I beg to move,
That for a period of suspension of one year commencing on 1st April 2005 the Resolution of the House of
The motion stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It relates to the allowances paid to Members of this House who choose not to take up their seats and provides that payment of these should be suspended for 12 months. The Government propose this change in recognition of the concern felt on both sides of the House about the involvement of the Provisional IRA in the Northern bank robbery that took place just before Christmas.
I will not reiterate the points made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he reported to the House the conclusion reached by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland that the Provisional IRA had been behind the Northern bank robbery. Nor will I list the other crimes that the Independent Monitoring Commission concluded had been the work of that same organisation. The House is well aware of the issues. It is clear that this organisation continues to engage in serious criminality and that this criminality has grave implications for our attempts to restore sufficient trust to enable a power-sharing Government to be restored in Northern Ireland.
The Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced this measure in the light of the Northern bank robbery. Does he think that the same rule should now apply given Sinn Fein's disgraceful behaviour this week in suggesting that it might shoot people who carried out murder in Northern Ireland?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in condemning outright that extraordinary and abhorrent statement, which is a dreadful stain on everybody concerned with Northern Ireland. That underlines the importance of this motion.
In view of what the Leader of the House just said—I agree with every word of it—how can he possibly defend rules that would still allow, even after the passing of this motion, terrorist sympathisers and supporters to come to this House and to have facilities within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster?
Let me remind the House that until 1997 there was no bar on Members who had not taken the Oath entering the precincts and having access to facilities and services. I can see no logic in the Conservatives' suggestion that we should bar Sinn Fein Members from the Palace of Westminster now, given that not once during their 18 years in government did they attempt to withdraw the right of access from Sinn Fein. Long before the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday agreement, Gerry Adams, as an elected Member, was allowed the right to enter the precincts and to use the services of the House. We are now in a different situation, since the Good Friday agreement, whereby Sinn Fein has been signed up, in name at least, to a peaceful and democratic path. That is the difference.
Surely the Leader of the House will acknowledge that up until 1997 Sinn Fein Members stood on a clear platform of abstention and said that they would not come here. The problem arose when they changed their policy in 1997 and said that they wanted to come here but not to take their seats.
They have not changed their policy of refusing to take their seats in the House. In managing this difficult situation, which I hope the whole House will want to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in doing, we have to bear in mind the duties of the House and my duties as Leader of the House, as well as the necessity to try to deal with criminality and the equal necessity to take every opportunity to lock in all the political forces in Northern Ireland on a democratic path.
I appreciate that careful distinctions have to be drawn here, and it is sometimes difficult to do so, but I think that the Leader of the House was mistaken when he said that all that needed to be done was to remove the money to which the persons returned to serve in the House who had not taken the Oath had access. That is not entirely accurate. Yes, they could have come into the House, although they did not have offices assigned to them. However, they have access on those terms to offices and, indeed, to facilities that a member of the public would not have. The position for people who had not taken the Oath was that they could enter in the same way as a member of the public, but the resolution that has been mentioned gave them additional access and offices. The Leader of the House may not have appreciated those distinctions and may now want to revisit them.
I shall explain why the Government are adopting this position instead of seeking to bar access entirely. This a very serious motion. It will deprive Sinn Fein MPs of £439,542, on the last recorded figures. That is a considerable amount of money that was being claimed and used for staffing allowances, additional costs allowances, incidental expenses provision and travel by Members and staff. This is a very serious decision, and I should have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would support the Government in taking it forward.
I support the motion. At a British-Irish parliamentary body meeting earlier this week, there was very strong condemnation of the IRA, not least from Irish Deputies, one after another of whom bitterly criticised the criminality in the organisation and its betrayal of the Good Friday agreement. In supporting the motion, is it not important to recognise that Sinn Fein was elected with the electorate voting for it in the knowledge that Sinn Fein MPs would not take their seats in the House of Commons? We must be very careful, now and in future, not to give Sinn Fein Members any idea of being martyrs and playing to their electorate along those lines.
If I may say so, those are wise words of advice for the House. There is a careful balance to be struck, and it is important that we do so, notwithstanding the individual points of view that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House may have. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is well respected in that role, has made the judgment—and I fully support him—that we should withdraw these privileges, but at the same time we should allow elected Members of Parliament to serve their own constituents. As I shall explain, that is precisely what our decision and motion are designed to do.
I listened with care to the reply that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend David Winnick. Does he accept that the support allowances paid to Sinn Fein MPs are in order for them to represent the constituents who elected them? Are we not on the rather dangerous ground of denying facilities for those people to be represented in a parliamentary way by their MPs, whether they take their seats or not?
That is precisely the balance to be struck. My hon. Friend again asserts the primacy of elected Members of Parliament in being able to represent their constituents and the right of those constituents to have their views represented. That is why, under this decision, they will not be barred from access to the House. They and their staff will still be able to use the offices, free post, and telephone facilities, and have access to the Library and to catering, in order to carry out their responsibilities to their constituents, some of whom may have elected them and some of whom may have voted for other parties. I am trying to advance a parliamentary point here.
It is nice that a voice from Northern Ireland who represents a majority of Unionists can finally be heard. Jeremy Corbyn was not even here at the beginning of the debate, but I have been sitting here since the House commenced.
Is it not strange that the Leader of the House's reason for doing this, which he is explaining from the Dispatch Box, is not mentioned in his motion? The only description of these people is that they did not take their seats. Are the Government afraid of naming these people and the crime that they committed, which has been verified by the Independent Monitoring Commission? A commission that the Government set up found this out and exposed it. Why is not that mentioned in the motion?
It is not for me, as Leader of the House of Commons, to name the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It is a matter for the police, who are mounting an investigation in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on behalf of the Government, takes a close interest.
I must now make progress because many hon. Members wish to speak and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will reply fully to the debate.
Hon. Members will recall that the Independent Monitoring Commission made clear in its report that, had it been reporting when the Assembly was sitting, it would have recommended the exclusion of Sinn Fein Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive. In the absence of an Assembly, the commission's power to make recommendations is more limited and it therefore recommended that the Secretary of State should consider taking financial measures against Sinn Fein in the context of the suspended Assembly. My right hon. Friend has made clear his intention to do just that.
The House will, in due course, have the opportunity to debate that issue further in the context of a direction made by my right hon. Friend to suspend the payment of Northern Ireland party grants for a further 12 months. The commission also mentioned in its report other public money paid to Sinn Fein. Although it was outside the commission's scope to make recommendations about that, its comments have nevertheless led the Government to conclude that it was right that the House should have the opportunity to consider imposing a similar restriction on allowances paid to Sinn Fein Members of this House.
The motion before us today is an expression of the House's profound disapproval of the activities of the Provisional IRA and the responsibility that Sinn Fein shares for those activities in the estimation—that is the important point—of the Independent Monitoring Commission. However, the motion also takes account of the fundamental right of citizens in constituencies that have returned Sinn Fein Members to be represented.
The Leader of the House mentioned the sanctions to be taken against Sinn Fein as a party. He knows that, when the House passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we made an exception for Northern Ireland political parties on accountability and foreign funding on the ground that some were all-Ireland parties. We had Sinn Fein in mind at the time. The regulations in the Republic have now changed and parties there are accountable. Will the Government therefore consider repealing the relevant provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act?
The House has just renewed the measure, but the Government are in discussion with the Republic of Ireland Government and we will continue to monitor the position.
The balance involved is difficult to strike and it gives me no pleasure to bring forward the motion because I believe that every Member elected to this House should take his or her seat in the Chamber. Not to do so is a denial of the representation that their constituents have a right to expect, whether those constituents voted for the elected Member or not—indeed, whether they voted at all. That is important. Those in the constituencies of the four affected Members, even those who did not vote Sinn Fein, have a right to normal parliamentary representation. That is why we are taking away the £430,000-odd but leaving in place those Members' right to help their constituents through the facilities of the House.
Although we all acknowledge the political position of Irish republicanism, the Government believe that Sinn Fein Members should take their seats and participate fully in the democratic process, partly because we want them to be committed to exclusively democratic means and partly because their constituents have a simple right to that representation.
When the House voted in 2001 to grant allowances to Members who chose not to take their seats, it did that in recognition of the importance of those Members' fulfilling their duty to constituents. It is important and fair to say that the House was also mindful of the progress along the path to democracy made by Sinn Fein at that time. We all want continuously to encourage that progress and the motion is designed to do that.
It is the view of the British and Irish Governments and of international opinion that the progress has faltered and slipped backwards because of the activities of the Provisional IRA. That is what has changed since the House made its decision in 2001. However, neither the duty of Sinn Fein Members to their constituents nor those constituents' rights have changed, which is why I believe that the motion achieves the right balance.
The Leader of the House mentioned international opinion. Is he aware of an opinion poll that the Belfast Telegraph published today? It gives the Democratic Unionist party 28 per cent. and Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party 20 per cent., with the Ulster Unionist party down on 16 per cent. That marks a significant decline in popular support for Sinn Fein-IRA from 26.3 per cent. in the European elections—
I did not see the opinion poll, but I should think that the hon. Gentleman, as a representative from Northern Ireland, wants Sinn Fein and the important constituency that it represents, whatever its rating in the polls, to be involved in and committed to the political democratic process. That is in the interests of us all.
Surely it is the duty of those elected to the House to serve in it. Those who decline to fulfil their democratic duties do not deserve the sort of support that they will continue to have even after the motion has been passed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but several factors must be carefully balanced. First, the four Members are elected just as he is and just as I am. Their constituents have a right to representation just as his do. He represents them well and I try to do that for my constituents. We are imposing an important sanction—withdrawing nearly £440,000-worth of expenses, which help those Members to represent their constituents. However, access to the House's facilities remains to enable them to perform their duties.
Is not one of the problems that Gerry Adams and his colleagues have never made sufficient use of the opportunity to visit the House and enable the rest of us, who disagree with many of their positions, to contact them, nobble them and press differing views? They took the money and ran. There is therefore a case for removing the money, although the argument about the facilities for serving constituents—that does not always have to be done by them but could be done by people whom they appoint—is pertinent.
I understand that point, but my hon. Friend will understand the republican view on whether Members should take their seats in a United Kingdom Parliament, although we disagree with it. In the past few years, as a result of Government decisions and the leadership that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown, there has been, until recently, increasing political mainstreaming of Sinn Fein in the democratic process. It is important not to lose sight of the opportunity to re-engage with that.
I know that some will argue that we should go further than today's motion and deny Sinn Fein the use of facilities in the Palace of Westminster—indeed, Sir Patrick Cormack and others have done that. However much we may disapprove of the activities of Sinn Fein, and however much we disapprove of the recent criminality of especially the Provisional IRA, the Government's view is that we should not give the appearance of denying the rights of the electorate. Whether we like it or not, that is how a decision to deny them access to their offices would be perceived.
I also believe that a decision to deny Sinn Fein access to facilities here would put the House out of step with the devolved institutions that many Members have tried so hard to construct and sustain in Northern Ireland. The Government have signalled their intention to renew the financial penalties imposed on Sinn Fein in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly, but all Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to have access to the building and its facilities, and neither Unionist nor nationalist parties have suggested that that should be withdrawn.
For those reasons, I urge hon. Members to reject amendment (b). I also urge the House to reject amendment (a). I can understand the argument for simply withdrawing the allowances and considering at a later date whether they should be reinstated, but the Government believe that imposing a suspension of one year sends a better message and a clear time frame, thus encouraging the republican movement to put its house in order rather than rejecting its Members from Westminster.
No, actually, it is not a sunset clause in the sense that the Conservatives propose for the terrorism Bill, because that Bill would die with their sunset clause. It is much more akin to the Government's proposal to renew the order at the end of the year.
We will, of course, consider an extension to the suspension if circumstances do not change. That is an important point, which I want to underline and repeat: we will consider an extension to the suspension if circumstances do not change.
I tried to intervene earlier when the Leader of the House was drawing a distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA in relation to his reference to the activities of Sinn Fein and, subsequently, to the criminality of the IRA. Will he take into account what the Independent Monitoring Commission said, in that it made clear that the criminal activities of republicans were known and approved by leading members of Sinn Fein? The distinction that he draws is therefore not upheld by the IMC, which is quite clear that leading Sinn Fein members knew and approved of the Northern bank raid. He is therefore wrong to draw the distinction, and that is highly important in relation to his point about Sinn Fein Members as persons who are elected as if they were normal politicians. That point has been lost.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point of view, but as the Leader of the House of Commons I have a responsibility, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to take a balanced view and to assert the principles of the House while bearing in mind the need for further progress to cement in the peace settlement.
I am disappointed that the Leader of the House will not accept amendment (a). Can he tell the House what criteria will be used to judge whether these allowances will automatically be given back next year? Will a criterion be whether there is a move in the peace process, so called? How will he judge it? Alternatively, will it just be an automatic one-year suspension? It is important that we know what will determine whether this money is given back next year.
First, we will want to take advice from the Independent Monitoring Commission. That is crucial. I am sure that my hon. Friend would regard verified evidence of an end to criminality, a commitment to an intensification of the peace process and an absolute commitment to the democratic process as reasonable.
I am sure that my hon. Friend and others who have properly pressed me on this matter will also understand that we are light years away from where we were. Last year, four people were killed as a result of terrorist activity. In the bad old days, 497 people were killed. Unemployment in Northern Ireland is now lower than it has been for 30 years. More tourists are going to Northern Ireland than there are residents there. The situation has been transformed. What we need to do, in part by keeping Sinn Fein in the democratic process and the whole republican movement committed to it, and in part by continuously seeking to work to achieve that, is to create a new future for Northern Ireland in which peace, stability and economic prosperity will be locked in for good.
Is there not a danger of losing the wider picture? While the IRA can claim that it was never defeated militarily, politically, it and Sinn Fein were defeated. Northern Ireland is as much part of the United Kingdom—of course, that is the wish of the majority—as it was before the IRA started its war of terror. Would not it be wise to recognise that, if anything, the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom has been strengthened by the Good Friday agreement and the right of consent that is recognised as such?
I would prefer to put it in a different way: the Good Friday agreement has locked in bitter opponents of the Union with those most fervent supporters of the Union in a common democratic endeavour in Northern Ireland. That is the prize as a result of the leadership that has been given by the Prime Minister, and we must continuously seek to regain that prize and make sure that it is fully implemented and cemented in.
In a place that cherishes the fundamental principles of democracy, it is deeply dispiriting to have to impose penalties on Members who have not lived up to those principles, but I believe that this motion is a just and proportionate response. By withdrawing public subsidy for Sinn Fein Members, it underscores the disapproval of all true democrats for what has happened. I commend it to the House.
I beg to move amendment (a), in line 1, leave out 'for a period of suspension of one year commencing on' and insert the words 'as from', instead thereof.
This debate is a direct result of the refusal by Sinn Fein-IRA to end all forms of paramilitary and criminal activity. Seven years after the Belfast agreement, they have still to commit themselves fully to what that agreement calls
"exclusively democratic and peaceful means".
That is why we have had no devolution in Northern Ireland since October 2002. It is why the Government have brought forward this motion today.
Last year, Sinn Fein Members claimed almost £500,000. They did not speak here, question Ministers, vote or table written questions on behalf of their constituents. Since the beginning of 2002, they have been able to use the facilities of the Commons that are available to right hon. and hon. Members who take their seats and do the job.
The Leader of the House misunderstood the intervention that I made earlier. I was supporting the Government's position, which is quite unusual for me at the moment. My argument is that not only do Sinn Fein Members not do many of the things that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but they do not attend the Building so that the rest of us can have access to and discussions with them. I have talked to all leaders of Northern Ireland political parties, but only once in a great number of years of being interested in Northern Ireland have I had an opportunity to have a private conversation with Gerry Adams. That particular avenue led to some benefit.
The Sinn Fein Members should have been here. They have not made use of that opportunity, so it should now be removed from them.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Sinn Fein Members have not lived up to their democratic responsibilities. In effect, we are granting them rent-free, taxpayer-funded, fully-staffed offices, which seem to be used for propaganda purposes.
The original motion put forward by the Government was always unacceptable to my party and to many others in the House. We have two objections: the first is on the issue of principle; the second is on whether the tactical concession was ever really right. The official Opposition have always believed that it is simply wrong to allow Members who refuse to take their seats to enjoy the same rights as Members who do. We echo the views of the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who said:
"I feel certain that those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the many benefits and facilities that are now available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members.—[Hansard, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
Later that year, she met the Sinn Fein MPs and upheld her decision. She said:
"I pointed out that my decision does not discriminate against Sinn Fein: it applies equally to any Members not taking their seats for any reason. Those who do not take up their democratic responsibilities cannot have access to the facilities at Westminster that are made available to assist Members".—[Hansard, 4 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 487.]
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Members who have been elected have a duty to represent their constituents? The Sinn Fein Members always made it clear that they would not take their seats here, as they do not believe that the British Parliament should ultimately have jurisdiction, I suppose. They seek to represent their constituents at a local level, however, through letters and so on. By taking away the funding, we are punishing their constituents. The message to their constituents is that we are not prepared to provide the financial wherewithal to employ staff to undertake the work that we all employ staff to undertake on behalf of our constituents.
May I put an alternative view to the hon. Gentleman? He and I agree about hardly anything politically, but he would take up a constituent's case with Ministers and in correspondence, and he would take up issues with public authorities. The point is, though, that if he is not satisfied, he will take up the matter here. He will question a Minister, table written questions and speak in debates. He uses his unique privilege—for it is both a legal and a parliamentary privilege—to stand up for his constituents. The truth is that a Member of Parliament cannot be effective unless he does that.
We do not believe in associate status. We do not believe that there is such a thing as an associate Member of Parliament—a second-class Member of Parliament. If a Member is elected, his democratic responsibility is to take his seat and do the job that he was elected to do.
It was suggested a moment ago that this was some form of punishment, and the word "sanction" has been used. Privileges and benefits above and beyond the rights of Members who do not take their seats were granted to these Members. Surely it is wrong to call this a punishment; we are simply withdrawing a benefit.
I thank my hon. Friend for expressing that view. I am rather worried about the idea of using the way in which the House arranges its allowances and office facilities as a Government sanction that can be used either to punish Members or to reward them in some way. That should really be a matter for the House. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in charge of today's debate, but—I do not know whether other Members agree with this—I feel that, in respect of our facilities and the terms on which we are Members of Parliament, we should all be equal in this place. The essential fact is that these benefits and facilities are available to those who are elected and then take their seats.
Is not the essential fact that these alleged Members do not regard themselves as Members of Parliament? They are fantasists. They consider themselves to be the legitimate Government of the whole of Ireland. That is the problem.
Is not the real issue that if people who happen to espouse—quite mistakenly, in my view—the concept that the structure that we have is entirely unacceptable manage to attract the majority of the votes in a democratic election, we must accept that that election has taken place? The question with which we must deal is how we can represent that fact, while not providing large sums of money for all sorts of other activities. I was against giving these people the money in the first place, but it seems to me that there must be some kind of recognition that the electors—mistakenly, foolishly, stupidly and sometimes criminally—elected them. There is a median line to be found, and the House must try to find it.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We should also bear in mind that at the time when the elections took place in 2001—the House's decision was made shortly after that—the atmosphere seemed to be one of encouragement. Since then—I am sure that this applies to electors in Northern Ireland as well as those of us who are present today—we have observed something that is, as the Leader of the House said, rather dispiriting. Over the past three years, at the same time as claiming taxpayers' money here, Sinn Fein has remained linked to an armed and active terrorist organisation, the Provisional IRA. Those are not just my words. The Republic's Defence Minister, Mr. Willie O'Dea, went much further. The British Government often use the words "inextricably linked"; he said:
"We are no longer prepared to accept the farce that Sinn Fein and the IRA are separate. They are indivisible".
We have no reason to disagree with that.
The Justice Minister in the Republic, Mr. McDowell, has named three senior members of Sinn Fein—including two Members of the House of Commons—as also being senior figures on the IRA's so-called army council. I am not in a position to dispute that either. We have ample evidence of the extent to which the IRA controls a vast criminal empire to finance its operations. We now know that at the same time as members of Sinn Fein were involved in negotiations that could have led to their being Ministers in the Government in Northern Ireland, the IRA was planning the biggest bank raid in British history.
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that yesterday's newspapers quoted the head of the police in Northern Ireland as saying that he agreed that the two Members of the House of Commons were members of the IRA's army council.
Is not the nub of the issue the fact that these people are associated with, and have probably been involved in, criminal and terrorist activities? Is it not rather paradoxical that later today we shall impose control orders on those who are probably not terrorists, while giving all the privileges of the House to those who probably are?
According to the Irish Prime Minister, the bank raid would have been known about at the highest level of Sinn Fein. As one former senior member of the IRA said yesterday, if that were not the case it would be like Britain going to war with Iraq without the Prime Minister knowing.
The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, is in no doubt about where the responsibility for the bank robbery lies; nor is his counterpart in the Republic, the Garda commissioner Mr. Conroy. In blaming the IRA for the Northern bank robbery and a number of other recent robberies in Northern Ireland, the Independent Monitoring Commission was emphatic:
"In our view Sinn Fein must bear its share of responsibility for all the incidents. Some of its senior members, who are also . . . members of PIRA, were involved in sanctioning the series of robberies."
Since then, we have seen evidence of money laundering, in addition to the intimidation, beatings, shootings and murders that continue in nationalist areas. That was illustrated recently by the brutal murder of Robert McCartney by members of the IRA following a row in a Belfast bar.
I, for one, pay tribute to the family and friends of Mr. McCartney for their courage in standing up to the IRA in their efforts to secure justice, and I join those who have expressed their utter disgust at the IRA's offer to shoot those whom they deem responsible. How that contrasts with the dignity of the family who want to see the guilty men brought to court and subjected to due process!
As the McCartney family have said, they want justice, not revenge. They want people to go to the police, not engage in the law of the wild west. Yet even today, despite the warm words of Sinn Fein, we learn that the family still believe that witnesses are being intimidated. Last week, Sinn Fein announced that it was expelling seven members in connection with that incident. What normal political party has to expel a group of its members for involvement in murder?
Obviously, the killing was atrocious and appalling, but does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that at last week's Sinn Fein conference the Sinn Fein leadership made it very clear that people should come forward and go to the police so that the due process of law could take place?
I know from past debates with the hon. Gentleman that he reads The Guardian. He should read its front page today.
In the light of all that, we welcome the Government's decision to take action against Sinn Fein Members. We opposed the original decision to grant these concessions in December 2001, and we argued for its reversal following the suspension of the Assembly and Executive in October 2002.
In our view, however, the motion does not go far enough. We do not believe that the suspension should be time limited to only 12 months. What is the justification for that? We take the view that Sinn Fein Members should lose access to all, not just some, of the facilities at Westminster that the Government granted to them in December 2001. Amendment (a) would remove the sunset clause and make the removal of facilities and allowances permanent; amendment (b) includes reference to the office and other facilities as well as the allowances.
In justifying the decision of December 2001, Mr. Cook, the then Leader of the House, was adamant that the concessions were justified by progress made in the peace process. Today we can see that, because of Sinn Fein-IRA, there has been no devolution for two and a half years and there has been a succession of breaches of the agreement and the ceasefire. On the Government's own logic, we should be reversing the changes that were brought about in December 2001.
I would be opposed to Sinn Fein, even if the organisation were not so closely linked with the IRA. I consider it a totalitarian organisation, and heaven forbid if it were ever to rule in Ireland. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a danger, particularly when Sinn Fein is rightly on the defensive over the brutal murder of Robert McCartney, of giving the organisation a sort of martyr status? It makes it easier for Sinn Fein Members to portray themselves to the electors of Northern Ireland as having been penalised by British parliamentarians and all the rest of it. In that light, is not the Leader of the House achieving the right balance in the motion?
It is certainly important to strike the right balance, but I believe that amendments (a) and (b) are required in order to send out the right message. Since the general election of 2001 and the time when the changes were made, we have not seen the full commitment that we expected to see from Sinn Fein-IRA, but experienced the problems that I have already outlined. In those circumstances, simply saying that some of the allowances will be removed for a short period is not the firm response that we would expect from the House. If we were to accept the amendments to the motion, it would highlight for the benefit of Northern Ireland voters what the House thinks about the response to the concessions that were made in the 2001 resolution.
Is not one of the main problems the fact that the Government have not named the organisation that we are talking about? Is not Rev. Ian Paisley right that it would be much better if we said that we are making these changes in response to the actions of Sinn Fein-IRA? I believe that it would be much easier if we did that. Because we are not saying that, we have to deal with a very difficult lacuna. What do we do about people who do not want to come to the House for reasons that might, at some future time, be acceptable? I cannot think of an occasion at the moment, but some people have taken that view in the past. Should we not have pressed for the motion to be viewed as a specific response to what Sinn Fein-IRA has done?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. There are two points here. First, all Members should be treated equally, and they are—or they were—in the sense that elected Members who take their seats receive the benefits and those who do not take their seats do not get the benefits. That is why we opposed the original resolution in 2001, which we felt was creating two classes of Members. My right hon. Friend's suggestion would interfere with the principle that we want to maintain—that all Members are to be treated in the same way. Secondly, however, there is a strong case for a clear condemnation of the way in which Sinn Fein-IRA has behaved. I certainly agree with all the Members who have made that point. We have been very clear about that at all stages of the proceedings.
If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, it is a matter of principle for him that those who are either unable or choose not to take their seats in the House should not have office access. I presume that if it really is a matter of principle for him, those who are suspended from the House should also be denied access to their offices. [Hon. Members: "They are."] Is my understanding of his position correct?
The hon. Gentleman may not realise it, but that is already the case. It is right that Members who take up their seats in this place should have all the facilities available to them, but it is a different matter if a Member is disciplined by the House.
I urge all right hon. and hon. Members who care about the traditions of the House and who are committed to peaceful and democratic politics in these islands to support the amendments.
I want to make my position on this matter as clear as I did at the last Northern Ireland questions—I am not in favour of the motion. I have never been in favour of it for a number of reasons that I hope to explain. I am not going to vote in favour of it today. I come from a long tradition in relation to where I live and also to my family, which recognised the refusal to take or affirm an oath of allegiance as part of the nationalist or republican tradition. That is something that goes way back into Irish history and it runs very deeply in people that come from that tradition.
I immediately recognise two sets of principles, which have already been enunciated. It is an absolutely legitimate principle to say that anyone in this House or any democratic forum should have equality and that there should be only one set of rules by which people abide. I recognise that principle and I respect it as absolutely legitimate.
I am also aware of the other principle, as I have already mentioned. There is a curious pristine legitimacy about it. However, I see no pristine legitimacy in justifying a set of actions on the basis of principle, while saying, "Those are my principles; I am not breaking them; but, by the way, can I have the money on the side?" In many ways, that is what is happening here. The nationalist-republican tradition is the principle on which some Members justify not attending Parliament, yet that principle does not seem to get in the way of the allowances or advantages—financial and otherwise—that stem from Parliament.
It is difficult to have respect for a principled position—the shadow Leader of the House touched on it—when that principled position, in terms of its own definition, contaminates itself by having a hand out sideways for the money, while the principle is maintained in public. That is one of the reasons why I look upon the matter with a jaundiced eye.
There will be a lot of righteous indignation about the motion before the House. I recognise and respect that, but there will probably be little recognition of what lies at the heart of the issue—a disrespect for the institutions of Parliament shown by those who will take the money, but not come to put their case on the Floor of the House. People may have different political persuasions, but they must not disrespect our political institutions. In the Northern Ireland arrangement, that disrespect means that there can be little respect between political adversaries.
I want to make several minor points. We all know the value of publicity in the run-up to a general election. How much publicity could the Labour, Conservative, Democratic Unionist, Ulster Unionist or Social Democratic and Labour parties buy for £400,000? Could they buy as much as has been secured today, in this debate, by the party at which the motion is aimed? In my view, they most certainly could not. That party will milk today's debate, making it another grievance to add the list. It seems to thrive on the grievance culture, in which this motion will become another element. Every statement and interview by that party is permeated by a sense of victimhood, and many people will consider the unprincipled decision in this matter to have been taken by this House. For that reason, too, I regard the motion with a jaundiced eye.
Secondly, I want to look beyond today's debate. I do not want to talk about bank raids or recent murders or developments in Northern Ireland. The motion is part of the process by which negotiations are progressed through deals on the side. I do not accept that a shaft of light struck the Government, individually or collectively—but including the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—and that as a result they decided to propose this motion. That decision was made in negotiations with a political party, as a side deal to the other negotiations in hand at the time.
When was the issue discussed with the Ulster Unionist, Democratic Unionist or Social Democratic and Labour parties? It was never discussed, as it belongs in the category of side deals. It is part of the goodies and sweeteners used to get and keep people on board. What effect does such a deal have on the real negotiations about very serious issues, or on the future? What will be its effect on those parties that negotiate in good faith? The harsh reality is that negotiations on Northern Ireland over the past seven years could provide a template, usable by any country in the world, for resolving conflicts by removing all the middle ground. Until the fault line in the negotiating process is recognised, the difficulties will continue and increase.
I was interested to hear various hon. Members say that the political process and mandate required that the party at which the motion is aimed has some presence at Westminster. I am one of those who have fought elections in which men with guns have stood at the polling station door, telling people that they could not, and should not, vote. I have had the same guns thrust in my face and put to my head, and been told that it was disloyal of me to seek a mandate in an election, regardless of whether that election was for Westminster or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some people may consider such a mandate sacrosanct; my approach is different.
As I said, two sets of principles are at work. One is demeaned by the very people who pretend and maintain that they uphold it, but do today's debate and the crucible that is the recent past show that there is a need to re-examine the process of negotiation? There is a huge difference between the process of negotiation and its subject. The Good Friday agreement is the basis for the future, but the process of negotiation has served only to diminish its chances of success.
I have one final question, which I cannot answer. Like many other hon. Members, I will not be in the House when it is answered. The motion will be reconsidered in a year: what will happen then, if the money is still required by those who claim to uphold the principle on which the motion is based? What line will the Government of the day take? What will be the criteria governing the reintroduction of the provisions? Will they remain unchanged? Will they be reintroduced in a different form? Will Parliament say that a principle is involved and that it will stick to it?
In many ways, the debate will retain an element of schizophrenia. Beyond a certain point, the Government's position lacks logic. The same is true of my position, or of the position espoused by many of the people involved, and that is because the motion is based on an inherent illogicality. The feelings aroused are deep and legitimate—
Given that there will be a free vote on the motion, my guidance to my party colleagues is that they should support the motion and resist amendments (a) and (b).
In the aftermath of the Northern bank robbery in Belfast, I have been frustrated to the point of anger on a number of occasions by the fact that so little of the proof, evidence or intelligence that the Government claim to possess has been made available to Opposition politicians. The Government say that that information has led them to believe that the IRA was responsible for the crime, but they have been determined to keep everyone else in the dark, even though other parties have expressed a genuine and ongoing commitment to the peace process.
Neither I nor any other member of my party has ever said that the IRA is innocent, but we have said that the Government must reciprocate our good faith by showing us the evidence for their claims. I am glad to say that the Government responded recently to my request for more information. It is available only on Privy Council terms, through the office of my party leader, but I am grateful nevertheless. I hope that complaints or objections lodged here or in the press will not be necessary for Ministers to include us in the information loop in the future. But let us not be churlish. People from both sides have learned something from that and I am grateful for the dialogues that we have had since then.
The hon. Gentleman is now creating two classes of Members: those who will be privileged to have the information and those of us who will not. There are other grounds for believing what the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have said. After 10 years of very hard work—showing a devotion to something that no two leaders in these islands have ever done in history—they would not have put it all at risk by making that statement if they did not believe it entirely and wholeheartedly. While I accept the point on weapons of mass destruction, and while I voted with the hon. Gentleman yesterday because I do not believe that people should be incarcerated without being given the evidence upon which they are being incarcerated and an opportunity to contradict it, on this occasion I am prepared to believe, and do believe, both leaders of both countries.
On the first point, the hon. Gentleman is right that my comments imply two classes of politician. Indeed, they exist: we have Privy Councillors and the rest of us. Let me make it clear to him that I have not been privy to the information that I have discussed—the dialogue has been directly between my leader, who is of course a Privy Councillor, and others—but I do register my belief that those of us who have now been actively involved, as the hon. Gentleman has, for many years do reasonably expect to be involved, on the basis of good faith, in the sharing of information.
On the second point—let me be very clear about this—the Government have in many ways enjoyed a great deal of good will since their election success in 1997, the year in which they formed the Government, but to be honest, much of it has now been squandered. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the weapons of mass destruction debacle, which was used to justify a war, when we now see that no such evidence existed. Any member of the Government or the Opposition is entitled to be a lot more cautious these days and in future, and to require a higher level of evidence before important decisions are made with our support.
Having said that, I think that the Government have made progress, which is welcome. Furthermore, events have moved on and, notwithstanding the Government's resistance to sharing important information with other Members of the House, the Independent Monitoring Commission has made some very important statements and I would be inclined to believe them. Lord Alderdice, whom I know well and respect greatly, is one of the influential thought leaders on these matters, and if he and the IMC believe that the IRA were involved in the robbery from the Northern bank, I would say that that in itself is important, albeit secondary, evidence to suggest that that is the case.
Secondly, and even more importantly, I think that the killing of Robert McCartney dwarfs even the appalling nature of the Northern bank robbery. That is because of the sheer violence of the occurrence, the tragedy that flowed from it and, most significantly of all, the apparent involvement of the IRA in dissuading witnesses from coming forth. That offence, perhaps more even than the Northern bank robbery, causes me to believe that we have little option other than to introduce the financial sanctions that have been proposed by the Government.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to consider that, in addition to the offences that he has outlined, the fact that we have significant information from the Chief Constable and others that three of the four Members are in fact members of the IRA army council would add to the weight of evidence that he has outlined and should motivate Liberal Democrat Members to vote in the Aye Lobby tonight?
The information that the hon. Gentleman highlights is, either through fact or assumption, pretty much known to us and has been for a long time. I know his position. I think that he has never felt comfortable with the granting of office facilities to those individuals, in large part for the very reason that he outlines. I have taken a different view. My feeling is that providing office access to these individuals has been, on balance, helpful to the peace process and to increasing pressure on Sinn Fein to try to bring its own house into order. That is a legitimate difference of view, but today's debate and the question of sanctions against Sinn Fein on the direct evidence indicating the seriousness of recent crimes is actually a slightly different matter, and probably not influenced directly by that information.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I am following his argument closely and I want to question his logic. He said that giving the Sinn Fein MPs office space has moved towards encouraging them down the road of good and proper parliamentary democracy, yet actually we have had the Executive suspended in Northern Ireland for over a year because of Sinn Fein activity. Not just that, but we have had the extraordinary behaviour of Sinn Fein-IRA, which are inextricably linked, and he has just admitted that he accepts that three of those MPs are on the army council. They are the IRA itself.
The hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood what I said because he believes that I have implied that the office space granted to the Sinn Fein Members has necessarily contributed to—I will try to quote him now—its adherence to parliamentary democracy. That is not what I said. I said that the fact that they can operate within the walls of Parliament has actively helped us—certainly those of us who have been involved from Opposition parties—to commence dialogue with Sinn Fein, which I genuinely believe has altered that organisation's comments in the public domain and pressured Sinn Fein to put pressure on the IRA to come into line. The reason we are here today is because Sinn Fein has evidently failed in what I believe to be its duty to bring the criminal activities of the IRA into order.
The hon. Gentleman will also know that paragraph 13 of the joint declaration made it absolutely clear that it was not acceptable to have an underlying level of either violence or criminal activity, and that those could be considered to constitute a violation of the ceasefire. This is why we are here, because I think we have to recognise that Sinn Fein must be brought to account for what has been going on with the IRA, but here is the irony: had we not given those facilities in the first place, we would not have the sanction to impose now. And the double irony—[Laughter.] I am delighted that Conservatives finally recognise the importance of the influence we can now wield. Conservative Front-Benchers disappoint me by failing to understand the seminal importance of what we are doing. We are seeking to normalise Sinn Fein's operation when it comes to being a political party. I, for one, believe that we have gone some way down that track but, crucially, the fact that Sinn Fein has itself in a mealy-mouthed and vague way begun to condemn some of the activities of the IRA of late, can only be as a direct result of the pain it feels as a result of these sanctions. Others in this Chamber may disagree with that point of view, and I am happy to allow Mr. Lidington to intervene, but they must surely recognise that the entire political process in Northern Ireland has been characterised by such difficult decisions, by the Labour Government and previously by the Conservatives.
Much as I would like to believe that conversations that the hon. Gentleman or I or any other Opposition politician have had with Sinn Fein have led to the sort of differences that he thinks he has seen, does not he really believe that what has persuaded Sinn Fein to come up with some of the mealy-mouthed expressions of regret and condemnation of recent weeks has been nothing to do with that, but rather with the drive by the criminal enforcement agencies in the Irish Republic against its operations, and the unmitigated anger of Irish nationalists and republicans at the brutality of the murder of Robert McCartney?
In part, I agree, but I have also had conversations with Sinn Fein and I personally judged that it is hurt—in a financial sense and a very real sense—by the sanctions that we are discussing today. If the hon. Gentleman has a different view, he has obviously had different conversations from mine with Sinn Fein and drawn different conclusions. One of the great things about democracy is that we are allowed to hold different views and I look forward to hearing his further views later in the debate, but what I find particularly confusing is the apparently contradictory position taken by the Conservatives when in opposition in comparison with the kind of things that they did when in government.
Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten, for example, that John Major was in communication with the IRA when it had not even instituted a ceasefire? Was he an apologist for the IRA? Is that what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting? I do not think so. I think that, despite my many criticisms of the Conservative Government at the time, one thing that they can be proud of is the risk that they took to initiate what went on to become the peace process. Taking the hon. Gentleman's absolutist view, one can only condemn John Major as having taken an unreasonable step in giving Sinn Fein and the IRA succour by talking to them while they were still killing people.
Which would be more naive, I ask the hon. Gentleman: what I have been saying, which is founded on the basis of judgment, or allowing an amnesty for weapons, as was done—once again, under Prime Minister John Major—so that terrorists could give in their guns without any fear of legal cost? Once again, that was a courageous move by John Major and the then Government. Once again, there are those who now seem to criticise the resistance of some of us to removing the offices. That could be regarded by them as further kowtowing and playing into the hands of Sinn Fein and the IRA. Had it not been for the fact that John Major and other Conservatives were willing to take such risks at the time, it is possible that we would not have gone as far as we have.
The hon. Gentleman said that he recognised, in his terms, that Sinn Fein had made progress, but is he aware of the comments made by Mitchel McLoughlin—a leading member of Sinn Fein—on RTE television after the Northern bank raid, when he said that the murder of Jean McConville, the mother of 10 children, was not a crime?
Yes, I am. My judgment is that Sinn Fein has a terribly long way to go. Apropos of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, it is little short of breathtaking to me that those in the IRA can conduct themselves as they have regarding the killing of Robert McCartney, go on to suggest that the murder of the murderers is in some way a just response to that and then expect that there will be no sanction against Sinn Fein as a result. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Sinn Fein and the IRA are still making astonishing and appalling mistakes and that they have managed in just a few months to harm significantly the public relations progress that they had made over many years, I agree with him, but the decision that we must make today is how best to maintain the pressure on Sinn Fein to try to do right in a very wrong situation.
It is my judgment that to take away the financial resource is an appropriate and measured response to what we have seen—£400,000, even to Sinn Fein, is a significant sum—and it illustrates that we are not satisfied with the performance of Sinn Fein and the IRA of late. Furthermore, I am encouraged that, at long last, it seems that the Government have done what the Liberal Democrats have been requesting for a long time by imposing the conditions of paragraph 13. Many times, Ministers have sought to avoid the inescapable fact that serious and organised crime in many ways constitutes a breach of the ceasefire. I hope therefore that today's debate is an indication that the Government will take more seriously the complaints that many of us have made that the troubles are not simply confined to bombing and shooting, but include organised crime.
I think that paragraph 13 makes it pretty clear that organised crime is included. I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman held that view. I would have assumed that he agreed that it is quite a simple matter for Ministers to interpret serious and organised crime as part of the terms of that paragraph. I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say about that point.
In conclusion, it is my judgment that we are right to impose the financial sanctions. Despite the Conservatives' apparent scepticism, about which I am surprised, the financial sanction will cause pain to Sinn Fein. In fact, I am surprised more than anything that the Conservatives feel that we are so ineffectual in the House that such measures are not taken seriously by others. However, it is appropriate to allow Sinn Fein to retain the office space for the reasons that I have given before. Furthermore, that allows us a further opportunity to return to increased sanctions if that is required.
I find the whole issue of sanctions against Sinn Fein manifestly vexing and emotive, as we have heard in our recent exchanges, but one must maintain a level head when dealing with Sinn Fein. One must ask what is objectively the most effective means to control the excesses of the IRA and what limited impact we can have through Sinn Fein. As a result, I will encourage my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats to vote for the motion and against amendments (a) and (b). I ask other hon. Members, including those who sit on the Conservative Front Bench, to subjugate their feelings to their values and to do what they think is right, rather than what they think is expedient.
It is always a pleasure to follow Lembit Öpik. Usually, we are in agreement, but I am not in agreement with his views today, although I understand his reasons for saying what he said. I noticed that he said that the Liberal Democrats would have a free vote. I do not think that the Labour party will have a free vote. [Hon. Members: "We will."] We will have a free vote—good—because I put my name to amendments (a) and (b) anyway. Clearly, this is a parliamentary matter, and it should be decided on a free vote for all hon. Members. That allows myself and perhaps a couple of my colleagues whom I have sometimes supported and been involved with over the past couple of days to be on different sides on this issue.
I listened with great respect to Mr. Mallon, and what he talked about and the way that he said it were well worth listening to, even though we may come to a different view about how we vote. However, the clear issue is the huge hypocrisy of Sinn Fein-IRA. They do not respect Parliament. They do not respect you, Madam Deputy Speaker. They do not respect anything about this British institution, yet they are prepared to take British taxpayers' money from my constituents to fund their political activity. That is rank hypocrisy. Of course, it is one of the reasons why, initially, I and many of my colleagues, even those on the Labour Benches, opposed the original decision—this precedent—to change the way that Members who do not take their seats are treated in the House. I said at the time that that would come back to haunt us. It is coming back to haunt us, and we are now having to go back and the Government are having to move to abolish the £400,000-odd that those Members get, but I do not think that that goes far enough.
The money, the offices and the facilities of the House are linked. When we go down the road of taking away the extra privileges—not a sanction—let us consider that those changes were made specifically as part of a genuine attempt by some Members to help the peace process. That attempt has clearly failed, so we should go back to square one. Square one means that those who are not prepared to take their seats should accept, as many nationalist Members have done over the years, that if they are elected to Parliament while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, they have to take the good with the bad. The good means that they receive payment and facilities. The bad means that they have to take their seats, as some Members who feel very passionate about the future of Northern Ireland have done over the years.
I know that those people will plead martyrdom. Some Members have used that as a reason why we should not rescind what was agreed, but the reality is that those people will plead martyrdom whatever we do today. It seems rather strange that they will not plead martyrdom if we take away their money, but they will if we take away their offices.
Those Members do not come here very often and in any case they do not try to engage in dialogue, but I find it distasteful to have to sit at a table in Portcullis House, as I did last week, next to someone who, as I and everyone in the House know, is a terrorist and a member of the army council. I do not know quite what he was eating as I did not look that closely, but he was eating subsidised food. That is outrageous at a time when, as Sir Patrick Cormack pointed out, we are passing a measure that will take away the liberties of many, many people merely on suspicion—although I shall continue to oppose it if the House of Lords continues to maintain its position. We have more than a suspicion about the Sinn Fein Members of the House, certainly two of them.
I find it amazing that, once again, the Government are prepared to do nothing but hold out this carrot, when time after time their hand is bitten off and we still allow these things to continue. Today, there was an opportunity for the Government, backed by all the parties, to move forward and say once and for all that until Sinn Fein-IRA decides that it is a proper political party that will use democratic means and give up criminal activity and organised criminality, its members cannot be treated as normal politicians.
I shall obviously vote for the Government's motion, but I hope that in this free vote Members will realise that the motion does not go far enough. It will not be the martyrdom of Sinn Fein; it will just make them feel that once again they have got away with whatever they want. We must not allow that to happen any longer.
I am very concerned because I believe that the motion contains an indication of future Government policy. Only one crime is mentioned and that is that those people have not taken their seats.
People have told me that they are amazed by the IRA. I reply that if they had lived among the IRA as I and my people have done, they would not be surprised. Because they are elected Members, there is nothing now or even when we have passed the motion to bar them from coming to this place. They can do as they did in Stormont; they can take the Oath in whispers so that nobody can hear them. They can sign the book and walk out and our motion will be finished. Finished. There is only one crime—that they do not take their seats.
I fear that the motion is but a preparation to open the door again to the IRA in a year's time, or perhaps before. I am amazed that the Leader of the House said that we want to keep them in the democratic process. They have left the democratic process. Some of us came to the House and sat on these Benches, and as proper democrats made known our views on policy. For two and a half years, the Prime Minister of this country would not speak to me. Although I attended the House, he would not speak to me. Nobody in the House said, "That's a shame". When they want Government policy to go ahead, they do not worry about who is hurt.
I regret that this is probably the last time that we shall hear Mr. Mallon in this place. On the last occasion he spoke, he mentioned side issues—only the people concerned know what they are getting, no one else knows. The hon. Gentleman and I have had many differences, as he knows, but we can at least come to the House and exchange views—
Indeed. If the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh had stayed in the House long enough, he might even have been a right hon. Member.
However, I disagree with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh's interpretation of history. As I understand Irish history, the nationalists were keen to come to the House in the old days. They were keen to take the Oath and to declare which side of the House they supported. It seems to me that it is the republican element that brought in boycotting and the refusal to take the Oath. But that is a question for another day.
I am greatly concerned about what will happen when we pass the motion. We are to wait a whole year, but in a year's time, nothing will change and eventually the door will open again to IRA-Sinn Fein.
I have worked all my pastoral life in the Short Strand area. I have been there for about 57 years and I know the area better than anybody in the House. I know the people of the area. Because of the terrible murder that took place, those people were prepared to come out into the open. I salute their heroism and determination, and I hope that they achieve what they are after. If the IRA had shot the people who were named after that murder had taken place, would the House still be doing what it is doing today? Of course it would. The same arguments that we have heard today would be put—that we do not want to make martyrs of them and so on and so forth.
I do not know when all of this will end. I have before me a paper that was given to the Prime Minister and the chief of police. It gives information about what were known as the killing fields of Northern Ireland—south Armagh—and describes many incidents that took place. It is a plea from people whose friends were murdered that the police will do something about it.
The document lists the activities of Thomas Slab Murphy, who is well-known to people in Northern Ireland. It names Michael Carragher, who was an infamous IRA sniper, James McArdle, a leading IRA member, and Eddie Magill of Pointzpass and lists the accusations made against them. It also mentions John Gerard Hughes and his influence in the smuggling racket. It describes the system operated by Collins and Collins the estate agents. People in the area believe that it set up false companies to obtain VAT numbers for the criminal use of others.
Those matters have been placed in the hands of the Prime Minister and the police, yet no real action has been taken. Are those people beyond the bounds or does the writ of the law of the House run in that area? The law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland look at what goes on in the House. Over the past week, they have heard our debates and have heard the Government emphasise that there could be more terrorist activity, yet terrorist activity is going on and nothing is done about it. That is why the people of Northern Ireland feel that we must tell the Government that it is not peace at any price; it must be peace on the basis of democracy, fairness and justice. After all, those are the words coming from Short Strand: "Give us justice. We do not want indicative anger, and we refuse to take the IRA's guns and say, 'Use them to shoot people,' because who knows who is guilty until the right word is passed?"
One thing is certain: those who have already been dealt with by the IRA in order to get certain information out of them suffered in their bodies, and they cannot be produced so as to see what sufferings they endured, so do not think that it was easy for the IRA to get the information it has put out; it came the same way as violence comes, and the persons involved suffered.
This is the situation we face. What worries me is not only the money taken from the Northern bank, but the fact that there have been other terrible robberies, involving £10 million worth of tobacco and cigarettes. The Independent Monitoring Commission has noted that the IRA is responsible for those robberies. So, another £10 million is involved, as well as all the other pounds it lifts in levies throughout the country. The knock at the door comes and so much is levied. The IRA knows what people earn and where they work, and that is it.
When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I talked to a constituent who told me that at one election she had three visits from five men, who came to remind her that there was an election on and that she must vote. That woman would not have been voting for them anyway, but she told me, "I saw them coming, I stood at the door with them, they gave me the message and they left." Ten days afterwards they were back again, as they were the day before the election.
Are we going to allow the people of Northern Ireland to suffer in that way? The House must take a strong stand. We have heard some strong words from the Government and from Labour Members, who say that we must deal with terrorism. They need to deal with terrorism now, in the backyard of our country. They must deal with it thoroughly and with all the strength they can muster.
I make a plea to the House, no matter how we vote on this weak motion, which should have mentioned the IRA. We are not putting these people out because they did not take their seats. Nobody believes that. They are being put out because of the happenings, their cruelty and their terrorism. Why not tell the people the truth?
I do not often agree with Mr. Gummer, but even he admitted that the point I was making is valid. It is valid. Why do we not mention the sins of these people, for which they are to be punished, instead of clothing the issue with this motion? I regret that we are not going to have the two good amendments, to which some of us, along with others, put their name.
Also, we need to remind ourselves that these same people are Members of the Legislative Assembly; they will still get their money. These same people are councillors; they will still get their money. These same people have an MEP; she will get her full money from this House and the privilege given with it.
The Government are not dealing radically with this issue. Let us face up to all the elected representatives who are in this movement and deal with them. Only in that way will they see sense and see that the game is up: no longer will violence or murder and mayhem pay. We are going to take the democratic road to peace for the future for all the people of Ulster.
This is a difficult motion. It is difficult for some of the reasons put forward by Rev. Ian Paisley, because it conceals a lot of issues and events that we are talking about. It is difficult also because I am not certain of its value. I do not believe, in the way that Lembit Öpik believes, that it will do a great deal of financial harm to Sinn Fein.
The motion is difficult for me for another reason: this is the first time on record that I can think of that I will differ from my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon, as I shall vote for the Government and against both amendments.
On the question of the Oath, I believe that people who do not accept that we should have a monarchy and people who perhaps challenge the right of this island to govern that part of the island of Ireland in which they live should not be expected to take an oath of loyalty to a Head of State who disagrees with their philosophical and national ideas. I believe that they should have the opportunity of coming here and affirming or affirming an oath, saying they will carry out their duty to the best of their ability in the interests of their constituents. That should suffice.
For those of us who wish to take an oath of allegiance, that should still be an option, but I believe that nobody should be debarred from the House on the basis of an oath that they are expected to take. We did that in respect of Catholics, Jews, Quakers and others. I do not see why we should do it in respect of people who have a philosophical objection as republicans.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the whole point of the Oath is to make a formal statement of acceptance of the current legal and constitutional structure, which the House embodies and within which Members have to work? Does he also accept that refusal to accept it and failure to take an oath—the only way it can be accepted is through the Oath of Allegiance, because, apart from the House and the monarchy, we do not have many institutions that cover the whole country and we do not have a written constitution that embodies that structure—are not just a mere technicality involving the monarchy, but a repudiation of that structure? As such, they ought to be an affront to the hon. Gentleman, just as they are to everybody else.
No, I do not accept that at all. I believe that people can be elected to this place who can accept the state as it exists, but who seek to change that state fundamentally in respect of how the Head of State is chosen. They can do that by taking another form of oath, which does not mean that they are being asked to betray their principles.
I do not believe for one moment that if we had changed the Oath that would necessarily have brought people from Sinn Fein here, but we should not insist on things and say that there are not obstacles to their being here that we can remove.
My next point is that the House should bear it in mind that there has been considerable movement on the part of Sinn Fein and its leadership, despite all the things—I admit—we have seen and know about. They are trying to lead their movement towards a peaceful acceptance. Indeed, we are told by the Government and the Democratic Unionist party that, but for want of a photograph, we would have had that in December. So, there has been movement, although hon. Members, the Government and the Taoiseach are right to point out that, probably at the same time, they were planning the robbery of the Northern bank. However, that robbery would not have affected the basic support of Sinn Fein one iota in the north of Ireland, although it might well have had an effect in the Republic. As the hon. Member for North Antrim pointed out, £10 million has been robbed from bank and post offices and that has not affected Sinn Fein's position.
Sinn Fein's position has been affected by the savage murder of Robert McCartney. That has been the real blow to Sinn Fein and the IRA because it has undermined their position in their community. The event has done far more damage than any that we can do by passing the motion. The effect of the incident has been shown by their reaction to it, which was slow at first, but quickly became greater as they realised the affront that had happened in their community. The fact that they have now deplored the murder, urged people to come forward and placed names before the police ombudsman shows the pressure that the community has put on the leadership of IRA. That, more than anything, will hasten division in the republican movement. People at the head of Sinn Fein will eventually have to make a real and positive decision about that.
Although it was reported little over here, the speech made by Gerry Kelly at the Ard Fheis in Dublin was interesting. He spoke about a need for acceptance of the development of police boards and the need for the disappearance of the IRA as an organisation. He used words and phrases that had not been heard before. It was also interesting that Gerry Adams accepted clearly and without qualification the legitimacy of the Government of the Republic because that represented a breakdown of the old mythology.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I read the speech, but I think that Mr. Adams recognised the institutions, rather than the state.
If one recognises the institutions of the state as legitimate, given that their legitimacy comes from the state and their acceptance by the people of the Republic, it is fair to say, despite the words that Mr. Adams used, that his comments represent an enormous step forward from the old mythology of denying the legitimacy of the Republic. My hon. Friend and I can argue about the words and reach different conclusions, but I thought that the speech was a helpful sign, rather than something negative.
Despite what has happened at the Ard Fheis, we have had a savage murder and the Northern bank robbery. We are in a position in which some Members of the House either knew about those events, or were negligent in not knowing about them, given their positions in the organisations. I have served on the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is both a privilege and an awesome task. The Committee has investigated complaints against normal Members. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards examines such cases and the Committee makes a recommendation regarding Members' conduct. In recent times, we have criticised Members for negligence and the House has upheld such findings. They have been suspended and sanctions and penalties have been put on them, but we are unable to do that in the present circumstances.
We have one sanction that we can use to show our displeasure in a positive way. The motion will not affect the Members' pockets because they do not draw salaries, although sadly it might affect the pockets of their staff. However, it will be as powerful a sanction as that made when we have suspended people from the House without their wages or the right to use their offices in the House, although Sinn Fein Members will still have that right.
I regret reaching this situation because I have spent a long time in the House trying to explain how I think the IRA behaves. I have tried to explain its philosophy and why it is treating the present situation as a ceasefire and waiting for the culmination of matters before final decommissioning. However, there is no way in which any sort of mythology of a guerrilla army can justify the savage murder of Robert McCartney, so I support the motion.
Order. May I offer the House some guidance? The Modernisation Committee urges Mr. Speaker to put time limits on debates whenever possible, but it is not helpful if as many as eight hon. Members indicate that they wish to participate in a debate too late after such a decision has been made. The 12-minute limit on the debate is thus clearly inappropriate, given the number of hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye. If hon. Members will bear that in mind, we will try hard to accommodate everyone.
It is a pity that the Leader of the House has not remained in the Chamber to hear the debate, because it would have been useful for him to do so. If he did not intend to stay in the Chamber, perhaps he should have given the Secretary of State or someone else the responsibility of leading for the Government. I wish to comment on several things that the Leader of the House said. His behaviour was rather similar to that of Mr. Cook, the then Leader of the House, in 2001. We know from the right hon. Gentleman's memoirs that he had reservations about the 2001 motion, so I wonder whether the current Leader of the House has similar reservations about the motion's failure to be appropriately effective.
The first point about the Leader of the House's speech might seem small, but it is important. He said that Sinn Fein is signed up to the agreement, but strictly speaking that is not true. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will know—because he was there—that no one signed an agreement. Votes were cast around the table to determine whether there was sufficient consensus. When the roll call for the vote was called, Sinn Fein abstained, so it cannot be colloquially said that it signed up to the agreement. There was subsequently a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at which a motion was passed to approve the actions of the leadership, but the party did not sign up to the agreement. That fact is crucial to the way in which one approaches the matter.
My view at the time—it remains my view—was that the republicans were locked into an agreement that they did not like. They did not like it then and they do not like it now. They are locked into the agreement because they are participating in the democratic process. When they were simply engaged in a terrorist campaign, they were not subject to any such constraints. However, once they entered negotiations, they found themselves locked into them.
I was slow to take this view, but it was not until after 1998 that I decided that even though Sinn Fein did not like the fundamentals of the agreement—at that stage I did not think that its members had completely changed and become normal politicians—it was possible to bring pressure to bear on it and drag it towards normal, peaceful and democratic political activity.
I disagree fundamentally with Members on the other side of the House who said that Sinn Fein rejoiced in its victimisation. I accept that its members try to exploit their victimisation, but it is wrong to argue that therefore we should not put pressure on them or subject them to sanctions. They have only moved under pressure, and the events of recent weeks and the activities of the McCartney relatives clearly demonstrate that that is the case. If it were not for the action of those families and the public support for them, republicans would not have done anything. It is only pressure that moves them, and it is only the pressure that my colleagues and I brought to bear that led to decommissioning, and to republicans moving towards a transition. That has been undermined, however, by the fact that the Government have not policed the process correctly.
The agreement sets out some fundamental principles. On
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, as Mr. Mallon said, that paragraph 13 of the declaration does not include organised crime? However, it has been frustrating that at every step the paramilitaries have done the minimum necessary to satisfy the Government. Hopefully, today's debate will create a clearer picture for the IRA and the other paramilitaries so that they understand that conditions concerning bombing and shooting are not the only ones that have to be met for the normalisation of the Province.
It is not necessary for the hon. Gentleman to hang his hat on paragraph 13. If one looks at speeches made by the Prime Minister in 1998 one can see that his language is clearly broad enough to include criminality. Individuals who have recently made much of those comments should bear in mind the fact that he said at the time that the criteria and their application would necessarily become more stringent over time. In a transition, it is perfectly natural to expect criteria to be applied more stringently, and six or seven years into that period there is no basis whatever for failing to do so. In 2001, I considered that the motion was a mistake that would undermine the process: it would send republicans the signal that they could get away with it. Likewise, the activities of previous Secretaries of State, with their rather unpleasant references to internal housekeeping when there was brutality of a not dissimilar nature to the McCartney murder, undermined the process.
The Government's failure to insist rigorously on the basic principles of the agreement is not helping at all, and is likely to reinforce among republicans the view that if they hunker down and wait, after a short and not even decent interval the Government, the Irish Government and others will return to negotiations with them. It will just be a matter of rehashing the usual steps. I suspect that even today, officials are trying to cobble together yet another deal on policing to entice republicans back to the process. To do so, against the background of the republican statements this week, is simply nauseating.
Having made clear my view of the motion, I shall go a little further. Reference has been made to the individuals who were returned to represent certain constituencies and their activities. I am not sure of the exact composition of the IRA army council today—changes are made to it from time to time for the convenience of the organisation—but three Members who were returned to serve in the House are or have in the recent past been members of that body. There is no serious doubt about that. The more significant question is what they have been doing, both now and in the recent past.
I have referred to the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission. Mr. Lidington read out the text, which clearly says that senior members of Sinn Fein who were also senior members of the IRA—there are very few senior Sinn Fein members who are not senior members of the IRA—approved the robberies that were taking place. There is no doubt that some of the individuals involved in the execution of the robbery were very close indeed to the leadership of the republican movement. We do not know, but it is probable that the leadership knew exactly what was happening and thought that they could and would get away with it.
Mr. McNamara referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee, and actions that have been taken from time to time to suspend Members, reprimand them and so on. Occasionally, the House has gone further and expelled Members. That has been the case in comparatively recent times. A Member was expelled for telling a lie in Committee. He attributed dishonest motives to other Members when he himself was acting dishonestly. Another Member was expelled when he was convicted of the crime of forgery. He would have been disqualified because of the length of his prison sentence, but the House was not content to wait for that provision to take effect and expelled him. If the persons returned to serve in the House have not taken their seats and if they have been accessories to this crime, as the IMC report hinted, surely we should go further and follow those precedents. It would be proper to expel those persons from the House.
That is the reasoning behind my amendment, and I am glad that it has received the support of other hon. Members. It is entirely reasonable in the present circumstances to see what further information can be obtained about the activities of Members, for that information to be presented to the House and for the House to take the appropriate action.
Earlier, I said that at the time of the agreement republicans were locked into an arrangement that they did not like. I said that we could move them under pressure, and we did so to a significant extent. As a result, the situation in Northern Ireland is now quite different, so I make no apology for the decisions that we made in 1998, 1999 and 2000. It has become clear, however, that persons who were prepared to engage in politics are prepared to do so only up to a certain point. They are not willing to complete the transition and do what the Prime Minister has called for since October 2002. Their recent behaviour and statements give no indication that they are likely to change at all in future. We must therefore reassess the matter more fundamentally, and those who are now buying into the process must be careful not to become too eager.
I was one of those miscreants, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who informed your Office during the debate that I would like to speak. I apologise for that, and will speak as briefly as I can. I did so because I was loth to speak in the debate until I had heard what other hon. Members had said. I know that it is unusual to listen to other hon. Members—[Interruption]—indeed, it is unprecedented, but I thought that that would be best.
I want to raise three issues. First, Mr. Heald raised a matter of principle and I respect him for that. It was the straightforward view that if someone is elected to this House and expects to receive the full privileges and income, they should be a full participant. That is a principled position, but there is a contrary argument that some people stand for election on a specific platform with a specific manifesto and tell their electorate that they will stand for election but not take office in the Chamber or swear the Oath. That mandate, whether we like it or not, has been given to a number of Sinn Fein Members by a majority vote, and we must respect the mandate of that electorate. That overrides the issue of whether they are full Members. We must respect the view of the people who elected them by a majority.
I should tell my hon. Friend Kate Hoey that a side issue is taxpayers' money. I accept that, but those who voted for Sinn Fein also pay taxes and may want some of it spent on their Members of Parliament—[Interruption.] I do not want to start a separate discussion on income tax and collection in Northern Ireland. A valid issue of principle has been raised, but there is a valid argument to the contrary.
The second, more important issue is whether sanctions should be applied when events affect the standing of individual Members. We heard from Mr. Trimble and my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara about the normal processes by which we apply sanctions against Members. I refer now to the bank robbery, and I shall refer later to the tragedy of Robert McCartney. Under the rule of law, the normal process is that innocence is presumed until someone is found guilty beyond all doubt. In the bank robbery case, if individuals had been brought to trial, found guilty and had a direct involvement with Members of this House, or if Members had been involved, the normal sanctions would apply and the appropriate Committees of the House would have applied those sanctions. That has not happened.
Too many allegations in the past—for example, spy rings in Stormont and so on—were founded on intelligence that did not prove satisfactory in ensuring a prosecution. There is an argument, whether hon. Members like it or not—
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Northern Ireland there has been no investigation into the illegal fund raising or criminal activities of any member of the IRA's army council? Does he realise that in the history of the IRA's campaign no one has ever had the courage to stand up in a court of law and give evidence against those criminals?
Let me respond by referring specifically to the bank raid. On numerous occasions in the House I have heard hon. Members say that evidence exists that leads conclusively to the fact that certain individuals were involved in the bank robbery, but since the Iraq war I no longer take such information on trust. If there is evidence, it should be brought forward in a court of law. Hon. Members have been arguing about that principle, and terrorism generally, for almost a week. I maintain that a matter of principle is involved in how we adhere to the traditions of this House and British justice.
The Robert McCartney tragedy moves us beyond any specific case that we have debated before. We would expect anyone with information about the murder to come forward and provide that information to the relevant authorities. We would expect any Member of the House to exercise responsibility in urging any witnesses to come forward. We are discussing the application of sanctions against Sinn Fein Members in connection with the Robert McCartney case, but during the past week or so they have been prominent in urging witnesses to come forward and give any information to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
There is an argument that witnesses should go directly to the police, but we have third-party reporting in my constituency because there has been a lack of confidence in the Metropolitan police among the black and ethnic minority community, and we have made arrangements, with the agreement of the police, for third-party reporting to other agencies. That has worked successfully. We are discussing sanctions in the Robert McCartney case, but Sinn Fein Members who were elected to the House have acted as we would have expected in terms of urgent co-operation with the relevant authorities in bringing information forward.
The third issue is even more important. The motion today is not significant in its financial consequences; it concerns the way in which the peace process can be moved forward and where we go from here. Will the motion assist in moving the peace process forward to the ultimate conclusion that we want, of peace and justice, or will it impede that aim? I do not believe that it will have a dramatic effect. It might impede the process slightly for a number of reasons that have been given, in that there will be feelings of victimisation and some people may feel that it does not help to increase the dialogue that takes place informally here.
I am concerned that my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes has not had the opportunity to meet Sinn Fein Members here. Some of us have had that opportunity at open meetings. I am also concerned that the hon. Member for Upper Bann—I am sorry, I mean Rev. Ian Paisley—has not had the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister regularly. The Prime Minister does not talk to me much either, but I urge him to talk to the hon. Gentleman, because he may be the future First Minister in Northern Ireland.
I am so glad that the Prime Minister has made up for past misdemeanours, and that he is not in sackcloth and ashes.
By far the most significant issue is how to move the peace process forward. We should do nothing that will undermine in any way the opportunity for dialogue. During the past 18 months I have been working with a group called the ministry for peace, and we have been considering peace processes throughout the world, including Palestine and Ireland. We have even considered how peace can be secured in Chechnya and elsewhere. One of the most important factors is to maintain dialogue, and to ensure that we use a language that does not impede the peace process.
I pay tribute to the Government for all that they have done in the peace process overall, but before Christmas we had a real opportunity to bring to a conclusion the issue of arms. We could have made a dramatic move forward to secure peace. The talk of sackcloth and ashes and the demands for photographs from one side, and the inability on the other to confront more directly some of the activities of the republican movement, meant that we could not move forward. We now need to discuss how we can move forward.
The McCartney case has made the republican movement address some issues that are overdue. The statement this week about shootings will enable the movement to address those issues, which are from a bygone era and now need to be put aside if we are to make progress towards peace. Therefore, rather than squabble over a motion that will not have much effect, I urge the Government to re-establish the dialogue. I also agree with Mr. Mallon about ending the side deals. We need to get people back round the table so that we can look at the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and secure the peace that all of us in this House want.
This is essentially a House of Commons matter, and I very much hope that it will be decided by a truly free vote. Kate Hoey, in her brave speech, asserted that it would be a free vote. Lembit Öpik said the same and I know that it will be a free vote for the official Opposition. I would like confirmation from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when he winds up, that it will be a free vote on the Government side—[Interruption.] Well, I treat every vote as a free vote, but that is not the point that I am making. I hope that every Member is able to vote as a Member of this House, because we are voting about Members of this House.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is not in his place. In a short debate such as this, at least one of the Cabinet Ministers taking part should be present throughout. It is an insult to the House that neither of them is in his place at the moment.
My position on this issue is simple. We are considering four Members who have been elected to this House—nobody disputes that—whose conduct has been wholly unbecoming to this House. I voted against the resolution in December 2001, but I saw the Government's logic in proposing it. At that stage, there were high hopes for the peace process—some would say misplaced—on the Government's part. There were high hopes that the Sinn Fein Members would play a constructive part in that peace process, but those hopes have been thoroughly confounded since. Far from playing a constructive part, those four Members have been proved time and again to have not only a tainted past, but a tainted present. They have been involved with acts of criminality and acts of terrorism. Although we talk at present of the difference between the suicide terrorist and the IRA terrorist—there is a difference—we should not forget that those who died in Omagh are just as dead as those who died in the twin towers. Those Members have been complicit in acts of terrorism. They are not worthy to sit in this House.
I wished to be constructive in my opposition to the motion, so I tabled an amendment. It was not selected, and I make no complaint about that, but it would have limited the withdrawal of facilities, with a similar sunset clause to the one in the motion. I prefer the amendment that has been selected and I shall give it my support.
I am glad that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is now in his place. I have great respect for him and nobody could even begin to deny his good faith. However, it is bizarre that in a little over an hour's time we will once again debate the Prevention of Terrorism Bill and, as I pointed out to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald in an intervention earlier, the Government will urge us to allow them to introduce control orders that will be imposed on many people who are probably not terrorists. I do not dispute the Government's good faith or their overriding and paramount concern for public safety, but if they are prepared to do that, is it not paradoxical that, an hour before, they will vote against an amendment that would exclude people who are almost certainly terrorists and Members of this House? That is ludicrous and it makes the Government's stand against terrorism hollow.
I regret that. I have many criticisms, which I have voiced in the Chamber, of the manner in which the Government have handled the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, but at no stage have I impugned their good faith in seeking to do what they believe to be right. None the less, I say to the Government that if that is their response to terrorism in general, here they have terrorism in particular—four Members, three of whom are or have been members of the IRA council, who have been involved in acts of terrorism and who have not washed their hands and divorced themselves from those who continue to be involved in acts of terrorism. That is the point. Here we have people who as recently as yesterday announced their willingness to take the law into their own hands, in the form of that extraordinary statement from the IRA—of which Mr. Gerry Adams is still a member and to which Sinn Fein remains indissolubly linked—that gun law can prevail in the United Kingdom. If nothing else can persuade the Government of the logic of my argument, yesterday's statement should surely do so.
I hope, first, that the Secretary of State will assure us that this is to be a truly free vote for every Member of the House of Commons; and, secondly, that Members of the House of Commons will decide whether they truly want to allow access to all our privileges and facilities to people who refuse properly and adequately to represent their constituents in this place, by making speeches, asking questions and so on.
Of course I accept that from the hon. Gentleman, who is in every sense an honourable, although I think frequently misguided, Gentleman. In parenthesis, let me say how sorry I am that we have probably heard the last speech from him and from Mr. Mallon.
I realise that we probably have about three weeks left in the Session. Both hon. Gentlemen have made a genuinely distinguished contribution to our affairs.
I accept what Mr. McNamara says, but I want to hear it from the horse's mouth. We all know that there are one-line Whips and one-line Whips, free votes and free votes; we all know that there is a payroll vote. I want an absolute assertion, which I shall of course accept if it is given, that every member of Her Majesty's Government will have the same right to vote as his or her conscience dictates as any other Member. We are all equal in this place.
I wish to obey your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall not take my full 12 minutes, even though I have been given an extra minute because of the intervention. I wish simply to stress the point that it is bizarre and ludicrous that we should, on one afternoon, move from the motion to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and treat so differently those whom we have just cause to suspect of terrorist activities.
I shall ensure that I finish in time for the winding-up speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I assure Sir Patrick Cormack that I do not consider myself part of the payroll vote and that, as far as I am concerned, this is to be an absolutely free vote. If a Minister wishes to make an intervention to confirm the position on the payroll, I shall be happy to accept it.
The hon. Gentleman's final point is important. We are moving from the bizarre to the ridiculous by, in a single afternoon, looking in opposite directions on two extremely important issues. This is described as a House of Commons matter; I prefer to describe it as a democratic matter. The House of Commons is behaving like a golf club in the way it treats its Members.
Where do we get our authority from? Is it from being in the House and from some higher authority above us, or is it from the people who elected us? We must recognise that the Members whose allowances we propose to take away were elected, just like all the rest of us. They have a duty to represent their constituents and during all their election campaigns they made their position clear. In the case of Mr. Adams, he has made it clear since 1983 that on election he would not take his seat because he did not believe that the British Parliament should have jurisdiction over that part of Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is heading off again on the lack-of-evidence trail. If Members have been involved in criminal activities, they should be prosecuted. If they are not prosecuted, they are innocent until proven guilty, like anybody else when a charge is made against them.
We are being asked to take away the staff and support services that Members need to represent their constituents, and we should think carefully about that because the implications go far wider. In future, if we do not like the political statements made by any Member of the House on any matter at any time—all of us have been unpopular on certain issues at certain times, as I know extremely well—is it right to deny my constituents, the constituents of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire or anybody else's that important right to representation?
When a constituent comes to see me about a problem, I do not ask how they voted or how they intend to vote. I ask them what their problem is and I discuss it, as I imagine every other Member does. If that support is taken away from me or any other Member, that representation is reduced. We should be careful. We are not a golf club and we should not behave like one. We should behave like a Parliament that owes its authority to those who elected us.
The hon. Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) explained the wider implications extremely well. We have been through some awful times in Northern Ireland. An awful lot of people have died in the most horrific circumstances, the latest being Robert McCartney. Every loss of life and every act of violence is a tragedy. All the sanctions and illiberal Acts that were applied in the 1970s—the prevention of terrorism Acts, the emergency powers Act, all the orders, internment, the broadcasting ban, the travel ban and all the other measures did not take matters forward very much. What started to take matters forward was the courage—it was courage—of the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), who were prepared to sit down privately together and hammer out some kind of agreement, which eventually led to the 1994 ceasefire and later ceasefires.
I hope that dialogue prevails. That is what the Good Friday agreement, power sharing and the acceptance of the traditions of all communities were about. Those were important steps forward. The decision that we are asked to take today is not the end of life or the end of the whole process, but it is an important signal that the House is closing down that element of participation. As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hull, North pointed out, by contesting elections, getting elected and becoming involved in the political process, Sinn Fein has been able to help bring about the ceasefire, exert pressure and provide a great deal of hope for the future.
If those who voted Sinn Fein are told that their votes are not worth as much as the votes in my constituency or any other Member's constituency because we intend to take away their facilities, what message to them is that? Is the message that they should vote for someone else, or is it more likely to drive them away from a political process into a process that none of us wants to see developing?
The House will obviously listen carefully to the Secretary of State and others, but hon. Members should remember that we get our authority from the people, not from above.
Any actions such as the hon. Gentleman has described are meritorious of legal action, if there is evidence against an individual. Surely we all believe that someone is innocent until proven guilty. If there is a case against people, it should be taken to court and dealt with there.
In this case, the security services have briefed Ministers, who have in turn briefed various hon. Members, and on that basis, we are being asked to make an important decision about hon. Members who have chosen not to take their seats. The security services have hardly covered themselves in glory in the past few years, and we are sceptical because of that performance. People must be accepted as innocent until a case is made against them.
Returning to my earlier democratic argument, our job is not to deny individuals their representation in this House, but to try to bring about a peace process by political inclusion and political involvement. That is what the peace process and the Good Friday agreement achieved, and I urge all Northern Ireland Members in particular to support the idea of continuing the Good Friday agreement and the institutions that stem from it. Therein lies the road to peace and a prosperous and hopeful future for Northern Ireland. Today's motion is a step in the opposite direction, and I cannot support it.
I shall be loud, too, if my hon. Friend wishes.
My view is that the motion is too little, too late. For the past seven years, the Belfast agreement was a cause for optimism, but I always thought that it was built on sand. The Government's policy now lies in tatters around it, and the Government are starting to backtrack.
It is now painfully clear that Sinn Fein never intended to go along with the Belfast agreement. According to the newspapers, all members of Sinn Fein and of the IRA refer to the Prime Minister as "a prize idiot".
That is an even better term. The prisoners are out, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been scrapped and those people have been allowed into the House of Commons, but for what? The Government have been the IRA's dupe and the IRA's patsy all along.
When the Prime Minister gives Adams and McGuinness tea at Chequers, does he ask them about their crimes? Does he ask them about Jean McConville, Robert Nairac, who was a friend of mine, and the thousands of decent soldiers, policemen, prison officers and civilians who have been murdered during the troubles? I think not.
The Government accept that the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked. It is a sad fact that these four MPs were elected by people in Northern Ireland. Other crooks have been elected to this House: murderers have been elected; Mosley was elected; Mugabe was elected in Zimbabwe; and, once upon a time, Hitler was elected in Germany. Those four MPs should be held responsible for their actions.
Does the Secretary of State believe that Adams and McGuinness are on the army council? Everybody else does. If they are on the army council, they are not inextricably linked to the IRA; they are the IRA.
Will the Secretary of State instruct the PSNI to investigate the claim that McGuinness made to my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley, that in the early '70s he was responsible for the deaths of more than 10 Catholics, whom he judged to be informers? McGuinness should be held to account for those murders.
Does the Secretary of State believe anything that Adams and McGuinness tell him? Sinn Fein lies and lies and lies again—of course it was not involved in the Northern bank raid. Sinn Fein is the IRA. It contains thugs and murderers, and it is responsible for robbery, protection rackets, drugs, thieving, mutilation and exiles.
I know that the Secretary of State is a decent man, not only because we were at the same Oxford college at the same time, but because he knows that what I am saying is true. The Government have been paying Danegeld for seven years. Danegeld has its benefits to those who pay it, as those who paid it to the Danes found as well, but eventually it comes back to haunt them. There have been fewer murders, but now is the time to address what the IRA has been up to. These people do not recognise this Parliament and should not have access to it.
I note from the list of allowances that Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Adams both claimed more than £18,000 in additional costs allowance, which we all use for a second house. In other words, they are claiming £18,000-odd for staying away from home, which they do not do as they are hardly ever here. I suggest that the House authorities investigate where their second properties are. The press, who are so interested in our allowances, might do the same.
The Government say that they are going to be tough on terrorists. I ask them to be so by barring them from this House until they accept the responsibilities of democratic MPs and live up to the many promises that they made when they took on their roles under the Belfast agreement.
We have been dealing with two related questions: first, the parliamentary question of whether there should in effect be two classes of Member; and secondly, whether, if the conduct of Sinn Fein-IRA merits sanctions, the motion tabled by the Government is adequate and proportionate in addressing that.
However we vote this afternoon, the impact on Sinn Fein will not be much beyond the symbolic; we should be under no illusions about that. Lembit Öpik said that the withdrawal of the financial allowances would hurt Sinn Fein, but I question whether an organisation that thrives on criminal enterprise will have to tighten its belt very much whichever way we vote.
I agree that anything we may do is marginal, but it will have some limited effect. I believe that the primary impact will be to add to the public relations difficulties that the Sinn Fein organisation has generated for itself largely by its inability to rein in the excesses of the IRA.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is being incredibly naive in believing in this distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Neither the British Government, nor the Irish Government, nor the police on either side of the border are prepared to share that belief with him.
I shall briefly spell out the effect of our amendments. Amendment (a) would make the 12-month suspension of allowances indefinite, while amendment (b) would extend the scope of the motion to cover other parliamentary privileges. Taken together, they would restore the position to that established by Speaker Boothroyd's ruling after the 1997 general election.
Let me come first to the parliamentary argument, which was dealt with particularly by my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack and Kate Hoey. There should not be two classes of Member. We are sent here to represent our constituents—those who voted for us and those who did not alike. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, the allowances, offices and staff passes are there to enable us to do our job of representing those constituents—they do not come to us as of right—and the same set of rules should apply to every Member of Parliament.
Mr. McNamara acknowledged that Sinn Fein's policy of abstention goes beyond the Oath alone. As Mr. Trimble observed, that policy amounts to a deliberate and calculated rejection of the existing constitutional and legal order in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend Mr. Swayne commented that the Provisional IRA considers itself the legitimate Government of the whole island of Ireland. That is a theological and ideological belief that Mr. Donaldson illustrated well when he reminded us that Mr. Mitchell McLoughlin recently denied that the abduction and subsequent murder of Mrs. McConville was a crime because, in Sinn Fein-IRA's view, it is for the IRA council to decide what constitutes legality and illegality anywhere on the island of Ireland.
The Government justified the change that they introduced in 2001 on the ground that it would help the political process. Despite the fact that it represented a break from the way in which the House of Commons had traditionally treated all Members alike, in the Government's judgment it was a necessary move to engage republicans more fully in the democratic process and to recognise the transition that the republican movement was making from terrorism to exclusively democratic politics. However, the motion is not an adequate or proportionate response to recent events.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Garda Siochana and the Independent Monitoring Commission all declare that Sinn Fein both knew and approved of not only the Northern bank robbery but a sequence of recent serious crimes. Those comments were made before the savage murder of Mr. Robert McCartney. As the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) pointed out, crime, violence and intimidation are still rife, especially in areas such as south Armagh and parts of Belfast, where paramilitary gangs prey on the people whom they claim to protect.
The action that the Government should take is not what the motion proposes; it is to stop giving Sinn Fein an effective veto over any political progress in Northern Ireland. We cannot wait indefinitely for the republican movement to make the transition. It is time for the Government to move forward with the democratic nationalist and Unionist parties. That is a subject for exploration and debate on another occasion.
The main argument against the Opposition amendments that Members on the Government side of the House, especially the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, present is that accepting them would allow republicans to pose as martyrs. Given that the hon. Gentleman has made the argument, I respect it and I reflected on it before reaching a judgment on the motion and amendments. Nevertheless, I believe it to be mistaken. Of course republicans will pose as martyrs and victims—it is part of their stock in trade. However, if we tie our hands by refusing to take action for fear that they will pose as martyrs, we end by granting them virtual immunity, however grave their actions or failure to deliver on democratic promises. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said, the history of recent years suggests that republicans move only when they are put under pressure—and then, I would add, only at the last practical moment.
Today, despite many years since the agreement during which the Government have bent over backwards to help republicans make the transition to democracy, we remain in a position whereby the Provisional IRA retains its active military structures, with the capacity for terrorism, uses crime to raise money and intimidate nationalist communities, and retains stocks of illegally held guns and explosives. The onus now should be on the republicans to end their involvement in crime, to stand down the IRA as an effective military force, to turn it into an old comrades association, and to decommission the weapons that they ought not to hold and which, given their repeated promises to be committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful politics, they have no reason to keep. It is just not enough to say, as the Government motion does, that we will suspend the allowances for 12 months, and then Parliament will consider the matter again and see whether the republicans' behaviour has improved.
Is there not a parallel in the Government motion leaving the door open for Sinn Fein in the forlorn hope that it might reform itself? While the Government say that Sinn Fein and the IRA are doing wrong, they are still not prepared to say that democracy in Northern Ireland should proceed without them.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Many different models of democratic progress could be explored, which the different democratic parties have put forward to the Government. While, in my view, the idea of a fully inclusive devolved Executive remains desirable, it is clear that that is not practical politics in anything but the longer term, given what has happened over recent months. We must declare in how we vote this evening our belief that it is now up to republicans to demonstrate that they have finally delivered on their oft-promised commitment to democracy. When they have done that, perhaps Parliament will revisit the issue. That is why I prefer an amendment that insists that the suspension of parliamentary privileges and allowances should be indefinite.
Can the hon. Gentleman clarify for me his interpretation, as the Leader of the House was not able to do so, of
"a period of suspension of one year commencing on 1st April 2005"?
Does that mean that, automatically, from
My interpretation of the Government's motion is that the resolution of 2001, which gave Sinn Fein Members privileges and allowances, remains in force, but by virtue of the Government motion would be suspended for 12 months, and that those allowances and privileges would therefore automatically be resumed in 12 months unless a new motion were brought forward deliberately to extend the period of suspension.
The Opposition's amendments clearly place the responsibility to act on the republican movement, and that is where the responsibility belongs. I hope that those amendments, which have the support of Members from many parties represented in the House, will command a majority of votes when we divide at the end of the debate.
This has been an informed and interesting debate. Obviously, that has resulted in different points of view being expressed.
Before I make my remarks, I want to reply to Sir Patrick Cormack with regard to the nature of the whipping on this debate. I can do no better than refer to the points made by the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook, in the previous debate:
"it will be on a one-line Whip. If Labour Back Benchers do not share the view I have expressed, they are perfectly entitled to express theirs. As to other members of the Government, I shall move the motion on the Government's behalf and of course I shall, not unreasonably, look to the Government for support."—[Hansard, 13 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 1006.]
Lembit Öpik mentioned in his speech that certain Members of the House had been briefed on a Privy Council basis regarding evidence in relation to the Northern bank robbery. Can the Secretary of State confirm who exactly has been given special briefings on this issue, and whether that will be extended to the leaders of other parties in the House?
The hon. Gentleman may recall from, I think, the statement on the Northern bank robbery some weeks ago that Lembit Öpik asked whether the leader of the Liberal Democrats could be given some sort of briefing on the robbery by the Chief Constable. I promised to pass on his request to the Chief Constable, whose decision it must ultimately be.
Was there not any whiff among the security services that an operation of that dimension was in the offing? I understand that the Secretary of State will not be able to answer that question, but were the answer to be "Not much", would he reflect on why that might have been, given the record of the Northern Ireland security services in respect of intelligence, which was formidable?
I will reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said.
The last thing I wanted was for the debate to take place at all. It is seven years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and Northern Ireland Members will recall that only a few months ago we were again very close to an agreement. That would have meant a period between the agreement and the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive during which the IMC would have verified whether criminality had been carried on during those months by the Provisional IRA. But it was not to be.
I agree with Rev. Ian Paisley, who said that in a sense this debate about support for Members who have chosen not to take their seats masks something very simple. The debate is, of course, about sanctions, about penalties and about effectively imposing a fine on Sinn Fein—but what it is really about is what has happened over the past few weeks in relation to the criminality associated with the Provisional IRA, and the way in which events described by Member after Member this afternoon have to all intents and purposes torpedoed the political process that we have seen in recent months.The hon. Gentleman spoke of the sins of those who had committed those acts. Indeed, this three-hour debate is, or at least should be, about those sins, and its title is inadequate to describe what we are dealing with today.
The hon. Members for South Staffordshire and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara, the hon. Members for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and, of course, Mr. Trimble all referred to recent events—in particular the Northern bank robbery, which was mentioned just now by Mr. Dodds, and the murder of Robert McCartney. In the last couple of days there has also been the IRA's statement. All of those things have contributed to why we are having this debate.
The Secretary of State is making a very good case in describing the criminality that continues in the Provisional IRA. I believe that he is going to the United States in the next few days. When he announces to the American Congress, President and people that the sanction against the IRA is taking away their allowances in the Palace of Westminster, what reaction does he think he will get, in the context of the fight against international terrorism?
I shall come to that shortly, but the IMC said that whatever we did here in the House of Commons, and whatever I had to do about allowances for the Northern Ireland Assembly, it would all be deeply inadequate to address the issue with which we are dealing today. There are differences between Members, but they all agree that we must address the criminality that lies behind the events of the past few weeks which is poisoning the political process. We can take away the allowances of the Members whom we are discussing—fine them, in other words. It has been said today that if we take half a million pounds from Sinn Fein it will not matter, but I think it will demonstrate the profound disagreement in the House of Commons with what has happened.
If we extend that to other aspects such as access to the House of Commons, there is a disagreement among us about whether we should do that as well. The disagreement is not about a question of principle—whether there should be sanctions—but about the balance that we need to strike. On the one hand we penalise the party, but on the other hand we do not want to penalise the people who voted for certain people in certain constituencies. There are genuine disagreements about that matter, but in both cases the argument is inadequate to address the issue of criminality, which has brought down the political processes and talks over the last number of weeks.
The issue is not about control orders or sanctions. It is about how we deal effectively with the process in Northern Ireland that has resulted in the criminal activity that we have seen over the last number of weeks. It is about how we ensure that Sinn Fein goes back into the talks, having rid itself of all that the IRA has done over the last number of weeks. There must be a split between criminality on the one hand and the proper political process on the other.
I thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy, which is what I would expect from an old Orielensis. He has spoken about the criminality of the last few weeks, but is it not a fact that the IRA has been deep in criminality throughout its existence and throughout the time of the Belfast agreement? Does he remember that, under the terms of the document on decommissioning published in April 1998, all weapons were meant to be decommissioned within two years of the referendums? They are now about five years late.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that no one thought for one second that criminality had ended. The joint declaration document that the two Governments published some time ago made reference to criminal activity. What everyone thought in 1998 was that there would be a period of transition during which such criminality would wither away, eventually leading to a period of normal politics in Northern Ireland. The problem over the last number of years, and particularly over the last number of months when the events that we are discussing took place, is that that has not happened. It has not happened quickly enough and it has not happened in respect of quantity, either. The type of criminality that we have seen in Northern Ireland—it has been associated with the Provisional IRA and the equivalent loyalist paramilitary groups—has not gone away. That is the issue that the House has to consider today. Whether we vote for the amendments or for the Government motion, we are expressing the deep and profound disapproval of the House of Commons for what has happened to the political and peace process in Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Sinn Fein should take note of the fact that those who have sought and sustained a constructive dialogue nevertheless find themselves with no alternative but to support the sanctions? That is a consequence of the strains that the IRA's actions have now placed on the process. Sinn Fein really must reflect—I am sure that it will—on our debate and start visibly to put its house in order before relationships based on good will are strained even further.
That is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Aylesbury was also absolutely right when he said that the onus in this process is now entirely on Sinn Fein to prove to the people and the political leaders of Northern Ireland, to the House of Commons and to both Governments that it is truly going down the non-violent, democratic political road that lay at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. The criminal activities that we have seen over the last number of months clearly violate the principles of that agreement and everything that anyone involved in the talks leading up to it expected. My hon. Friend Mr. Mallon and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann will remember, as they were so involved in the talks leading up to the agreement, that everything was based on the principle of non-violence and the democratic process. Robbing banks, murdering people, so-called punishment beatings and racketeering are all completely unacceptable when more than 2 million people in Ireland, north and south, voted for a peaceful future in 1998. Regardless of whether they agree with the Good Friday agreement, all Members of the House believe that that is the right thing to do.
Does my right hon. Friend also acknowledge that the willingness to accept Sinn Fein according to the terms that it uses to present itself has undermined and undercut genuinely democratic political organisations in Northern Ireland? Sinn Fein—or Sinn Fein-IRA, whatever it calls itself—has been involved in serious criminality in the past. Should not the Government be more transparent about what they know, so as to protect and support the genuinely democratic political parties in the north of Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Those who know about Irish history know that the genuinely republican people who set up the Irish Republic, and those who consider themselves to be of a republican persuasion, would be genuinely and sincerely alarmed at the present level of criminality in the IRA. That has nothing to do with persuading people to vote for either the republican or nationalist cause. Regardless of whether they have a Unionist or nationalist background, people in Northern Ireland must accept the principles underlying the new policing arrangements and criminal justice system there. Those arrangements were voted for by the people of Ireland, north and south.
Last week, the Catholic archbishop of Armagh said that Catholics should assume their full civic responsibilities for an agreed and representative system of law and order in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, and I apologise to the House that other business meant that I could not be present for the whole debate. I agree with what the archbishop said, but will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it was De Valera who clamped down harshly on Sinn Fein in the republic, and that some of us will have to do the same in the UK? When he considers the views of those who voted for the party, will he bear it in mind that Sinn Fein-IRA executed four Members of this House? What sort of politicians are Sinn Fein Members? There is a great difference between the British way of life and what they want to impose on Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those points, and many hon. Members in this debate have said that the consequences of the murder of Robert McCartney, and the subsequent campaign by his sisters, have been more profound than anything that has happened in recent weeks. People in republican communities—in that case, in the Short Strand area—have risen up to disagree with and disown the terrorist intimidation that they have had to put up with over so many years. That is more significant than any other development. Obviously, the McCartney family's very courageous stance is to be applauded, but it shows that genuinely republican people in Northern Ireland who voted for Sinn Fein over the past seven years have become completely fed up with the sort of intimidation recently evident in the Short Strand area. That response is more telling than anything that the Government might propose.
The events of recent weeks are hugely disappointing in the context of what has happened over the past few years. They have clearly got in the way of progress in the political process. I do not agree with Mr. Robathan, but I do agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, who said that, despite the recent difficulties, everyone in Belfast or any other community in Northern Ireland understands that it is a different world now, compared with seven years ago.
Progress has been made, and peace achieved, because politicians from all parties have worked together to make Northern Ireland a much better place in which to live and work. We do not have the killings or bombings that we used to have, and we should be grateful for that. However, that does not mean for one second that the criminality issue must not be addressed, because it has to be. Until that criminality issue is addressed, I fear that the peace process in Northern Ireland will be jeopardised in the days and the weeks ahead.
I urge my hon. Friends—indeed, all Members of the House—to support the Government's motion today.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That for a period of suspension of one year commencing on 1st April 2005 the Resolution of the House of 18th December 2001 relating to Members who have chosen not to take their seats and thus do not qualify to participate in proceedings in Parliament shall not have effect in so far as it provides for their claiming support for their costs under the provisions of the Resolutions of this House relating to Members' Allowances, Insurance etc., and the allowances relating to travel within the United Kingdom for Members, their families and staff.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are well aware of the importance of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth to my constituency and my previous difficulties in being properly informed about statements by the Ministry of Defence. Today, journalists have raised with me the impending announcement of the future stationing of Nimrod MRA4 aircraft at Kinloss. I have been told what the scope and time scale of the decision are supposed to have been, but, despite six calls to the Ministry of Defence, I have not received written confirmation about the details of the announcement, although I was promised it within seconds at 1.14 this afternoon. At 4.10 pm, I received a faxed letter with no details about the Nimrods but a hand-written addendum from the Minister of State saying that there would be an announcement tomorrow.
On the related matter of job losses, the Ministry today issued a written statement on how many posts are set to go as part of the end-to-end logistics review. Part of the statement was provided to the House, but not the tables with the numbers, which were forwarded by the MOD three hours late. The details had to be faxed to me by a newspaper that had received them before me. That information confirms that almost 1,000 posts are to be relocated or lost from bases in my constituency.
How many points of order will it take for the Ministry of Defence properly to inform Parliament and parliamentarians about key issues relating to thousands of jobs? It is a scandalous abuse of Parliament that the service community and the media have been so cynically manipulated. What can you do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to protect Parliament and parliamentarians so that announcements are made properly in this House?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The table to which the hon. Gentleman referred reveals that 160 jobs will go at RAF Leuchars, which is in my constituency. Has any member of the Ministry of Defence team suggested making an oral statement to the House? Is it not right that, for the proper protection of those we represent, such announcements should be made in the House so that Ministers can be made to answer for them to those Members of Parliament whose constituents' interests are directly affected?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems likely that we are about to suspend our proceedings while we await further messages from the other place about the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Instead of suspending, what better opportunity is there for a Minister to come to the Chamber to make a proper statement so that we all know exactly what is happening about these important issues? That point was raised with the Leader of the House at business questions today. He said that he would take it up, so perhaps he can tell us exactly what he has done and exactly what is happening.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Should it not be your judgment that the House continue, could Ministers request an early resumption, ahead of the Lords messages, so that these matters can be properly dealt with? We have the ideal parliamentary opportunity to do so and it would be a pity if a petty procedural point got in the way of Ministers accounting to us for their actions.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall—I think you were in the Chair at the time—that I raised this matter with the Leader of the House. He promised to take urgent action to ensure that the Secretary of State for Defence was told of the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House about constituency matters of great importance to us and our constituents being announced in a written statement with no details when a briefing was given to the local media, but not to Members of Parliament. As the Leader of the House is in his place and as the House is sitting, may we have a statement from a Defence Minister?
I am grateful to Angus Robertson for giving me notice that he intended to raise this point of order. Mr. Speaker has said on several occasions how concerned he is by cases in which the media are informed of official decisions relating to a Member's constituency before the House and Members are notified. It is also important, in Mr. Speaker's view, that such information should be provided in a timely, accurate and complete manner. I will of course draw the hon. Member's remarks to Mr. Speaker's attention.
In response to the further points of order that have been made, the House will know that the Chair cannot command the presence of a Minister. Whatever opportunities may exist have to be determined in another way. I hope that it has been noted that there is widespread concern that such incidents are unfortunately becoming less rare and that Members are rightly concerned, as is Mr. Speaker on their behalf. Members come first as far as important and sensitive information about their constituencies is concerned, and such information should be dealt with in a proper manner.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am well aware of the concerns of the House, which were expressed at business questions and have been vigorously reiterated this evening. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has been made aware of those concerns and will be made even more aware by the points that have been raised.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that the Leader of the House intervened at this point. Several references have been made to the possibility of a statement being made tomorrow, but the House is not sitting tomorrow, although it may continue to sit today for some time. Therefore, there will be no opportunity for a statement to be made and for Mr. Speaker's advice to be obeyed. That surely adds to the pressure for a Defence Minister to come to the House at some point this evening to meet the reasonable requests of Members.
I can, with joy, confirm that to the hon. Gentleman. That is a parliamentary fact. The Leader of the House has heard what right hon. and hon. Members have had to say on this matter and the Chair cannot go further than that.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just been given a copy of the table and it shows substantial changes for RAF Leeming in the Vale of York. The House now has an opportunity to discuss those changes, which will cause enormous concern across north Yorkshire, and it is astounding that we cannot do so.
I am obviously concerned that the hon. Lady's constituency will also be affected, but the general point has been well made. It must be left now to the Government to decide how to respond.