§ 11.4 p.m.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
This Bill removes the last major inconsistency in the way in which UK electoral regulations apply to Commonwealth nations and to Ireland. It achieves this purpose in Clause 1 by amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. These amendments will allow Members of both Houses of the Irish Parliament to serve as Members of the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to which the disqualification provisions set out in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 apply, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the relevant provisions are in the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975.
Clause 2 of the Bill will prohibit Ministers of the Irish Parliament from taking up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Likewise, any Minister, junior Minister, First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be prohibited from a ministerial position in the Irish Government.
The Bill involves a limited extension of existing provisions under which Members of a number of legislatures outside the UK can already take seats in the House of Commons. It extends a provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 under which Members of the Irish Senate—the Upper House of the Irish Parliament—can take seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill does not establish any new principle or introduce major constitutional change, and it will not have any effect on the membership of this Chamber.
Perhaps I may explain the background in relation to the current provisions. For many years Irish citizens within the UK have enjoyed many of the same rights as Commonwealth citizens. Both Commonwealth citizens and Irish nationals have long been able to stand for and vote in elections for the House of Commons. But one significant difference in their treatment has remained. Under the current law, Members of Commonwealth legislatures, unlike Members of foreign legislatures, can take seats in the House of Commons. But Members of both Houses of the Irish Parliament cannot, even though all other Irish citizens can. I give way.
§ Lord Lamont of Lerwick
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is explaining the asymmetry between provision for Commonwealth countries and Ireland. But what is the pressure for this measure? Who wants this? Indeed, why is this Bill necessary? It is a complete mystery. Who on earth wants this to happen?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, we believe this to be sensible step that will help the process. I am trying to explain why we are doing it now and the nature of the Bill's purpose.
706 The Bill will remove the inconsistency that I have just mentioned. It will enable Members of the Irish legislature to stand for election to the House of Commons and the UK devolved legislatures, thereby giving them equal treatment with the Members of Commonwealth legislatures and the same rights as other non-elected Irish citizens.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt but perhaps the Minister could answer this question. If Mr Gerry Adams were to be elected to the Dail, as I believe is extremely likely, would he then be able to take his seat in the House of Commons, despite the fact that he has always refused to take the Oath? Would this measure allow him to do so?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
No, my Lords; it would not. This Bill will simply get rid of an existing disqualification that would have prevented him standing.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 already went some way to address this situation. Section 36(5) provides that a Member of the Irish Senate—a body that is partly appointed and partly elected from sectoral constituencies—may take a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill builds on that provision, which as a result can now be repealed by Clause 3. The Bill extends that provision, first, to the other place and to the UK devolved legislatures, so that Northern Ireland is not singled out for special treatment; and, secondly, to members of the Dail, the Irish Lower House.
By placing all Members of the Irish legislature on the same footing as Members of Commonwealth legislatures, the Bill rightly reflects the strength of the relationship that exists between our two nations. Furthermore, it is in line with the special position long recognised for Irish citizens in our electoral arrangements. It would now be out of step with the transformed political landscape in Northern Ireland and in relations between our two countries not to take the measures we are proposing. In particular, it is the establishment of the new institutions provided for in the Good Friday agreement which makes this measure timely now.
When devolution and the other new institutions—
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, it is not.
When devolution and the other new institutions came into force on 2nd December last year, the Irish Government also repealed the longstanding territorial claim over Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. This makes clear that a united Ireland can only be achieved with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland. With the principle of 707 consent at the heart of the new constitutional settlement, there is a solid basis for a close relationship between our two countries and the principles within it.
§ Lord Lamont of Lerwick
My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive my ignorance, but will a Member of the House of Commons be able to stand for election to the Dail as well?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Yes, my Lords, but that is a matter for southern Irish law and not a matter for this Bill.
This Bill is just one example of that close relationship. While itself not a commitment in the Good Friday agreement, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, it is consistent with it.
The Good Friday agreement has given new shape to the British-Irish relationship and created a new architecture of institutional links throughout these islands; links that respect the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom but provide a framework for practical co-operation between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government through the North-South Ministerial Council and in the British Irish Council between all of the UK devolved administrations and the British and Irish Governments. These arrangements recognise and build on the very special relationship that exists between the people of Britain and Ireland.
This closeness has been further illustrated by the way in which the British and Irish Governments have worked together since the devolved institutions were suspended on 11th February to their restoration on 29th May. I am convinced that we would not have got the process back on track so soon had it not been for the way in which our two governments have co-operated and persevered together, and on all levels.
I recognise that there may be some concerns about conflicts of interest. I do not believe that the holding of dual electoral mandates in itself necessarily represents a conflict of interest or makes it impossible for such elected representatives to carry out their duties effectively. It may do, but that must be for the electorate to decide and we should be wary of stepping in to pre-empt their decision.
I accept that the situation of Ministers taking executive decisions is different from that of Back-Benchers participating in two different legislatures. Ministers must be in a position to take into account the best interests of those in the jurisdiction they are governing and must be seen to do so. That may not always be obvious if a Minister is also a Minister in another sovereign country. Whether or not conflicts of interest actually arise, it is important to avoid any perception that such conflicts could exist.
That is why Clause 2 of the Bill prohibits Ministers of the Irish Government from taking up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition, it states that a Minister, junior Minister, First Minister or Deputy First Minister of the Assembly would have to resign their position in the Assembly executive upon becoming a Minister of the Irish Government.
708 In conclusion, as is right for a Bill affecting the membership of the House of Commons, it was extensively debated in the other place. In total, some 27 hours were devoted to it on the Floor of the House of Commons, including one overnight sitting. So I hope that noble Lords will accept that it has been extensively and carefully scrutinised by the Chamber which will be affected by it. As I have said, this Bill does not, of course, affect the membership of this House.
It is a modest Bill. It does not make any dramatic changes. It simply extends to the Irish legislature existing provisions which already permit M embers of a number of legislatures outside the UK to take seats in the House of Commons. It builds on the existing provision allowing Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly and extends this to the House of Commons and the UK devolved legislatures and to Members of the Irish Dail.
It is a further example of the development of mutually beneficial relationships between our two countries and throughout these islands, relationships which are now based firmly on the principle of consent. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Lord Rogan
My Lords, as I was preparing to speak to the Disqualifications Bill I was puzzled. I am even more puzzled by the remarks of the Government Chief Whip as he pleaded—that is the correct word—that the debate take place tonight. Why in the past 10 days was he asked to ensure that the Bill was read a second time before the Recess? Why was it so important to so do? What did he mean when he said it affected the current choreography in Northern Ireland? Why the urgency? Who is applying the pressure? Why the sudden speed?
I do not take the opinion that this is a modest Bill; I do not take the opinion that this is a minor Bill. It has a fundamental application and effect on the constitution. It is curious to find the Bill before us at this time. As has been mentioned, it was last debated in another place in January of this year, more than six months ago. Questions were asked in another place at that time. It was asked: why is this Bill being introduced? Why so urgently? No satisfactory explanation was provided. The question "Why is this Bill being introduced?" is still pertinent. A related question now is why is this Bill being brought before your Lordships after lying dormant for six months.
Of course Bills do not immediately come before us after Report stage in another place, but a six-month lapse is surely unusual. Indeed, it is so unusual that this situation has aroused suspicion. That suspicion is enhanced by the manner in which the Second Reading, Committee and Report stages of the Bill in another place were hurriedly driven through. Such haste in procedure is used normally only when emergency legislation is under consideration. This is clearly not emergency legislation; as I said, it is a measure of constitutional reform.
709 Perhaps this suspicion is unfounded and the Government will be able to put minds at ease. The Government could begin to deal with some of those concerns by telling the House why this Bill was introduced in the first place. Who was consulted by the Government before this measure was introduced? Why was the Bill rushed through another place in a manner usually reserved for emergency legislation? Is this measure a one-off, as it were, or is it a part of a wider review of the matter of disqualification? And, especially, why, after lying dormant for six months, is this Bill before the House tonight?
I feel that I can perhaps suggest some answers to these questions. It is my firm belief that this measure has been brought forward in response to a demand from Sinn Fein/IRA. This measure formed no part of the 1998 Belfast agreement. Furthermore, let no one be in any doubt, this legislative proposal is not based on consensus; there has, in fact, been an absence of consultation. In short, we are faced with a constitutional measure that did not feature in the Belfast agreement and about which there is little or no consensus. I suggest that this is wholly unreasonable.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the purpose of the Bill. It has a clear purpose: to permit persons simultaneously to be a Member here in the sovereign Parliament of Westminster, in Dublin in the sovereign Parliament of the Republic of Ireland, and in Belfast in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. That is not the same as being a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and here at Westminster; nor is it the same as being a Member at Westminster and at the European Parliament. The Northern Ireland Assembly is a devolved assembly and the European Parliament is a supranational assembly. Neither are sovereign parliaments. Yet both Westminster and the Dublin Parliament are sovereign parliaments. Being a Member of a number of different assemblies and a single sovereign parliament does not pose the same problems as does being a Member of more than one sovereign parliament.
A conflict of interests and duties is inevitable for Members of more than one sovereign parliament. Although two nations may share many interests, no two nations are always going to have the same interests. The Bill not only allows for a person to be a Member of the Irish Dail, at Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it also permits a person to be a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and a Member of the Dail. However, it does not allow a person to be appointed First Minister, Deputy First Minister or any other Minister or junior Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly if that person is a Minister in the Government of Ireland. Should not that prohibition apply to junior Ministers in the Republic of Ireland as it does to junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly?
If a Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland is not permitted to be a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, why should a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern 710 Ireland Assembly be permitted to be a junior Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland? Again, I fear that such inconsistency and lack of reciprocity serves only to enhance suspicion of the Bill.
The Government of the Republic of Ireland do not appear to be interested in enacting any similar measure to permit Members at Westminster—all Members at Westminster, not just those who are considered Irish citizens by the Republic's constitution—to be able to serve in the Irish Parliament. The Government of the Republic of Ireland plan no reciprocal measure. Indeed, I am led to believe that many parliamentarians in the Irish Parliament feel uneasy about that measure. That measure of constitutional reform creates as many anomalies as it removes. It serves no logical purpose unless one is a Sinn Fein Member at Westminster who wishes to be involved in the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
There is no logic in accommodating a constitutional reform on which there is a lack of consensus, which formed no part of the Belfast agreement, which is designed for the sole benefit of one political party, and which is not even desired by many parliamentarians in the Republic of Ireland, the only other potential beneficiaries.
§ 11.23 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, in the interests of brevity and in view of the late hour, I will not attempt to repeat the arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has put forward regarding the inconsistencies of the Bill. Perhaps I may just say that I agree with a number of his remarks.
I made it clear in a previous intervention that I thought it was inappropriate for the House to be discussing a constitutional measure, however small, at this late hour of the night, particularly in view of the developing role of your Lordships' House, as underlined by the Wakeham report, as a constitutional longstop. It is unfortunate—to say the least—that the Government have seen fit to bring this piece of legislation forward in the way that they have. Indeed, when asked—I hope the noble and learned Lord the Minister feels politely—why it was necessary to introduce the legislation now, no satisfactory answer was given. I can only speculate that there was a TD who had ambitions—
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I apologise for intervening. I did not understand the question of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, to be, "Why are the Government introducing the Bill today?" but, "Why is it happening at this particular time?" So I think that the noble Viscount is talking about two different things. For the record, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, nodded when I said that.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, whose intellect is well known, is more than capable of understanding even the complications of my noble friend's mind.
711 Perhaps I may ask a slightly different question. Why is it so important that we should consider the Second Reading of the Bill now? Is it important that the Bill should become law? If so, why? Is it so important that we should be asked to rush it through in this way without an adequate explanation? Who is it designed to help? I assume that it is designed to help, above all, certain nationalist or republican people in Northern Ireland who have ambitions to become TDs. Those of us who have recently visited Dublin will, without question, have noticed the extreme nervousness with which members of the Dublin Government are viewing their next general election. The nightmare they are facing is that enough Sinn Fein TDs will be elected to the Dail next time round to hold the balance of power between the two parties.
I can only assume that we are about to face the curious prospect that a number of people represented at the very least in the Northern Ireland Assembly will also be members of the Dail and will therefore be able to pursue through parliamentary means what a number of people on this side of the water and indeed in Northern Ireland itself see administratively, which is the beginnings of joint administrative authority in the Province, and that that is being pursued as a form of joint legislative authority as well. Whatever the protestations of Ministers may be in that respect, that is the only explanation which fits the very curious set of facts that your Lordships have managed to identify.
It is clear that Members of the other place who are also members of Sinn Fein are not able to take their seats at the moment because they refuse to take the Oath. I hope and believe that the Government will not change the nature of the Oath for another place. The oath represents a clear commitment on the part of Members of another place to the polity which we all attempt to serve. We well know that Sinn Fein represents a tradition entirely inimical to the polity which we all attempt to serve. It is therefore entirely proper that if they do not wish to take that oath they should not have the right to serve in a Parliament whose main objective is to promote the welfare and interests of that polity.
That brings me to the other curiosity in this very curious piece of legislation. How is it possible for a member of the Dail—I have no idea what Oath members of the Dail have to take but I imagine that they have to make some kind of affirmation of loyalty to the Republic of Ireland—to contemplate becoming a Member of another place where an affirmation or an Oath of loyalty to our polity has to be taken? How is that conflict to be resolved? If I understood the noble and learned Lord the Minister correctly, he suggested that it was up to the individual concerned. After all, we are not talking about Ministers here. However, surely it is up to this Parliament to decide whether it wants Members with divided loyalties? I am well aware that Members of Commonwealth countries may be presented with the same difficulty, but I suggest that, in an imperfect world, at least they are members of an organisation of nation states which has a historic link 712 from which the Republic of Ireland decided to withdraw as long ago as 1949. The comparison appears to mix apples and oranges.
I hope that I have made it clear that this is a Bill which seems not nearly as simple or as innocuous as the noble and learned Lord made out during his characteristically soothing remarks. I feel that we have not yet been given a remotely convincing explanation of why we are in such a hurry and why the Bill must be given a Second Reading at this late hour and at this particular point in the parliamentary cycle.
I feel equally that what the Bill seeks to do is constitutionally unsound and something that this House would do well to consider in prime time rather than at this late hour. I hope that the noble Lord who is due to reply to the debate will be able to give slightly more convincing answers to both of those points. If he cannot do that, I shall be strongly tempted to suggest to the House that we should divide on Second Reading.
§ 11.31 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, the House is ill advised to discuss any subject at this time of night, but in so far as we are sitting, I see no reason why we should not be discussing this Bill. The world outside of this place thinks that we are ridiculous to sit as late as we do, but that applies to our business generally rather than only to this Bill.
Given that we have the same relationship with Commonwealth countries—that is, the same ability for Commonwealth parliamentarians to sit in our Parliament as is being suggested here for the Republic of Ireland—we are not seeking to do anything dramatically new. Moreover, as a country we have closer relationships with the Republic of Ireland than we do with many Commonwealth countries. Those relationships are based on proximity, a common land border, common languages and many other shared traditions.
Above all, however, those relationships have been developed and enhanced through the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Government of the Republic played a leading part in helping to achieve the Good Friday agreement. As a consequence of that agreement, the relationships have intensified. We now have the North-South Ministerial Council which also forges closer links between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Taking all of those factors into account, I do not believe that this is a drastic departure from precedent. This is a modest and reasonable Bill and one which common sense suggests that we should adopt.
To my knowledge, the only individual who might fall into the category covered by the Bill is Seamus Mallon, who, I understand, might have become a Senator in Dublin but was prevented from doing so because he is a Member of the House of Commons. It is not a question of Sinn Fein as regards past precedent; it is Séamus Mallon. There may be others, but I do not think that it matters too much. In any case, 713 many other politicians in Belfast maintain close relationships with Dublin. Frequent visits are made by Ulster Unionists, along with others.
This is a modest and sensible measure. I cannot see why so much concern has been expressed about it.
§ 11.33 p.m.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, I have been given a singular honour tonight. Not on every occasion is one given the opportunity to rise to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who had a distinguished career as a Northern Ireland Office Minister.
However, I too find the whole business of the Bill very curious. To an extent, I believe that the Government Chief Whip let the cat out of the bag when he spoke of "choreographing" and "timetabling". This measure does not form a part of the Good Friday agreement. I believe that noble Lords are agreed on that point. This measure is an additional element. I shall give way.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, the noble Lord has the advantage on me. Obviously, I am not familiar with the details of the situation in Northern Ireland. But, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, when I am asked by a Secretary of State who is familiar with the situation if I will use my best endeavours to see that a Bill receives a Second Reading according to a certain timetable, namely before the Summer Recess, all I can do as Chief Whip is do my best to achieve that.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's clarification of that point. But I merely make the point that the word "choreographing" in the Northern Ireland context has a slightly different meaning.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, the hour is late. I agree with my noble friend Lord Rogan, whose speech outlined our major objections to the Bill. I can find no demand for it. I understand that there is possibly one person who would like the Bill passed for his own personal political objectives. That seems to me a poor reason to bring the Bill forward in this rather strange way after it has lain dormant on a shelf somewhere for six months, having been first rushed through the other place.
The Good Friday agreement talks about parity of esteem. It talks about the concept of equality. We were told afterwards by many sections, including the Dublin government, "You cannot cherry-pick the Belfast agreement". I am prepared to accept that. But sometimes it might be thought that some people get slightly more parity than others. It is not a case of this not being a part of the Belfast agreement. This is additional to the Belfast agreement. This is something to suit the political agenda of some people in Northern Ireland who can make their demands in a slightly more threatening way than others.
If there were a demand, a groundswell of opinion, in the Irish Republic in favour of creating the state of affairs that the Bill seeks to bring about, do they not 714 have the option of rejoining the Commonwealth? If, as we are told, there is a great commonality of purpose with the people down south and there is a welling up of support and interest in looking after the activities of people in Northern Ireland, it is a pity that was not a bit more evident in some of the security situations that we have seen over the past few years. It is a pity that security co-operation was not as good as it could have been.
If there is such a desire on the part of the two governments to look again at relationships, what representations have this Government made, for instance, to the Government of the Irish Republic concerning those people who live in the Republic but consider themselves to be members of the pro-British community?
I should like to know who wants this Bill. The question has been asked many times tonight. If either of the two noble Lords on the Front Bench wish to answer that question now, I am prepared to give way so that we can discuss it. Who asked for this Bill? Who wants the Bill? Who benefits from the Bill? Do they accept the point that there seems to be slightly more parity for one section of the community than for the other?
As a Unionist, I am prepared to work the Good Friday agreement. I am prepared not to cherry-pick it; I am prepared to do it all. But I have not gone back with a shopping list. I am prepared to take the hit of being a chairman of a cross-Border implementation body. That is not something that we did not want. We did not ask for it; we did not seek it—but if it is part of the agreement, we will do it. But we have not gone back with another shopping list. Why is there more parity for some people than for others? I cannot find any answers. Shall I give way and allow the Minister to respond? I thought that I was about to receive an answer but I was not.
We should like to understand the political objectives of the Bill, where the demand for it comes from and the speed of it. I am prepared to accept that earlier the word "choreography" was used incorrectly. What is the objective of this Bill, who wants it and why do we have it before us today? Does the noble and learned Lord accept that in the delicate balance—even the choreography—in Northern Ireland, this kind of skewing of parity is noticed and has an impact? Perhaps the Government are prepared to explain the reason, even if it is unpalatable to us, why this Bill is before the House tonight; or maybe as chairman of a cross-Border implementation body I should now start to develop my own shopping list of matters additional to the Good Friday agreement.
§ 11.41 p.m.
§ Lord Lamont of Lerwick
My Lords, I followed the progress of this Bill in the House of Commons and was extremely interested in it when it was first introduced. I have been waiting, waiting and waiting for the Bill to appear in your Lordships' House. For a long time the Bill appeared to have been dropped, just as the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly 715 appeared at one time to have been dropped. It is difficult to resist the conclusion, particularly in the light of the observations of the Chief Whip, that this Bill has been linked pari passu with the peace process.
I accept that there are matters about which we are not entitled to ask, but this is a very far-reaching measure. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is a very skilled parliamentarian and is expert at telling us that things are not very significant and must be taken step by step. We must not worry about the next step until it arrives. For example, we have perfect freedom of action to consider whether the Oath to the House of Commons is to be altered. There is no need to consider it now; it can be dealt with later.
With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, in no way whatsoever can this Bill be presented as a mere administrative tidying up or, in a practical sense, a measure to put us on the same footing as Commonwealth countries. It is not practical for someone to sit at the same time in the House of Commons and the Parliament of the Seychelles, the Lower House in Australia or the Lower House in India. When I was a Member of another place I should have loved to sit also in the Indian Parliament, but that is riot a practical proposition and I do not believe that anyone has ever sought to propose it. In the context of Northern Ireland it is, however, a practical proposition. What we are doing for Northern Ireland is to make a reality of something that has never been a practical possibility for other Commonwealth countries.
This may be a practical possibility for other European countries. The very arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the closeness of our relations with Europe could also be advanced as a reason why perhaps there should be membership of the French Assemblée and the House of Commons at the same time. It is perfectly clear that, step by step, this measure is tied to the peace process.
I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was being a little simplistic when he said that there had been great consultation on this matter in the House of Commons. (I do not know whether I may have the attention of the Minister at some point.) It was some consultation. The Government tried to sneak it into the House of Commons late at night. The other place sat all night because there was uproar in a certain section of the Conservative Party. That was not voluntary consultation or close scrutiny; it was the House of Commons being very angry, puzzled and mystified by why and how the measure was being introduced. The question remains: why is this being introduced?
The Minister referred to the distinction between Ministers and Back-Benchers. A Minister in the Irish Government could not be a Member of the House of Commons at the same time. He said that it posed a clear conflict of interest. But does not a similar conflict also arise with a Back-Bencher in both parliaments? They are both sovereign parliaments. In both parliaments one has to swear an Oath. One represents constituents in sovereign parliaments in different 716 countries with different aspirations. There would be a conflict there almost as great as there would be between being a Minister in one parliament and a back-bencher in another.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne referred to the conflict between the two Oaths. No doubt we shall be told by the Minister that the Oath is another matter; that we must take each step at its time; that there is no need to make a decision and that no decision is being proposed about the Oath. But we know what will happen. After the measure is implemented there will be proposals relating to the Oath at a later stage.
I was unsure whether, in reply to my question, the Minister said that there would be, or there were, reciprocal arrangements in Ireland. The noble Lord who spoke later implied that perhaps measures would not be taken. I should be grateful if the Minister will clarify whether further measures are required or whether they exist in law already.
These proposals were not included in the Good Friday agreement. I do not accept that it is a modest measure. It is a mystery why it was dropped, as it was, for several months and then rushed in at this stage.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, on a point or order, the noble Lord is speaking in the gap. The convention is that the speech should take four minutes. In the last debate, the noble Lord intervened although not having attended for much of it. Although the noble Lord is a distinguished parliamentarian, he is fairly new to your Lordships' House. I respectfully remind him of our conventions.
§ Lord Lamont of Lerwick
My Lords, I am extremely sorry if I have offended against any convention. It is only because of the strength of my feeling about the measure. I assure the noble Lord that I shall wind up my remarks quickly.
It is a significant measure. I deeply fear that it is part of an appeasement process that I think is getting out of hand and which we shall come to rue in later stages.
§ 11.47 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, there are two equally legitimate views on the Bill. Indeed, there is a third; namely, the awful hour at which we are discussing it. I believe that most Members of your Lordships' House will agree with that third view.
Of the first two, on the one hand it can be argued that a national legislature is one of the defining landmarks of a state and should in no way be diluted by allowing Members of other national legislatures to belong concurrently to our Parliament. That is the traditional view.
On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has argued, one can recognise that the principle has already been breached since Members of Commonwealth legislatures can stand for election to the House of Commons, or appointment to this House which has happened in at least one case. Furthermore, it can be added that if the Council of the Isles, created as a result of the Belfast agreement, develops into a 717 significant institution in due course, as many of us hope that it will, there is something to be said for an element of interchange and cross-fertilisation between Members of the various parliaments and assemblies of these islands which the Bill provides. In practice, of course, few politicians will attempt to avail themselves of this, as in the case of the Commonwealth. But in its own modest way it will serve as a symbol of the growing amity and co-operation between the peoples who populate this archipelago in the north west of the European continent. On the whole, we on these Benches believe that the second argument is the more compelling in the light of recent developments.
§ 11.50 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, as is already clear, we on these Benches do not like this Bill. It seems to us a very sinister Bill and was not part of the Good Friday agreement. My noble friend Lord Cranborne spoke of the change in the balance of power in the Dublin Government, a point I have been making for some time. It is a likely occurrence.
It is also likely that Sinn Fein will win the West Tyrone election and the same person may well win the seat in Donegal. I am full of suspicion about what is behind the Bill. My criticism of the Government's approach to Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement has been consistent: there has been too much appeasement. In the days of Kevin McNamara and the right honourable Dr Mowlam there was a clear, well known republican ambition. Since the present Secretary of State has been in place, that has been slightly less obvious, except when the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern get together at regular intervals.
The Bill was driven through the other place in the middle of the night, in an all-night sitting. It is presented to us almost in a crisis situation when we know that there is no crisis.
The Chief Whip told us that he was urgently asked by the Secretary of State, the right honourable Peter Mandelson, to get the Bill through this stage before the Recess. What is it about the Bill that is all of a sudden so special? The Minister presented it as a tidying-up measure. It is no such thing; it is a clear initiative being driven for a given purpose. That is quite clear, but we do not know what the initiative is. It has clearly happened on a steady stealth-by-stealth basis; that is the republicanisation, the unification, of Ireland. That is how the people in Northern Ireland see it and at this hour of the night, as one of them, that is how I see it.
The Bill is being used as a bargaining tool for something in return. The trouble with such bargains is that we have never seen evidence of anything in return. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, made the point that if the Republic is so anxious to have Members of the Dail serving in our Parliament and with the same rights as other Commonwealth citizens, why does it not rejoin the Commonwealth? During the past year or so, I have spoken to Members of the Dail several times and there 718 was no antipathy towards that suggestion. In fact, it was thought to be a realistic possibility and I see the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, nodding.
I return to the Bill and ask what is behind it. Furthermore, as an aside, I ask how many Members of Commonwealth Parliaments have at the same time been Members of another place. I am sure that at some stage the Minister or his officials will have an answer to that question—in writing will do but it would be nice to have it tonight.
I saw the Bill a year ago when it went into the other place. I remember it collapsing and the fact that it did not come to this House because the Executive fell. It was my impression and that of members of my party that the Bill would never see the light of day again; would that it had not. We are very suspicious of the Bill. We shall continue to probe it and to resist it at every stage of its passage.
§ 11.54 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, under the circumstances and given the lateness of the hour, this has been a very lively debate, and an interesting one at that. A number of points have been made, perhaps with a better temper than one might have expected under the circumstances. I shall endeavour to respond to those points, raised quite properly.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and perhaps also the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, posed the first and most important question with regard to the haste, and yet the slowness, with which this legislation has been brought forward. Listening to their comments and observations, it struck me that the Government would have been damned if we had brought back the Bill quickly and now we have been damned for taking our time.
However, I believe that we should remind ourselves that the Bill was published before Christmas last year and the commitment therefore made. It is important to know that that commitment meant that all stages were completed in another place. The delay between the completion of those stages and the Second Reading of the Bill in this House tonight was due to the intervening uncertainty with regard to the Assembly and its suspension and restoration in recent months—as recently as 29th May. Because of that, the time between the Bill being committed in another place and its introduction here is explained in good measure. This is the Second Reading. After the Recess there will be plenty of opportunity to consider the Bill at length and with no particular urgency.
As to the question of consultation, which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, raised quite properly, as I said, the Bill was published before Christmas 1999 and the normal opportunities for representation and scrutiny clearly have applied. As the noble Lord will know, one of the Bill's three clauses was inserted in another place at the express request of his own party. Clearly, some consultation had been undertaken to achieve that particular objective.
Understandably, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, also made the point that the Government were attempting to rush the Bill through the Commons. Following the 719 establishment of the devolved institutions in December last year, we believed that it was important to maintain momentum by pursuing vigorously all outstanding measures relating to the political settlement. At that stage we had witnessed swift progress on the constitutional provisions contained in the agreement, the establishment of an inclusive, power-sharing, devolved Assembly, the amendments to the Irish constitution renouncing Ireland's longstanding territorial claim over Northern Ireland, and the establishment of the cross-Border shared institutions. Proceeding quickly with this Bill was simply a part of the momentum to move forward more rapidly. However, there was no intention to push through the Bill with undue haste.
By that stage, Section 36(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 had already amended the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 to enable a Member of the Irish Senate to take a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That amendment had been accepted by both Houses without controversy. We had no reason to believe that extending the same principle in the Disqualifications Bill would elicit such a vastly different response. I believe that that was a reasonable position for us to adopt.
The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked why, if the Bill was urgent, its Lords stages were delayed for six months. He wanted to know the rationale behind that. Simply, it was not considered appropriate to proceed with the Bill while, as I said earlier, there was a degree of uncertainty surrounding the future of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House agree with that. However, now that the institutions are restored—on a firm basis, as I think most of us would agree—it is entirely reasonable that we should continue, particularly as the relationship between the British and Irish Governments proved to be as constructive and positive as ever during the brief period of suspension.
The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made a further point about junior Ministers in the Dail being able to take up a ministerial position in the Northern Ireland Assembly—or at least I think that that was his point. The intention of the Bill is not to enable junior Ministers in the Dail to take up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That needs to be plainly understood.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked us why we were so keen to take Second Reading now. I think that I covered that in answering the earlier point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The noble Viscount also asked whether there would be changes to the oath of allegiance. That is not part of the Bill. We do not intend to interfere with oaths of allegiance. Oaths that are taken in other Parliaments are not a matter for us and could never properly be considered as such.
The noble Viscount also talked about dual mandates and conflicts of interest. There are other ways of looking at those issues. It is already possible in Commonwealth legislatures to join two different sovereign Parliaments. That much is understood. Holding a dual mandate does not necessarily result in 720 a conflict of interest or of loyalty. We have dealt with the problem of ministerial conflicts of interest by inserting an exclusion in Clause 2. Several Members of another place are also Members of devolved legislatures and at least one is also a Member of the European Parliament. There are Members of your Lordships' House who are Members of the European Parliament. However, those in the Executive who make decisions need to avoid possible conflicts of interest. That is why the Bill constrains Ministers.
I do not believe that Northern Ireland has been singled out for special treatment. It is being treated as part of the United Kingdom.
Some have suggested that the purpose of the Bill is to achieve a united Ireland by uniting the two legislatures. That is not our intention. The Good Friday agreement, the Northern Ireland Act and the British-Irish agreement all make it clear that the decision on whether to pursue a united Ireland depends on the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The Bill will in no way circumvent that. It gives Irish citizens rights that are already accorded to Commonwealth nations, just as they enjoy other significant electoral rights enjoyed by Commonwealth citizens. That is a recognition of the close political ties between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, does the Minister accept that a lot of his arguments are reasonable, but the timing is not? We do not understand timing the Bill alongside the Good Friday agreement. I do not know anybody in Northern Ireland who requested that. Where has the pressure come from for the Bill?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I am drawn to conclude that perhaps there is never a right time for some people to make progress on some of these matters. We have judged that it is right to try to make progress. We suspended that progress while the Assembly was not in operation. We now want more progress to be made. The arguments for developing that special relationship can be taken forward with the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made some clear and specific points about the special relationship with the Irish public, including our historic and cultural links. We need to build on those relationships on the basis of consent, trying to cement the political progress that has been made over the past two or three years and beyond.
I think that I have answered the primary points that have been raised. I do not think that I have left much out and I am sorry if I have missed anything in trying to summarise where we are.
However, it is important to make the final point that the Bill is clearly linked to the peace process. It is very important that we should cement those links in developing continued and improved British/Irish relations. That surely is at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. Much political progress has been made since then. I can well understand some of the 721 misgivings, but I think that we would be very foolish to throw up the political opportunity and the opportunity to make further progress.
So far as we are concerned, this is simply a case of amending and regularising existing legislation according to the existing principles in the light of recent developments. Nothing innovative is being suggested. The Bill does not represent for us a major constitutional amendment. It will not have fundamental, practical implications, nor will it have any impact on the composition of this Chamber.
Given the progress that has been made in reaching a political settlement in Northern Ireland, the amendments that have been made to the Irish constitution and the coming into force of the British/Irish agreement, this surely is now the right time to extend this modest courtesy to the Irish Parliament. This measure strengthens the close ties that exist between the United Kingdom and Ireland, but it does so within both the terms and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. As such, I hope that it will receive the support of noble Lords here today. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, before the noble Lord puts the question, as I was on my way out of the House at the Peers' entrance, I happened to catch sight of the television in the lobby. I thought that I heard the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, suggest that he wished to divide the House at the end of the debate. Not unnaturally, I returned to the House.
I hope that I have not brought about this situation in what was an honest attempt to help the House. I merely informed the House that the reason for the Second Reading was that I had been asked by the Secretary of State to achieve a Second Reading before the Recess. It was entirely my own phrase and choreography. Chief Whips should not hold opinions or do any more than state the facts of a situation.
The reason that the Bill is being read tonight—and I have already apologised for the fact that it is so late—is that I thought that it would be convenient for everyone who was speaking on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, bearing in mind the difficulties of coming backwards and forwards. The Bill would probably have been read at 9 o'clock if we had not had the earlier incidents. I took the view that it would probably be convenient for the Bill to be read this evening. Those are the reasons.
I think I am correct in saying that there is no precedent that we can discover for dividing the House on a shout at Second Reading. It is completely outwith the convention of the House. My understanding is that a Motion is tabled so that the House is aware of the intention of the noble Lord that this Bill be read this day or in six months, or that the Bill be not given a Second Reading, with a reasoned amendment. It 722 would be extraordinary if, on a whim, we attempted to kill a Bill on the shout. I therefore hope that noble Lords will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, will the noble Lord, the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, tell us if the Secretary of State gave him any reason for wanting this Second Reading so quickly?
§ Lord Carter
No, my Lords. He merely wrote to me in the usual way and said that it would be helpful, if possible, to have a Second Reading of the Bill before the Summer Recess. At first I thought that it would not be possible. I discussed this in the usual channels and no objection whatever was raised in the usual channels. I then realised that we would have time today in the normal way. Because everyone was here for the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, I thought that I was being helpful by having the Second Reading tonight. I was responding to a simple request to find time, if possible, for a Second Reading before the Summer Recess. It also helps us to get it into Committee more quickly in the overspill, because we do not have to wait for the 14-day interval. It is as simple as that. As far as I am aware, there is nothing at all sinister about it.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene before he sits down. May I express my complete sympathy to the noble Lord, the Government Chief Whip. It is clearly a difficult situation for him. I do not believe that anybody in this House, least of all myself, would in any way suggest that he was ever minded to be unhelpful to your Lordships. We all greatly appreciate the way in which he performs his duties and the considerable style with which he does so. It is hardly surprising that he is held in the deepest affection in all corners of your Lordships' House.
As a former Leader, I hope that I am aware of what is usual at Second Reading. I hope that I am right in thinking also that it is still within the rules of your Lordships' House to divide the House on a shout at Second Reading. It seems to me that the only time at which this House would be extremely unwise to vote against the Government at Second Reading is on a manifesto Bill, which this Bill clearly is not.
With the greatest respect to the noble Lord the Chief Whip, I listened with as much care as I could muster not only to the noble and learned Lord who introduced the debate but also to the noble Lord who, with his usual courtesy, answered it. I was not happy with the answers to the two questions which I asked. They were principally concerned with the content of the Bill and the way in which the noble Lord the Chief Whip has been asked by his colleagues to introduce this Bill at this hour.
It was with some anxiety that I listened to his answer when I intervened before the beginning of this debate, because I had hoped that he would be able to accommodate us if there was no real reason for us to hurry this Bill through. I have not heard one. I am sure that, like every good Chief Whip, he will have kept a 723 House. I intend to divide the House to make the point. I undertake that we shall put in Tellers and that we will not endeavour to defeat him.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I should tell the noble Viscount that under the usual arrangements which mean that we never whip on a Second Reading, because it is unknown to me to divide the House on a shout at the end of a Second Reading—I cannot think of any precedent—there is no whip. It is not my duty to keep a House on unwhipped business, which, as the noble Viscount knows, Second Readings always are.
§ 12.12 a.m.
§ On Question, Whether the Bill shall be read a second time?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 13; Not-Contents, 2.
|Division No. 1|
|Addington, L.||Farrington of Ribbleton, B. [Teller]|
|Bassam of Brighton, L.||Harrison, L.|
|Carter, L. [Teller]||Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Chancellor)|
|Desai, L.||Puttnam, L.|
|Dubs, L.||Simon, V.|
|Falconer of Thoroton, L.||Smith of Clifton, L.|
|Cranborne, V. [Teller]||Lamont of Lerwick, L. [Teller]|
§ The Deputy Speaker (Viscount Simon)
My Lords, as it appears that fewer than 30 Lords have voted, in accordance with Standing Order No. 57, I declare the Question not decided and the debate thereon stands adjourned.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as business on this Bill is not concluded, I shall table it to continue tomorrow afternoon, after the Finance Bill.