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12 May 2003 : Column 40

Points of Order

4.34 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there anything that you can do, even at this late stage, to protect today's business? You will be aware that we were already in the unacceptable position of being asked to process all stages of an important and potentially controversial Bill, which will affect democracy in part of our United Kingdom, between 3.30 pm and 10 pm.

Yet today, Mr. Speaker, with the usual casual attitude that the Government have sadly shown towards Parliament and this House of Commons, a statement was put on which, however important, was not that urgent, thus reducing further the time that we have to consider the Bill at hand. Can nothing be done even now to give the House more time—proper time—to perform a Second Reading, a Committee stage and a Third Reading of a Bill that is of the greatest importance for our democracy in this United Kingdom, so that we can properly consider it? The Government's attitude to this House of Commons has become unacceptable, and the casual and deliberate placing of a statement on a day such as this, further to reduce our opportunity to examine legislation, is the latest regrettable example of that. Please, Mr. Speaker, what can be done?

Mr. Speaker: I think the right hon. Gentleman's main complaint is about the statement by the Foreign Secretary, not the statement by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). As Speaker, I have no say in those matters. When a Minister says that he wishes to come before the House to make a statement, I have to accept that statement and the House has to hear it. However, the right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I did not run the statement for a full hour, but for 40 minutes, with the clear understanding that we have other business before us. The right hon. Gentleman asks, "Can anything be done?"; the answer is, not by me.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Does the hon. Gentleman have a point of order?

Mr. Cash: I have a point of order on the personal statement, Mr. Speaker. On 10 April, I raised a point of order on whether the Secretary of State for International Development would publish, as she could have done at her discretion, the advice of the Attorney-General, as the Prime Minister did on the legality of the war against Iraq in reply to a question that I put to him earlier. In her statement, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) referred to the fact that it would have been better had the Prime Minister accepted the Attorney-General's advice. She could have used the ministerial discretion to publish that advice. My point of order is that that advice could still be made available and should be placed in the House of Commons as soon as possible.

Mr. Speaker: Once again, that is not a matter for me. It is for Ministers to decide whether they put that advice into the public domain.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): On a point of order on a matter that relates to you and of which you are fully

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aware, Mr. Speaker. The number of hon. Members who read questions at Question Time is obvious to me, the House and yourself. It is my understanding that questions should not be read and should be given, if you like, from the heart. I am sure that you would wish to remind all hon. Members that we are not here to read out questions, but should put our questions to the Secretary of State or the Minister and wait for an adequate reply.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Supplementary questions should not be read from notes. Hon. Members sometimes use aids, but I would not encourage that practice. The hon. Gentleman is right that questions should be asked without notes.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely this is an unusual occasion because we are to discuss something—the right of people to exercise their franchise—that does not come before the House except, perhaps, once in a century. Surely the Government should have respect for this day and, given the very little time that we have, protect it. Although we appreciate that you gave only 40 minutes for the Foreign Secretary's statement and did not call everyone who stood, as a representative in this House of people from Northern Ireland, I find it an insult to them that, in this mother of Parliaments, we should have time taken away from our discussion of something that cuts across the root and foundation of democracy.

Mr. Speaker: I can understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but at the risk of repeating myself, it is for me to ensure that the rules of the House are carried out. I do not make the rules of the House; the House makes the rules and I am the custodian of the rules. However, I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In what circumstances is eavesdropping by official agencies on Members of Parliament's telephone conversations allowed?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for me.

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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill (Allocation of Time)

4.40 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): I beg to move,

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In a moment, I shall explain the urgency with which the Government are seeking to progress the Bill and why it is necessary to take it through all its stages in the House today. However, before I do so, I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the cowardly attack carried out this morning on the offices of the Ulster Unionist party in Belfast. An explosive device was delivered to the offices in a clear attempt to kill or to maim. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident, but it is a salutary reminder to us all of what we are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland. Attacks such as that and the one some weeks ago on the offices of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) only make us more determined to achieve a complete and unambiguous end to paramilitary activity.

In my statement to the House last Tuesday evening, I explained the Government's assessment of the current state of political developments in Northern Ireland and the reasons for our conclusion that the elections to the Assembly due on 29 May should be postponed. It would not be appropriate to dwell in detail on those reasons in the debate on this motion. Hon. Members will have an opportunity later to debate the Government's analysis and policy more fully, and I intend to address those issues in my speech in that debate. Suffice it to say that the decision to seek a postponement was taken—with regret—on the basis that it is clear that without a clear and unambiguous end to paramilitary activity, there cannot be a revival of the trust and confidence necessary for the restoration of the devolved institutions.

There are two reasons why I am seeking the House's agreement to the motion. The first is that our decision to seek the postponement was taken only after weeks—indeed, months—of intensive negotiations aimed at securing acts of completion from paramilitaries and a common understanding of the basis on which the devolved institutions could be restored. As the House well knows, the Government have already sought one four-week postponement of the election date in order to try to facilitate that process. We naturally wished to give those efforts every chance of succeeding, so it was with great regret that we reluctantly concluded on 1 May that we had reached a point where there was no longer any prospect of the necessary trust and confidence being established in time for restoration of the institutions following an election on 29 May.

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Now that we have reached that conclusion, no one will benefit from continuing uncertainty about the legal status of the scheduled election. The Northern Ireland electorate deserve clarity as soon as it can be given, and the Northern Ireland political parties are, naturally, anxious to know how the Government propose to deal with a range of consequences of the postponement, from the question of reimbursement of electoral expenses incurred to the implications for the funding of party offices. They deserve certainty and clarity as soon as possible. We have worked to produce the Bill as fast as we can in order to provide that.

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