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6.45 am

I exposed the Under-Secretary's fallacious argument earlier when he claimed that the electorate should be free to elect anyone they want to a body, completely ignoring the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. I won that argument and the Under-Secretary lost it comprehensively. He has not yet come to terms with that. We could take the argument forward and claim that it would be legitimate, especially in the formative stages of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, for the House, as the Assembly's creator, to protect Assembly Members, even from themselves and their potential early misjudgments, for example, in selecting a Presiding Officer. Although it is tempting to say, "Off you go, new democratic body. Do your own thing and take your own responsibility," I tentatively suggest that the Assembly is not ready for that in its initial stages. It may be incumbent on us to consider that and decide whether we have an obligation to examine those matters carefully.

Mr. Swayne: I agree with my right hon. Friend. We would fail in our duty if we did not take that opportunity. However, new clause 3 refers to the House of Commons, and would protect us from ourselves. I am not sure whether that is legitimate.

Mr. Forth: It is not always a bad thing. Perhaps members of the Committee, with their combined sagacity, should protect our colleagues who have not seen fit to participate in the debate as fully as some of us. We have taken the trouble to examine the Bill and digest its contents. It may surprise my hon. Friend to realise that we took the new clause more seriously than he thought at first blush.

The new clause develops a theme introduced in other amendments. It would ensure that

here. That makes the large assumption that such a person would be elected here in the first place. Unfortunately, so far, we must take that as read.

Mr. Chope: The current Prime Minister views the selection of the Speaker of the House of Commons as within his powers of patronage.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. We cannot discuss those matters.

Mr. Forth: Certainly not, Mr. Martin. It is tempting to try to protect ourselves from the Prime Minister, but he is here so rarely that I do not worry about his influence on the selection of the Speaker or any other matter to do with the House of Commons. That is one of the benefits of the Prime Minister's almost complete absence from the Chamber. My hon. Friend can rest assured on that point.

We have to make a judgment about how far it is proper and profitable in the context of the Bill and the amendments to try to protect perhaps even ourselves, and whether we should provide some assurance or protection to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is still very new. Its existence is, regrettably, a matter for doubt and speculation.

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Given the uncertainties that I have outlined, there is a strong argument for saying that we are obliged to provide as much of a framework, and as much assurance and proper protection as we can to the Assembly. That applies especially as the role of the new Committees, Presiding Officers, Chairmen and Vice Chairmen has yet to develop, as the Under-Secretary helpfully told us. We do not have a full idea of them at this stage because the Assembly is new. I include even ghastly mechanisms such as d'Hondt, which roll off ministerial lips so readily. The Government are ever so familiar and comfortable with our old friend d'Hondt--even though the Home Secretary can barely mention the name without giggling. On that, I am more with the Home Secretary than with some other Ministers. The Under-Secretary of State is obviously a sophisticated and urbane man who is used to moving in European circles. He uses words such as "d'Hondt" with great aplomb. I would not be surprised if he even knew how d'Hondt works. That is one reason why the amendments are so important.

Given the novelty of all the processes, procedures and institutions, it is incumbent on us to do everything possible to provide proper protection. I am much in favour of all the proposed measures. The Minister helpfully intervened early in the debate to give his view, but he has yet to hear the full panoply of our arguments. I am just providing a taster of the arguments that my right hon. Friends might want to deploy.

I hope that the Minister will think again in the light of our arguments. I was disappointed that he only went so far as saying, "We might accept the principle of one or two amendments and give the usual undertaking about returning to the question at another time, in another place." The Committee must decide whether it is satisfied with that response.

Although we may trust the Minister totally, it cannot be guaranteed that he will be in full control when the proposals go to the other place. Given the turmoil at the other end of this building, nothing can be guaranteed. A ministerial undertaking that something will be sorted in another place, given recent encouraging events there, is no guarantee. It may be that Governments could make such a guarantee in the good old days, but they cannot any more. I am happy to report that, under the allegedly temporary dispensation, the Government, it appears, cannot rely on delivering anything in another place. That makes us feel doubly nervous and suspicious of what the Minister has said, rather than reassured.

I am looking for something very different from the Minister at the conclusion of this debate. I want him explicitly to accept at least two of the amendments--and preferably to accept them all, for the reasons I have outlined.

Mr. Chope: I follow my right hon. Friend in discussing new clause 3, which is the most important of the new clauses and amendments in this group. The independence of our Speaker and the Speaker's role under our unwritten constitution are fundamental to our understanding of the importance of the proposed new clause.

In the first constituency that I represented--Southampton, Itchen--I was fortunate to follow in the footsteps of a distinguished former Speaker, Horace

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Maybray-King. He was originally a Labour Member of Parliament for Southampton, Itchen, but, as soon as he became Speaker, he stood as an independent. The prospective Conservative candidate was not permitted to stand against Horace Maybray-King because the convention is that a Speaker should be allowed to stand as an independent and be elected.

Maybray-King was still alive when I was elected in 1983. I remember him impressing upon a group of my Young Conservatives the important role of the Speaker in defending our rights under the constitution. He had been a Labour man originally, but was then an independent because he had assumed a new role. To reinforce his independence, we even passed a special Act of Parliament to provide a pension, not only for his first wife, but for his last wife--he certainly enjoyed the company of women. When he visited my Young Conservatives he was given a lift by the lady president and his first question to her was whether her husband was still alive. His reputation was such, but he commanded tremendous respect as an independent upholder of the traditions of the House.

Mr. Robathan: Does my hon. Friend think that Horace King would have been happy in the Labour party under the new Labour regime? Would he have wanted to remain in the Labour party or become an independent?

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We cannot have a biography of Horace King this morning. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred to him, which is fine, but we must discuss the amendment.

Mr. Chope: Absolutely, Mr. Martin. In deploying my argument in support of the significance of our unwritten constitution and the office of Speaker, I refer to a lesson I was taught by another distinguished former Member of the House, the late Enoch Powell. I had the privilege of serving with him on the Procedure Committee in 1983-84. The first thing that he impressed on me was that, in the absence of a written constitution, the procedures of the House are our constitution. They are the ultimate bulwark that defends our liberties and protects us from oppression. The constitutional position is very different from that of a Speaker of a Parliament in a country with a written constitution. In the present circumstances, Madam Speaker is the ultimate arbiter on procedure, so it is of paramount importance that she is independent and seen to be independent.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Is not great force added to my hon. Friend's argument about the importance of the Speaker by the fact that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill is currently going through the House and will give the Speaker enormous new powers to control the referendum process. Would not it be extraordinary if those powers were given to some foreigner?

Mr. Chope: I must be careful about using the word "foreigner", because it might be misinterpreted, but it would be unconscionable if those powers were given to a member of the legislature of another country. That is what the amendment is about and we must face up to that problem. We expect our Speaker to be independent and

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to give up all party-political positions in our legislature, but if the Speaker was also a member of a foreign legislature, he or she would fulfil a party-political role in it. Even if such a person's role was not party political, a conflict of interest would be seen to be involved.

The great European debate has already been referred to, as has the fact that Ireland is a net recipient of aid from taxpayers while this country is a gross donor of aid to other European countries, including Ireland. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is frequently debated in the House. How could we be assured of the impartiality of the Speaker if that person fulfilled a representative role in a country that was not a member of NATO, while purportedly being an independent defender of our liberties in this country? It would be intolerable. Why will the Minister not accept the new clause? The only reason he gives is that he believes that Members of the House of Commons should have the freedom to choose.

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