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Mr. Hayes: Before the hon. Gentleman abbreviates his remarks to an unacceptable degree, could he return to the issue of representation? Since I last intervened I have had a chance to look at a copy of Hansard dated 31 March 1920, column 1288, which confirms my earlier suggestion that Ireland's representation in this Parliament was critical to that debate. Could he address that matter once and for all?

1.15 pm

Mr. Ross: I regret that I would have to go off and study that passage. If you, Mr. Lord, would give me permission to speak again before these debates finish I would be in a position to do that and then meet the hon. Gentleman's request. He was helpful to me a moment ago, but I confess that in 1920 I was not even a twinkle in my father's eye. I will deal with the matter if he does not.

With those few words I must bring my brief remarks to an end. I hope to speak again and examine this matter in somewhat more detail before we finish.

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Sir Patrick Cormack: I should like to make a few very brief points, partly to amplify my intervention of a few minutes ago and partly to answer the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale).

There is one reason, and one reason only, why we are still debating this measure at this time. That reason sits on the Government Bench. It is the silence of the Treasury Bench that is responsible for the fact that my eloquent and hon. Friends have felt obliged to repeat points, to repeat questions--[Interruption.] It is not for hon. Members, from a sedentary position, to usurp the Chair. Where my hon. Friends have very occasionally strayed a little, they have been brought up and corrected, and they have apologised. But for the most part the speeches made by all my right hon. and hon. Friends have been apposite and absolutely within order. Successive occupants of the Chair of this Committee have acknowledged it. [Interruption.]

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Was not that a particularly tasteless sedentary intervention, coming from a side that will shortly table a motion, distantly connected with this matter, which has always in the past been left in the hands of the House authorities?

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is always nice to have friends who parachute in fresh and full of vigour. Some of us have been here all through the night. I have been here for almost all the debate since it began yesterday afternoon--or earlier today, should I say, in parliamentary terms? All we are asking for is a series of answers from Ministers, answers which they steadfastly refuse to give.

It has been like the dog that barked in the night, or did not, because right through the night we have had silence; we have had no speeches from Government Back Benchers. Such interventions as we had at the very early stages of the debate came from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), both of whom were extremely concerned. What we have had in this long debate on clause 3--[Interruption.] Sir Alan does not need the prompting of the silent Member--of the man who does not have the guts or gumption to stand at the Dispatch Box and answer the questions that have been put to him.

I promised that my intervention would be brief and to the point. What we want are simple, clear answers that will clear away the fog of suspicion that hangs over this debate and will dispel the reasonable doubts put by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have never seen such a collective abdication. A thousand days? A thousand days of muddle and confusion, ending in this appalling charade.

Mr. Nicholls: My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said that clause 3 would probably be passed in due course. I suspect that he must be right, given the way in which the Government handle these matters. Whether the clause is passed yesterday, today or tomorrow remains to be seen, but parts of it will be passed.

I came to the Chamber bright and early, as I always do, so that I can serve my constituents while other Members are still sleeping. I arrived at about 7.30 am, and noticed that the Committee was still sitting. I wondered why, and I came into the Chamber to listen to the debate. After

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many years in the House of Commons, I found it inconceivable that even this Government could so mismanage the affairs of the House that what is, in general, a relatively straightforward measure--

The Chairman: Order. After those many years in the House, the hon. Gentleman will know that what he is saying has no relevance to the clause 3 stand part debate, to which I advise him to direct his remarks.

Mr. Nicholls: Thank you, Sir Alan. The point that I was trying to make was that this clause--

The Chairman: Order. I have just said that it is not a point that the hon. Gentleman can validly make during a stand part debate relating to clause 3. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to continue his remarks, I invite him to direct them towards clause 3 stand part.

Mr. Nicholls: The point that I am making on clause 3 is that, at first sight, it is a perfectly straightforward measure that might be expected to pass into law with some speed.

We must bear in mind that when the measure does, in due course, pass into law, the lawyers will be looking at it. They will be asked by their clients to interpret the law that the House has passed. Surely, therefore, we as legislators--irrespective of party allegiance--have a duty to try to ensure that legislation leaves the House of Commons in a sensible and intelligible form.

Lawyers--even humble country lawyers like me--must look at statutes of this sort, and interpret them for our constituents. One of the first things that any competent lawyer would do in examining a Bill such as this is look at the consequentials: it is necessary to see what the repeal measures are. Any lawyer looking at clause 3 and trying to work out why Parliament, in its assumed wisdom, would have let it become law would ask, "What is this all about?" He would then have read that section 36(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998--

the Irish Senate

    "to be a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly"--

is to be repealed.

We must ask ourselves why. What does it mean? Taken at face value, it means nothing. Any client who, as a result of the deliberations on clause 3, asks a lawyer "What does this mean?" will find that the lawyer simply does not know. So what does the client do? He goes back to the 1998 Act.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: Can my hon. Friend confirm my understanding that, in trying to determine what clause 3 actually means, lawyers will read our debates with the aim of discovering what was in the minds of legislators when they come to interpret the clause. Is this not at the heart of the difficulty that we are having with the Government? We are trying to understand what clause 3 is about.

Mr. Nicholls: My right hon. Friend speaks with great authority, as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a long-standing Member of Parliament. I would only say to him that, in a sense--for reasons that

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I entirely understand--he asks me a question that I am literally not qualified to answer. He asks for an answer that I am incapable of giving.

My right hon. Friend wants to know what this is all about. There is an answer, which I will deal with in a moment; but it is not an answer that I have heard yet.

Mr. Bercow: We are, after all, debating not an Opposition amendment, but a Government clause. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is incumbent on the Minister to provide the cost-benefit calculus that we require to determine properly the merits of the clause's inclusion, or exclusion?

Mr. Nicholls: Again, my hon. Friend goes to the heart of the matter. He points out, although I am not sure whether it was his intention, the distress that the clause will cause solicitors throughout the country, who, obviously, will want to advise their clients about what the clause might mean. They will start the process by trying to identify what the clause means and what its consequences are. If the debate goes no further, they will come up against a brick wall.

The first thing any solicitor trying to construe the clause will say is, "Hang on a second. It does not repeal legislation that was passed 20, 10 or five years ago. The legislation is barely two years old."

Mr. Bercow: I do not want my hon. Friend to misinterpret the purport of my intervention. What he says is entirely reasonable, but will he understand that compassion for lawyers was not uppermost in my mind?

Mr. Nicholls: I am surprised that my hon. Friend makes that remark, knowing what lawyers bring to the House. His point may be more populist than any that I seek to deal with.

In trying to work out what the clause means, one knows at once that the legislation that is being repealed is not elderly but barely two years old. One then goes to the original 1975 legislation. Again, that does not help us to unravel the mystery of what the clause is all about.

To try to understand what the clause was all about and whether it truly was consequential, one would, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, look at Hansard. There is a problem there because the leading case of Pepper v. Hart lays down strict conditions on the extent to which one can use Hansard to construe the effect of litigation. Having said that, any competent lawyer faced with the clause, even though he realised that he will not be able to argue Hansard in court, would at least go to Hansard, saying to his client, "I cannot quote it, but I will be able to find out for you what the Government were trying to do. "

At that stage, it is straightforward. One goes to Hansard. One sees the many excellent contributions that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made and ignores them. One goes to the Minister's speech to find out what he said about the matter.

We can all blink in the House. We should not, but it happens. Sometimes one even yawns, the moment passes and one can come back into the debate without missing much of it. Earlier today, those who of us who blinked, yawned or even drew breath found that the Minister had already delivered his speech and that was it. So far, I have

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found no one in the debate who has been able to repeat anything that the Minister said, or been able even to criticise anything that he said, because we do not know what it was.

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