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Personal Statement

3.31 pm

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: No. I must take the personal statement first.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair) rose--

Hon. Members: Order!

Madam Speaker: Order. This House must come to order. That is disgraceful behaviour from Members on the Front Bench.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): Madam Speaker, as I was saying, before I was interrupted by the privileges of office.

For a decade before entering Parliament, I worked on behalf of poor people, attempting to make their needs and views better known to the nation. In Parliament, to which I was elected in the political watershed election of 1979, I argued for welfare reform, and helped campaign to make Labour acceptable again, while representing the interests of my constituents in Birkenhead. In so many respects, all three battles overlapped.

My past 30 years have been characterised by helping to get changes made--calling for the sale of council houses, and for the money to be used to build new homes and repair old ones; initiating the one member, one vote, campaign; and spearheading the political drive for the introduction of child benefit. On those and other issues, the stress was on seeing reforms through.

Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) became the leader of the Labour party, I put it on the record that I did not believe that Labour would ever win an election again. My right hon. Friend transformed that position. The 1997 election result indicated the electorate's wish to embrace political change on a scale equal to, but radically different from, that made by Mrs. Thatcher.

On the Saturday after my right hon. Friend's election triumph, I was offered the post of Minister for Welfare Reform. I sensed then, only tentatively, that to reform welfare required a position of executive authority. I was to learn the full importance of that only later. In the end, I settled for a non-executive position, wishing as I did, and still do, for the welfare reform programme to be the big success for which the country longs, and wishing to play some part in that revolution.

I also knew that not to have taken that opportunity could have led to accusations that I had never been a team player, for that was a charge to which I was particularly open. I had spent most of my political life here in Parliament, where there was no Labour team worth playing for, and in trying to maintain some political sanity when others had lost their heads. I am pleased to see that so many are back in order.

On the Monday after the election, I talked to the Prime Minister about the welfare reform strategy. He gave me his immediate agreement to the production of a Green Paper. The idea was to produce a route map guiding the

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way in which reform should be conducted. Then the difficulties began. However, it is not true that the Prime Minister ever vetoed earlier versions of the Green Paper as being too radical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over many years, the Prime Minister has commented on my publications. There was much about the way in which welfare was impacting on people's lives on which we agreed--how it affected behaviour, and how individuals saw or did not see their personal responsibilities and their duty to self-improvement. Here, then, was the central theme of the welfare reform strategy. People's natural wish to improve their lot and that of their families had to become once again the great engine force of social advance in Britain.

Much of current welfare expenditure counters that objective. Although the level of expenditure is an issue, the main concern is the cancerous impact that much of welfare has on people's motivations, their actions and thus their character. Those are the beliefs underpinning the Green Paper. There, the objectives of welfare reform are spelled out, together with 32 success measurements. No democratically elected Government have ever before stated so clearly at the start of their stewardship the measures by which they wish to be judged.

The process of reform was put out to consultation, which ends on Friday, although not before I had travelled more than 9,000 miles and listened and talked to more than 2,000 people.

The Green Paper lays down the framework within which welfare reform is to be conducted. Other Green Papers on specific topics are to follow. One on the Child Support Agency is already out for consultation. Again on the Prime Minister's authority, I and the DSS team produced within eight weeks a Green Paper on countering fraud.

Bigger decisions are now awaited. The reform of disability benefits is urgent. Housing benefit cannot be left providing millions of tenants with a free good for life, at the cost of giving landlords open access to taxpayers' money.

The biggest of all reforms should be heralded in the pensions Green Paper, where the battle is joined by those who see a limited operation as desirable, with a major role for means-tested provision not only for now but for many generations to come.

The alternative centres on proposals that I have made for a universal stakeholder pension. That would guarantee a pension from national insurance and from funded sources which links the interests of rich and poor into a single scheme. It involves some redistribution from richer people to their poorer neighbours, in return for guaranteeing a pension level that only the community can offer. I wish my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Social Security every success in that debate.

If the past 15 months have taught me anything, it is not only that the biggest of all reforms requires an executive position for a person with convictions about welfare reform, but that the entire Cabinet, especially the Chancellor, shares beliefs about that common endeavour.

I went into Government to see the welfare reform programme through. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered me other tasks on Monday, I resigned. It was from the other side of the House that I

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put together the philosophy underpinning our welfare reform programme. It is from this side that I shall attempt once again to help to build a consensus for radical change which, while accepting the pivotal role of self-interest and its crucial link to self-improvement, does not collapse into a selfishness which excludes the poor.

May I thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me to make this statement? Through you, may I thank the House for listening to me?

29 Jul 1998 : Column 376

Points of Order

3.40 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You have made it plain several times how much you deprecate the leaking of Government information in advance of statements in the House. I would ask you to rule on another example that has occurred today, when the Secretary of State for Health issued press releases signalling a substantial change in direction in the policy of care in the community, which had not been the subject of a statement in the House this afternoon.

Can it be right, Madam Speaker, that the House is not to be given the opportunity to question the Secretary of State about his intentions for mental health services, an issue that concerns many of our constituents, and which concerns the community at large? Surely the House should have had the opportunity adequately to question the Secretary of State. Will you give us a ruling, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker: A written question was answered at 10 o'clock this morning. Next.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As a relatively new Back-Bench Member, may I secure guidance on the appropriate behaviour when, as a Back Bencher, one receives, clearly inadvertently, a fax at the office from a senior member of an Opposition party? Should one be good enough to return it? Are there any matters of privilege that arise as a result?

Madam Speaker: That really is a poser. I would say that it depends on what it says. On the whole, I would be honest and return it with affectionate greetings and, "Have a good recess."

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not almost unprecedented when a Minister makes a personal resignation statement in the House that the Prime Minister of the Administration that he or she is leaving does not show the retiring Minister and the House the courtesy of being in his place to listen to the statement?

Madam Speaker: I said only this week, on a similar matter when statements were being made, that it is a question for Ministers whether they remain in their places, or whether they have other duties to which they need to attend.

29 Jul 1998 : Column 377

Parliamentary Oaths (Amendment)

3.43 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I beg to move,

On 4 December 1997, following a meeting with the Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), you informed the House, Madam Speaker, as follows:

    "Having listened carefully to their representations, I reaffirmed my decision of 14 May that those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the benefits and facilities . . . in the House."

You said

    "that it was their refusal to swear or affirm that prevented them from taking their seats, not any action by the Speaker."

Madam Speaker, you further explained that,

    "as Speaker, I am bound by the law. Swearing the Oath, or affirming it, is a legal requirement that cannot be set aside by whim or any administrative action. Primary legislation would be needed to change the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 or the form of the Oath."---[Official Report, 4 December 1977; Vol. 302, c. 487.]

I beg leave to introduce such a Bill. I do so with some trepidation, because the taking of an oath and the act of its swearing or affirmation is a matter of great moment in the life of a person or of a nation. No democratic institution would demand that its participants take an oath without reason. No person seeking election to perform a public service would take an oath without understanding the significance of such an act. It is considered a public, solemn and sacred undertaking. Believers swear on their holy books, which is why I always ask for the Douai testament.

I seek to challenge the reason and purpose of the current oath, and suggest an alternative for those who may not wish to take it. The era in which it was thought to be appropriate or fit for legislators to set a political or religious test for those deemed acceptable to enter the parliamentary club has long since passed. Our vision, and that of the Government, is inclusive representation. Parliament must be open not only to Catholic, Protestant or dissenter, but to involvement and engagement with those of all religions or of none.

We aspire to a democracy in which discrimination on grounds of race or religion might be assigned to the history books. The only test for inclusion and membership of this House should be the will of the electorate, freely expressed. This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. Article 21.2 provides:

We recognise that the law must, without discrimination, respect the rights of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organisations, to ensure that the will of the people serves as the authority for government. We also recognise that parliamentary privilege is not for the benefit of Members, but protects the rights of the electorate, who depend on those whom they have elected to uphold their rights and interests in Parliament.

When we are heralding the potential of the Belfast agreement to advance an agenda of human rights and equality for all, to transform that sad political landscape

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and the political landscape of these islands, and to create a new framework for the reconciliation of a divided country, it is ironic that we can be so unaware of the need to be seen to get our own house in order.

Every hon. Member understands that at least one source of the alienation and disaffection in Northern Ireland stems from the belief of a substantial number of the population that their identity is Irish, not British; that, given the choice, they would prefer to live in a united Ireland, rather than the United Kingdom; and that they do not want to be British, whether citizens, subjects or stakeholders.

Successive Governments have rightly proclaimed the superiority of the ballot box over the Armalite, and demanded that those from the Irish republican tradition renounce the use of violence and seek change exclusively by democratic and peaceful means. Is it not hypocrisy of the first order to argue that Irish republicans should contest elections, only to find when they have succeeded in winning that they are denied the right to fulfil their mandate and represent their electorate?

I have used the word "republican" mainly in an insular and Hibernian sense, but republicans from the rest of these islands are denied access to this House not only in that sense. For what democratic reason should a person of republican beliefs be required to renounce his or her political opinions to take a seat in this Parliament? How can a law requiring Irish or other republicans to take an oath of allegiance to a British sovereign be compatible with the principle of parity of esteem or equality of treatment?

Whether Sinn Fein republicans, because of their party's constitution, would or would not take their seats if the oath were removed or an alternative supplied is beside the point for the purpose of setting out the principles that should govern the law of admittance to this House. The question whether they would choose to take their seats is a matter for them and their constituents; it is not for this House to pose a barrier to them.

The law should require that all discriminatory barriers to participation in the political process be removed; as it stands, it denies access to the political process to people who elect republican Members of Parliament. Such a barrier protects Parliament from hearing the voices and views of sections of the electorate that sometimes it would prefer to ignore, but I do not believe that the Government would want to be associated with a policy of ignoring uncomfortable truths. After all, they boast about the tough decisions that they have had to take.

I believe that providing an alternative to the oath as it stands is a vital part of the modernisation of our democracy and of the House. To treat the oath as "traditional" in the sense of a folklore heritage would be to undermine and trivialise the significance of such a solemn undertaking. As with the great debate on the televising of proceedings of the House, once change was accomplished, a return to the old system would be inconceivable.

We should not duck this issue. Individuals, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), may add their own personal preface to the oath of allegiance. Others, such as the Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), may regress to infancy in the belief that crossed fingers can undo a promise that they do not want to make. Who

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knows what other unheard or unobserved acts hon. Members have performed when taking the oath? The oath is a serious and public matter. It may assuage the consciences of individuals to act in that way, but it does not resolve the issue of how we, as a Parliament, deal with this problem. If we provide an alternative, we could overcome that difficulty. We could draw upon the oath taken by Scottish constables, who must swear before a sheriff or a justice of the peace:

    "I hereby and solemnly and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable."

We could do that as Members of Parliament. We could adopt the oath proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, which stated:

    "I do solemnly Declare and Affirm that I will, to the best of my ability, discharge the responsibilities required of me by virtue of my membership of the House of Commons and faithfully serve those whom I represent here."

I am not suggesting anything revolutionary. I am merely saying, in good conscience, that we should provide an alternative for those who, by taking an oath of allegiance to the sovereign so as to take their seat in the House, may be starting their parliamentary career on a note of deception and hypocrisy.

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