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4.31 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I am somewhat bemused. I had hoped that, in the discussion of the reasons for Her Majesty's Government proposing what is a constitutional change, there would be a clear explanation of the situation, not only as it exists, but as it will exist after the passing of the law. I regret to say that I am more confused now than I was when I entered the Chamber.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I would say this to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary: constitutional change needs to be carefully thought out, and its implications carefully examined. I understand the desire to normalise relationships with Ireland, particularly in the light of the advances that are being made and the desire to have stability and change in Northern Ireland. However, to deal with one anomaly by creating a dozen others does not seem altogether an admirable solution. I would have been happier had my hon. Friend, whom I know to be not only a sterling member of the Front Bench, but an honest and straightforward one, been able to assure me that various qualifications would have been automatically written in at this point--not later, but at this point.

Will it be necessary to have the same qualifications of residency? Are the same responsibilities to be put upon the people who are involved and who could benefit from the legislation? Will the constraints that we have in relation to this Chamber be the same after the Bill has been passed?

Because of the historical accident that Irish citizens can not only vote but take part in local government and in our system of elections, I understand why it is felt that Ireland has a different relationship. But the reality is that it is outwith the Commonwealth; it is not on a par with Commonwealth countries. I must ask my hon. Friend whether this will not be used as a precedent for other non-Commonwealth countries in the future. I could understand if, in seeking to tidy up legislation, one came here and said that it was no longer sensible for other Commonwealth representatives to have the right to sit here, but that does not seem to be the case. What we are

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doing today seems, if well intentioned, ill-researched. It may even be somewhat wider in its context and somewhat more immediate in its results than Her Majesty's Government may have considered.

These days, I suppose that I could be said to represent the forces of conservatism, although I discover that my position within the Labour party seems to sway from side to side--not because of anything that I do, but because others take a different view of where I stand. However, I am really rather discomfited by the suggestions that have been made today, and even more discomfited by the fact that I see no one on the Government Benches questioning them. We may discuss constitutional change, but I believe that the right to sit in the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom is one of the most important rights of a citizen. It carries with it responsibilities and duties. The Oath of Allegiance is not to a particular person: it is to our head of state. We must never lose sight of that fact, whatever people may think about our system.

I have difficulty with the measure; we have not been given a full explanation of the need for it. Its implications are much more wide ranging than my hon. Friend suggested, and I could not support it in the Lobby.

4.35 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), especially as, on this occasion, I agree with much of what she said. I seek the indulgence of the House for my absence during the wind-up speeches, depending on when they take place. I have a long-standing speaking engagement in Cambridge this evening, which I am honour bound to keep.

Mr. Mackinlay: The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be back to vote, I hope.

Mr. Howard: I hope so, but it depends on when the vote takes place.

I believe that the Bill is wrong in principle. Underlying the Disqualification Act 1975, which this Bill amends, and all previous disqualification legislation is the principle that an hon. Member should be free from possible conflicts of interest that might distract his behaviour as an independent member of the legislature and his freedom to represent the best interests of his constituents. As the Library note puts it, this House-based objective has been historically the basis of the great majority of disqualifications. It is a principle previously accepted as self-evident.

Dr. Palmer: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, in that case, it would be necessary to abolish the right of members of one European Union state to stand for the European Parliament in another, as Lord Steel did a few years ago when he stood in Italy as a candidate for the European Parliament?

Mr. Howard: It is possible to have more than one view on that, but I do not think that that follows from what I have argued because the European Parliament is not a sovereign Parliament. The essence of my argument has to do with the sovereignty of this Parliament and that of the Republic of Ireland.

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The principle to which I have referred is reinforced by the Oath of Allegiance. I, for one, do not understand how it is possible to be loyal to that Oath and to serve loyally in another sovereign Parliament. No one should expect that to be possible. We are not concerned with a problem of terminological inconvenience. At the very core of the responsibility of a Member of Parliament is his duty to promote the interests of the country of whose Parliament he is a Member. No two countries have interests that are always identical. Whenever those interests diverge, a member of the legislature in both countries is faced with precisely the type of conflict of interest that it is the purpose of the Disqualification Act 1975 to prevent.

Mr. Hogg: Although, unlike my right hon. and learned Friend, I should like the Oath to be changed, it none the less focuses on the nature of the duty owed. The duty owed by any hon. Member in this House is a duty to the interests of this country.

Mr. Howard: My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely correct. That is precisely the point.

The divergence of interests between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland has been and remains conspicuous. In this country's hour of greatest peril 60 years ago, the Irish state stood apart. To this day, the Republic of Ireland continues to stand apart from the military alliance that has done so much to preserve peace over the past 50 years. It is not a member of NATO; it is neutral.

The Irish Republic is part of European economic and monetary union. No one can seriously doubt that the interests of a country that is a member of that union and those of a country that is not cannot be identical. To state those differences is merely to set out a series of facts. They are indisputable.

We have before us legislation that is wrong in principle. Indeed, the error of that principle seems to be recognised in the legislation itself. Clause 2 provides that no one should be a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive

That can be only because the Government themselves recognise that to hold ministerial office in both Administrations would be to fall foul of the very conflict of interests to which I have referred.

Ministers nod, but this was the thinnest part of the justification advanced by the Under-Secretary of State. The responsibilities and loyalties of a Minister to the country that he serves are in every material respect identical to those of a member of the legislature. The fact that in one case the responsibility is Executive, while in the other it is legislative, is utterly immaterial in relation to the principle that is involved

Mr. Hogg: The Oath is precisely the same.

Mr. Howard: Indeed it is.

The only argument that has been advanced in support of the Bill, either explicitly or implicitly, is that it would further the peace process; but it has been acknowledged that nothing in the Good Friday agreement requires this step to be taken. Indeed, it has been forcefully argued that pressing on with the measure in the absence of a consensus for it is itself a breach of the Good Friday

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agreement. In any event, it can hardly be argued that those who are most likely to benefit from the legislation--I agree that they are not the only ones--have been so punctilious in their observance of the provisions of the agreement as to justify these further concessions.

Finally, I want to deal briefly with the claim that all that the legislation achieves is the putting of the Republic of Ireland on the same footing as member states of the Commonwealth. I do not regard that as a convincing argument. It is easy to see why in 1957, just a dozen years after the end of the second world war, special provision was made in the House of Commons Disqualification Act of that year for Commonwealth member states. At that time, there was indeed a greater identity of interest between those countries and the United Kingdom than existed between the United Kingdom and almost every other country, or than exists now between the United Kingdom and other countries of the Commonwealth.

I personally greatly value our Commonwealth links and want them to be strengthened, but I believe that, for the reasons of principle that I have given, the Commonwealth exemption from the provisions of the 1957 Act can no longer be justified. It is that exemption that is the anomaly. Far from being extended, as the legislation would provide, it should be removed.

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