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Lembit Öpik: As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) pointed out, this is something that we have covered to a fairly large extent. The issue is fairly simple. Of course, the Minister has the opportunity to provoke us into a vote if he wants. I hope that he does not take that opportunity. I hope instead that he takes the common-sense position.
Why will the Government not accept these points? They have just won a vote that will give the Secretary of State the power to overrule the chief electoral officer with regard to the 2010 canvass. I am sure that the Minister would not be so brash as to deny the common-sense nature of all three amendments in this string.
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Either the Minister accepts the principle of the amendments, in which case we can move on quickly to the next clause, or he must explain why he wants to give the Secretary of State the political wriggle room to define public interest.
The Government and the Minister very well know that there is a degree of cynicism among some hon. Members about the manipulation of things such as election dates in Northern Ireland for political reasons. Many of us think that the Government entered an entirely counter-productive pathway, by changing the date of the election to help the Ulster Unionist party, thus delivering to the Democratic Unionist party the exact result that we could all see would happen, to the DUP's great credit. So the Government have some form, in that they have wanted some wriggle room for political advantage.
At the heart of this set of amendments is surely the principle that the Secretary of State must not have political wriggle room in matters of public interest in relation to the avoidance of electoral fraud. Therefore, I echo the question already raised by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Tewkesbury; will the Minister accept the amendment and, if not, what possible motivation could the Government have to try to build political wriggle room into something as important as the probity of the electoral canvass?
Sir Patrick Cormack: A few years ago, there was a great deal of debate in the House about what were called Henry VIII clauses. This, in effect, is a Henry VIII clause, because it will give the Secretary of State total power to interpret two words that can have the broadest and most general of meanings in a variety of contexts"public interest". The Secretary of State of the day who will decide what those two words mean.
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said a moment or two ago, we have had examples of the political interpretation of those words. Earlier this afternoon, we had a quite absurd example of a financial consideration, when the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the Government could decide that £1.7 millionthe price of modest London flatis too much to spend on counteracting fraud.
We all know from the property columns of newspapers that £1.7 million does not buy an awful lot these days[Interruption.] That is absolutely true. One need look only at the rather frightening property columns in almost any newspaper to realise that in all parts of the country, including the Minister's constituency, many properties are selling for that amount. That illustration is certainly less fatuous than the Minister's when he said that £1.7 million might be too much to spend to avoid fraud.
: Does my hon. Friend agree that, prima facie, the public interest in the north of Ireland should
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be the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that making this sort of distinction is basically wrongnot just marginally, but fundamentally wrong?
Sir Patrick Cormack: I agree completely. I have said many times during my time as Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that we want Northern Ireland to be a normal part of the UK, in the same way that Wales, Scotland and England are. At the moment, it is manifestly not and what we are debating now is a further illustration of the problem, which perpetuates the position and is fundamentally wrong.
If I have to accept these words about the public interest in the BillI would much rather they were taken out and wholly agree with the hon. Member for North Down in saying thatthey must be precise, specific and defined. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Member for North Down have both attempted to provide definitions. I hope that neither of them will take it in bad part if I say that they are imperfect attempts to create the definitions, but at least they are genuine attempts to do so.
The very least that the Minister should do this afternoon, if he cannot undertake to remove the entire provisionI agree absolutely with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said a few moments agois to affirm that the Government will take the problem away for further consideration and seek to table amendments in the other place to encapsulate the amendments of both the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. If he wants to satisfy us, he should take it even further and call in the spokesmen for all the major political parties in Northern Ireland, see them either individually or collectively, and properly discuss the business of the public interest to see what can be agreed. After all, the Government set great store on finding consensus at the moment and are embarking on a series of talks. If it is so important to do so, which I fully accept, in respect of the operation of devolution, it is of equal importance to embark on talks that will lead to a consensus in respect of legislation passed by the House.
I hope that the Minister will give us a much more satisfactory reply than he gave us about half an hour ago at the end of the previous group of amendments. I hope that the House will not need to divide again, but if the Minister fails to give us a satisfactory reply I fear that it will probably have to do so.
Dr. McCrea : I have listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and I believe that the Minister has been given the necessary room to act in good faith. I have no doubt, from what the Minister has already said, that he is speaking in good faith in so far as he sees the situation. I wish to make it clear that what we are saying is not an attack on the personal integrity of the present Secretary of State or any successor. We are talking about the powers given to the Secretary of State generally.
Clause 3 tells us that the Secretary of State has to be satisfied that conducting a canvass meets the public interest. In other words, the public interest is defined by
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the Secretary of State, but surely it is the community that has to be satisfied that the public interest is being met and we need an appropriate rather than a political interpretation. Let us remove all ambiguity by having a clear definition and a clear interpretation of what "public interest" really means.
We all know in Northern Ireland of the talks involving a certain gentleman who used to be in the House and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the then leader of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. They came out of the talks and said, "Look at what we've got." One said one thing and another said the very opposite. One claimed that the talks had resulted in a securing of the Union and the other said that they were a major step towards a united Ireland. That leaves suspicion. We are talking about removing electoral fraud and about a register that will be involved in the election of representatives to Stormont, Westminster and local government. Therefore, it must have integrity and the community must have confidence in it.
Recently, we heard that prosecutions had been withdrawn because it was not in the public interest to continue with them. What does it all mean? The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) touched on this a moment ago, because we did try to find out what the words "public interest" meant. We could not have a debate about that here; we were not allowed a debate. Therefore, it is important to get crystal clear what we are talking about. The Secretary of State will be given power and he has to be satisfied that the public interest is met. Surely, on behalf of the electorate of Northern Ireland and through their parliamentarians here, we should nail what the public interest really means.
I ask the Minister not to go to the wire. As was suggested by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I make an appeal for a relevant change to be brought forward in the other place to satisfy the reasonable demands that have been made. I trust that the Minister accepts that we are also talking in good faith and that the Government could give way on the rational and reasonable demands that we are making.
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