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Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) gave the House an assurance that the promoters of the Bill had found no contravention of convention rights, but he has been challenged by hon. Members to say where that advice came from. That is a very important issue, for this reason.

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I do not wish to construe article 3--the right to free elections--bearing in mind your earlier constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, it could be said in relation to article 3 that if the lawyers who advised the promoters of the Bill on this point had offices in the City of London, they could have had a vested interest in giving their opinion. If, for example, those lawyers have huge, swish offices in one of the more upmarket parts of the City, the rateable value of their property may be several millions of pounds.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): And several votes.

Mr. Dismore: Several hundred votes, I say to my hon. Friend. Under schedule 1, each million pounds works out at 100 votes.

It may be that those lawyers thought that this Bill could be a good Bill for lawyers. The City of London sometimes has policies concerning what the legal profession should be up to in the City, and I have expressed criticisms of City lawyers in other debates. Those lawyers may well come to the view that the City should be doing more to promote the interests of lawyers and, by packing the vote with several hundred of their nominated electors could influence the outcome of City of London policy through the election procedures that we are being asked to approve tonight. Those who may have been asked to advise on the Bill may have had a vested interest in saying that it does not contravene the European convention on human rights.

Mr. McDonnell: On that basis, does my hon. Friend agree that it behoves the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster to publish that opinion this evening--even if it is only laid around the House--and the name of the counsel who gave that opinion?

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, as it is essential that we know who gave that advice and whether the lawyers involved, for example, already have representatives on the corporation of London. There may already be common councillors or City aldermen from that law firm. There may be a close connection between the lawyers advising the City and the City itself. If we could see the opinion, we could determine whether the views on articles 2 and 3 were correct. We could also check whether it was obtained fairly, and properly given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) noted that, besides the firm of solicitors to which I referred, leading counsel may also be involved.

9 pm

Mr. Bermingham: Is not the date of the advice relevant also? Opinion in respect of validity and compliance has changed rapidly over the past 18 months. An opinion that is two or three years old may be worthless.

Mr. Dismore: One of the problems of the Human Rights Act 1998 is that it contains no definitions to help construe the terms of the articles of the European convention. My hon. Friend makes an important point. There has been an awful lot of case law recently, and the interpretation of the convention has developed alongside

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it. I am sorry to say that, once or twice, British Governments have been found to be in contravention when they had considered that to be unlikely.

Mr. Peter Bradley: My hon. Friend is a distinguished lawyer, and will know that one gets the advice that one pays for. Would it not be useful to see the instructions on which the advice that we are discussing was based?

Mr. Dismore: Yes. My hon. Friend and I used be members of Westminster city council. We were often shown legal opinions, and then we got wise to asking to see the instructions on which they were based. That was illuminating, as we discovered that one gets the answers to the questions that one poses.

I should like to know whether the lawyers were asked to advise on the definition of "free" in article 3. The word could mean fair, or that something does not have to be paid for. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) noted earlier, the Bill would make people pay for votes. For example, a person at odds with the City of London's policy on joining the euro might rent or buy some buildings to get a few votes in elections in the City, in the hope that he would be able to influence City policy. Several millionaires with a firm view on that matter may decide to spend their money on mounting such an attempt.

I should also like to know whether the lawyers were instructed to construe the phrase "free expression", which appears in article 3.

Mr. Bermingham: If I were a multi-millionaire--and I am not, being a practising lawyer--and bought property in the City worth millions of pounds, I could vote there and I would also have all my property votes. Why should my property votes, which would have been purchased, be worth more than my human votes, which I would have earned by residence?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a valid intervention. I hope that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster will reveal the contents of the lawyers' opinion, and the instructions that they were given.

Before my hon. Friend intervened, I referred to the term "free expression" in article 3. I think that that term should mean that people can put their crosses wherever they choose on the ballot paper. However, the people who will be asked to exercise their "free expression" will be nominated by a qualifying body--in other words, their employers. I can envisage that people will mark their ballot papers in a way that they know will please their employers.

That practice harks back to the old days of the rotten boroughs, when people were required to vote in the way preferred by their squire. The City is run by the third millennium's squirearchy, and the Bill would enable them to tell their underlings how to vote. I should like to know whether the lawyers who advise the City were asked to construe the definition of "free expression" in that context.

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Mr. Bermingham: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an example of the perfect political Whip, effectively saying, "If you don't vote the right way, you're out."?

Mr. Dismore: This goes beyond what my hon. Friend says; in this House, if one votes against the Whip--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the subject. He must keep within the terms of the new clause before us.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was perhaps getting a little carried away in responding to my hon. Friend's intervention, because I thought that he made a valid point.

My point follows the earlier intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). It goes back to the main defence against the new clause proposed by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster: that a legal opinion was obtained saying that this piece of legislation complied with the European convention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The new clause that I am referring to was moved by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Is that the new clause that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is discussing?

Mr. Dismore: It is, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to you. You were not in the Chamber earlier, but you are quite right in that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) made the point in support of his new clause. However, in responding on behalf of the promoters of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster made the point that the new clause was not necessary because a legal opinion had been obtained by the City that it complied with the European convention, and that we did not have to worry.

I am questioning whether that legal opinion has any validity for the purposes of our debate, bearing in mind that we have yet to see it, as well as seeing the instructions. The instructions to the City lawyers may simply have said, "Let us know whether this complies with the European convention" without drawing attention to the specific points that I have raised.

Mr. Tony Benn: Could my hon. Friend advise me? Let us suppose that the Bill is taken to the European court under the convention. The first question to the Attorney-General will be, "Did you consider the Bill?" We are told by the promoter of the Bill that the Attorney-General did not; we are told that he has not responded. The Attorney-General will be unable to say that he has never thought of it because all these debates have highlighted that point, and still we have a silent Attorney. That must make Britain much more vulnerable if, as is almost certain, the Act--as it will be--is taken to a court for consideration.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The phrase "silent Attorney" is probably a contradiction in terms, but I get the drift of his remarks. If the Bill were challenged in the European courts, Her Majesty's Government, especially the Attorney-General, would be on the receiving end, not the City of London. If

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the Attorney-General and the Government have not considered that, and without the new clause being incorporated and any view being reported back to the House for debate, the Government could be buying a pig in a poke.


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