Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gale: At an early hour of this morning, when the Minister was not on the Front Bench--I do not chide him for that--we discussed this issue. It was conceded that while clause 2 was, as the Minister said, relevant to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, it had no bearing on the matters under discussion in these clauses.

Those clauses--as was conceded by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the small hours of the morning--relate to the right of a Minister to be a Minister of State or Secretary of State, even for Northern Ireland, and to be a Minister in a Government of the Irish republic. Patently, that would mean that a

25 Jan 2000 : Column 491

Minister of the Crown would be a Minister of another sovereign Government, and there could be a direct conflict of interest. That is a matter of record and, with great respect, I do not think that praying clause 2 in aid counts a fig in this matter.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman will know that these matters have been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. However, in cases where it is possible for there to be a decision by Prime Ministers or First Ministers--at least in legislatures in Scotland, Britain and Wales--the Executive has the ability to determine the issues. From what the hon. Gentleman says, I think that he accepts the constitutional situation.

However, the hon. Gentleman is putting an entirely different matter to me--the issue of whether a Northern Irish Executive member who was also appointed to become a member of the Dublin Executive would be in a different position. We are seeking to work our way through the constitutional arrangements to ensure that we get those things right.

Mr. William Ross rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that that is precisely the issue that the hon. Member wants to raise with me.

Mr. Ross: I do want to ask about that. I am curious as to whether the term "Minister" always includes the term "junior Minister", as that is not in the Bill. Will the Minister take on board the fact that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, once elected, then become Ministers of the Government of Ireland. I am not sure if he is aware that if one has to resign, they both go.

The problem that I see is that clause 2(2) does not mention the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister who are different from all the other Ministers and junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Will the Minister recognise that and carefully reconsider the position?

Mr. O'Brien: I was not entirely able to pick up the essence of the hon. Gentleman's point. Will he encapsulate it for me again, so that I can deal with it?

Mr. Ross: The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are as one. If one falls, they both fall. Are the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister looked upon as Ministers within the Northern Ireland Executive? That does not appear to be the case according to clause 2(2).

Mr. O'Brien: I am advised that they are, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. I shall talk to those who advise me on the legal issues and perhaps I can then provide the hon. Gentleman with a definitive written answer.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Minister explained perfectly reasonably the difference between the way in which Ministers are chosen in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the way in which they are chosen in the UK Parliament. Does he not accept, however, that in one respect there is a similarity between them? One does not have to offer one's

25 Jan 2000 : Column 492

services to be a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly just as one does not have to offer one's services in the UK Parliament. Although the First Minister does not control which parties receive the nominations and who comes forward, we could legislate to ensure that no one who is a Minister in the Government of Ireland shall allow himself to be nominated or appointed as a Minister in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom. We could legislate for that and wrap up the different Northern Ireland and UK Parliaments in one amendment.

Mr. O'Brien: I should like to consider the hon. Gentleman's point. On the face of it, it is reasonable. I shall think about the issues and, again, I might write to him.

Let me make it clear that the word "Minister" includes the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister under section 7(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 and that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister follow the normal procedures for filling a vacancy. I make it clear, however, that I give no undertakings to accept the new clauses, but I shall consider in a reasonable way the points that have been made.

It is not right for the legislature here, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament to seek to circumscribe the freedom of Prime Ministers and First Ministers in their choice of Government. To some extent, that would interfere with the way in which Governments operate. We took a view about how we set up devolution in Scotland and Wales and if those two resulting bodies attempted to create restrictions, I would prefer that the initiative came at least with consultation initiated by the devolved bodies.

The proper way for the British, Scottish and Welsh legislatures to deal with these issues is for the First Ministers or the Prime Minister to deal with potential conflicts of interest. Consequently, I am not prepared to accept the new clauses, but I shall consider the issues and write to hon. Members in due course. We have not got entirely closed minds on the issues of conflicts of interest. In due course, some further opportunity might well present itself. If a conflict of interest were obvious, we might at that stage be able to take on board some of the points raised.

3.30 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: When we began Committee stage at 5.30 pm on Tuesday, little did I think that the sole new clause tabled by the Liberal Democrats would not be reached until 3.30 pm on Wednesday. I was advised that it would all be over by midnight, but that was not to be.

Mr. Bermingham: So keep it short.

Mr. Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard, he will see that all of my speeches and those of other Liberal Democrat members have been short. We have been constructive and concise on each issue and we shall be so on this one.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 493

Mr. Bermingham rose--

Mr. Hughes: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman but once.

Mr. Bermingham: But once I ask. Having set his own good example, the hon. Gentleman should follow it, ensure that the rest of his party does so as well, and say nothing.

Mr. Hughes: If one tables new clauses--

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am sorry to interrupt, but I should like to assist the hon. Gentleman. I absolve him, unlike other Opposition Members, of prevarication, delay and discursion.

Mr. Hughes: If benediction from a junior Home Office Minister helps me, I am grateful for it. To those who came this afternoon thinking that they were to watch play on centre court but who have instead ended up watching matches on courts Nos. 1 or 14, we apologise, even though the problem was not of our making. I hope that they feel that, to a certain extent, they got their money's worth.

New clause 9 is similar to, but different from, new clause 2. It deals with an issue that has come up in several contexts, but is most properly addressed in this group of amendments. In our view, no one should be able to hold simultaneously ministerial office in the Irish Government and ministerial office in the British Government or in the Northern Ireland Government.

I concur with the Minister's first point. We have always argued that there is no necessary incompatibility with being a member of two legislatures. We share that view with the Government. We have also accepted that someone might manage to be a Minister in one and a Back Bencher in another. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has argued, on behalf of his right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other colleagues, that no one should be able to be a Minister in both. We agree.

There is a strong conflict of interests. Someone who is a member of the Government in one country cannot simultaneously and without conflicts of interest arising be a member of the Government of another sovereign country--

Mr. Duncan: Or in the legislature?

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has not been here much during our debate, so he might not realise that there is a difference. A Member of a legislature represents his or her constituents and expresses his or her views, but does not determine the policy of the Executive. Such influence is clearly wielded by any member of the Government. If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard, he will see that there is broad agreement on the fact that there is a difference of substance.

The Minister suggested that there is a difference between Northern Ireland ministerial positions, which is why clause 2 contains specific provision in that respect, and other ministerial appointments. He said that there is, to some extent, less absolute control in the hands of the Prime Minister or of the First Minister of Northern

25 Jan 2000 : Column 494

Ireland, simply because people are nominated and must then be accepted into the Cabinet. That is true, but I repeat, there are easy ways by which one could perfectly reasonably formulate the bar that applies when someone considers the invitation or puts him or herself forward. If a person is a member of the Government of Northern Ireland in the Assembly and a member of the Government of Ireland, there is a conflict. There is also conflict in respect of a Minister in the Westminster Government and in the Dublin Government.

Next Section

IndexHome Page