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Elections (Entitlement to Vote At Age 16)

Matthew Green accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to provide that a person aged 16 years or over is entitled to vote in a parliamentary or local government election: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 76].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.


3.42 pm

Mr. Speaker: Before we come to the main motion, I have a short statement to make about the debate on facilities of the House. A list of amendments that have been selected has been circulated. I propose to allow a broad general debate on the motion, at the end of which there will be an opportunity for amendments to be proposed formally and divided on before the Question is put on the main motion.


Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act 2001

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Facilities of the House

3.43 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I beg to move,

The motion relates to the facilities of the House, but I fully recognise that most Members come to the debate with views mainly shaped by events in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who I understand will respond to my opening remarks, informed us this morning, courtesy of The Daily Telegraph, of the views that he brings to the debate. He said that the Conservative party is withdrawing bipartisan support in Northern Ireland over this issue. [Interruption.] I observe that he has the support of the Conservative party.

It is of course the right of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to end the principle of a bipartisan approach in Northern Ireland. We gave them bipartisan support on Northern Ireland when they were in government.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Is the right hon. Gentleman telling the House that, in opposition, the Labour party voted for the Prevention of Terrorism Act?

Mr. Cook: No, I am not saying that. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, that Act raised a number of concerns about the treatment of people on the mainland who were not necessarily connected with the IRA. I am sure that he will also acknowledge, as he is a fair-minded gentleman, that we gave the Government full support for every effort that they made to get a peace process going in Northern Ireland.

I am not surprised that, in opposition, the hon. Gentleman does not feel bound to give us the support that we gave his party when it was in government. What does surprise me is that he has ended bipartisanship over access to the House of Commons. Never once in their 18 years of government did the Conservatives withdraw the right of access from Sinn Fein. Throughout the decade in which Gerry Adams was an elected Member of Parliament, a Conservative Government left him the right to enter the precincts and the right of access to any services provided. Indeed, in every month of his membership Gerry Adams was mailed his allocation of tickets to the Public Gallery, and occasionally used them. Not once in those years did the hon. Gentleman try to stop him.

I assume from the bewildered look on the hon. Gentleman's face that he was totally unaware of his Government's policy throughout that decade in which Gerry Adams was entitled to come into this place.

At that time, the right of access to Westminster for Members who had not taken the Oath was of long standing. For more than 100 years, there was nothing to bar from the precincts a Member who had refused to take the Oath. Indeed, in the 19th century, Members who had

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not taken the Oath on religious grounds attended Westminster regularly, and even listened to debates from beyond the Bar of the House.

It will be interesting to discover, when the hon. Gentleman makes his speech, whether he can clarify whether he was aware that that was the position throughout the time for which his Government were in office. He supported that Government, but he is not prepared to support us when we restore the position that existed when they were in power.

Not until a ruling by Madam Speaker Boothroyd after the 1997 general election was access to the precincts and the services of any of the Departments of the House withdrawn from Members who did not take the Oath. At that time, the IRA had repudiated its ceasefire and the peace process had foundered. In those circumstances, the ruling was understandable. Since then, however, we have witnessed historic developments in Northern Ireland. Three years ago, the Good Friday agreement committed the parties to it to pursue their different perspectives through politics and not through violence. Two years ago, power was devolved to an Assembly elected by the people of Northern Ireland.

It was against the background of those developments that in January 2000 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), wrote to the leaders of all political parties in Northern Ireland proposing that Sinn Fein MPs be granted access to Westminster and the ability to claim constituency allowances. At the same time, the Prime Minister consulted the leaders of the Opposition parties. In the event, the Government decided that the time was not right, as further progress was required on the peace process.

We have now had that further progress. After a difficult few months, the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been stabilised. General de Chastelain has confirmed that he has witnessed the first ever act of decommissioning by the republican movement in its history. He described it as significant, and he has confirmed that the material included arms, ammunition and explosives.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the right hon. Gentleman regard what was done in my constituency yesterday, on behalf of Sinn Fein, as evidence of progress in the peace process in support of the police? Posters were put up reading "Don't Join RUC/PSNI"—"PSNI" stands for "Police Service of Northern Ireland"—and listing "plastic bullets", "shoot to kill", "abuse of human rights", "sectarian intimidation", "collusion", "obstruction of enquiries" and "torturers". Does that constitute progress in support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the peace process?

Mr. Cook: What I said to the House, and what I stand by, was that there had been progress in the peace process. As I pointed out, part of that progress is represented by the fact that we have an elected Northern Ireland Assembly in which 18 members of Sinn Fein sit, and in which the hon. Gentleman's party participates. His party has sat in 2,000 committee meetings with members of Sinn Fein in Belfast. I think that he should explain why he is willing

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to take part in 2,000 committee meetings in Belfast, but will not even allow Sinn Fein Members access to the Travel Office or the Vote Office here.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Cook: I give way to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Surely the right hon. Gentleman understands that those who are engaged in the committee meetings in Belfast have agreed the same terms under which committee meetings take place, whereas he is suggesting that there shall be a special kind of Member of Parliament who shall take what he wants and not what he does not want. Those of us who do not take the Unionist Whip are for the first time driven into a position of saying that this House must insist that Members of Parliament either take the whole thing or nothing at all.

Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman suggests that the Good Friday agreement applies only to parties in Northern Ireland. It does not. The British Government are also a party to that agreement. He must explain why it is permissible for members of Sinn Fein to take a full part in the democratic process of Northern Ireland, to attend the Assembly and to sit in the Executive Committee, but not to have access even to the precincts of Westminster. That seems a double standard, which would not be welcome in Northern Ireland.

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