that the Government are opening a can which will lead them into all sorts of difficulties, comparable to those they are beginning to face in the native heath of the noble and learned Lord.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

As someone who sat through many debates in the other place as far back as the home rule and devolution for Scotland debates in the time of the Callaghan government, it is true that there has never been a clear resolution of the difficulty of what he rightly calls two classes of member. But at least in one way or another they are paying taxation to the same Treasury. But in this Bill, without giving much thought to it, we are creating a third-class member from another sovereign country who presumably will be permitted to vote on expenditure and taxation within the United Kingdom, although not himself contributing to taxation within it. I agree with the noble Viscount that that is not something we can lightly pass over. We are having problems with Scotland already. If the Northern Ireland Assembly reaches the point where it is given powers to increase taxation, then naturally we shall spotlight the anomaly contained in these provisions.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I assume that most of your Lordships will agree that these are relatively unlikely possibilities being provided for in this block of amendments. Both ministerial speakers in the debates today have based their recommendations for this Bill on the idea that the whole thing is an unlikely possibility. It is we who believe that the opportunities offered by the Bill may lead to very serious consequences. If we are to correct anomalies, those addressed by this block of amendments seem to be extremely interesting and should certainly be considered.

I am particularly attracted to Amendment No. 13. I believe that the extracts from the speech of Mr Simon Hughes in another place were particularly forceful, not least because of their origin and speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. It would be particularly damaging if that particular loophole was not closed and an attempt was made to use it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We have had quite a lengthy discourse on this particular group of amendments. I am not quite sure that they were worth it, but obviously I have to respect the Members of the Committee and the way in which they address the amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, really gave the game away when he said that much of what they sought to deal with was theoretical. I felt that throughout much of the discussion. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, raised an interesting point about a conflict of interest if Irish Ministers were to hold ministerial office in the UK Government. One can accept that such a potential for conflict could exist in a particular circumstance, but I do not believe that it is necessary to legislate to prevent it because the existing protections, in our view, are more than sufficient.

These amendments seek to add additional protection against potential conflicts. All the offices to which the amendments refer, unlike those in the Northern Ireland Assembly to which the Bill applies, are offices filled by election or appointment by the Prime Minister or the House of Commons. They are free to choose not to elect or appoint to the office a member of the Irish legislature or the Irish Government.

As regards the Northern Ireland Ministers and the chairman and deputy chairman of the statutory committees of the Assembly, those posts are filled by the d'Hondt system which allocates posts according to the number of seats held by parties in the Assembly. We believe that the provisions in the Bill are necessary to prevent a possible conflict of interest where the same individual holds offices as specified in the Bill in both the Assembly and the Irish legislature. Clearly, the same situation does not apply to appointments made by the Prime Minister or the House of Commons. For those reasons, we believe that the proposed amendments—no doubt well intentioned in their strange way—are completely unnecessary.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

I am sorry that the Minister thought that to spend 15 or 17 minutes after he had spoken was rather a long time for such amendments. No doubt he would take an even dimmer view of the length of time that the House of Commons took considering the Bill. It was forced to sit all night because of the way in which the Bill was presented. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, called that "scrutiny". To most of us it seemed farcical. It was put forward with such a timetable without an adequate reason being offered.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. In moving the amendment, he said—I paraphrase—that he thought they were dealing with somewhat of a theoretical situation. That was the context in which I made my observation.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

I believe that they were dealing with a theoretical possibility, but, as Mr Simon Hughes said in another place, the whole Bill deals with a theoretical possibility. It is one which the noble Viscount, my honourable friends and I hope will never come about. Our objection to the Bill is that we do not know what is theoretical and what is real. We do not know what is around the corner because the Government will give no explanation of why this mysterious Bill which no one wants is being put forward. In constitutional terms, it is an outrage that the Bill is being put forward.

On a previous amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, accused me of believing in conspiracies. I have every reason to do so when I see the policy document put forward by Sinn Fein and when the Bill was justified simply in terms of administrative tidying up. I could give Ministers thousands of anomalies in our taxation legislation, some of which I created, and I should be delighted if they would tidy them all up tomorrow. When an anomaly exists, it is not normal that Ministers rush forward and publish something almost on Christmas Eve so that political parties have no communication through official channels nor an opportunity to consult outside bodies. The Bill was introduced in January, just after the House of Commons returned—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I think that he over-eggs the argument. Yes, the Bill was published in December and there was a full month for it to be commented on by other parties. I understand that the parties in Northern Ireland were made fully aware of the publication of the Bill and there was that period in which they could have passed extra comment on it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

The Minister sa s that there was a full month. The Bill was published three days before Christmas, on the day when Parliament rose and everyone went off on holiday. No one was going to be aware of press releases and publications between 22nd December and 2nd or 3rd January. The Bill then had its Second Reading and Committee stage—there was no Report stage—in the first week of Parliament's return. I do not believe that that is adequate consultation.

Viscount Cranborne

I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He had enormous experience of introducing and promoting legislation when he was a Minister in another place. Did he ever introduce a Bill purely for administrative convenience and without explaining to another place whether there was a demand for it? Did he explain whether he had taken soundings on such a Bill and, if he had, during his explanation for introducing it, did he fail to say who was in favour of it and why?

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

I must confess that I introduced many measures for which there was no demand—indeed, there was positive opposition! However, I hope that I have always tried to the best of my ability to explain why I thought a measure was necessary even if the rest of the world did not. It seems to me that either you explain why something is necessary or you explain who wants it. We have received no explanation of the Bill and to hear it described as tidying up an anomaly, when the anomaly has been no obstacle to anything that has happened so far in the real world, merely fuels one's suspicions that other things are going on and that the Bill is designed only as part of the appeasement of Sinn Fein/IRA that has characterised what the Government have done.

We are moving into a world in which morality and common sense are suspended, in which Ministers say, "We don't know who fired a rocket at MI6", and in which we preach to other countries about what they should do about people who have abused human rights. What on earth is the meaning of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law when we do nothing to arrest those who torture and knee-cap people? The European Convention on Human Rights and its prohibition on torture has no meaning when applied to governments. In this country, it has meaning only when applied to the action of people such as members of the IRA. It is a farce for people on the Benches opposite to preach the merits of human rights and of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law when they do nothing about the right of people not to be tortured by the IRA. They set aside the judgments of courts and release prisoners, yet preach to the new democratically-elected President of Serbia how he should deal with so-called men of violence in his own country. However, I must not digress.

The Minister did not deal in any way with the question raised by my noble friend Lord Cranborne about reproduction of the Scottish question and the creation of two classes of members, or, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, the creation of three classes of members.

We are not getting very far. However, I believe that Amendment No. 13 is compelling. I very much agree with the words of Simon Hughes in another place: In our view, no one should be able to hold simultaneously ministerial office in the Irish Government and ministerial office in the British Government or in the Northern Ireland Government … There is a strong conflict of interests. Someone who is a member of the Government in one country cannot simultaneously and without conflicts of interest arising be a member of the Government of another sovereign country".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/00; col. 493.] It is Mr Hughes' amendment that I put forward. I propose to divide the Committee on that amendment, and I assume that in so doing I shall have the support of the Liberal Democrats.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

Before the noble Lord sits down, he has endeavoured, quite successfully, to goad me into rising to speak. The reason I have not spoken to this matter is that earlier today the Conservative Front Bench protested about the length of Committee stages. This evening we have been subjected to filibuster on the part of the Conservative Benches. I am certain that my honourable friend in another place would not want his arguments to be prayed in aid in that filibuster, and that is the reason for my silence.

Viscount Cranborne

Before the noble Lord sits down, how does he justify the accusation of a filibuster?

Lord Smith of Clifton

One has had repetition, circumlocution and, frankly, Second Reading-type debates in Committee.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

I am dismayed and astonished by the observations of the Liberal Democrats. I am surprised that they cannot support the amendment as drafted by their own spokesman. Like Mr Hughes, I regard this issue as of considerable importance. He agreed with some of the points aired in another place in Committee. It is utterly wrong to suggest that there has been filibustering. We have had relatively short debates on the individual amendments. The Minister complained that we had taken 15 minutes for one amendment. If a filibuster was going on several hours might be thought to be appropriate. I do not see how 15 minutes to deal with four amendments can be described as a filibuster. I do not wish to prolong this debate. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 11. I shall not move Amendment No. 12 but shall put Amendment No. 13—the Liberal Democrats' amendment—to a vote in the Division Lobby.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

Lord Lamont of Lerwick moved Amendment No. 13: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—