HC Deb 26 January 1989 vol 145 cc1273-90

11 pm

Amendment proposed: No. 22, in page 11, line 5, leave out `, if elected,' and insert

'after nomination until the declaration of the count and, if elected, during the life of the elected authority'.—[Mr. Molyneaux.]

Question put, That the amendment be:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 127.

Division No. 57] [10.59 pm
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Kilfedder, James Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
McCrea, Rev William Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)
McCusker, Harold
Maginnis, Ken Tellers for the Ayes:
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Mr. William Ross and
Paisley, Rev Ian Mr. Roy Beggs.
Alexander, Richard Harris, David
Amess, David Haynes, Frank
Amos, Alan Heathcoat-Amory, David
Arbuthnot, James Holt, Richard
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Ashby, David Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Atkinson, David Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Hunter, Andrew
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Irvine, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Jack, Michael
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Janman, Tim
Boswell, Tim King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Bowis, John King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Knapman, Roger
Bright, Graham Knowles, Michael
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Lang, Ian
Burt, Alistair Lightbown, David
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Livsey, Richard
Carrington, Matthew Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Carttiss, Michael Lord, Michael
Chapman, Sydney Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Chope, Christopher McGrady, Eddie
Conway, Derek McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) McNamara, Kevin
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Mallon, Seamus
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Mans, Keith
Cran, James Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Cryer, Bob Martlew, Eric
Currie, Mrs Edwina Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Davis, David (Boothferry) Michael, Alun
Day, Stephen Morley, Elliott
Devlin, Tim Morrison, Sir Charles
Dorrell, Stephen Needham, Richard
Dover, Den Norris, Steve
Dunnachie, Jimmy Pike, Peter L.
Durant, Tony Porter, David (Waveney)
Fallon, Michael Roe, Mrs Marion
Fenner, Dame Peggy Rowe, Andrew
Fishburn, John Dudley Sackville, Hon Tom
Flannery, Martin Sayeed, Jonathan
Forth, Eric Shaw, David (Dover)
Franks, Cecil Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Gale, Roger Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Skinner, Dennis
Gill, Christopher Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Gregory, Conal Steel, Rt Hon David
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Stern, Michael
Ground, Patrick Stevens, Lewis
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Summerson, Hugo
Hanley, Jeremy Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Waller, Gary
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Watts, John
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman Wells, Bowen
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N) Wheeler, John
Thorne, Neil Widdecombe, Ann
Thurnham, Peter Wood, Timothy
Tracey, Richard
Twinn, Dr Ian Tellers for the Noes:
Viggers, Peter Mr. Alan Howarth and
Waddington, Rt Hon David Mr. David Maclean.
Wallace, James

Question accordingly negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

11.10 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Torn King)

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

Although this is a somewhat later hour than some of my hon. Friends might have hoped for, they will accept from me that Northern Ireland cannot be accused of overtaxing the House. I take considerable pleasure from the fact that this modest measure has had the opportunity of a full discussion in the House this evening, and I am pleased that so many hon. Members from Northern Ireland have taken part in the debate on the amendments.

I hope that those hon. Members who served on the Committee will not treat me as an interloper if I take part at this stage of the Bill. I hope that all hon. Members will join me in expressing appreciation to my hon. Friend the Minister in charge of the Bill for the way in which he has conducted its proceedings.

I hope also that two provisions of the Bill are not too controversial. The extension of the franchise to those who enjoy it under certain election procedures but not under others, but who will now enjoy it under the council procedure, is overdue, and it corrects an anomaly that should have been corrected before. I trust that I carry the House with me on that point. The anomaly that only those convicted of minor offences be disqualified from subsequently serving on local authorities in Northern Ireland, but not those convicted of major offences, because the disqualification period has long expired before they emerged from their period of confinement should also be corrected.

I recognise that the controversial elements in the Bill relate to the declaration by candidates in consideration of an abjuration of violence.

In terms of protagonists, the debate has focused on those who believe that this is not a sensible proposal and that nothing should be done, and on those who believe that much more should be done. That is perhaps typical of so many of the problems faced by those responsible for government in Northern Ireland and the balance that has to be struck.

I do not claim that the measure is a guaranteed, fail-safe solution to what I genuinely believe is a real and manifest problem. It is no secret that the Bill is before the House because it is recognised that there is a genuine problem. My hon. Friend the Minister and I embarked on the consultation paper that we issued and the discussions that we had with many people in Northern Ireland because we recognised that there was genuine concern. We recognised that there was something uniquely offensive in people serving on councils in Northern Ireland with people who openly supported murder, killing and violence as an adjunct to their political activities.

It would have been easier to walk away and do nothing. Some have suggested that we should go further and proscribe such organisations. Some talk of proscription as though it were a fail-safe option that was guaranteed to work. I have made no secret of the fact that we do not rule out that option, but it has many difficulties and needs to be considered carefully before it is adopted.

The proposals that we have put before the House have been made not in an impetuous or ill-considered way, but after considerable detailed consultation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has discussed the measure with a number of hon. Members, people who hold elected office in Northern Ireland and many others who were concerned about the issue. That was the right way to proceed. There is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed and this is the honourable and correct way in which to do so.

Above all, we ensure by this measure that the many people who have felt the offence of finding themselves in elected office in Northern Ireland and having to face people who abuse the electoral process have some means of redress whereas previously they were told that there was nothing that they could do.

We have sought to bring the measure before the House in readiness for this year's local government elections in Northern Ireland. Its existence, given the support of the House on Third Reading and then of another place, means that those who stand for election will do so in the knowledge that each candidate will be standing under the same circumstances and with the same commitment not to support violence in any form in which it is described in the Bill. It is in that spirit that I commend the Bill to the House.

11.18 pm
Mr. McNamara

It is noble of the Secretary of State to come before us and take responsibility for the Bill. He referred to it as a modest measure. There is a lot to be modest about.

If we believe what we read in the newspapers, the real author of the legislation is the Under-Secretary of State. I have a message for the leader of the Social and Liberal Democratic party. Whatever his reputation here, despite his birth and the ancestry of his parents, Action Man in Northern Ireland, according to the Belfast Telegraph, is the Under-Secretary. For all the right hon. Gentleman's claims to fame, I am sorry that he has not gone that far. The heading was, The dreams of an action man". The problem is that both the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister share dreams. One believes that one day he might takeover the Labour party and the other believes that the Bill might improve the situation in Northern Ireland. Both are misconceived in their ideas.

The article also states, referring to the Minister: Already he can claim credit as the man who finally got Ulster pubs open on Sundays. I suspect that he found the Bill late one Sunday night in a bar. One of the most interesting comments on the Bill was the strange statement of the Minister in the same issue of the Belfast Telegraph. He said: Mr. Needham says that while his plan may not solve the problems in the councils, it does show the Government's determination. It seems that the Minister's ambition is to secure an entry in the Stormont book of heroic failures.

The shallowness of the Bill is shown by the Minister's lack of conviction about it. It shows the Government's determination, but it will not solve any of the problems. He would be better employed taking the Bill away and allowing the electorate of Northern Ireland to decide who is best fit to represent it. Determination can be an admirable quality, but unless it is allied with sensible purpose, it degenerates into mere stubbornness. That is what we have seen tonight. The Minister has persisted in stubbornly imposing on Northern Ireland a Bill which will satisfy no one in the Province and will offend many beyond the ranks of those it seeks to curb. It is ironic that a Minister who has been so vigorous, as the Belfast Telegraph said, in advocating the need for greater self-government in Northern Ireland should stand so firmly against the voices from both sides of the community who are opposed to or dissatisfied with the Bill. It is almost as if he has resorted to the old colonial tactic of divide and rule where the Government were measured by their capacity to offend all sensibilities equally.

The Bill, as a whole, is a disaster. We shall not have to wait very long before we see the negative effects of the legislation in the council chambers later this year. I shall identify the main reasons that lead the Labour party to that conclusion, but, before doing so, I must mention one positive aspect of the Bill—clauses 1 and 2, which bring the franchise for local elections into that for parliamentary elections. The anomaly was a hangover from the days of sectarian abuse and of explicitly sectarian Government in Northern Ireland.

I was bitterly disappointed that some Northern Ireland hon. Members sought to maintain such blatant sectarianism in their amendments. If they cannot demonstrate more concern to treat their neighbours as equal citizens, the future for the Province is grim. However, those provisions are about the best thing that can be said about the Bill. To be fair, Ministers have resisted the more outrageous proposals, but they would never have been put forward if the Bill did not provide suitable opportunities for them. The Government are belatedly beginning to recognise that they have created enough damage without the exercise in destruction that they would have been invited to undertake today by some hon. Members and their more outrageous amendments.

It is also a curious twist that a Bill that includes the extension of the franchise should be coupled with an attempt to limit the significance of the exercise of that franchise. By requiring candidates for elected office to sign a declaration, we are placing barriers in the way of free elections. The paradox is that those who advocate violence will sign the declaration and find a way around it. Those whose attitude towards violence has at best been ambiguous will sign it and cover themselves with self-righteousness while some of those whose conduct has been irreproachable will refuse to demean themselves by signing the declaration. To sign is an implicit acceptance by a candidate that there is a possibility of him or her supporting violence. The Bill is a calculated insult to the vast majority of public representatives and electors in Northern Ireland.

The key clauses—clauses 6 and 7—are completely unacceptable. Clause 6, which deals with breaches of the declaration, is appalling and has failed completely to give a genuine definition of what constitutes a breach of the declaration.

Mr. Ashdown


Mr. McNamara

I am not giving way.

Mr. Ashdown

It is on the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. I am fascinated by his logic.

Mr. McNamara

The right hon. Member must continue to be fascinated. Time is going on and I will not give way.

Not only have the Government resisted all attempts to provide a strict definition, but they openly admit that they wish the courts to do the work that they should have done in drafting the Bill. Then they have the gall to describe the Bill as a carefully considered measure. All they have done is to make the Northern Ireland judiciary the arbiter of acceptable political behaviour in Northern Ireland, thus replacing the electorate with the judiciary, and to make the prospect of sectarian litigation more inviting, as well as politicising the judiciary. These are the proposals of a Government whose Ministers claim to wish to promote the possibility of greater self-government for the Province.

As for clause 7, we have already rehearsed the arguments. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) eloquently demolished the clause when proposing our amendment. I only regret that the Government have not accepted responsibility for the enforcement of their own legislation. As my hon. Friend said, it will allow sectarian litigation to increase turmoil in council chambers and will probably, as hon. Members from Northern Ireland have suggested, lead to lives being placed at risk. It is not, as the Under-Secretary said, the witnesses or the clerks of the council who will be at risk; the person who will be fingered is the person who initiates the action.

I do not agree with all the suggestions made by hon. Members from Northern Ireland, but I find it strange that the Government's intention to promote the cause of more responsive government in Northern Ireland is associated with a talent for creating consensus of opposition, however diverse its strands, from all sides in Northern Ireland.

I note that the Government's contempt for the people of Northern Ireland extends to statutory bodies, such as the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, whose views on the Bill have been ignored. It had little time to express its views to the Secretary of State until after the Committee stage.

I do not wish to waste more of the time of the House than has already been taken up by this unnecessary, divisive and destructive Bill. It is sad that when there are so few opportunities to debate Northern Ireland in the House we should find ourselves dealing far too often with ill-considered measures. The Government are not setting the political agenda, as they would have us believe. They are simply dancing to the tune of the open supporters of the paramilitaries. They are not even prepared to enforce their own legislation. That is the mark of people who are neither convinced of nor sincere in their purpose.

Because we do not believe in such a futile measure and because we regret very much the lack of conviction of the Government in their own measure, we shall divide on Third Reading.

11.28 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe

Usually when a Member has worked on a Bill in Committee and in the House he is glad when it completes its stages in the Chamber even though he may not agree with all its provisions, but I must say that I am very sorry that we have reached the end of the road on this measure. The Bill has a stance. It will be completely ineffective. Unfortunately, the work of hon. Members tn putting the Bill through the House will be wasted.

We on these Benches were anxious to support the Bill. We felt that with a little bit of alteration, and a couple of amendments, the Bill could be made effective. Unfortunately, there has been no movement whatsoever. Every suggestion that has been put to the Government has been rejected. All the arguments about intimidation could have been considerably lessened by making the declaration a criminal offence. If the Minister had worried about a criminal offence, it would have made the position slightly different. I know that the Secretary of State does not agree with that; indeed, he shakes his head.

While I do not agree that right hon. and hon. Members are too far from the situation—if one is a little further from a situation one might look at it differently—they must agree that those of us who come from Northern Ireland, who are close to the people, may have a different view which perhaps should be listened to occasionally.

Members of Parliament will be able to take action against breaches of the declaration as we all live in local government areas. The Government are placing one side of the council chamber against the other. I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) that this is a political Bill in that one political party in the council will be set against another. There is no doubt about that.

We must put it on record that the Bill is ineffective. It will be proved to be so in a few years or less, when those who brought in the legislation will probably be sitting on the same Benches and answering the same questions. We should think about that.

I do not wish to detain the House longer, so I will end by describing in this way what will happen after May. It will be seconds out, round one.

11.34 pm
Mr. McGrady

Like the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) I have gone through all the stages of the Bill from studying the White Paper to Third Reading. It is patently obvious, although this is portrayed erroneously by the Government, that the Bill will not reduce or impinge on terrorism in Northern Ireland in any way, in fact, given the workings of the political wings of the paramilitary groups, the Bill will be a weapon in their hands and be to their advantage.

The only consequence of the Bill will be an exceedingly disadvantaged local government scenario, because we shall have party political confrontation in the council chambers. And, as has been said often enough tonight, the confrontation will not simply be with Sinn Fein; it will be right across the political parties, because like everyone else, they will take advantage of the Bill. A decision about the declaration will be made not on the basis of whether they want to take a seat but on the basis of the long-term political advantage of the paramilitaries. That is how they will decide whether to make such a declaration. Thus the decision will be a totally political one, and I must agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, South that this is a political Bill.

It means, of course, that under the Bill we will have the strange anomaly of a civil offence which can be perpetrated only by elected councillors. The situation will be unique, because they will be the only people capable of committing a civil offence under this legislation. One is forced to ask why a spoken or written word in support of terrorism or violence should not be an offence for every member of the community, rather than merely selectively, as under the Bill, for elected councillors. Surely, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

There is another dramatic consequence that we shall see very shortly. When it becomes apparant to the Northern Ireland community that there will be additional confrontation in the council chambers—as there will be, no doubt about it—the people will prejudge that situation and the calibre of candidates offering themselves for election in May of this year will be very much diminished, to the detriment of local government. Local government in Northern Ireland has many flaws and faults, and I have been forced to criticise them, but at least one should not act in such a way as to diminish the possibility of some improvement.

I know that it is not proper to discuss a specific aspect of a Bill on Third Reading and most of the clauses were dealt with in general debate tonight, but the exception was the very essence of the Bill—the character of the offence itself.

I asked the Minister responsible for piloting the Bill through Committee what he meant by the phrase, apart from.the written and the spoken word, "and any other behaviour". I found his reply rather naive. I described a situation which is quite common in council chambers where a negative position could quite clearly be an expression of support for violence. I gave examples on Report, and hon. Members who wish to know what I mean by that can refer to my speech. A negative attitude to a course of action can be a clear indication of support for violence. The Minister's reply was that the phrase "other behaviour" does not cover and is not intended to cover doing nothing. The phrase 'other behaviour' would cover, for example, the wearing of insignia or paramilitary dress."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 20 December 1988; c. 57.] Every second citizen in Northern Ireland has paramilitary dress or, if not, certainly has insignia.

The unqualified phrase "other behaviour" will be an enormous legal quagmire. We will thus have a bad law and the imprecision of that law will be passed on to the courts for judgment, and yet in no way will we have affected the presence of supporters of terrorism in the council chambers. All that will happen is that they will use the Act and turn it back on those of us who are totally and implacably opposed to violence. For that reason, my party has opposed the principle of the Bill from the word go. Having sat through all the arguments in Committee and in the House I have not heard one good reason to change our mind. The Bill will be applied to local government in Northern Ireland and it will be debilitating. It will be a great cause of aggravation in our council chambers.

11.40 pm
Mr. Ashdown

I acknowledge immediately that the Bill raises difficult judgments. The history of oaths and declarations in Irish politics is not a happy one. Those of us who are aware of what has taken place know that. We are also aware that the Bill can be represented as some infringement of the civil liberties of those who go through the electoral process. If it were not so a similar declaration would be made in Britain. Those who are concerned, as I am, about civil liberties, must be worried about that. Ultimately, we have to make a judgment on individual civil liberties and what is appropriate to give the largest liberty to the greatest number of people in difficult circumstances. The key liberty is the liberty to survive without the threat of violence as part of everyday life and politics. As hon. Members who represent Irish constituencies have said, we are miserably far from that condition in Northern Ireland today.

Throughout the various stages of the Bill I have said that it has to be judged on the answer to a single question. Will it, in however small a measure, assist the process of democracy, and prevent, or at least inhibit, violence in the everyday life of Northern Ireland, especially in its politics? It is on that single judgment that one must come to a conclusion.

I have heard it said by hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), that this is a political Bill. Of course it is. It is about politics and it is introduced according to a political judgment. However, if by that hon. Members mean that it is a politically partial Bill, I have to disagree with them.

I hesitate to take a different view from hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. I suspect that there is broad agreement amongst them and the Labour party. I know the difficulties under which they have to labour and the courage that they have to show to practice the ordinary process of democracy in Northern Ireland on a day-to-day basis. Those of us who represent English, Scottish or Welsh constituencies and who are not involved in Northern Ireland, have no idea of the extent to which that must disrupt their daily lives, threaten their families and so on. Therefore, one does not lightly take a different view from them. However, I have to take that different view as a matter of judgment.

Let me place on record that, although I suspect that when we divide every hon. Member representing an Irish constituency will oppose the Government, I would not wish it to be known that that is the overwhelming and unanimous view of the people of Northern Ireland. There are many who would support the legislation. One political party in Northern Ireland—the one for which I have the most respect; the Alliance party—is on record as having stated that it supports the legislation.

Mr. McGrady

On a point of information, the leader of the Alliance party, Dr. John Alderdice, said in my presence the other day—it was witnessed by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis)—that his party was totally opposed to the Bill.

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is simply hearsay. I spoke with the leader of the Alliance party in Northern Ireland very recently, including when I was on a visit to Northern Ireland only a matter of a month ago, and he did not express that view to me, and as far as I know he has not changed his view. I notice, and perhaps it should be placed on record, that the Secretary of State, who presumably has spoken to that gentleman as well, takes the same view as myself. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter and I shall consider it. I take his comments seriously, but he will understand if I do not accept them at face value, because they are entirely contrary to the information which I have.

I think that those hon. Members who have spoken with considerable passion and a good deal of argument on their side against the Bill today, have nevertheless come to a wrong conclusion. I say that, albeit with some diffidence, because I believe they may have underestimated the effect which making a declaration of this sort will have in displaying in a most powerful manner the duplicity of those who in a matter of weeks, or months, or perhaps even years, will obviously breach it. I accept that there are people in Northern Ireland who are capable of acting so cynically. But I believe that the showing of that duplicity in such a powerful form will have an effect on the democratic process in Northern Ireland. Maybe that is a wrong judgment, but it is a judgment that I have to make.

I would go further and say that those hon. Gentlemen from Northern Irish constituencies who have spoken against this Bill may well in the long run have overestimated the propaganda uses to which this could be put by the people of violence. It may well be that in a few months from the passing of this Bill there will indeed be the circumstances described by hon. Gentlemen, but at the end of the day the propaganda effect of that, in my judgment, will wear out and the long-term beneficial results which this Bill could bring may well begin to be seen.

To return where I started, the single judgment that we have to make in deciding how to vote on a difficult Bill on these difficult issues is whether it will assist the process of democracy and inhibit the process of violence in Northern Ireland. My judgment is that it will. Let that statement not be misunderstood in any way. I do not believe that this legislation by itself will be a cure-all or that by itself it wil solve all the problems. It is one small piece in an armoury we must carefully and patiently assemble that wall encourage the democratic process and inhibit the process of violence. If hon. Members believe that this Bill, despite whatever practical drawbacks it may have—I have expressed my views about one or two of those—adds in however small a measure to that armoury, they should support it tonight.

That is my judgment and this is why I and my party will support the Bill.

11.28 pm
Rev. William McCrea

Having listened to the preceding speeches, I think it is right to say that many hon. Members would like to support this measure. Indeed, as I come from a council that has a number of Sinn Fein representatives of murderers in the council chamber, I should like to be able to give a clear assent to the Bill. The Secretary of State has made his considered judgment, the Minister concerned has made his, and one must respect their right to make those judgments. But other hon. Members have considered the Bill carefully, hoping for a measure that would be effective in silencing terrorists. In our judgment, it does not meet the requirement which we longed to have met by a Bill that could have been brought before the House. In the days to come we shall see the proof. We shall see whether the judgment of the Secretary of State and his Ministers is right or whether the judgment of hon. Members who think that the Bill does not go far enough is proved correct. There is an old saying that the proof of the pie is in the eating.

I listened carefully to the speech of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). My colleagues and I did not emphasise the propaganda use that Sinn Fein, the IRA or the spokesmen for terror may make of the Bill. In many ways I do not concern myself about what some of the representatives of murderers will say. They have said all that they can about Northern Ireland Members, so that that aspect is not my main concern. The genuine concern of Unionist Members is about the danger to the lives of those who will take action against the men of violence and their spokesmen. I hope that the Minister will accept the genuineness of that concern.

Even if the Government do not agree with us and do not accept our summary of the debate and the Bill, they must accept that the danger to those who will take action must weigh heavily on the minds of elected representatives. In the border constituencies the people in the front line will be those who finger councillors and take them to court. That is a fact of life. It is sad that the Government did not see fit to take that burden away from people who have suffered enough and who are under enough pressure.

It would have been more honourable for the Government to bring in a proper Bill and see it through to the ultimate conclusion. They have not done so and that is the main reason why I and my hon. Friends cannot support the Bill. Its major weakness is that it will endanger life, especially the lives of those in border areas. 1 know that because I represent a border constituency. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State will accept that that weighs heavily on my mind. The people in those areas are my colleagues and it is right for me to put that on the record. We need a measure that will effectively remove from the councils the people who speak for terrorism, and the Government had an opportunity to do that. I do not say that the Minister decided to rub everyone's nose in the dirt or that he has gone out of his way to reject everything that we have said.

The Bill will not do what the Government say it is intended to do and it will cause great danger to members of district councils who finger offending councillors. I have a great deal of will in my heart, because as much as any other hon. Member I want action to be taken against the spokesmen for terror, but I and my colleagues cannot give to the Bill the support that we long to give to an effective measure.

11.54 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

On Report, I said that nothing is worse than a law that does not fulfil its stated objective. We have reached almost the end of the proceedings, and I believe that the Bill still does not fulfil its stated objective. That failure is already widely recognised among Unionist councillors, and as it becomes even more widely known in Northern Ireland. other councilors—who, having fought a savage battle for many years, are already weary—will find it increasingly difficult to take up the cudgels again.

The presence of Sinn Fein on Northern Ireland councils has created a serious situation, and it makes for one of the most frustrating experiences that any elected representative could confront, with consultations that mean nothing and instances of councillors being overruled time and again. That is because the council system has been beheaded as a result of direct rule, with decisions being taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his Ministers—or, more likely, by the civil servants who advise them—without that close-to-the-people, on-theground knowledge that is needed to arrive at sensible decisions affecting local government. Northern Ireland councillors are, in the main, good people who have served since 1973, but they are utterly weary of the way that they have been treated. The Bill does nothing to ease their burden, but tends to increase it.

Sinn Fein has already said that it will sign the declaration, and I am sure that it will do so by way of practising duplicity—as was said by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). However, the right hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members may not appreciate that such duplicity will be seen by Sinn Fein's supporters as cleverness—to be commended rather than condemned. That is the mentality of the people with whom we are dealing. If the Secretary of State and his Ministers do not understand that, they can know nothing of the problems of the Province they govern.

The lack of understanding by the Northern Ireland Office that the Bill reveals is widespread in the House. However, such lack of understanding may have diminished among those right hon. and hon. Members who listened to today's debates. Sadly, not nearly enough were present. I wish that there had been more.

If the Government had made a real effort, the result would have been an oath or declaration that the IRA could not have signed. My hon. Friends indicated a willingness to meet our responsibilities, and invited Ministers to do likewise—but that offer did not receive their support. That will be viewed in Northern Ireland in a way that is not complimentary to Ministers. The Government should have seriously considered the good results that would have flowed from abolishing proportional representation, but it appears that that never crossed their minds. It would make it more difficult for Sinn Fein councillors to be elected. The Government could simply have banned Sinn Fein.

The Government could have accepted—albeit it late in the day—my suggestion that all council proceedings be recorded. The Minister did not turn a blind eye to that proposal. Perhaps he—like myself—thought of it a little too late. If so, no doubt an opportunity will be taken in another place to remedy matters.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and I both recognise the distinction to be drawn between giving evidence and initiating proceedings. The hon. Gentleman and I clearly understand that there is a vast difference between the two, but the Government do not. If proceedings are begun against the promoters of murder and supporters of violence by someone other than councillors, the councillors and others who give evidence will be in a more secure position than if they have to stand up and say, "Yes, he is the fellow who said this. I heard him say it. Here are the words that he uttered." To do that would be to invite a death sentence.

The Bill was conceived some three and a half years ago. After its conception, it did not develop very much; it went into suspended animation for many months. Eventually, however—as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned—something happened. As so often before, the Government had to be seen to do something, no matter what, to give the impression that useful action was being taken. Thus the Bill finally resumed its development and was brought forth. What a poor, miserable mouse it has proved to be. It certainly does not measure up to the requests of law-abiding councillors.

The Minister will remember that he refused to give way to me when we were discussing the meaning of the words "repudiate" and "repudiation". I should like to correct him now. I have here a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and even if the Minister is not prepared to accept what it says, I believe that the rest of the House will be. I do not wish to detain the House for long; the definition takes up a column and a half. But it includes the following: Of a woman: Rejected or put away by her husband; divorced; That is permanent. It goes on To divorce, reject". That is also permanent. Next we have To cast off, disown (a person or thing)… To reject (opinions, conduct, etc. with condemnation or abhorrence. Need I go on? The entire meaning of the word as set out here, contradicting what was insinuated by the Minister, is that repudiation is permanent. Using verbal gymnastics unbelievable except to those who listened, the Minister tried to tell the House that repudiation was of what had gone past and could, as it were, be turned on its head in the next instant. That is not the meaning that I find in the dictionary. If the Minister cares to argue about meaning and context, he should be prepared to take the book in his hand and consider very carefully what it says before considering his own words and the case that he tried to put to the House.

In the light of what is in the dictionary, the Minister's words do not stand. In the light of a judgment in which words were supposed to be accepted on their plain everyday meaning, I plead that the Minister has failed to make his case; and in failing to make his case he indicates to any sensible, sane person that the Government's case is wrong. It will not stand the test of time.

For that reason I invite the Minister, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) and indeed the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to wait until May 1990—a year after the next local government elections—and then to come back and read what they have said tonight. I invite them to consider what they have allowed to pass through the House, in the light of 12 months' experience, and then do the decent thing and resign. By that time they will be convicted by their own words of the wrong that they have done, and the failures that they have been in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State did one good thing tonight: he said that it was nice to have a debate on Northern Ireland. If he meant that genuinely, he can help matters along by ensuring that every change in the law in Northern Ireland goes through this procedure, so that the understanding of his right hon. and hon. Friends will be increased. We have a faint hope that even his understanding will be improved.

12.4 am

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely the Government should have second thoughts about this Bill. All hon. Members in the Chamber, with their diverse political opinions and platforms, are totally opposed to it. Surely the Government should think again when they see the opposition of elected representatives in this House to the Bill. Of course my views and opposition are different from those of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). Nevertheless, there is a consensus that the Bill is not the way to proceed.

I regret that the leader of the Liberals is not in the Chamber at the moment. He castigated me at the beginning of the debate and said that I had made misrepresentations about the views of the Alliance party. He accused me of being guilty of misleading Parliament and of putting forward falsehoods about that party.

I live in east Belfast. I know the leader of the Alliance party by repute and I have read what he has said. Tonight evidence was given that that gentleman said, in front of witnesses, that he was opposed to the Bill. The Alliance party is on record as stating that it did not want the onus to be placed on ordinary individuals. It stated that it should be placed on the Law Officers in keeping with an amendment moved tonight by the official Opposition with regard to the Attorney-General, or even in keeping with the view put forward by the leader of the Liberals. The Alliance party evidently speaks with two voices on this matter. It has told the leader of the Liberals one thing and the people of Northern Ireland something completely different.

The Alliance party does not have representatives in this House. The leader of the Liberals told us that there was a widely held view in Northern Ireland in favour of the Bill. Where is that support? It cannot be found among the elected representatives in this House.

The Government should govern, and tonight they are not doing that. When there are deaths, murder, mayhem and bombing in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box and pleads with the people of Northern Ireland to come together and stop the bombing and killings. However, the ordinary people of Northern Ireland can do nothing about that. As the Secretary of State spoke tonight, he put the onus back on the ordinary people. If the Bill does not work, the people of Northern Ireland will be blamed.

Yes, the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland came together tonight, but the Government did not listen to them. The Secretary of State had the opportunity tonight to stand in the front line and take action by accepting an amendment. However, the Minister said that it was not a matter for the Secretary of State. Others were prepared to go on the front line, but that was not acceptable to the Government. The first person to finger a member of Sinn Fein, the first person to succeed in bringing an action against Sinn Fein, will have written his own obituary. Time will tell. It is all right for the Secretary of State to comment, but that is the reality. Members of Sinn Fein will use the measure when it suits them and when they want to bring about a crisis in a council area. The person who is responsible, seeks to do what is right and to take his responsibilities seriously will suffer, or his wife and family will suffer.

The Achilles' heel of every politician in Northern Ireland is not himself. Those in public life in Northern Ireland have made a decision and are prepared to carry the burden. But the weakness of every man is his wife and his children. That is the worry of politicians in Northern Ireland. I am not worried about myself; I and my colleagues in the House who represent Northern Ireland are worried about our families. They are our Achilles' heel, because at any moment they can be shot down in the street. Gun law is the order of the day in Northern Ireland. Those are the facts and we need to face them.

As I told the House, last night I sat with a young woman and her little child. What can one say to a woman whose husband, aged 26, goes out in the morning and is brought back in a box in the evening? That is the situation we face in Northern Ireland. This legislation, instead of bringing us nearer to a solution is drawing us further away from it.

12.11 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I shall try to be brief, although that is often more easily said than done. I believe that I shall be the last Back Bench Member to speak in the debate, and I wish to make a point that does not directly relate to the main arguments that have been raised during the debate. I wish to speak not so much for the hon. Members who are here, but for the record, for those who are not present tonight.

It is terribly disappointing for hon. Members representing Northern Ireland to speak to a House in which 190 hon. Members voted earlier this evening and now has more than 500 hon. Members absent. Whichever party they represent, they cannot all have had legitimate reasons not to be here.

We are considering a Bill to Amend the law relating to the franchise at elections to district councils in Northern Ireland, to make provision in relation to a declaration". That is not a minor item about democracy. If hon. Members are not concerned enough to attend debates dealing with items of local government electoral systems, that seems to me to be disturbing, and it applies to both sides of the House. I realise that many will have legitimate reasons for not being here, but others, from both sides of the House, should realise that, as Parliamentarians they should be involved in these proceedings.

Surely, within a parliamentary democracy, the first thing that we should be concerned about is the electoral system. Democracy does not depend just on electoral systems, it depends on many other arrangements such as petitioning rights, civil liberties and how organisations are supposed to present their views through pressure group activities. All those factors seem to be under attack. The Government should reflect that the climate of the House produces the feeling that items will be steamrollered. Many hon. Members believe that it is useless to involve themselves in important and significant debates such as this. This should be a major parliamentary occasion in which we discuss democracy. Some hon. Members have carried the weight of the debate and should be congratulated on their contributions. Others, despite the line that the Whips have taken, have decided that they should not be involved.

Declarations are being introduced that are democratically dangerous. Northern Ireland needs not qualifications and restrictions on democracy but an extension of it, and improved social and economic conditions.

12.16 am
Mr. Needham

We have exhaustively and exhaustingly covered all aspects of the Bill. Having listened, I hope attentively, to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and his hon. Friends—who are not present in significant numbers—I find their arguments as weak as at the end of the debate as I did at the beginning.

The Opposition have opposed all the recent measures that the Government have introduced to limit the hideous effects of terrorism with various degrees of antagonism or apathy and sometimes both.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North accused the Bill of being draconian, of limiting freedom of expression, of being a step to totalitarianism and of undermining democratic politics. Yet on Second Reading he abstained and said that there were two small clauses to which he could not object.

In Committee, the Opposition proposed a series of contradictory amendments. Some, such as substituting "crimes of violence" for acts of "violence for political ends", clearly broadened the scope of the Bill in a way that was completely unacceptable to the Government, and which could have been criticised as unjustifiable restrictions of freedom of expression.

Another amendment proposed—it was moved again tonight—that the Attorney-General should be introduced into the proceedings. That was an astonishing development from the Labour party, given its recent attacks on the Attorney-General. It was more astonishing in the light of its apparent desire to appeal to Nationalist sentiment; no wonder the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) sat on his hands when that suggestion was put to the vote.

Has the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North forgotten the history of the Attorney-General in Irish affairs? In 1844, Daniel O'Connell was prosecuted for conspiracy. Who prosecuted him? The Attorney-General. In 1848, Smith O'Brien was sentenced to death, although he was later reprieved. Who prosecuted him? The Attorney-General. The role of the Attorney-General in the affairs of Northern Ireland has led to the creation of martyrs and greater divisions in the island of Ireland.

Other Opposition amendments have tried—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I must apply the rules equally. We cannot again go over the Committee stage of the Bill; we must deal with the Bill's provisions.

Mr. Needham

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that the House will not want me to weary it with the details of the earlier stages of the Bill.

I have found the views expressed by Opposition Members extraordinary. The remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North reminded me of a few lines from Alice in Wonderland, which say: 'You are old, Father Kevin the young man said, 'And your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head Do you think at your age it is right?' 'In my youth,' Father Kevin replied to his son, `I feared it might injure the brain; But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none, Why I do it again and again'. Unionist Members' arguments also appear to have been muddled. If they want Sinn Fein banned—I understand the arguments for that—they are entitled to ask for proscription, but even if they were to have proscription, we would still require the Bill. If, however, they want a Bill to stop terrorism being advocated or violence supported in councils, they must explain to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland how using the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions in making a breach of the declaration a crime will work more effectively than the Government's proposals. They have clearly failed to do that.

I do not wish to go back through the arguments about repudiation, but a court can consider evidence on whether a councillor is supporting violence, but it cannot consider establishing whether a person has repudiated his vow. Many Unionist Members' arguments would not have made the Bill more effective—they would have made it less effective. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) rightly mentioned intimidation. I agree that it must be tackled, but it would happen to witnesses and applicants, and it would have to be tackled whenever any action is brought in the court.

The point of the Bill is that we want candidates to sign the declaration and, when they are elected, to abide by it. It is not that we want an endless series of cases on the issue.

As has been mentioned, the Bill has been attacked by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The commission believes, as others do, that there is a serious problem in local government, and I welcome that belief. The commission is concerned that the declaration that we are proposing will not work and that, in some way, it will be counterproductive. It believes that the problem should be tackled by creating a new offence of supporting or condoning the use of violence for political ends, which offence could be committed by anyone. In other words, the commission's proposals would limit the freedom of speech of those who have chosen not to accept elected office. The commission's drastic proposal to invoke the criminal law in respect not merely of councillors and assembly members but of any citizen is not justified. I am surprised that the SACHR should advocate the introduction of new criminal legislation which undermines freedom of expression in a way that the Government's proposal does not. I am surprised to note that the Opposition seem to agree with that line.

This week, I was explaining the Bill to a Democratic state senator from Massachusetts. He expressed surprise that the Bill was being opposed. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland will accept that, in a recent poll, 84 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland supported the concepts behind the Bill, for all sorts of reasons, but the elected Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland have opposed it. That senator asked me, "How can any match be started unless the teams are made to leave their knives by the touchline?"

The Bill says to the advocate of violence, "Thus far and no further. Advocate your violent views, if you must, in your attempts to gain a vote, but we, the vast majority, respect honour and will uphold the rules of political democracy." The men of violence have a choice—shut up or get out. The Bill may be a small step for democracy, but it is a further step from the abyss, and I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time: The House divided: Ayes 98, Noes 21.

Division No. 58] [12.23 am
Alexander, Richard Hanley, Jeremy
Amess, David Heathcoat-Amory, David
Amos, Alan Holt, Richard
Arbuthnot, James Howarth, Alan (Stratd-on-A)
Arnold, Jacques (Cravesham) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Ashby, David Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Atkinson, David Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Hunter, Andrew
Boswell, Tim Irvine, Michael
Bowis, John Jack, Michael
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Janman, Tim
Bright, Graham King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Knapman, Roger
Burt, Alistair Knowles, Michael
Carrington, Matthew Lang, Ian
Carttiss, Michael Lawrence, Ivan
Chapman, Sydney Lightbown, David
Chope, Christopher Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Conway, Derek Lord, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Maclean, David
Cran, James Mans, Keith
Currie, Mrs Edwina Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Davis, David (Boothferry) Morrison, Sir Charles
Day, Stephen Needham, Richard
Devlin, Tim Norris, Steve
Dorrell, Stephen Porter, David (Waveney)
Dover, Den Roe, Mrs Marion
Durant, Tony Sayeed, Jonathan
Fallon, Michael Shaw, David (Dover)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Fishburn, John Dudley Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Forth, Eric Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Franks, Cecil Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Gale, Roger Stern, Michael
Garel-Jones, Tristan Stevens, Lewis
Gill, Christopher Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Summerson, Hugo
Gregory, Conal Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Thorne, Neil
Ground, Patrick Thurnham, Peter
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Tracey, Richard
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Twinn, Dr Ian
Viggers, Peter Widdecombe, Ann
Waddington, Rt Hon David Wood, Timothy
Waller, Gary
Watts, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Wells, Bowen Mr. John Taylor and
Wheeler, John Mr. Tom Sackville.
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Beggs, Roy Paisley, Rev Ian
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Pike, Peter L.
Cryer, Bob Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Kilfedder, James Skinner, Dennis
McCrea, Rev William Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
McCusker, Harold Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)
McGrady, Eddie
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Tellers for the Noes:
McNamara, Kevin Mr. Frank Haynes and
Maginnis, Ken Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie.
Mallon, Seamus

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.