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Mr. Ian Bruce: I am following the arguments carefully, but I understand that a Minister of the Crown is prevented under legislation from taking a salary from somebody else. I cannot understand how the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can possibly suggest that a Minister could take a separate salary completely outside Government and Parliament.

Mr. Donaldson: We look to the Under-Secretary for a response.

In normal circumstances, no one on this side of the Committee would have raised the issue of ending the current situation in respect of the Commonwealth, because it would not have been significant. The Government have created these circumstances, so they cannot blame the Opposition if we unfortunately have to penalise our friends in Commonwealth countries as we try to safeguard Parliament. The Government are seeking to extend that privilege beyond the Commonwealth without good reason.

Mr. Bercow: Given that a Minister cannot also operate as a Back Bencher in the House and all Ministers readily accept that limitation, is it not peculiar and absurd of the Under-Secretary to argue that a Minister could be a Back Bencher in another House?

Mr. Donaldson: Ministers are denied the role of Back Bencher because of their responsibilities, but they could sit alongside Back Benchers who are Ministers in the Government of another country. That shows the absurdity of asking Parliament to pass this Bill. Again we ask Ministers why. We conclude that it is to assist the representatives of a party that commands 18 per cent. of the vote in Northern Ireland, whose population is 1.7 million of the 56 million or 57 million people in the United Kingdom. That is nonsense, but why is that party so important to the Government? Why are they going through this process? Precisely because that party has something that other parties in the House do not have--an arsenal of illegal weaponry at its disposal. Its mandate comes not merely from the ballot box, but, to quote one of its representatives, from the Armalite.

That party believes that power resides not only in the right of the people to vote in elections, which the Under-Secretary has espoused, but in the barrel of a gun. That is what we are dealing with. Parliament is being asked to change a constitutional aspect of our law to assist that particular party and in that sense the Bill is absurd, in parliamentary and constitutional terms. We are extending to a country that is not in the Commonwealth a privilege that was exclusive to member nations of the Commonwealth. What does that say to those nations, which work alongside us?

The answer to that question concerns our close relationship with the Irish Republic. I am not against good, neighbourly relationships, but surely we ought to ask whether the Irish Republic should rejoin the

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Commonwealth if there is a desire for its citizens or Members of its legislature also to be Members of this House.

It appears that that option is not available--that the Irish Government for some reason are not prepared, in spite of the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, to rejoin the Commonwealth. It appears that the special relationship is not quite as special as some people would make it out to be. Indeed, when it comes to extraditing people who have been responsible for some of the most serious crimes in the United Kingdom, the special relationship does not count for very much, as we are seeing at the moment in Northern Ireland.

4.30 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), who has given us some important insights into the Government's motives in bringing forward this legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made an important contribution to the debate, not least because he announced an important new plank of Conservative party policy: this is all part of the commonsense revolution. Indeed, if ever there was common sense it is that we should not allow Ministers in Governments in other countries and members of other legislatures to be Members of the House of Commons. It must have been an anomaly that was never intended in any legislation that evolved at the same time as the colonies were developing into the Commonwealth, and it resulted in a power enabling the Commonwealth countries to have Ministers serving as Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The fact that that privilege has never been exercised by any Commonwealth country, and the fact that it is a privilege that is not reciprocated by any other Commonwealth country, suggests to me that the whole thing was anomalous in the first place and that those Commonwealth countries realised that it would be in breach of common sense to allow their Ministers to be Members of our legislature.

For the Minister to suggest that the only reason he is not prepared to accept the amendment is that it would be an affront to Commonwealth countries is disingenuous in the extreme. It is also wrong of the Minister to suggest that this problem can be overcome by leaving it to the electorate, because the issue is about timing. What happens if somebody who is a Member of Parliament in both a foreign country--a Commonwealth country or the Irish Republic--and in the House then becomes a Minister? What say do the electorate have in that situation? They cannot intervene until the next general election.

The Minister's response that it is for the electorate to deal with the matter does not wash, because the whole essence of the Disqualification Acts is to prevent that from happening in the first place. That is why they take effect before somebody stands for election. For example, before joining the House after the last general election, I was a member of the Health and Safety Commission, and I had to be sure that I had resigned properly from that commission, because it was an office of profit under the

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Crown, before standing as a candidate in the general election. At that stage, I could not be sure of the outcome, but I still had to give up my office of profit under the Crown. The Minister is saying that the electorate can intervene, when clearly they cannot.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I wonder whether in the future people will not apply for the Chiltern Hundreds; they will apply to become Ministers in the Irish Republic and therefore disallow themselves from carrying on.

Mr. Chope: That is a very interesting idea. Some hon. Members are highly principled. The former Member for Ceredigion decided that it would be wrong to hold two mandates at the same time, which is why he resigned his position and why a by-election is pending in Ceredigion.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Government are embarrassed about accepting the amendment is that they have a large number of MPs whom we never see in the House, who hold office in Scotland and Wales as Members of Parliament and of the Assembly, and as Ministers. Effectively, they are wearing three hats and being paid three salaries. Perhaps that is why the Minister does not find it possible to support the amendment: he knows that it attacks the principle of wearing three hats and having three salaries, which I think most members of the public would find offensive. I certainly do.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): Three salaries?

Mr. Chope: Until the present Government took office, Ministers took reduced parliamentary salaries. Now, because of the fat cats who are in control, the Government think it necessary for them to have a full parliamentary salary and a full ministerial salary, and for Members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers to have those two salaries as well. People find that utterly offensive.

This is an issue of common sense. It is not a case of causing affront to the Commonwealth; it is a question of asking whether we are to extend privileges that do not extend currently in circumstances in which they make no sense to ordinary people.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: It is just as well for the Government that the amendment is being debated at 4.36 am. If it were being debated at a more reasonable hour, when the press were present--who knows who is watching on the parliamentary channel; perhaps some insomniacs in the Press Gallery are watching--people would see the absurdity of the Government's proposal, and of driving it through the Committee and the House at this ridiculous hour.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), I was greatly encouraged by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). He nearly always says sensible things, and he says them with passion, especially when it comes to matters regarding the House. I was delighted when he announced a shift in Conservative policy on this matter, because it is clear that the 1975 Act is an anachronism. The Government are tinkering with the Act, rather than addressing the fundamental irrelevance of the legislation to our present circumstances.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, it is fatuous to suggest that people who represent constituencies in other legislatures should be entitled to sit in this House or, indeed, the other place.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister is, in fact, challenging the whole principle of disqualification. He said that the arbiter should be the electorate--that the electorate should judge who was eligible or ineligible.

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