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6.50 pm

Mr. Robathan: I shall not detain the House for long, not least because I have sat through more than half the 25 hours of the sitting, although I have not served the House and the country as well as some of my hon. Friends. I have been privy to a unique sight today: the House managed to sit in two places in the same building at the same time, but, theoretically, on different days. The House needs to deal with that.

Having listened to so much of the debate in what has been a long sitting, I have been convinced that I need to vote against the Bill. I am delighted that we will do so with the support of our Front-Bench team.

I did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading because I wanted to see what it was actually about and was advised that we could improve it, but, sadly, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of my hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), we have not been able to do so. The more one has heard in the past 25 hours, the worse it has become. Hon. Members who have not attended the sitting should have come to discover what the Government want to do in their name because it is shabby legislation.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a very good speech. To correct my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), the Liberal Democrats belong to a once great party; it no longer is. Having made a good speech, the hon. Gentleman drew completely the wrong conclusions as to what he should do. [Interruption.] I hear a little barracking from hon. Members who have recently arrived at the sitting.

25 Jan 2000 : Column 542

I shall give an example of the grubbiness of the measure. We in the Conservative party have heard a lot about our treasurer, Mr. Ashcroft, who we are told cannot serve two masters, yet that is exactly what the Bill wishes someone in Ireland to do. That is completely illogical, but I will not stray down that road.

The Minister said that it is not an important constitutional Bill. It is an important constitutional precedent. That must be obvious to even the dimmest person on the Treasury Bench. As with so much other legislation, the Government have tried with the Bill to have constitutional change off-the-cuff. It may have two substantive clauses, but it is off-the-cuff, not thought through and confused.

In the Second Reading debate, we heard that the Bill was part of the complementary business to the Belfast agreement. Indeed, clauses 2 and 3 refer to the agreement, or the Northern Ireland Act 1998, yet we now know that it is entirely linked to the agreement through deals behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms, in underground bunkers in Armagh, or wherever the deals may have been made. The Bill is entirely linked to the 1998 Act and the agreement.

Those of us who genuinely want peace in Northern Ireland find it appalling that we should be asked, as a proud House that is respected throughout the world, to pass such dreadful legislation at the behest of two former, or possibly still practising, terrorists who happen to have been elected to the House.

From the long title to the end of the Bill, it is badly written, badly thought out and a hopeless piece of legislation. If I were a Minister presenting it, I would be embarrassed. At the beginning, there is a misprint. It states: "To to". Then it says "remove the disqualification". That is a double negative. Even I know, therefore, that it should be cited as the qualification Bill in the last clause. From the beginning to the end, it is a rotten bit of legislating. We are legislating in haste--although not as hastily as the Government would have wanted--but the Government will repent at leisure.

Excellent points have been made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I do not want to labour those points. We need to know whose idea the Bill was and what its genesis is. What is the motivation? All Opposition Members know that the Bill is yet another deal, yet another sop, yet another bribe to Sinn Fein following the emasculation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Does the Minister know about clause 63 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which will exempt Noraid funding from north America to a political party in the United Kingdom? If he does not know about it, he should: the provision is an absolute disgrace. If we do not want foreign funding for political parties, why will that clause exempt Noraid?

If we want genuine peace, we have to realise that it cannot be built on sand. If we want it, we shall have to have genuinely firm foundations, and be willing to be firm and to stand up and make tough decisions. Furthermore, peace must be built on trust. The Disqualifications Bill demonstrates that we cannot have trust when we do not even know, for heaven's sake, whose idea it was to introduce this shabby little piece of legislation.

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6.55 pm

Mr. Thompson: On Second Reading, I said that this was a squalid little Bill. After all we have been through, I say that it is still a squalid little Bill.

There are those who said that this type of Bill would help the peace process. I can only say that it will harm the peace process by undermining the Unionist people's confidence in the peace process. All they see in the Bill is another concession to Sinn Fein-IRA. Therefore, rather than helping the peace process, the Bill will greatly harm it.

After all our proceedings, the Government have made no changes to the Bill, although Ministers said that they would re-examine some of its provisions. I ask Ministers to re-examine one of the Bill's aspects in which I am particularly interested--its wording on the "legislature of Ireland", the "Government of Ireland" and "other than Ireland". Hon. Members should describe Ireland by its correct name--the Republic of Ireland--so that there is no disagreement on what we are talking about.

It is a bad Bill, and I shall vote against it.

6.57 pm

Mr. Fabricant: I remind the House that, if we carry through constitutional change without examining it in considerable detail, we frequently find that once the legislation is on the statute book, we end up with wording that may not be exactly be what we foresaw. Those are not my words, but comments on the Bill made yesterday by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

This is a constitutional Bill, which is why its Committee stage was taken on the Floor of the House. Throughout the night, however, we heard nothing but misleading statements from Ministers. At one point, when we were asking for reciprocity, we were told that it is not needed, as there is not the equivalent in the Dail of the House of Commons Disqualifications Act 1975. Subsequently, however, we were told by Ministers--we had to drag it out of them--that one has to be a citizen of the Republic of Ireland to sit in the Dail.

Time and again, Opposition Members asked why we need reciprocity. The answer was that we need it because of the breach of trust. Why has there been a breach of trust? It occurred because the Government have made concession after concession to Sinn Fein-IRA, with no reciprocity from them.

This is a bad Bill, which has been handled unconstitutionally in the House. I shall vote against it.

6.58 pm

Mr. Hogg: The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department--who introduced the debate on Third Reading, but is no longer in the Chamber--started his speech by saying that the past day's events have shown the House in a bad light. I do not agree with that at all. What was wrong was the Government's decision to schedule Second Reading for Monday, and to push forward consideration in Committee. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, the Committee was right to exercise its powers to scrutinise legislation.

This is an important Bill, and it is untruthful to suggest otherwise. To make that clear, one has merely to state what it will do--it will enable a Member of the Irish

25 Jan 2000 : Column 544

Parliament to sit in this House. That is an important proposition, but it is one with which I disagree. It raises inherent problems of conflict with regard to duty and confidentiality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) made clear.

Precedents have been cited. The House was told that similar provisions apply to Commonwealth legislatures. That is true, but if we were to start again, we would not give the Commonwealth Parliament the sort of power that is being given to the Ireland Parliament.

Moreover, we are creating a precedent for the future. If these provisions are to apply to Members of the Irish Parliament, how can we deny a similar dispensation for their equivalents in France, Spain or Italy? I doubt that a majority of hon. Members would consider that right at all.

Another problem is the lack of reason. Conservative Members have pressed Ministers to explain the reason for the Bill, but no proper explanation was given. It was put to us that the Bill tidies up a constitutional anomaly, but I do not believe that. I believe that a deal has been done. One reason for the Secretary of State's absence from the Front Bench is that he would have been constrained to reveal the nature of the deal. I do not believe that we should make concessions to Sinn Fein--not now, and probably not at all.

Finally, I must tell the hon. Member for Walsall, North that I come from a family, both sides of which have been deeply concerned with Ireland for many years. My mother was born in county Galway. I have supported the peace process to the extent that I have voted in the Labour Lobby against my own party. However, I do not believe that this concession--if that is what it is--should be made.

The Bill does not normalise relations; rather, it makes abnormal relations. We are departing from the principles that should govern our relationships with sovereign states, and the constitution of the House.

I am glad that there will be a Division on Third Reading, and that my colleagues on the Front Bench will vote against it. I shall do the same.

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