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Mr. Oaten: Is the Minister saying that in future the Government will make such representations to the Commonwealth so that the logic of the Bill is carried through in that area as well?

Mr. Howarth: There is no intention to do so at this time. We have no reason to believe that that would be helpful in our continuing relations with the Commonwealth. I see no reason for such a debate on what are effectively theoretical rights which have never, to my knowledge, been taken up.

I recognise that the real concern behind the amendment, which the hon. Member for East Londonderry expressed, is to disqualify Irish Ministers from serving as Back-Bench Members in this House or the Assembly.

3.45 am

We have been consistent in the view that conflicts of interest might arise if individuals were allowed to be Ministers in both jurisdictions. That is why clause 2 is in the Bill. Any Minister's duty extends far beyond the constituents who elected him or her. Ministers must properly have regard to the interests of all the people for whom they govern.

However, we do not take the view that a conflict of interest arises between being a Minister in one jurisdiction and a Back Bencher in another. Indeed, it is conceivable that a constituency electorate in Northern Ireland might feel that its interests were likely to be advanced better if its Member were also a Minister in the Irish Government. Other constituency electorates would obviously take a different view. Our view, reflected in the point made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, is that, in a democracy, it is up to the electorate to decide.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth: Yes I will, although I was drawing my remarks to a close.

Dr. Lewis: My question is straightforward. Can the Minister envisage an occasion on which a constituency interest in the south might conflict with one in the north, if an individual were elected to serve two constituencies?

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Mr. Howarth: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended the earlier debate when that matter was raised. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department made it clear that, in such circumstances, it would be for the two sets of constituents to sort out what was right and proper. It is not proper for the House to set such qualifications in regard to Members. We do accept that there is a distinction, which has some force, between being a Minister in one Government and a Back Bencher in another.

Mr. Simon Hughes: That point is clear. The Ulster Unionists have commented on the representations made on that point and there have been references to the representations made by Sinn Fein. Have there been any representations on that specific point from the SDLP, including from its leader? I ask because there has been discussion not only about a member of the SDLP who held office as a Senator in Ireland and was a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, but about a role in Ireland for the current leader of the party, who is also a Member of the UK Parliament.

Mr. Howarth: If I am mistaken in my response to the hon. Gentleman, I shall correct it later--I am not aware of any such representations.

I regret that we do not advise acceptance of the amendment, although, as I have pointed out, we have looked sympathetically on amendment No. 7, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, who is also the First Minister of the Northern Irish Assembly. In view of that and given my explanations, I hope that--not for reasons of time but of principle--the hon. Member for East Londonderry will not feel it necessary to proceed with the amendment.

Sir Patrick Cormack: When the Minister rose to respond, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and I said to one another, "Ah, the Minister is going to accept the amendment." For a moment, it sounded as though the reflection that the Minister promised us yesterday, and that he told us had taken place overnight--I am not sure which night--had resulted in the Government acknowledging the validity of the case put with quiet eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). We thought that the Minister was going to accept the amendment, but he has not done so.

The Minister tried to fob us off by saying that the Government would accept a later amendment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and I support the amendment because we realise that the First Minister--who, sadly, cannot be with us at the moment; he is a wise man not to be in this place at this time of the day--and his colleagues have a real point. The Minister's reply dramatically illustrates the absurdity of taking a Bill of this nature in this manner. I do not question the Minister's good faith when he says that reflection has taken place, but I believe that, if there had been the usual timetable, with proper opportunities to discuss the amendments and for Report, it would have been possible to reach a solution acceptable to everyone.

In moving the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry made a very good case. I find it extremely difficult to accept the logic of what the Minister is saying. The Bill is riddled with anomalies, and it seems

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to me that we shall have an absolute absurdity if we reject the amendment and allow people to be Back Benchers in one Assembly and Ministers in another. I do not think that it will very often happen. Many of the things in the Bill are wholly theoretical--one can hardly ever conceive of some of these people being elected--but we are legislating. We are saying what is permissible.

The case that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry advanced as he moved the amendment, which was tabled by the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was cogent and sensible. I pay the Under-Secretary the compliment of saying that I believe that if he had had proper time to discuss this, in a cross-party way, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and others, he would probably have been persuaded.

Mr. George Howarth: Am I to take it that it is the position of the official Opposition that they would like to deprive Commonwealth members of the rights that they already enjoy?

Sir Patrick Cormack: We believe that there is an anomaly. We are not seeking to rewrite the whole set-up whereby such members can be Members of the House, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) advanced a powerful case for considering the entire position. However, we are saying that to be a Minister in one country and a Back-Bench Member in another inevitably creates a potential conflict of loyalties that is in the interests of neither party, neither state and neither Government, nor in the interests of the electorate.

Mr. Howarth: I believe that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the amendment that he is speaking to. Perhaps he should read it again. If it is pressed and the Opposition vote for it and are successful, the effect would be to disqualify Ministers of Commonwealth countries from being Members of the House. I made that absolutely clear in my speech. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) takes that position. Is that the position of the official Opposition?

Sir Patrick Cormack: In a word, yes--but I would like the hon. Gentleman to tell the Committee of any Minister in any Commonwealth country who has ever sat in the House while he has been a Minister in a Commonwealth country. It is purely theoretical.

Mr. Howarth: That is not the point.

Sir Patrick Cormack: With great respect, it is the point; because when the House passes legislation that is so theoretically absurd as never to be practically possible, it is making an ass of itself.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): What is the point of passing it?

Sir Patrick Cormack: As my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position--although he should not--what is the point of passing it? The House is being made to look fatuous and absurd by taking the line that the Minister is

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taking; and yes, yes, yes: the official Opposition believe that the amendment is entirely logical and sensible, and we will most certainly vote for it.

Mr. Forth: It might help the Committee if I read from the excellent Library research paper on the Bill, which sets the context in which this important debate is taking place.

Under the heading "Practicalities", the paper goes on to list a large number of public office-holders who are disqualified under the 1975 Act. The list includes judicial officers, civil servants, members of the armed forces, police officers and so on.

I wish to dispute the Minister's point that we should leave it to the voters to decide whom they shall elect. I suspect that Ministers do not really believe that because, after a moment's thought, they might realise that there might be some people who they would want to prevent from standing for elections. [Hon. Members: "You!"] I thought that I might get that response from some Government Front Benchers.

It is a well-established principle that we have seen fit over many years--including in the 1975 Act--to assist the electorate by disqualifying certain groups and classes of people from the right to stand for election to this legislature. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that we are interfering in the rights of electors, and that they should be allowed to decide on absolutely anyone that they want. They are not and they have not been, and it is well established in our law that disqualification is a proper principle. However good the Minister's idea may sound theoretically, it will not wash.

I ask the Government--do they intend to repeal the 1975 Act? I gather not, so the Government accept the principle that it is valid and legitimate, in certain circumstances, to disqualify certain groups and classes of people from standing for a legislature.

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