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Mr. Barnes: The provision is contained in Representation of the People Acts that are passed by Parliament, not Stormont.

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6.45 pm

Lady Hermon: I appreciate that intervention. It is helpful to know that it is not Stormont, but United Kingdom legislation. That makes matters more interesting because 1949 pre-dates our obligations under the European convention on human rights and the 1957 EEC treaty. I want to consider both measures because the Minister should tackle both if possible.

The first protocol and article 3 of the convention on human rights have been incorporated into the Human Rights Act 1998, but would have been part of our legislation since we ratified the convention in 1953. Article 3 obliges the high contracting parties, including the United Kingdom,

It does not state: "the opinion of the people resident for three months in the choice of the legislature."

My anxiety is underlined by the fact that under the 1957 EEC treaty, article 48 guarantees the free movement of workers from one member state to another. I am sure that the Minister knows that the High Court ruled in the landmark case of Van Duyn v. the Home Office several years ago that article 48, especially the second and third paragraphs, were directly effective in the United Kingdom. They give workers from member states, including the Republic of Ireland, the right to move freely from one member state to another.

After the treaty, the important Council regulation 1612 was introduced in 1968. It guarantees to workers who move from one member state to another the same social and tax advantages as the workers of the host member state. Given that the three-month residence requirement has existed since 1949, the Minister must deal with its compatibility with our obligations under the European convention on human rights and especially EU legislation.

Will the Minister explain the reason for the two definitions of the Representation of the People Act 1983? Clause 1 states:

Clause 7 repeats that by stating:

That is superfluous. A definition of the principal Act would have been better; it is not defined at all. I rest my case, and look forward to the Minister's replies.

Mr. Wilshire: Unlike the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who spoke as a contributor from the minor parties, I have no complaints about the Minister's opening speech. He was helpful, patient and did his best to answer a range of important and genuine queries that hon. Members from all parties raised.

Lembit Öpik: I went to some lengths to stress that I did not condemn the Minister for the length of his speech; I was making a point about the programme motion.

Mr. Wilshire: It did not sound like that at the time; it sounded like a criticism, which prods me to say that I am not criticising. However, the spokesman for the minor parties is right that the debate tells us much about the

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stupidity of the programme motion. After a sensible debate in which the Minister, quite rightly, took up a lot of time, we are about to run out of time on the first group of amendments. Two of my hon. Friends still want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which means that there will not be the slightest chance of the Minister being able to respond fully and properly to the additional points being made, let alone to start any sort of a debate on the second group of amendments, unless people can now be persuaded to shut up. I am sure that that is what the Government would like, so that we cannot demonstrate the futility of yet another programme motion curtailing debate in the House and curtailing our opportunities to press the Minister to explain the Government's priorities.

That said, it would be wrong of me to say other than that I, like everyone else, welcome a change of heart when it is on offer. Heaven only knows, it is rare enough for any Government, let alone this one, to change their mind. We ought all, therefore, to put on record that we appreciate that. Exactly what has led the Minister to this is private grief on which I do not wish to intrude. I just want to thank him.

I want to say one or two things about the Minister's comments at the beginning of the debate. Those comments are relevant, because we had an exchange of views about why the chief electoral officer had changed his mind. I accept that the Minister does not know those reasons; he was very honest about that, for which I am grateful. We ought to know the reasons, however, because if we are to make a fair, rational judgment about these matters, we need to know what the chief electoral officer has now concluded. I hope that he has not simply changed his mind because the Government told him to. That would never be a justification.

Mr. Browne indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister shakes his head, and I am glad, because that suggests that that is not what happened. If the Minister is certain that the chief electorial officer has not changed his mind because of Government pressure, he must have some reason for that certainty—he must know what the reason was. If the Minister rules out one reason, he must have some evidence on which to shake his head and say no. I urge him to go back to the chief electoral officer after this debate to ask him the reason, and to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) with the answer—or place a copy of the letter or statement in the Library—so that we can see it.

Mr. Browne indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister is again shaking his head. If he would like to intervene to say why he is not prepared to do that, the House would be grateful. The Minister does not want to tell us why he is not prepared to get the answer to a question. That is typical of a Government who do not like to answer questions if it does not suit their purpose. That is entirely wrong.

Another comment that the Minister made, but did not pursue as much as I would have liked, was that all the parties in the House supported his change of heart. That is good as far as it goes, but he then went on to say that he was unable to tell us what Sinn Fein-IRA thought about

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the proposal, although he had a general sense that they were not much in favour of it when it was originally published. It is crucial that the House should know what the agents of terror think about our attempts to improve democracy in Northern Ireland. Not only are they prepared to ignore the wishes of their constituents in refusing to take their seats here, but if they are against this attempt to clamp down on fraud, we are entitled to assume that they welcome fraud. That would certainly seem to be the case. It is, therefore, remiss of the Minister not to have made any effort to discover what Sinn Fein-IRA really think, because we need to know.

Mr. Swire: Is my hon. Friend aware of what Baroness Park said recently in the other place? She quoted the following statement from Sinn Fein:

What does my hon. Friend deduce from that?

Mr. Wilshire: I deduce that I am glad someone has taken the trouble to think about this, and to say something about it, unlike the Minister, who clearly has not made any such effort.

Mr. Browne: I am reluctant to take up any more time in this debate, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is inadvertently misrepresenting my position. Sinn Fein was, of course, consulted on these matters, as were all parties. The quotation that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) referred to in the other place came from the early paragraphs of its response to the consultation process, which is available for anybody to read. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's other point, I merely pointed out that I had not had a response from Sinn Fein on the point that he raised. I did not say that I did not seek a response, but that I had not had one.

Mr. Wilshire: If I misrepresented the Minister, of course I apologise, and I am grateful that he has explained his position for the benefit of the House.

The Minister said earlier that it was right for the Government to take the necessary time to get the legislation into the form that it now takes. Of course it is necessary to take a degree of time, but on this occasion, the most enormous amount of time seems to have been taken. Suspicious people such as I cannot help but wonder what caused that. Could it possibly be that one of the things going through the Government's mind was that the last thing they wanted was to upset Sinn Fein-IRA ahead of a general election? After all, the Government have been busily giving in on one-sided deals throughout their term of office, and perhaps they did not want to minimise Sinn Fein's opportunity to win more seats.

I am of an equally suspicious mind when it comes to this Government's dealing with terrorists, and it may well be that, by taking the time that they say was necessary, they will have allowed Sinn Fein-IRA to win more votes in the Assembly election than they would have done if we had clamped down on fraud ahead of it. If that is not the case, I am sure that the Minister will put the matter right.

Many issues remain to be explored in this debate; I have a list of them. They are important to the people of this country, who need to know the answers. Yet here we

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are again, three minutes from a guillotine, without any real opportunity to debate what needs debating, and two of my colleagues still want to contribute. I will protest again, therefore, that I am being silenced by the Government. I am not being allowed to debate what needs to be debated. The Government are escaping from being held to account by the House by hiding behind programme motions and guillotines. That said, other hon. Members wish to speak.

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