Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I give way to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me. Earlier in his speech he made clear the importance that he attaches to the taking of reciprocal steps. How can he then justify the stone wall of opposition erected by the Government against amendments that would have achieved exactly the reciprocity of which he spoke? There is an inconsistency between his behaviour and his remarks over the past 24 hours.

Mr. O'Brien: I cannot recall whether the hon. Gentleman participated in the debate on reciprocity, although I know that he was in the Chamber at other times last night. However, it was pointed out that, when it came

25 Jan 2000 : Column 526

to reciprocity, there was a bar against Members of the Irish legislature belonging to this legislature. I shall not go into the whole issue of citizenship: rehearsing that argument would not be useful.

The 1998 Act recognises the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Government remain committed to working through the political process there, and to full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. That represents the best and only way for us to put the past behind us, to bring conflict to an end and to establish real partnership. We want local politicians in Northern Ireland to be in charge of their destiny.

Our clear message must be that politics and violence do not go together. Devolution and decommissioning go hand in hand. The Government will not fail to act in the event of default on either decommissioning or devolution.

The Bill is part of the broader political process, Government to Government, but it is not part of the Good Friday agreement. We should not seek to import into that sensitive and balanced agreement clauses that it did not contain before. If we did that, we would be treading into a dangerous political minefield. It is better to recognise that decommissioning belongs in the context of the Good Friday agreement. It is an integral part of that agreement, and is about the collateral strengthening of the special relationship.

The Bill is not about unification, decommissioning or great constitutional innovation. It is not a huge or major constitutional Bill, as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman agreed. It is about building a closer special relationship between London and Dublin, in the light of shared interests. It is about ending the anomaly that means that Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK on the issue of dual membership.

Most importantly, it is a small step on the longer journey towards creating the institutional structures that in the long term will help to create peace. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.44 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Minister made many remarks with which the Opposition are in sympathy, as we are totally committed to the peace process. It is very important that he registers that. If I may say so, his opening remarks were nothing short of disgraceful. He said--implied, certainly--that the peace process had in some way been jeopardised by what had gone on in the House over the past 24 hours. The Leader of the House, who was muttering from a sedentary position, said something similar, which has been reported in the news media.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I most certainly did not say that this situation had endangered the peace process. I said that it was unhelpful in the wider political process. That is different. The hon. Gentleman must not play with fire here--the situation in Northern Ireland is much too serious for party politics.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Member who has been playing party politics is hardly the one currently speaking at the Dispatch Box. The comments of the Minister and of the Leader of the House in her broadcast have cast aspersions on the wholehearted support that the

25 Jan 2000 : Column 527

Conservative party has given, is giving, and wishes to continue to give the peace process. It is important to have that on the record.

There is another matter on which I should like to take the hon. Gentleman to task. He said that the situation over the past 24 hours had shown the House of Commons at its worst. What patronising claptrap. I have been in the House somewhat longer than he has and can remember the Parliament of 1970, when, quite rightly, the Labour Opposition took the Conservative Government through the night time after time on the Committee stages of the Industrial Relations Act 1972 and the European Communities Act 1972.

That has happened many times over the years--it is a perfectly legitimate use of parliamentary time by the Opposition. If the Opposition believe that what the Government are doing is inimical to the interests of the country or the constitution, they have a manifest duty to use every legitimate parliamentary weapon at their disposal to delay the progress of the legislation concerned and try to persuade the Government to think again. The tactic has been used with consummate brilliance by such people as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whom we are so glad to see back in the House--not today, but this week. It was used with great brilliance by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) when he represented Ardwick. I remember past masters such as Michael Foot and John Mendelson, who kept the House up night after night. Their brilliant speeches were devastatingly disturbing for the Government of the day but they were, nevertheless, a proper use of parliamentary time by the Opposition.

As I listened to my right hon. and hon. Friends--and I single out my right hon. and loquacious Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)-- I thought of the late Bernard Braine, much-loved former Father of the House. [Interruption.] That was a most unworthy and disgusting remark for the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) to make from a sedentary position. Bernard Braine was a distinguished Father of the House and the hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark. [Hon. Members: "What did he say?"] He said that he was bonkers. Anyone who can utter such a remark is beneath contempt in the opinion of decent people.

I can remember many others. Ivan Lawrence, thankfully, is not the late Ivan Lawrence, although he is sadly no longer a Member of the House. Such people used these weapons time and again, perfectly legitimately. What has been done? The past 24 hours have seen an exercise of parliamentary good manners--not bad manners--and an expression of parliamentary frustration. That frustration is shared by Liberal Democrat Members. They have not seen eye to eye with us on all the Bill's aspects but they believe, as we do, that for the Bill to be taken through all its stages in two consecutive days was wrong.

It has been pointed out that Prime Minister's Question Time was lost today . The fault does not lie with the Opposition. At any moment during Committee, it would have been possible for the Government, with the cohorts at their command, to move that further consideration be adjourned, or not to have moved the 10 o'clock motion last night. If Government Members had wanted Prime

25 Jan 2000 : Column 528

Minister's questions to be held, it could have been done. However, they were obviously afraid of the devastating ridicule that would have been heaped on the Prime Minister by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend is being barracked by Members sitting on the Treasury Bench. Is that because they are embarrassed by the fiasco they produced by moving the 10 o'clock motion and trying to force the business through because they believed that we had no stomach to pursue the matter?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am not one to be intimidated by the embarrassment of Government Members. One of the most notable features of the debates of the past 24 or more hours has been that, with one exception, no Labour Back Bencher has spoken in support of the measure. One or two Labour Members have expressed some disquiet--most notably, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)--but Labour Members have not supported their Government.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department condemned himself when he admitted that this is not emergency legislation. Had it been, he would have received the unequivocal support of the Opposition. I have sat through the debates on every piece of emergency legislation introduced during the past 30 years; most of it was introduced by my party, although some was introduced by Labour.

For example, we were summoned back to Parliament after the terrible bombing in Omagh a couple of years ago, to rush through legislation that has, I understand, never been used. Nevertheless, we accepted that there was a prima facie case for the legislation. We supported it, inconveniencing ourselves to do so; that was right. It was our duty.

The Minister would not have had to ask the Opposition to support emergency legislation; support would have been given at every stage of the proceedings.

Mr. Hogg: Although it is always right that the House should respond to an emergency, it should never deprive itself of the duty and obligation to scrutinise legislation. It is our business to ensure that Bills leave this place in a perfect state.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course it is. The point made by my right hon. and learned Friend is wholly compatible with mine. When we were summoned back to consider that emergency legislation, one of the best speeches that I have heard for many a long year was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He had grave reservations about the measure and said so, quite properly.

In cases of true emergency legislation, we are happy to co-operate to ensure passage through the House. However, by any stretch of the imagination, the Bill is not an emergency provision. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department admitted as much and suggests his continued agreement.

Throughout those long hours in Committee, we asked for whom the legislation was being introduced. What is it for? Who wants it? As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, who is it to

25 Jan 2000 : Column 529

please? I do not blame hon. Members who did not want to sit up all night, but I want to make it plain to those who were not in the Chamber that real fear and concern were expressed that the legislation is being pushed through the House at the behest of two gentlemen. They were elected to the House, but have never chosen to take their seats. They want to enjoy the facilities of the House without taking the Oath or making the Affirmation, which we all do. There is fear that the measure is being introduced to accommodate those two, even though they have done nothing to signify their complete agreement to the peace process.

We have had no decommissioning, and we have still not had General de Chastelain's first report. In the context of the remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, it would at the very least have been politic to wait for that first report before introducing the Bill. We were told on Second Reading that the Bill would in some way facilitate the peace process--that although the Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement and no one said that it was, nevertheless it is tangential and complementary to it, and will assist its development. The Under-Secretary is nodding at those comments. [Interruption.] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office laughs. I do not consider it a laughing matter in any sense.

We have had a Bill presented to us, but at no stage has either of the two principal Ministers, for both of whom we have a high regard, told us who asked for it, what precisely it is for, why it has to be enacted now and whether it is part of another series of suggestions by Senator Mitchell. If it is not, is it because it has been specifically requested by Messrs Adams and McGuinness? That is what is suspected by Opposition Members, especially Ulster Unionist Members.

I remind everyone that we would not be talking about any peace process were it not for the bravery--some even think the foolhardy bravery, although I do not--of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party, because without Ulster Unionist co-operation there could be no peace process and no prospect of its success. So why upset the Unionist community by doing things that make them feel under pressure from those who have not yet properly subscribed to the democratic process?

During these debates, we have talked much about the dual mandate. I am told that the Labour party has in its constitution a clause that says that no member shall have a dual mandate--that no member shall be, for instance, a Member of the European Parliament and a Member of this Parliament. I am also told that most of those who currently enjoy a dual mandate in either the Scottish Parliament and this House or the National Assembly for Wales and this House, are encouraged to make a choice as to which they would prefer. That is a perfectly proper thing for the Labour party to say to its members, but it is an extension of that that has been debated over the past two days. Many Opposition Members ask how someone can be a Minister in a Government in one country and a Back-Bench legislator in another. That is seen to be an anomaly in a Bill that is riddled with anomalies.

Another thing that has caused great concern on the Opposition Benches has been the Government's unwillingness to contemplate any amendment that touches on reciprocity. Even amendments for which the Ministers

25 Jan 2000 : Column 530

have expressed some sympathy--both hon. Gentlemen have done so for certain amendments--have not been accepted.

Had we had a normal timetable for the Bill and a Report stage in a few days' time, there would have been an opportunity for amendments to be tabled on Report; and then, as frequently happens, Ministers could have said, "We do not quite like the way that you have phrased that amendment, but we shall table an amendment that will not only be sympathetic but will echo your wishes." We have had none of that, and nor have we even had a promise of amendments in another place.

Therefore, what are we to think but that we have a Government who are totally obdurate on this issue, and who are not prepared to do more than pay lip-service to the deep and abiding concerns of those who know this problem inside out, many of whom have lived their lives and lost many of their friends in Ulster? The Government are not prepared to accept a single amendment here or in another place. That is most unfortunate, to put it mildly. It is small wonder that many Opposition Members fear that this is the thin end of the wedge.

Many Opposition Members were less than happy about the Minister's perfectly sincere comment on Second Reading about the Oath. He was prepared to say that there were no current plans to change it, but he was unable to give the sort of categorical commitment that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Shadow Home Secretary, asked for, quite reasonably, in her opening speech.

It is against that background that we must decide how to advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote tonight. We did not vote officially against the Bill on Second Reading, as the Minister knows. We supported a number of amendments that we believe would have gone a long way towards allaying the legitimate fears and concerns of Opposition Members, particularly our friends in Ulster.

Not a single one of those amendments has been accepted, and we have not even had a promise to table amendments along those lines in the other place. We are left with a Bill that is manifestly unsatisfactory and riddled with anomalies. We believe that the Bill will send out many wrong signals in Ulster.

We do not wish to send out wrong signals on the issue of the peace process. Therefore, I want to end where I began. I want there to be no doubt in any quarter of this House as to the Opposition's full support for the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and my noble Friend Lord Mayhew played a significant part in the peace process. That work has been generously and properly acknowledged by Labour Ministers, as I acknowledge the work of the Prime Minister.

Let no one say that what has been said by the Opposition over the past 24 hours is in any way designed to undermine the peace process. Quite the contrary--we believe that the Bill is itself so full of anomalies and fears for the Ulster Unionist community that it could be a problem. We hope that it will not be a problem, and we know that it is not the intention of the Government that it should be.

We underline our support for the peace process but, in view of the fact that we have had no satisfactory answers to the amendments, I must advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 531

Next Section

IndexHome Page