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9.12 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) but I wish to begin by disabusing him of one point. Much of the debate has been about whether we will create two tiers of Members of Parliament. We have two-tier membership of Parliament already: those who represent seats in Northern Ireland and the rest of us. It is clear from many debates over the years in the House that Northern Ireland Members run special risks and face particular horrors that the rest of us do not. I therefore wish to recast the debate and discuss whether we should create another tier of Members, and not by levelling up our actions, beliefs and aspirations to meet those of Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies, but by lowering them to allow people to come in without buying the full package.

It has been noticeable that although the Government sensibly deployed their best speaker and most able advocate to open the debate, it has run away from them. I hope that I cause no offence to those hon. Members who have spoken in favour of the motion when I say that they in their hearts probably know that they are not winning the argument.

I have been here about 20 years. About 15 years ago, the media began one of its regular crazes, saying that no one in the House of Commons could put two words together, let alone two sentences. The Leader of the House, as he did on many occasions, led for the Opposition then and, as always, slaughtered all those before him. My normal seat, in all those barren years, was four up from the Front Bench next to the Gangway. Enoch Powell sat just the other side of the Gangway and he commented to me, after my right hon. Friend had finished, to the effect that we heard much about the lack of orators in the House of Commons, but that anybody who had ever heard my right hon. Friend speak would know that that was untrue. Although the Government were right to put their most able speaker up to try to convince the House of the wisdom of the motion, even his skills have failed to convince a large proportion of Members.

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman is right that the Leader of the House signally failed to convince the majority of those who have been in the Chamber all afternoon. From his sadly brief experience of being in the Government, does the right hon. Gentleman hold out any

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hope that the Government may see some sense, listen to the voices of those who have spoken tonight and withdraw the motion?

Mr. Field: What happens when the vote comes is up to us. We are sent here as free agents, albeit with party loyalties, and at the end of our stewardship we have to account for how we spend our time. I would hope, given that the argument has gone against the Government tonight, that if they put the motion to a vote, they will lose. Other issues have arisen from the debate that suggest that any Government who wished to appear wise and considerate of views expressed here would bring other motions before us, shortly after Christmas, so that we can attend to those matters.

Lembit Öpik: I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and for the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and I am sure that his position is sincerely held. Will he accept that many of us of the opposing view genuinely and sincerely feel that it is in the interest of the peace process, on a cost-benefit analysis, to support the motion?

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend, for I call him that, took half an hour of the House's time. I am more than prepared for Members on both sides to judge whether he convinced them on the argument and the quality of his judgment.

We have spent two whole days debating issues that affect one part of this kingdom, Northern Ireland. I sat through yesterday's debate, not wishing to speak. I have sat through this debate and, happily, I have been called to speak. Unfortunately, I missed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but as she will understand, there are times when, after one has been in the Chamber for seven hours, it is necessary to leave.

One of the themes of both debates has been the view that history somehow progresses in a line. It has been said that our job here is to push it forward and that history shows that events always move forward. I suggest that that is a mistaken view of how human events unfold before us. Indeed, if we were having this debate in the 1930s, some people would have lost the argument about the Government's line then on Nazi Germany. Some would have suggested that even though we had made a series of concessions that had not worked, we needed to make some more. On this issue, too, I caution the House to stand back for a moment from the contributions that we have heard, because underlying them is the belief that the peace process is heading in the one direction that all of us wish to support. It is suggested that the only thing that we need to do to keep the show on the road is to make more and more concessions. That might be true, but there may come a time when people would doubt that.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) set the debate alight when he said that we should not get bogged down in principle. That was a wonderful wheeze on his part, and typically British. It relaxed us all, because none of us likes to speak from points of principle. However, those who attended to his speech will have understood that it was notable for its point of high principle. The single theme that ran through it was picked up by other hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

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That theme is that this is not a simple little motion about whether we believe in the peace process but a crucial test of how hon. Members regard the House of Commons, and of our role in it. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that the motion was a "limited" measure. I beg to disagree. I believe that we are discussing a most fundamental measure.

A similar matter arose in the first Parliament to which I was elected. The then Government faced the question of whether to bring the trade unions within the law as the House of Commons defined it, or whether the unions could define the law within which they were prepared to operate. The House of Commons decided that hon. Members would set the framework within which organisations and people in this kingdom should work. I believe that the Government were right then to do that, and that today's Government are wrong to try to suggest that we should behave differently.

Hon. Members have already noted that the House of Commons is regularly ambushed by the Government. We often hear on the radio news at 7 or 8 am that later that day the Government will announce another stage in the peace process. Such announcements always mean that the House has to make major changes to the organisation of its affairs. The House has already approved the extraordinary proposition that a person can belong to two Parliaments, even though those Parliaments have different loyalties and programmes.

The House was given only a couple of days' notice of the motion before it today. My argument is that it changes the fundamental nature of the House of Commons, where we have the privilege to work. Hon. Members must decide whether this motion is the final throw in the concessions needed to keep the peace treaty alive, or whether we will be faced with other concessions later on, in the new year.

The Belfast agreement used to be called the Good Friday agreement, but the name was changed when things got more difficult. The change had substance, as religion and the symbolism that goes with it were removed. An Easter agreement has extraordinary connotations, especially to people in Northern Ireland, about the resurrection and so on. Before hon. Members vote tonight, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will tell us, when he winds up for the Government, whether the Belfast agreement contained other elements that were neither made public nor debated. If so, will we be asked to approve them at some later stage?

I am told—and I regret that I did not hear her—that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich brought us back to the centre of the debate. How do we see the role of an MP? The Government are standing on their head when they answer that question. They seem to believe that our job here is to answer letters from our constituents and do the other good works that the majority wish us to undertake. Our constituents do not send us here for that function; they send us here to be their representatives in this Chamber. Sometimes we try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that we can make our contributions, however inadequate, to the debate and be full members of the committee.

We undertake our work in our constituencies because human sympathy makes us want to help people who are less well placed than we are. By doing so, we learn about the process of government—about what is wrong and

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what needs to be changed—and use that experience to shape our amendments and help guide our debate. It is not the essence of our work as Members of Parliament, although it is an important part. We are not here to act as very well paid social workers but to represent the views of our constituents.

I was asked earlier whether I thought that the Government would withdraw the motion. One can but hope. As for whether the Government will pick up messages from the debate that will be valuable to their long-term survival and the well-being of our nation, the answer is yes.

Although it is not central to this debate, many of us must have been surprised to have heard the views expressed on both sides of the Chamber about the Oath and whether its wording is appropriate. Our constitution continually and continuously evolves. The words of the Oath, which at one time might have summed up what the Oath really represented, may not necessarily be appropriate now. I suggest that loyalty to the Crown in times past would have unified us and made it easy for most of us to gain admittance to the House of Commons. Now it may be a barrier. If that is so, our constituents will want us to think about the essence of the Oath and what it is supposed to encapsulate—not in a hurried, end-of-term debate, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said, in a considered and careful way. As I tried to suggest in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), the Oath sums up our commitment to a way of life as democrats, and the House would be well advised to look at it carefully.

For much of the time that I have spent in Parliament, the Labour party excited itself with the wonders of what it was proposing, as Labour voters walked away. They did not walk away because of a particular policy but because they thought that we were breaking what they regarded as the common decencies that sum up a wisdom that nations acquire over time. Although our constituents will probably not be particularly interested in the minutiae of the debate that we have necessarily had tonight, they will know that the Government's motion asks us to cross and break those common decencies. There is enormous danger for any political party that does that once—let alone more than once. I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends, in a proper Christmas spirit, to take what the Whips tell us is a free vote and act as though we believe it by throwing out the motion and asking the Government to come back with a much more considered programme of reform—which we need—when we return from the Christmas recess.

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