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Mrs. May: My position is based on the fact that we are debating what should happen in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. I cannot guarantee what those circumstances will be after the next election, when the Conservative party is in government. It is perfectly possible that Sinn Fein will take a different decision about Parliament, although I think it unlikely given the comments made by Sinn Fein Members. We will look at the situation when we are in government. It will not be for the right hon. Gentleman to worry about it in a few years' time, as it will be our concern.
Mr. Heath: If I may move away from the highly hypothetical, is it not the case that Governments of any persuasion should not negotiate on matters that are the province of the House? The problem is that we are bound into agreements that the House is asked to consider and accept, as commitments have already been given.
Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I indicated in my response to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) this is a matter for the House. It is about the business of the House, so it is for hon. Members to determine how they should take it forward. It was therefore unfortunate that the Government chose to introduce motions in relation to allowances, notwithstanding the ruling made by the previous Speaker.
I return to the comments of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) about legislation that had started its progress through the Housethe Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Members of Parliament who do not take their seats in the House cannot participate in debates, ask questions or undertake other aspects of membership of the House, and they cannot participate in debates on legislation specifically affecting Northern Ireland. They have no voice when legislation affecting Northern Ireland is going through the House, and no opportunity to amend that legislation in Standing Committee.
I remind hon. Members that when the issue first arose, the then Speaker was clear in her oppositiona stance which survived legal challenge in the High Court and the
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European Court of Human Rights. No one in this place should be allowed to claim allowances without taking up their seat, because without taking up their seat they are not fulfilling their job as an elected representative in the House.
I am interested in the number of interventions that I have received from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In his alter ego as the Secretary of State for Wales, he appears to accept that concept of the nature of elected representation. I draw hon. Members' attention to clause 23 of the Government of Wales Bill, which is going through the House. The clause makes it clear that no Member of the Welsh Assembly is entitled to claim any allowances until such time as they have taken the oath. Indeed, it goes further. If an elected Welsh Assembly Member does not take the oath within two months of being elected, they automatically forfeit their seat. I entirely accept that the Welsh Assembly is a different body from Parliament, but the principle remains the same. Why do the Government believe that elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly should not have allowances until they fulfil all their roles, whereas elected representatives at Westminster should be treated differently?
Sir Patrick Cormack: Is my right hon. Friend aware that even as late as this morning, in answers to Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State indicated that he did not think that Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly ought to continue to receive their allowances if the Assembly was not sitting, so the Government's argument is nonsense.
Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for illuminating the House further on yet another discrepancy in the position being taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Irelandnot only different positions as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Secretary of State for Wales, but different positions at different times as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
There are those who might say that the issue before us is simply a matter of the oath that Members must swear in order to take their seats, but it is not. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) reminded us, the hon. Member for Belfast, West is quoted as saying:
It was a badly misjudged decision by the Government to award the allowances in the first place, and it remains misjudged to attempt to reinstate them. However, the motions before the House go further than the previous position. As was debated through interventions in the speech of the Leader of the House, Ministers are not simply seeking to reinstate the position that they introduced and were subsequently forced to suspend. They are seeking to go further and create a new allowance for political parties whose Members do not take their seats in the House.
I listened carefully to the Leader of the House and, depending which answers one accepted from him, that money appeared to be on the one hand Short money and
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on the other hand not Short money. That position is even more indefensible for the Government. Short money is not available to Members who have not sworn the oath because it is designed to offer assistance with parliamentary duties, specifically to assist an Opposition party in carrying out its parliamentary business. Why should a party that does not attend the House, does not vote, does not debate in the Chamberin other words, that does not engage in or undertake parliamentary duties or parliamentary businessreceive additional money to support its parliamentary activities? Surely that, more than anything else, confirms that this is not just a matter of parliamentary business.
The Leader of the House made a number of references to the money, saying variously that it was Short money and that it was not Short money. I note that he did not respond to my direct question about the definition of "representative business". As the House of Commons Library has made clear, the term has not been used previously in parliamentary procedure. The motion would bring about more than the extension of Short money. It would create a new parliamentary allowance.
The Leader of the House should have recognised from the tone of the debate that if the Government's intention is to extend Short money to parties whose Members do not take their seats in the House, they should withdraw the motion and introduce a separate motion which makes that clear. The wording before us is not about Short money. It is about money that is available for representative business. It is a new allowance. I do not believe that parties whose Members are not participating fully in the House in all their duties as individual elected representatives and also as a party in opposition to the Government deserve to receive funding related to parliamentary activities or, more widely, a new allowance.
Mr. Goodman: Can my right hon. Friend assist me? It is my recollection that when the Leader of the House was asked to give a definition of the purpose of the new money, he was unable to offer one to the House. Is my recollection right?
Mrs. May: My hon. Friend's recollection is correct. The Leader of the House was challenged to give a clear definition. It is difficult for Members to support the Government's motion if they do not know what its implications will be, because the Leader of the House has refused to give that definition.
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend will accept that there may be those of us who think that something like Short money should go to Sinn Fein, but does she agree that all of us can agree that all parties should be placed in a similar position? The one thing that would be wholly intolerable is if Sinn Fein were placed in a better position than, for example, any of the Unionist parties or the SDLP. Our belief is that that effect is achieved by the motion before the House.
I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the motion appears to extend a new allowance which would put Sinn Fein, as that is the only party whose Members do not take their seats, in a different position and potentially, depending on the
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calculation and the expenditure, a better position than other Opposition parties, including Opposition parties in Northern Ireland.
I have made my position clear. When Members of the House do not take their seats they are not doing their full job as Members of the House. Full stop. End of story. The Leader of the House does himself and his office a disservice in bringing the motions before the House today. No one will disagree that it is in everyone's interests for the republican movement to complete the transition from terrorism to democratic and peaceful politics, but as I said earlier, that is not the subject of the debate. The issue is what it means to be a Member of the House. Those who recognise the privilege of being elected to the House and those who value the House should clearly reject the Government's motions.
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