HL Deb 22 April 2002 vol 634 cc7-10

2.55 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have expressed, or intend to express, any views to the House of Lords' Offices Committee about where, if anywhere, Members of the House of Commons, who have offices there but have not taken the oath, may go in the House of Lords.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government have not expressed any views to the House of Lords' Offices Committee and have no intention of expressing a view. The privilege granted to Members of another place in your Lordships' House are matters for the Offices Committee and the House itself to decide.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, which I assume she is giving as Deputy Leader of the House. Will she confirm that Members of the other place may normally take parties along the Line of Route, they may stand at the Bar of the House, they may walk the corridors, they may use the Library and they have access to the Members' Gallery without security checks? Since she has said that this is a House of Lords matter, does she agree that there is no reason why this House should follow the decision of the House of Commons? What interim instructions have been given to staff pending the decision of the relevant committee should Sinn Fein Members request access or try to gain access to this House? Will she undertake that this House will have a debate and an opportunity to vote on the matter, as some of us strongly object to the decision made by the House of Commons if it affects this place?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I confirm that I am answering the Question in the absence of my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House, who is unable to be in the House today. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is right. As the Members concerned have been given passes, they have access to public areas of the House of Lords. In addition, it is usual for Members of another place to have access to the four places that the noble Lord mentioned in his supplementary question. Pending a decision of your Lordships' House, access to those areas is currently not available to the Members of another place in question. Those matters will be discussed at the Administration and Works Sub-Committee on 30th April and will then come before the Offices Committee, which will consider its recommendation on 14th May. In due course, that will be referred to your Lordships' House in the usual way so that there will be an opportunity for your Lordships to take a decision on these matters.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, will the noble Baroness bear very much in mind that many of us feel that it would be an intolerable insult to those of our Members who have suffered at the hands of the IRA if murderers, apologists for murder and associates of murderers were to come anywhere near this place?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I recognise that this is an issue on which feelings run very high. I am sure that all your Lordships recognise that there are those in this House who have suffered cruelly from terrorist activities. However, I remind your Lordships that we are engaged in a peace process at the moment and that many will wish to support that peace process in the way that was the case in another place. I stress that it will be a matter for your Lordships to decide. That opportunity will be presented in due course.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will the noble Baroness ensure that the committee considering these matters is given access to the information held by the security authorities concerning the intelligence-gathering of the IRA, which continues, and its purchase of modern weapons from Russia, which also continues, so that the committee can take a view on whether the IRA's partners, and possibly the Members in the other place, are fit to be trusted to come to this end of the corridor?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that there would have been any question of allowing access to individuals thought to be a threat either in another place or in your Lordships' House. Of course I hope that all the available information that can be put before your Lordships is put before your Lordships, but I remind the House that some matters will, I am sure, be coming from very sensitive intelligence sources and may not be readily available. I can only repeat that the sensitivity of the issue is fully recognised. However, not only will the Offices Committee have the opportunity to discuss it, your Lordships will have the opportunity to discuss it in due course thereafter.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in principle, it would be unfortunate if this House were to adopt different practices regarding Members of another place than that place itself adopted? Would that not reflect badly on the overall running of the Palace of Westminster, and would there not have to be exceptionally good reasons for doing it? Is she also aware that at least one of the Members of Parliament in question is a Minister in Northern Ireland and serves in its Executive? The way in which some of the innuendoes have been cast today does not do the peace process any good.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree in part with some of my noble friend's comments. I agree, for example, that it is not right to refer in your Lordships' House to Members of another place as they have sadly been referred to during these exchanges. However, I do not agree that, having said that the Government will not be expressing a view on the matter, I can now express a view as a member of the Government that would effectively reverse my original answer. I can only tell noble Lords that, in the first instance, they will have an opportunity to express their views in the Offices Committee. The leaders of all the political parties represented in your Lordships' House, the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers and the Whips will be on that Committee and will be able to express their views. Thereafter, the matter will come before your Lordships' House and every noble Lord will have the opportunity to express a view on it.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, can the Minister say whether those individuals will be permitted those rights in the interim before the view of the House has been expressed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thought that I had said that, in the interim, the passes allow access only to the public places in your Lordships' House. The issues of particular sensitivity mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont—standing at the Bar of the House to listen to our debates; use of the Library reading rooms; use of the Members' Gallery; and sponsored visits on the Line of Route round your Lordships' House—will be considered by the Offices Committee on 14th May.

Lord Roper

My Lords, without wishing to pre-empt discussion in the Administration and Works Sub-Committee and in the Offices Committee, may I say that we on these Benches believe that the decision to make the interim ban and to put the issue to the appropriate committees of the House is the correct one?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am delighted to hear the Chief Whip for the Liberal Democrats make such a very sensitive contribution.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, can the Minister say whether passes have been given to staff, researchers or assistants of those Members of another place who are part of Sinn Fein? If so, has there been any vetting or background checks?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what I can tell your Lordships is that the applications for passes for researchers for the Members in question are being dealt with in the same way as they are for any other Member of another place.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will that public access include the offices or the environs of the offices of former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who now serve in this House and may be at particular risk?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I understand it, Members of another place have access to the public parts of your Lordships' House. The public parts of your Lordships' House do not include the particular corridors on which particular Ministers, former Ministers or Members of the Opposition parties work. The sensitive issues are those that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, mentioned and I have repeated in answering the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we all understand the needs of the peace process. However, does not the noble Baroness understand that what repulses people across the country is the sight of people elected to Parliament who refuse to take their seat but who still receive hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money while at the same time carrying out some of the activities which my noble friend Lord Tebbit has just mentioned? Do the Government still believe that another place came to the right decision?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear my answer. This is a matter for another place, and another place debated it. Another place also voted by 322 votes to 189 votes that they should go ahead on the basis with which all noble Lords are familiar.