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8.37 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): It is right in such a Second Reading debate for members of the parties with a primary interest in Northern Ireland to paint the backdrop to how we got to this position, but I want to address the precise contents of the Bill and its glaring omissions.

The first omission is that there is no time limit. Various people, including members of the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), have tabled amendments that would ensure that the elections take place within a certain period of time. The alternative was to include a clause to ensure that the Act expired if the problem was not resolved. If the Bill reaches the statute book, it is important that it is not open ended. It should not lay there in perpetuity. It needs an end.

If the Government think that the elections have failed or should not proceed, it is incumbent on them to come to the House of Commons to explain why and to propose how we move on. Everyone needs an opportunity to discuss how we should proceed—whether the d'Hondt system should continue for the Assembly and Executive, or whether one of the parties should be excluded, for example. The important thing is that the House is reported to and we make the decision in quality time, which we are being denied this evening.

I hope that consideration will be given, either in the winding-up speech or in another place, to including an element in the Bill to ensure that it expires if the objectives that the Secretary of State wants to achieve are not resolved in the autumn. The autumn can be compared to a long piece of elastic. It needs a definite end, and that end should be stated in the Bill.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): So elastic is the provision that salaries will continue to be paid to current Members of the Legislative Assembly who plan to stand again. When will that cease if we go beyond the autumn?

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that brings me to other matters dealt with in clauses 3 and 4, wham bang in the middle of the Bill. The Secretary of State said that he wanted to facilitate the political parties' having some resources during the period of interregnum. I am happy about

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that, provided that we know what the ground rules are. Apparently, the Electoral Commission is to be invited to make recommendations to the Secretary of State, who will make a scheme; but the scheme is then his property, and that seems wrong. As a matter of principle, the scheme should be brought to the House of Commons for approval. Why should it not be? Surely it is appropriate that we have the opportunity to discuss it in relation to the funding of political parties. I see that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) wishes to intervene again. I will give way, but I wish to develop my point.

Rev. Martin Smyth: May I press the hon. Gentleman on that point? One reason for continuing to support the parties is that they will consider ways to bring the Assembly back into being—but will they be doing that all the time? Furthermore, will not candidates who have given notice that they wish to stand and who will have to carry on their own work without such remuneration be put at an unfair disadvantage?

Andrew Mackinlay: Indeed, and I intend to discuss the positions of candidates and existing Members—or perhaps I should say resurrected Members. Clause 4 is a resurrection clause: in resurrecting from death to life in excess of 100 people it achieves something that was not achieved even in the Bible. If we had more time, we could explore the fact that that resurrection clause brings back to life those who are politically dead.

I do not want to be deflected from the subject of the resources for political parties provided for under Clause 3. The House of Commons should approve the scheme because we are the custodians of the public purse. We have to ensure that the ground rules are applied equally to all political parties. We also have to ensure that there is no abuse and prevent abuse arising. To buttress my point, let me give one illustration. I have seen a letter not from a malevolent MLA but from someone who used the Stormont free post to encourage people to sign on to the electoral register. We all want people in Northern Ireland to sign on to the electoral register, but my impression is that using the free post to promote that was contrary to the rules. I do not use that example to complain about that person: I think that they were filled with the best possible motives—but I do not think that that is what the free post was for. Earlier, the Secretary of State said from a sedentary position that Stormont MLAs' free post would not continue, but he did not tell us precisely what other arrangements would be made. We should be told, and that is why the scheme should be examined by the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned those who seek election to the Assembly and existing Members of it. I am perturbed by the fact that all the political parties in the Assembly have MLAs who consciously want to give up—they do not want to go on. They include the Presiding Officer Lord Alderdice, Sir John Gorman, and Brid Rodgers, the Social Democratic and Labour party Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development. A number of people across the political spectrum want to finish, but under the Bill they have no alternative but to continue—they are to be resurrected from the dead whether they like it or not.

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What is more, the Bill contains no provision for such people to resign. Under the 1998 legislation, MLAs wishing to resign have to submit their resignation to the Presiding Officer. The Bill, however, does not resurrect the Presiding Officer—the office does not exist. That shows why we wanted a Committee stage on the Bill. It is an important matter of principle that those who do not want to take the new, albeit reduced, salary and do not want to fulfil the functions of a resurrected MLA should be able to decline to do so. Presumably, although the Secretary of State has not declared on this point, allowing them to do so would give the political parties the opportunity to replace them. What is to happen to those filling casual vacancies during the interregnum? Unhappily, some could be deceased. Would they be succeeded under the existing system, or would their place expire? We have a right to be told, and that is not happening at present.

I am not unsympathetic towards the salaries of resurrected MLAs, but I was surprised that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State brushed aside my intervention earlier. Perhaps I did not make myself fully understood. It seems right, however, that whatever remuneration and resources are made available to them should be subject to parliamentary approval. What is wrong with that, especially given that the Bill might be passed open-ended without a conclusion clause?

It is worth considering that those people will be paid and will have their offices in the high street. I have told the House that I am not bursting into tears over that; I am not opposed to that approach in principle. Indeed, they should have something to do. There is a small provision in clause 5 whereby we in the House will be the only people who can refer matters to the Northern Ireland ombudsman. Why cannot the resurrected MLAs still have that function? People will enter their high street offices to complain. I have been into MLAs' offices to listen to people. They have come in and said, "I want you to tell that Tony Blair about this and that." They raise the war of Iraq with MLAs. Occasionally, however, they raise issues relating to maladministration or the Departments of the Northern Ireland Office. During the interregnum, surely MLAs who have no other function should be empowered, along with Members of this place, to refer matters of complaint to the Northern Ireland ombudsman.

Finally, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reflect on clause 6. It is drawn extremely widely in a way that can be described only as potentially open to abuse. The Bill is hurried and I have to say that it is ill thought out. I have tried to demonstrate in the past few minutes that it is not comprehensive. Reluctantly, however, I would sign up to the fact that he needs a power, apparently, to alter anything in the Act of Parliament that he has forgotten about or has not anticipated. That is basically what clause 6 does. It says that that procedure will be subject to the affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. I accept that, albeit reluctantly.

Clause 6 also provides, however, that if that is not expedient the procedure does not have to have the affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. The Bill as drafted allows a Secretary of State to alter by statutory instrument, without reference to Parliament, any aspect of the Bill. He can add, retract or amend after Royal Assent. That makes a mockery of our law-

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making process. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), tells that that is not the case. I would like him to justify that. Surely our purpose is to scrutinise legislation, which is precisely what we are not doing this evening. We are giving the Secretary of State a blank cheque to do anything within the long title, if the Bill becomes an Act, without further reference to Parliament. I find that repugnant.

We are told that the House of Lords may have longer than us to consider this matter. That is breathtakingly arrogant. I hope that the other place will consider some of these issues and improve the Bill. Better still, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, with some humility, or the junior Minister, will at least say that those of us who have raised points such as those that I have set out will consider them overnight and invite their supporters in the House of Lords to introduce amendments to what is a wholly inadequate and rather shabby Bill.

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