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I made it clear that the money would not be spent in support of individual Members in their constituencies, but it is clear that political parties have
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representative activities. Perhaps I can give one illustration of that. Sinn Fein may choose to employ a spokesman in Westminster to speak on behalf of the party in discussions that take place in and around Parliament. That is a matter for Sinn Fein, and we have given it access to facilities here. It is clearly a representative function of a political party; it is not the kind of activity that would allow money to be spent in an individual Member's constituency. However, it would provide the kind of support to representative activities of a political party that are already covered by the Short money that is made available to other political parties.
Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman said that there is no opportunity to use the Hoon money in any way except for those purposes for which Short money is currently provided. Does he mean that to the letter of the law as it applies to Short money? If so, it clarifies responses to earlier questions, but it may be slightly different from the impression he gave in a previous answer.
Mr. Hoon: I gave an unequivocal answer and I do not retreat from it. It is important to make a clear distinction. This is money that is available and wholly consistent with the rules that currently cover the payment of Short money as far as other political parties are concerned.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Surely the Leader of the House should be influenced by the fact that the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party said what he did and that Unionist parties are saying the same thing. Surely he must understand that he will put all the other parties that have forsworn terrorism in a difficult position. The advantage will go to the paramilitary groups because they can cook the books and nothing will be done about it. If we are going to have an audit, let us see the Government auditor doing something and taking them to the courts. We are still to see that. How can we trust for the future what has not been done in the past?
Mr. Hoon: I made it clear that this is a matter for the House and its audit, not for the Government. As I made clear, the Government have a view. We believe that the proposal is the right way forward, but it is a matter absolutely for the House to decide, and it will have to do that in due course.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps we can have some advice from the Chair. The motion apparently extends what is called Short money to representative business. I am not clear whether the motion standing by itself has that effect, or whether there needs to be a further and substantive motion, spelling out the terms and conditions on which Short money is payable to Sinn Fein before such money becomes payable. The House needs to know whether there is to be a further resolution or whether this resolution is sufficient to make payment due.
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Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair. What is on the Order Paper, and the reasoning behind it, is for the proposer of the motion to explain and to be questioned about, which has been happening for the past 42 minutes. It is purely a matter of debate and then decision for individual Members of the House.
Mr. Frank Field: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your advice is needed as we just learned from the Leader of the House that if we pass the motion, we will change the nature of Short money, because we have been told that it can now be spent in a way that representative money can be spent. Surely the Government should introduce a substantive motion on changing Short money that incorporates allowing Sinn Fein to claim that money, rather than changing its nature by extending it to Sinn Fein.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Interpretation of the motion is not for the Chair. It is a matter for debate. The Leader of the House must explain what he is asking the House to approve and be questioned on that. That is the stuff of debate, not a matter for the Chair.
Sir Patrick Cormack : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I entirely respect what you said, but the fact is that Short money exists as it does because the House has willed it so. It has approved the rules and decided how it should be applied. We are now told that a consequence of the motion will be that Short money will be reinterpreted, without the will of the House, in an entirely different way. Surely that cannot be right.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Whether it is right or wrong is not a matter for the Chair to determine. The House has a clear decision before it. If right hon. and hon. Members have doubts about what is proposed, they have the option of choosing not to approve it. There are other means by which the matter could be pursued on a future occasion. If the motion is agreed and doubt remains, there will be further parliamentary opportunities to eradicate those doubts. It is essentially a matter for debate.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The question is rather simpler than that. We wonder whether the motion can be in order if the wording is different from the interpretation that the House wishes to consider.
I am grateful to you for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was about to make the same point: it is the first time that I have been intervened on before I have said anything. However, I give way.
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His response and the motion indicate that that is not the case for a specific United Kingdom party. That is the distinction. He has made a classa party apartthat can claim the money for other reasons. It is almost hybrid. How can he reconcile his arguments with his statement? Why are not all parties getting representative money?
Mr. Hoon: At the risk of straying beyond the terms of the motion, I want to make it clear that the House has approved the payment of what is strictly known as Opposition parties financial assistance, colloquially known as Short money. That is subject to a set of rules that the House has agreed. The rules are applied, subject to appropriate accounting supervision by the House authorities. The House now has an opportunity of debating and agreeing, if it so wishes, a motion relating to providing financial assistance for Sinn Fein and for those parties that have chosen not to take their seats. I accept that in the present context that applies to Sinn Fein. The rules would then be applied in exactly the same way as the rules for Short money, not going beyond the terms of the Short money requirement, but making it clear that this is in relation to the representative business of the party.
The rules are clear and available for the House to consider. They are available for individual Members to comment on and decide upon when they come to vote. It seems that the matter is clear and is available for all Members to consider.
I am at risk of extending what were quite short remarks rather further than I believe they should go. We have set out clearly the issues for the House to decide. There are opportunities for right hon. and hon. Members to make their points in the course of debate. I believe that in those circumstances it is appropriate for me to draw my remarks to a close.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): In the light of the remarks of the Leader of the House in proposing the motions, I shall start by making it absolutely clear to the House that the Opposition are committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland. We all want to see a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, and we share the Government's aims and objectivestheir views on these matters are shared across the Housein seeking the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland and the resumption of the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Moreover, in recent weeks we have demonstrated that we are willing to work with the Government on issues that are to the benefit of our country.
I listened with great care to the Leader of the House and to his responses to the many interventions. I was concerned at the manner in which he appeared to threaten Members in relation to the decision that they take today. I felt that his contribution to the debate was, frankly, not worthy of him.
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The issue before us is not about the Northern Ireland peace process or about the resumption of the Assembly; it is about the role of Members of Parliament, what it means to sit in the House and the nature of the job of being an elected representative of this place. It is primarily on that basis that we oppose the action that the Government are seeking to take and will be voting against the motions.
A number of Members, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), made the point during the debate on the business motion that these are matters of extreme importance to the House. I believe that the points can be made simply and succinctly, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) indicated during the same debate.
Given the comments that the Leader of the House has made about the relationship between this issue and the Northern Ireland peace process, I believe that it is questionable whether the conditions that led to the decision taken by the House to suspend existing allowancesnamely, the involvement of Sinn Fein-IRA in criminal activitiesare no longer relevant. Indeed, the latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission makes it clear that the republican movement remains involved in criminal activity and intelligence gathering, and raises real concerns about the way in which that movement is exercising community restorative justice. I shall quote one part of the report, on pages 34 to 35. The report states:
"We have no doubt that the PIRA, uniquely among paramilitary organisations, has taken the strategic decision to eschew terrorism and pursue a political path. There are a number of signs that the organisation is moving in the way it indicated in its statement of 28 July 2005. But in the light of some of the activities we refer to a real question remains of whether this will involve purely conventional politics conducted within a culture of lawfulness."
I suggest that the Government's own conditions for reinstatement of the individual allowances have not been met. I refer the Leader of the House to his response in business questions to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on, I believe, 26 January, when he made it clear that it was his view that any political party that was still engaged in criminal activity should not receive allowances. I ask him to consider that response carefully. Frankly, it does not bear comparison with his speech this afternoon.
I believe that the issue before us is essentially about the nature of being a Member of Parliament. There are two proposals before us from the Government. One is that the arrangements to give financial support to Members who have chosen not to take their seatsthe financial arrangements which were suspended as from 1 April 2005should now be reinstated, and more than that, should be backdated to 1 November 2005. The other goes far beyond that and beyond anything that has been proposed previously. It is extending financial support for those who choose not to take their seats beyond support for individual Members to support for a party that is represented by those Members.
I believe that there are very strong parliamentary reasons for resisting these proposals. Before I set out those arguments, I shall refer to the timing of the debate. Coming as it does less than two days after talks between
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the British and Irish Governments and Northern Ireland political parties with a view to resuming the work of the Assembly, it clearly implies to the House, a link between that matter and the motions. The Leader of the House was quite open about it.
The reason for bringing the motions before us today is not whether Members who do not take their seats should be entitled to allowances in relation to parliamentary business and the way that they stand alongside other Members of this place, but is simply about the role that the Government believe the motion can play in relation to encouraging further progress on the Northern Ireland peace process.
Even if the motions were to have that effect, it would be wrong for the House to take a view on the role of Members of this place, and the use of taxpayers' money to support them in that role, purely for reasons of political expediency. Members should remember that while the debate so far has been framed in relation to Sinn Feinit is, of course, only Sinn Fein Members who today do not take their seats in the Housethe motions are framed on the principle of giving allowances to any Members of any political party who choose not to take their seats. We are debating a point of principle, not merely an issue relating to one particular political party.
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