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Lord Cope of Berkeley: I rise briefly to support the amendment. We have heard that the Government have been anomaly spotting and have discovered one particular anomaly, which is the subject of this Bill. However, I believe that my noble friend has spotted another anomaly of potential importance. It is only of potential importance if the restriction on members of the legislature of any country or territory outside the Commonwealth, or permission for Members of the New Zealand Parliament and so on to sit in our Parliament, arises. It is quite likely that it will arise if the Government believe that it is real enough to extend
Viscount Cranborne: I support this amendment. My noble friend has also done a service to the Committee by raising this matter. After all, if those who object to this Bill suggest that where one is a member of two sovereign parliaments there is a conflict of interest, how much greater is the conflict if the person concerned is a Minister in either a sovereign parliament or an assembly which is subsidiary to it? Therefore, the basic objections must apply in spades. Surely, if only as a matter of degree, the noble Lord will see that here there is an objection in principle, and I hope that he will acknowledge that in his reply.
As a spin-off to this particular amendment, perhaps the Minister can tell the Committee whether it is theoretically possible for a Minister in the Irish Government to be a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: Perhaps the Minister can say whether he finds it even sensible to consider rejecting this amendment which prevents the possible entry of a Minister when the House of Commons Disqualification Act excludes, for example, members of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, the Staff Commission for Wales and the Child Support Appeals Tribunal for Northern Ireland. It is extraordinary that no one is worried about excluding those people but is anxious to include people who have no relevance whatever to the interests of the country.
Lord Rogan: I should like to speak to Amendment No. 7A. In so doing I should like to make a few general remarks about this piece of legislation. I, too, am against the entire Bill. However, I hope that that does not preclude me from explaining my particular objections to parts of the Bill as it passes through Committee. I made clear my objections to the Bill during Second Reading in July, and my view has not changed. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, I again ask whether the Bill is still important for the so-called choreography in Northern Ireland.
I was pleased to hear earlier the assurances given by the Minister that it is not within the Belfast agreement. Just as one cannot cherry pick that agreement, one cannot add to it without the full agreement of all its signatories. As it stands, Clause 1 would amend the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 and permit members of the legislature and Ministers of the Government of Ireland to sit in another place and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are all aware that potentially only a small group of individuals could ever benefit from this extension, and probably they would all be in the same party. Amendment No. 7A is designed to ensure that those who hold office in the Government of the Republic of Ireland as Ministers,
Why do I wish to do so? One returns to the question of a potential conflict of interest. To sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the House of Commons and the European Parliament may be a demanding task; it may not allow one to devote as much time as one wants to each, but it does not give rise to a conflict of interest. Any person, however, who sits in a devolved, national and supranational assembly can do so knowing that the interests that he represents are the same. But the same cannot be true of a person who seeks election to two sovereign national parliaments, or to a sovereign national assembly and, simultaneously, to a devolved assembly of another sovereign nation.
I oppose the clause in its entirety. This amendment may be insufficient. However, like the noble and learned Lord's description of this measure on Second Reading as a modest Bill, this amendment is modest. It aims to remove the inevitable glaring conflict of interest which will arise and is completely consistent, at least with respect to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Minister will not listen to the views of those who oppose this clause in its entirety, I urge him to consider what I term my modest amendment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): These amendments would create a new disqualification from membership of the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly. Amendments Nos. 6 and 39 would remove the existing right of some members of Commonwealth legislatures to stand for election and sit as Members of the House of Commons and the Assembly. Amendment No. 7A has a slightly different effect: it seeks to prevent Irish Ministers or committee chairmen from serving as Members of the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Bill, with the amendments that we have tabled, will disqualify Irish Ministers and the chairmen and deputy chairman of Irish parliamentary committees from holding office as Northern Ireland Ministers or as chairmen or deputy chairmen of statutory committees. I hope that Members of the Committee will take that point carefully into account. We believe that our amendments are well directed and precise in their effect. The Bill is designed to prevent conflicts of interest that could otherwise occur if a Northern Ireland Minister or chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee of the Assembly also held office as a Minister in the Irish Government or chairman or deputy chairman of an Irish parliamentary committee.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: A minute ago the Minister said that the Bill as proposed would not allow a Minister in the Dail to be a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He went on to talk about the chairmen and deputy chairmen of subject committees also being disqualified. However, is that not subject to the amendments that the noble Lord is yet to propose?
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: Surely, it is quite wrong to describe a Bill in certain terms before we have reached amendments which are found way down the Marshalled List. The Minister has given a completely incorrect description of the Bill.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Technically, the noble Lord is absolutely right. We have not yet reached those amendments, but they are before the Committee to consider. We are trying to make progress with this issue. I accept that the noble Lord has a particular view. We have tried to meet some of the earlier concerns with regard to the legislation. The amendments reflect those concerns. The same conflict of interest would not apply if a Minister of a government of another country were to sit as a Member of the House of Commons or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Existing legislation does not prevent that.
Members of the Committee have asked questions to which I shall try to provide a response. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked whether a Minister in the Irish Government could be a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The answer is yes, but not as a member of the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that that clarifies that point.
This group of amendments takes us no further. We have met most of the points with later amendments. Although I understand some of the concerns surrounding this part of the Bill, I can see no good reason for the amendment to be pursued.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I have to say that I do not find the Minister's reply particularly persuasive. But we have been over this ground and he has returned to the core argument that has been deployed throughout the proceedings on the Bill. Obviously I am not making any progress with our point, which is shared by a number of Members of the Committee, about the conflict of loyalties and about undue influence in this most extraordinary Bill. In those circumstances, I shall not seek to press the amendment to a Division. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: Perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to reply to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. He made some reference to it, but I do not think that he replied very fully. The noble Lord asked about the contrast between the position of the European Union and the situation that we are now moving towards vis-a-vis the Republic of Ireland.
In the debate on Amendment No. 1, the solution of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, to the lack of symmetry that so offends the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is that we should open up membership of the House of Commons to Members of all the parliaments of the European Union. A Member should be allowed to be a member of the Bundestag or the Assemblee as well as of the House of Commons. That is restricted at the moment. The Disqualifications Act specifically disqualifies people from being Members of the House of Commons if they are Members of a European Union legislation.
However, that raises the question why that is not judged to be discriminatory legislation and how it is consistent, as is stated on the front of the Bill, with the Human Rights Act 1998 and with convention rights. I almost raised this point at the start of Committee stage, but I thought it would be rather disruptive before we even reached the first amendment. As it has been raised once already, but not fully answered by the noble and learned Lord, it would be a service to the Committee if he could give us a fuller explanation of how the clause is not discriminatory and how it complies with convention rights. Obviously this is a matter that has been fully considered.
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