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Mr. Winnick: The right hon. Gentleman has given the answer to my question, but was he against the agreement when it was signed? The hon. Members I mentioned, who have every right to their opinion, as I have to mine, made it clear at the time that they were against the agreement. Was the right hon. Gentleman against it?

Mr. Forth: I may have had my doubts at the time, but I was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to all

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parties to the agreement, on the assumption that, if they were all operating in a spirit of genuine goodwill, it provided an opportunity to resolve the problems that have bedevilled part of the United Kingdom for so long. Time has passed, however. Changes have occurred, and the factors that I have mentioned have led me to doubt increasingly whether we were right to feel so optimistic.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the terms of the Bill are outside those of the Belfast agreement in any event?

Mr. Forth: That is an important point. It is all very well for Ministers to sit grinning and nodding, but it is they who made the connection between the agreement and their own Bill. Unless they retract, clarify or change the meaning of what they said yesterday, that remains the case. I quoted those words only a few minutes ago--not my words, but those of one of the Ministers. I hope that one, or both, will take the opportunity--

Mr. George Howarth rose--

Mr. Forth: Of course I shall give way to the Minister.

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman did, indeed, read out the relevant words from Hansard, but they do not mean what he suggested. In the part of my speech that he quoted, I specifically used the word "context". The right hon. Gentleman should realise that using the word "context" is different from saying that the Bill is in some way related to the Good Friday agreement, and he should not misrepresent what was said by me or by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Forth: That is all very well, but I quoted the words of the Under-Secretary of State first, and I think that they were even more relevant. Having been asked to quote them again, I will--with your indulgence, Mr. Martin. The Under-Secretary of State said:

All the words that the hon. Gentleman used yesterday--there were many more, but I shall not weary the Committee with them now--sought to establish a causal link between the agreement and the Bill.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): My right hon. Friend omitted a key part of what was said by the Under-Secretary of State. He said:

Does that not suggest that there were discussions at the time of the agreement, and that they were part and parcel of the Bill?

Mr. Forth: It is beginning to sound very much like that, is it not? I wish that, rather than sitting there

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giggling, Ministers would do the Committee the courtesy of giving us a proper, full and open explanation of the genesis of what increasingly seems to be the grubby little measure that we are considering. They should let us know what gave rise to it, why they are presenting it now, why it is so urgent, and what they expect to gain from it.

I hope that, if the Ministers did not understand what they were told, they may understand it better as a result of the help that they are being given. I also hope that, when they reply to the series of important debates in which we shall continue to engage during the next few hours, we shall discover from them what on earth is going on.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: We have two options. The first is to believe that the Bill emerged from behind-the-scenes discussion with Sinn Fein in an attempt to hand Sinn Fein another sop in terms of the agreement, arising from it. The second is to believe that--all of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, with no prior discussion, with no public interest and with no newspaper commentators raising the subject--a Government with a huge agenda manufactured the Bill. Which option does my right hon. Friend prefer?

Mr. Forth rose--

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) is talking about the Bill. Interventions should relate to the amendments and new clause that we are discussing.

6.45 pm

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to you, Mr. Martin. You have possibly saved me from having to make the difficult choice presented to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). I may return to the matter later, when I gauge that you might allow me more leeway, but I dare not do so now.

Mr. Robathan: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I am approaching the conclusion of my speech, and I hope that my colleagues will bear that in mind; but I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robathan: Earlier, my right hon. Friend responded to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who asked whether he supported the Belfast agreement. We supported it--with some reservations--because it appeared to be supported by the great majority of people in Northern Ireland. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable misgivings felt by large sections of the community in Northern Ireland, especially the Unionist community, who voted in favour of the agreement but now believe that they were hoodwinked in certain ways, not least by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Forth: I cannot answer the question that my hon. Friend poses, but others in the Chamber can, and I hope that they will seek an opportunity to do so. It is important for us to know as much as possible about the views of the people of Northern Ireland before we proceed much

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further. This is a valid aspect of our considerations. I cannot give the views of those people, but there are those sitting very close to me who could.

What I am trying to say is very simple. In my view, the key measure in the Bill--I am against the Bill in principle, but the House gave it its blessing by agreeing to Second Reading--cannot be allowed to proceed without conditionality. It cannot be allowed to proceed without reassurance and guarantees. The guarantees that I suggest--I hope that I shall be able to test the Committee's view at an appropriate time--would explicitly link activation of the Bill with completion of all aspects of the Belfast agreement, as established by all parties to that agreement. I consider that to be proper, reasonable, straightforward and comprehensible, and I think that it should therefore form a key part of the Bill.

Several hon. Members rose--

The First Deputy Chairman: I call Mrs. Dunwoody.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Thank you, Mr. Martin. I realise that one of my advantages is being so tiny and insignificant that I am rarely noticed.

It will greatly please Ministers to learn that I do not intend to speak at length. The amendments, however, strike me as important, in as much as they relate to the Bill and to the qualifications of those who will have the right to sit in the House of Commons.

The title of the Bill is a bit of a misnomer. It is not so much a disqualifications Bill as a qualifications Bill. One of the hazards presented by the new clause and, from a different angle, the amendments is the confusion in Members' minds about whether the particular measure being introduced relates to a particular group of persons who have not been identified. If that is the case, and if it had been put to us that we are now confronted by an entirely different political situation that requires us to make fundamental changes to the qualifications of those who wish to enter the House of Commons because we need much wider representation, people would be better able to judge the amendments.

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) asks, I am in favour of the Belfast agreement. If I have objections to the Bill and to the amendments, they arise from my belief that, if constitutional change is made without detailed examination, once the legislation is on the statute book--especially if debate has been, what shall I say? somewhat foreshortened--we often end up with wording, even with basic changes, that may not constitute exactly what we foresaw. That is why I feel impelled to say that I am worried not just about the amendments, but the qualifications that would apply in future to people who wanted to be candidates.

I do not have a great wish to be a Member of the Dail, not least because one of my best friends had to sit through eight recounts before knowing whether he had been elected. I pointed out to him that, after the second recount, I would put my coat on, go home and suggest that someone tell me when a conclusion had been reached. However, I would not want the Minister to think that my views on proportional representation were influencing any of my comments tonight.

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The amendments and the new clause can be dealt with simply. If we were told whether some political decision or political change necessitated the passage of the Bill in this form, without qualifications or restrictions on the people who can be candidates for the House of Commons, and if we were told that the changes had to be made now, the matter would possibly be dealt with quickly. I do not think that we have been told those things. Those who propose restrictions in the amendments do so from a genuine desire to ensure that we do not allow constitutional change to put us in a position that we might regret, if not in the near future, certainly before many months have passed.

So I make one suggestion to Ministers: speak clearly to us, explain fully to us what is implied and, above all, remember that constitutional change applies to every Member of the House of Commons, wherever they come from, whatever their background, sex, religion or general approach to life. It therefore behoves those of us who believe in democracy to ensure that the one thing that they have in common is a commitment to a democratic form of government.

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