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Andrew Mackinlay: They are.

Mr. Murphy: I do not think so.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): There is a slight problem, as many people who want to stand will have taken holiday leave for an election that will not now take place. The payment gives a clear advantage to incumbents, who will now have a period of whatever length to carry on propagating the need for them to be returned to the Assembly. The ordinary individual or Ulster person standing for election, however, will be at a disadvantage, as they will not be paid and will have lost out. Having taken holiday leave now, they may be in an inconvenient position when an election is held because they may not be able to take time off to stand.

Mr. Murphy: I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but he knows that we get paid too, even if the period is much shorter. We, too, have advantages as incumbents because we get paid, unlike the political opponents who stand against us. However, I think that the House will accept—and I may be speaking against myself here—that Assembly Members in Northern Ireland are in their current position because of a decision taken by the Government with the approval of Parliament. It is not because of anything they have done. Every single Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly expected an election to take place, and ordered his or her life accordingly. It is important to

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understand that difference when considering our decision to move the election date and its implications for those who have decided to stand for political office in Northern Ireland. However, I take the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). We are looking carefully at the position, and shall certainly review it regularly.

Mr. Swire : I should like to follow up the good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). What would the Secretary of State say to people who have resigned from their profession to stand in elections that have now been indefinitely postponed, subject to review? What will they do for the next few months, as postponement could go on longer than the Secretary of State expects, and they are without compensation of any sort?

Mr. Murphy: If someone resigns from their job before they are elected, they make that decision for themselves but, frankly, to do so is to take the electorate for granted. However, there is a difference between a candidate who gives up their job in the hope of winning and someone who has been an Assembly Member for four years and expected the election to be held on a certain date.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): My right hon. Friend referred to something equivalent to a resettlement allowance given to Members of Parliament who stand down or lose their seat after an election, but can he give us an assurance that if there is an extended period of payment for former Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it will be taken into consideration when any future resettlement payments are made? There should not be a bottomless pit of payments to non-elected politicians for a considerable period.

Mr. Murphy: People cannot do both things—they must make up their mind whether to stand or not. If a Member of the Assembly has told the relevant authorities that they do not propose to stand for re-election, there is provision for resettlement, as there is in the House. I looked at the question of having a one-off payment rather than a salary, albeit reduced, for Assembly Members, but I thought that that would give the distinct impression that were closing down the Assembly. We are not doing that—we expect an Assembly to be elected again in the autumn.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): My right hon. Friend referred to constituency offices so what will happen with allowances for Assembly Members for office costs during suspension? Would those allowances be included in remuneration and, as the election period is prolonged, what safeguards can be built in to make sure that offices are not turned into electoral offices for Members who wish to be re-elected?

Mr. Murphy: The same rules apply to us. Our own constituency offices are used for parliamentary purposes, not electoral ones. However, I am about to come on to that very matter, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) en passant.

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We will pay a limited office cost allowance to enable a presence in constituency offices to be retained. I acknowledge the need for the parties, with a return to devolution in prospect, to maintain a modest core of support officials at Stormont. Clause 5(6) therefore permits me also to continue to pay party allowances. Again, those allowances will be based on consultations that I propose to hold with the parties this week and next. The rest of clause 5 makes technical provision consequential on a prolonged dissolution. Clause 6 is designed to permit changes in electoral law necessary to ensure the successful running of the election. Of course, the power could be exercised only in line with the provisions of the Bill. For example, an autumn election would coincide with the annual canvass. At present, the chief electoral officer is required to publish the new register on 1 December. It is sensible to make provision for delaying that slightly if it proves necessary. While I am speaking about the chief electoral officer's responsibilities, I should like to pay tribute to him and the professionalism of his staff in discharging their important responsibilities.

That is the detail of the Bill. Although it defers an election, it is intended to advance the day when we can restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, and proceed to complete the implementation of the agreement. Political leaders on all sides in Northern Ireland have worked very hard to make the advances that we have seen in the past six months. We must continue that work with even greater energy. The prize of a truly peaceful and co-operative future for Northern Ireland is close at hand, and we must not give up now. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.36 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I am afraid that I must start by reminding the Secretary of State and, indeed, the House that the situation we now face is quite unnecessary. The confusion and mess now confronting us could have been avoided if the Government had adopted a proposal that I put to them last July. I suggested that the House should take powers to enable the Secretary of State—at the time, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor—to exclude from the Executive any party either in breach of its obligations under the Belfast agreement and the ceasefire or in concert with persons so in breach.

I made that proposal because, as I told the Government last July, they had not responded to successive, extremely grave breaches of the agreement and ceasefire by Sinn Fein-IRA, so it was sadly inevitable that there would be another. Of course, I did not predict Stormontgate, but I was convinced that the mistaken policy of non-response would, regrettably, encourage future breaches. I told the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor from the Dispatch Box that we should take powers to provide for that so that if such a crisis arose the Secretary of State could use those powers to exclude that party from the Executive. The Assembly, of course, could carry on, and the Executive would carry on without the party in breach.

Had the Government adopted that proposal, they would have had that weapon in their armoury when Stormontgate duly occurred in October. It would have been possible not to ask the Assembly for a decision—basically, the Social Democratic and Labour party had

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to bear the onus of the decision to exclude Sinn Fein. The Secretary of State would have had the power to exclude parties from the Executive and could have used it. Sinn Fein would have been excluded back in October, and the Assembly and Executive would have carried on without it. Instead of spending a lot of time negotiating the conditions under which the Assembly could be reinstated or Assembly elections take place, we would be negotiating with Sinn Fein the basis on which it could be allowed to return to the Executive.

The fact that my idea made a lot of sense has now been proven or at least acknowledged by both Governments, as it is in the joint declaration. They have taken on board the need to provide for discipline in the peace process and the power of exclusion that I proposed last year. Sadly, I must remind the Secretary of State that if the Government had adopted last year the powers that we were prepared to give them very rapidly, none of this evil would have occurred.

Before I go any further, I shall cite something that the Prime Minister said only last Wednesday—not very long ago. I shall quote him in full without any deletions or manipulation of the text, which often happens when quotes are thrown at us. I quote the Prime Minister straight, from column 690 last Wednesday at Prime Minister's questions. He said:

The Prime Minister evidently preaches very different principles abroad from those that he lives by at home. Doubtless, the rulers of the countries that he cited last week could find many reasons—good reasons to them, no doubt—why elections there should be cancelled or postponed, but if they cancelled or postponed them, the Prime Minister would apparently disapprove. He has no such compunction about cancelling elections in Northern Ireland. He can say about the middle east that

but he does not appear to believe that democratic decisions in Northern Ireland can equally safely be left to the people themselves.

The levity and high-handedness with which the elections in Northern Ireland have been called off is not the only affront to the traditions of our parliamentary democracy that the House has had to face today. There are two further affronts. The first is that, although there was no proper consultation in the House before the Government took the decision—none at all with the Opposition or with most of the Northern Ireland parties, and judging by the evident ignorance of the Leader of the House at business questions less than an hour before the announcement, no consultation within the Government either; and we heard much about the

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charade of Cabinet government from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) earlier this afternoon—the decision was clearly negotiated privately, in secret, over I do not know how long in advance, with the Irish Government. Indeed, it was traded with the Irish Government, and we know the price, or at least part of the price: the dismantling of the two towers in Armagh. No doubt more of the price will be uncovered in the coming weeks.

The decision was not merely negotiated in secret with the Irish Government— it was announced by the Irish Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell. There could be no more dramatic illustration of what so-called direct rule actually means under this Government. It is diarchy, or to use the term often used in the island of Ireland, joint authority. Like so much else with this Government, it is diarchy by stealth. No one can have any illusion about that. Important decisions are taken in concert with Dublin. Nobody at Westminster is consulted at all. We are presented with a fait accompli.

Then there is the unseemly haste with which the Government are trying to force the Bill down the throat of Parliament, publishing the Bill on Friday when the House was not sitting, and expecting us to digest it, to consult—for the Opposition believe that consultation is an essential element of good legislation, even if the Government do not—to draft and table amendments, and to give the Bill all the parliamentary consideration it deserves in the course of one day, now reduced to the course of half a day by the manipulation to which I referred.

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