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Mr. Murphy: I am certainly happy to listen to the points that my hon. Friend makes and which may well be made later in the course of the debate, but I have to tell him that the Government's preferred option is to ensure that we are able to call elections as soon as possible—in the autumn. He wants to know what will happen in the event of that not happening. I shall reflect on the points that he and others make during the course of the debate.

Mr. Dodds : If the Secretary of State is arguing so strongly now that there should be no date for the next election put into the provisions of the proposed legislation, does he not admit that all the arguments that he advanced only a few weeks ago in favour of a precise date, 29 May, in a previous election Bill, are completely invalid?

Mr. Murphy: I would not say that they are completely invalid, because I think that some progress was made during the course of the past few weeks. For example, we had an IRA statement, which was more transparent and discussed and debated than any other such statement that we have heard. Secondly, only two of the answers to the questions of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the IRA were satisfactory. In my view, the third answer was completely unsatisfactory. However, there was some progress. The hon. Gentleman is right to say, of course, that there was insufficient progress. That did not work. That is why there is a danger in putting in a date. We need some flexibility if we are able to go into the talks to ensure that we get the institutions up and running.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who referred to the cancellation of elections, that I hope that the Bill as I have described it, and the points that I am making, will ensure that that is not the case, and that there will not be a cancellation. It is a postponement; it is a deferment. It is our intention and desire that elections will be held in the autumn.

I shall move to the clauses, because perhaps they will add to the points that I am making.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): The argument that my right hon. Friend seems to be developing is that

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it is not possible to fix a date for the next election because we must establish that trust is recreated, if that is the word. I asked earlier, without response, by whom and by what criteria that trust is to be measured. Is that the Government, the right hon. Gentleman's office or individual parties? If it is individual parties, is not the right hon. Gentleman creating an unending veto to a party that does not want to participate in elections?

Mr. Murphy: No, I am not. As we have said many times in this place, the veto can easily be exercised by anybody in the Belfast agreement. That lies at the heart of the suspension. It was not the fact that the Social Democratic and Labour party or the Ulster Unionist party did not agree. It was the fact that confidence collapsed because of continued paramilitary activity.

The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. If I may say so, he spoke eloquently some weeks ago at Prime Minister's Question Time about what was happening in his constituency, when he asked that very question. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows more than most in this place about the difficulties to which I am pointing. Although it is possible to say that this party or that party will not engage in the Assembly, at the end of the day every party has a right when it comes to whether or not it wants to engage in the political process, including forming part of the Executive.

I want—it is what everyone is looking forward to—to find a solution so that all parties can live together to make the Executive and the Assembly work. That will be the thrust of our negotiations and discussions in the months ahead.

Mr. McGrady: The right hon. Gentleman is certainly correct to state that any party can withhold its consent and participation. The point that I am making is whether any party has the right to prevent other parties participating and agreeing.

Mr. Murphy: No party is doing that anyway. At the basis of all of this is the fact that we must see an end to paramilitary activity. We can have our debates and discussions about whether a party should have done this or that, but we know what has caused the difficulty. Everybody in Northern Ireland understands that paramilitary activity must come to an end now. We have had five years during which it has been given that chance. Until it comes to an end, there cannot be trust. Some progress has been made over the past number of months, but we need some more time. It is the timing that we are buying between now and the autumn to ensure that the negotiations go forward, that we can sit around the table and discuss these matters and that we can resolve the problem of activity and set up the institutions.

Clause 2 annuls steps taken towards 29 May election, and provides for return of deposits. That is a great help to members of parties who have already put them down.

Clause 3 provides for reimbursement of moneys spent both by the political parties and individual candidates in preparation for the elections scheduled for 29 May. We agree with the widely expressed view that Northern Ireland political parties and individuals should be reimbursed for genuine, unavoidable expenditure related to the election campaign.

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The Bill gives me the power to make payments. I will do so in line with a scheme that will be developed by the Electoral Commission. I am grateful to the commission for its willingness to assist us in that task. These proposals are not about the Government subsidising Northern Ireland political parties. They recognise that participating in the democratic process costs money. It is necessary in the wider public interest to postpone the election due on 29 May, but it is only proper that the political parties and individual candidates are not financially disadvantaged by the decision that the Government have taken.

We also have to deal with difficult questions about the people who operated the institutions in Northern Ireland, and often worked extremely hard for the successes of devolved government that we saw for a period of two years. We cannot avoid the fact that the Assembly is devolved, nor seek to perpetuate the Assembly. However, we hope that those who have been Members, many of them new to public life in Northern Ireland, and who have often made great sacrifices to take part in the political process, will want to remain in democratic politics, and to continue representing the interests of those who were their constituents.

We have concluded that it is right to pay a continuing salary, rather than a resettlement allowance.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Murphy: I will, but I shall finish the point before the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me. He may be able to taunt me for a bit longer.

It would not be acceptable either for the salary to be at the rate payable before the election, or that it should last indefinitely.

Clause 4 gives me the power to fix salaries and allowances, but we shall consult all the parties in Northern Ireland on the detail over the next week or so. In the light of our belief that the previous rates would not be at all appropriate in the new circumstances, we shall review the situation in six months.

Mr. Robinson: This is purely a housekeeping matter. It appears that the Secretary of State is proposing that Assembly Members who were elected in 1998 and those who were substituted since then should, in relation to remuneration, be treated as if they were still Assembly Members. Do they have any other rights? Are they allowed to continue to refer to themselves as Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the Assembly has been dissolved? Can they use the facilities at Stormont? What is the Secretary of State proposing?

Mr. Murphy: I shall come to one or two of those points, if the hon. Gentleman allows me to do so. First, I shall make a general point. As the hon. Gentleman knows—he has been a Member of this place for a very long time—when the House is dissolved, Members of Parliament cease to be Members of the House and cannot continue to use the title MP, but they still get paid. [Interruption.] I understand the point that is being made. That is not for six months. However, Members of

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this place get paid and they are entitled to use their constituency offices in the pursuance of the best interests of their constituents. At the same time, they would be contesting the election. I know that there is a difference between that and what we are now proposing. That is why I am proposing to pay a reduced allowance but to talk to the parties about what they think should happen. That includes, of course, the hon. Gentleman's party.

Andrew Mackinlay: My right hon. Friend has said that he will consult on what remuneration should be during the duration. I do not mean this facetiously, but he is forgetting about the House of Commons. In my view, we have a right to approve a settlement. After all, the House agrees ultimately the recommendations of independent bodies in respect of their pay and remuneration. It seems not unreasonable that whatever proposals my right hon. Friend makes should be the subject of affirmative resolution in the House of Commons.

Mr. Murphy: I am not sure about that. When I was Minister of State, Northern Ireland, I remember meeting some of the Members who are now in the Chamber to talk about various matters of remuneration. Under the powers given to the Secretary of State, and therefore to me as Minister of State, we were able to vary and waiver the amount paid. I am not saying that we should be paying full salaries or the salaries that Members have been receiving over the past number of months. It is incumbent on me to consult all the parties in Northern Ireland—after all, some of them may disagree with me—and that consultation will take place. No one, of course, is obliged to take the allowance.

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