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Lord Cope of Berkeley : I assume that most of your Lordships will agree that these are relatively unlikely possibilities being provided for in this block of amendments. Both ministerial speakers in the debates today have based their recommendations for this Bill on the idea that the whole thing is an unlikely possibility. It is we who believe that the opportunities offered by the Bill may lead to very serious consequences. If we are to correct anomalies, those addressed by this block of amendments seem to be extremely interesting and should certainly be considered.

I am particularly attracted to Amendment No. 13. I believe that the extracts from the speech of Mr Simon Hughes in another place were particularly forceful, not least because of their origin and speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. It would be particularly damaging if that particular loophole was not closed and an attempt was made to use it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have had quite a lengthy discourse on this particular group of amendments. I am not quite sure that they were worth it, but obviously I have to respect the Members of the Committee and the way in which they address the amendments.

The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, really gave the game away when he said that much of what they sought to deal with was theoretical. I felt that throughout much of the discussion. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, raised an interesting point about a conflict of interest if Irish Ministers were to hold ministerial office in the UK Government. One can accept that such a potential for conflict could exist in a particular circumstance, but I do not believe that it is necessary to legislate to prevent it because the existing protections, in our view, are more than sufficient.

These amendments seek to add additional protection against potential conflicts. All the offices to which the amendments refer, unlike those in the Northern Ireland Assembly to which the Bill applies, are offices filled by election or appointment by the

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Prime Minister or the House of Commons. They are free to choose not to elect or appoint to the office a member of the Irish legislature or the Irish Government.

As regards the Northern Ireland Ministers and the chairman and deputy chairman of the statutory committees of the Assembly, those posts are filled by the d'Hondt system which allocates posts according to the number of seats held by parties in the Assembly. We believe that the provisions in the Bill are necessary to prevent a possible conflict of interest where the same individual holds offices as specified in the Bill in both the Assembly and the Irish legislature. Clearly, the same situation does not apply to appointments made by the Prime Minister or the House of Commons. For those reasons, we believe that the proposed amendments--no doubt well intentioned in their strange way--are completely unnecessary.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I am sorry that the Minister thought that to spend 15 or 17 minutes after he had spoken was rather a long time for such amendments. No doubt he would take an even dimmer view of the length of time that the House of Commons took considering the Bill. It was forced to sit all night because of the way in which the Bill was presented. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, called that "scrutiny". To most of us it seemed farcical. It was put forward with such a timetable without an adequate reason being offered.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. In moving the amendment, he said--I paraphrase--that he thought they were dealing with somewhat of a theoretical situation. That was the context in which I made my observation.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I believe that they were dealing with a theoretical possibility, but, as Mr Simon Hughes said in another place, the whole Bill deals with a theoretical possibility. It is one which the noble Viscount, my honourable friends and I hope will never come about. Our objection to the Bill is that we do not know what is theoretical and what is real. We do not know what is around the corner because the Government will give no explanation of why this mysterious Bill which no one wants is being put forward. In constitutional terms, it is an outrage that the Bill is being put forward.

On a previous amendment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, accused me of believing in conspiracies. I have every reason to do so when I see the policy document put forward by Sinn Fein and when the Bill was justified simply in terms of administrative tidying up. I could give Ministers thousands of anomalies in our taxation legislation, some of which I created, and I should be delighted if they would tidy them all up tomorrow. When an anomaly exists, it is not normal that Ministers rush forward and publish something almost on Christmas Eve so that political parties have no communication

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through official channels nor an opportunity to consult outside bodies. The Bill was introduced in January, just after the House of Commons returned--

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I think that he over-eggs the argument. Yes, the Bill was published in December and there was a full month for it to be commented on by other parties. I understand that the parties in Northern Ireland were made fully aware of the publication of the Bill and there was that period in which they could have passed extra comment on it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: The Minister says that there was a full month. The Bill was published three days before Christmas, on the day when Parliament rose and everyone went off on holiday. No one was going to be aware of press releases and publications between 22nd December and 2nd or 3rd January. The Bill then had its Second Reading and Committee stage--there was no Report stage--in the first week of Parliament's return. I do not believe that that is adequate consultation.

Viscount Cranborne: I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He had enormous experience of introducing and promoting legislation when he was a Minister in another place. Did he ever introduce a Bill purely for administrative convenience and without explaining to another place whether there was a demand for it? Did he explain whether he had taken soundings on such a Bill and, if he had, during his explanation for introducing it, did he fail to say who was in favour of it and why?

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I must confess that I introduced many measures for which there was no demand--indeed, there was positive opposition! However, I hope that I have always tried to the best of my ability to explain why I thought a measure was necessary even if the rest of the world did not. It seems to me that either you explain why something is necessary or you explain who wants it. We have received no explanation of the Bill and to hear it described as tidying up an anomaly, when the anomaly has been no obstacle to anything that has happened so far in the real world, merely fuels one's suspicions that other things are going on and that the Bill is designed only as part of the appeasement of Sinn Fein/IRA that has characterised what the Government have done.

We are moving into a world in which morality and common sense are suspended, in which Ministers say, "We don't know who fired a rocket at MI6", and in which we preach to other countries about what they should do about people who have abused human rights. What on earth is the meaning of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law when we do nothing to arrest those who torture and knee-cap people? The European Convention on Human Rights and its prohibition on torture has no meaning when applied to governments. In this country, it has meaning only when applied to

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the action of people such as members of the IRA. It is a farce for people on the Benches opposite to preach the merits of human rights and of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law when they do nothing about the right of people not to be tortured by the IRA. They set aside the judgments of courts and release prisoners, yet preach to the new democratically-elected President of Serbia how he should deal with so-called men of violence in his own country. However, I must not digress.

The Minister did not deal in any way with the question raised by my noble friend Lord Cranborne about reproduction of the Scottish question and the creation of two classes of members, or, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, the creation of three classes of members.

We are not getting very far. However, I believe that Amendment No. 13 is compelling. I very much agree with the words of Simon Hughes in another place:

    "In our view, no one should be able to hold simultaneously ministerial office in the Irish Government and ministerial office in the British Government or in the Northern Ireland Government ... There is a strong conflict of interests. Someone who is a member of the Government in one country cannot simultaneously and without conflicts of interest arising be a member of the Government of another sovereign country".--[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/00; col. 493.]

It is Mr Hughes' amendment that I put forward. I propose to divide the Committee on that amendment, and I assume that in so doing I shall have the support of the Liberal Democrats.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: Before the noble Lord sits down, he has endeavoured, quite successfully, to goad me into rising to speak. The reason I have not spoken to this matter is that earlier today the Conservative Front Bench protested about the length of Committee stages. This evening we have been subjected to filibuster on the part of the Conservative Benches. I am certain that my honourable friend in another place would not want his arguments to be prayed in aid in that filibuster, and that is the reason for my silence.

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