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Mr. Sayeed: I thank the Minister for his courtesy. Does he understand that it is not necessary to be a Minister to have a conflict of interest? All that is necessary is to have two sets of different constituents. As I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), someone may have two constituencies, one in Ireland and one in England, and be trying to bid for the same contract. In that position, it is not possible to serve two masters effectively.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman was perhaps a little precipitate in intervening, because that is the next point in my speech.

I explained in the earlier debate that we do not accept that conflicts of interest necessarily arise where an individual is simply a Back-Bench Member in one jurisdiction but a Minister in the other. Our position, which I have repeated--the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I will have to differ on this point--is that, in such cases, it is a matter for the relevant electorate to decide at whatever point the person concerned submits himself either for election or re-election. They have to decide whether they consider that it is an appropriate thing to.

These amendments turn on the same general issue. The effect would be to prevent an individual from becoming a Member in Northern Ireland, not only if he were a Minister in the Irish Government but if he were a Back- Bench Member in either the Dail or the Irish Senate.

9.15 am

It will therefore be no surprise that we oppose the amendments for almost exactly the same reasons as we gave in an earlier debate. I will not repeat those arguments in detail because we have heard them time and again.

I draw the Committee's attention to a further issue to which the amendments give rise. The amendments would disqualify even a Member of the Irish Senate from being a Minister in Northern Ireland, even though that is possible under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The official Opposition, including the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, did not oppose that measure. Yet the right hon. Gentleman would now reverse that legislation. Section 36(5) of the Act removes the provision for disqualification from the Assembly of Members of the Irish Senate. Parliament made no provision to prevent Members of the Irish Senate from taking up ministerial positions in Northern Ireland. Of course, none of the Northern Ireland Ministers are currently Members of the

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Irish Senate. None the less, the amendment would remove an existing right, and not merely constrain the extension of a right.

The Government believe that the House made the right decision last year on the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We oppose the amendment for that reason, and because of the general issues to which I referred.

Mr. Forth: The Under-Secretary's response was perhaps predictable, but it is nevertheless disappointing. He suggests that we must agree to differ. However, it is sad that we have been unable to persuade him of our case over hours of debate in the Chamber on many different amendments.

Mr. Swayne: The Under-Secretary refused to tackle the arguments. He claimed that he had done that in earlier debates. We failed to convey to him the difference in the nature of this debate, which covers Ministers and legislators, rather than mere legislators, which earlier debates tackled. The Under-Secretary did not even address the arguments. That is why his response was so disappointing.

Mr. Forth: I agree with my hon. Friend, but I suspect that the Under-Secretary does not perceive the force of the argument. He does not want, cannot or is not allowed to acknowledge the difficulties that will inevitably arise when tensions occur. At worst, that could undermine the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Assembly and sour relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, entirely foreseeably.

However, there is an underlying principle, which bothers me. There is an increasing erosion of nationhood, identity, borders and institutions because of the European Union, and we are now considering another influence, which erodes those institutions in a similar way. That is an inherent part of the debate and the anxiety, which many of us share.

Mr. Gale: On a point of order, Mr. Lord. I apologise to my right hon. Friend and to you for raising this point of order now. I would ordinarily have done my right hon. Friend the courtesy of waiting until he had finished speaking, but I suspect that we are heading for a Division. I do not know of any procedure for raising a point of order during a Division in Committee, although such procedure exists for the Floor of the House.

I was not present when the Chairman of Ways of Means made his ruling, but I understand that he ruled that it was entirely proper for sittings to take place in Westminster Hall when the House was sitting. The order that the House made on 24 May 1999 allows for Westminster Hall to sit on Thursdays from 2.30 pm for up to three hours while proceedings take place on the Floor. A precedent exists, and I understand the reason for the ruling of the Chairman of Ways and Means.

The motion passed on 24 May states that on days that the House shall sit, there shall be a sitting in Westminster Hall on Tuesdays between 10 am and 1 pm and on Wednesdays between 9.30 am and 2 pm. You may think that this is esoteric, Mr. Lord, but I have consulted "Erskine May" and the precedent is clear. While the day's sitting continues, the House of Commons is sitting, in this case, on Tuesday.

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While this House is sitting on Tuesday, I fail to see how a sitting deemed by order of the House on 24 May to start at 10 o'clock on Tuesday--because it is still Tuesday--can or should be allowed to proceed at 9.30am in Westminster Hall. I am certain that when the Chairman of Ways and Means made his ruling, he did not take that into account. I understand why. The fact is that we are sitting on Tuesday, not Wednesday, and Westminster Hall cannot--

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I am sure that the Chairman of Ways and Means was well aware of all the background when he made his ruling. I believe that he has already dealt with that matter.

Mr. Clappison: Further to that point of order, Mr. Lord.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I do not think that there can be anything further to that point of order.

Mr. Clappison: It is a separate point of order, Mr. Lord. We are very close to 9.30am and my right hon. Friend is about to conclude his remarks.

Mr. Forth indicated assent.

Mr. Clappison: There will be a Division and it is likely that it will coincide with the beginning of the sitting in Westminster Hall. In those circumstances, what is to happen to those of us who wish to take part in the Division and travel in time to Westminster Hall tomorrow?

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been in and out of the Chamber this morning but I have already ruled on that point. It will be entirely for the occupant of the Chair in Westminster Hall. We have now dealt adequately with that point of order.

Mr. Forth: We are facing a combination of factors that are conspiring to make it difficult for us to be persuaded by the Minister, to whom many of us have listened over a long period.

Mr. Swayne: That is not entirely true. The Minister has been very sparing with his words at the Dispatch Box. We wished to listen to him a great deal more than we have been able.

Mr. Forth: That must be a matter of judgment. I do not want to fall out entirely with the Minister quite yet because I still nurture the hope that we may be able to persuade him.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I believe that I am correct in saying that the longest speech so far in Committee has been a ministerial speech.

Mr. Forth: There is a nugget of information to treasure. It will be interesting, when Hansard finally appears, to see what information was imparted during that

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lengthy ministerial speech. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps we should run an eye over the proceedings, to see where the balance lies.

We have tried hard, and happily there is much more to be considered in Committee. We are only part way through the proceedings. To date, we have not been able to persuade the Minister to accept any of the important and fundamental points made in a series of debates.

Mr. Nicholls: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the points of order, which were properly ruled upon, show that even in this House there can be extremely difficult conflicts of interest over where one should be debating? In a few moments my right hon. Friend, who I believe is a great devotee of Westminster Hall--

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. That point of order has nothing to do with the amendment before the Committee.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend's point and my personal circumstances of some years ago illustrate that such conflicts arise more often than might be anticipated. We should have been able to draw the Minister's attention to that in persuading him that something should be done.

It is increasingly likely that the Bill will have no Report stage. It will have been shoved all the way through Committee without amendment. I regret that that is how things look, although there is still hope. The Bill will pass through this House unamended--hardly touching the sides in parliamentary terms--and go to the other place--over which, I am happy to say, the Government do not have any control. There is a real risk that this important and controversial Bill will end up unsatisfactory, unsound and unsafe. If it does, the Committee will have failed to do its job.

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