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Trespassers on Land (Liability for Damage and Eviction)

Mr. Crispin Blunt accordingly presented a Bill to make a person liable for any damage caused to land, or property on that land, on which he is trespassing for the purpose of residing there; to amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in respect of eviction from land; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 May, and to be printed [Bill 116].

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Standards and Privileges

Motion made, and Question proposed,

12.41 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Mr. Speaker, I can introduce the Standards and Privileges Committee's report very briefly. The House will recall that, on 18 December, we debated a Government motion to allow Members who had chosen not to take their seats to use the facilities of the House and to claim certain allowances. In answering an intervention from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) during that debate, the Leader of the House said:

the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards,

When the House reassembled after Christmas, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other Ulster Unionist, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members made representations to me to the effect that it was unacceptable for the four Sinn Fein Members to be exempted from the requirement to register their interests. I told the right hon. Gentleman that the Standards and Privileges Committee would look into the matter.

The Committee sought authoritative advice from the Clerk of the House, who explained succinctly the position of the four Members vis-à-vis the rules of the House, and made a practical suggestion for ending the anomaly that the debate of 18 December had brought to light. His memorandum is published with our report.

I should explain to the House that Members who, for whatever reason, have not taken their seat are still Members of this House. The code of conduct and the rules on registration and declaration of interests apply to all Members of this House, whether or not they have taken their seat. However, the rules are so worded that Members have three months from taking their seat to comply with the requirement to register their interests. So a Member who does not take his seat is not exempt from the requirement to register, but is, in effect, given an unlimited period within which to do so.

We propose that the rules be changed, so that Members have to register within three months of their election. For the vast majority, that will reduce by about a week the time available to complete and return the registration form. I doubt whether that will cause them any inconvenience.

I am entirely content with the proposition on the Order Paper that Members of the current Parliament who have not taken their seat should have three months' grace in which to put their affairs in order, although I understand

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that three of the four Sinn Fein Members have already completed and returned their registration forms. Their entries will be included in the next update of the register, which is available in the Library and will be available on the internet in a few days' time. I commend my Committee's report to the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Leader of the House.

12.44 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I welcome the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I think that I can be at least as brief as its Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The report itself is short, just three paragraphs; it concerns a narrow point of procedure; and, as I understand it, the House is unanimous in its wish for this change. I am well aware that the House is capable of continuing all day a debate in which we all agree, but I hope that on this occasion we can protect the Easter recess Adjournment debate.

As the Chairman has said, the origins of this debate go back to the debate in December, when it emerged, to my surprise, I must confess, and no doubt to the surprise of many hon. Members, that the obligation to register runs not from the date of election but from the date of taking the Oath or affirming. That requirement has been a provision of the register ever since it was introduced in 1974 following the election of the then Labour Government. I have found nobody who can remember why the distinction was made in the drafting, and I suspect that it was regarded at the time as a distinction without any meaning.

Today, of course, it is a very meaningful distinction in that there are four Members of the House who have been elected to this place but who have neither taken the Oath nor affirmed. As the Clerk's memorandum makes clear, the fact that they have not taken the Oath does not exempt them from the obligation to register, but it gives them an indefinite period in which to fulfil that obligation.

That is plainly unsatisfactory since Members of the House, whether or not they have taken their seat, can fulfil all the functions of a Member of the House so long as it is outside the Chamber; for instance, they can make representations to a Minister in which any private financial interest might be thought relevant. It is therefore logical that they should be brought within the registration regime that applies to those Members who have taken the Oath. Indeed, it would be possible to argue that there is an even greater case for those who have not taken their seat to declare their financial interest because they do not have the opportunity available to other Members of declaring their interest when they intervene in the House.

I started by saying that I understand that the provision has unanimous support. It has support even among the four Sinn Fein Members of Parliament, who have all accepted in principle that they should register. As the Chairman pointed out, three of them have already completed a return to register their financial interests. I therefore welcome this as a sensible, worthwhile reform. I am grateful to the Committee for having given us the opportunity to take it forward, and I commend the motion to the House.

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12.47 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am happy to join the Leader of the House in lending my support and that of Her Majesty's official Opposition to the motion before the House. It was rather revealing when the Leader seemed to imply that when the Government forced this measure on what, as far as we were concerned, was a very reluctant House last December, the Government had not realised the implications of it. Only now are we seeking to correct at least one of the major implications, but I shall let that slip by, because I would not dream of making this a party political occasion.

We can all welcome the rapidity with which the Standards and Privileges Committee has reacted and the elegant solution that it has brought to us. I was going to seek to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) with a question that I shall now pose to him in the hope that he might seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and wind up this very brief debate. Can we have an undertaking from the Committee that it will monitor closely the position with regard to that fourth Member, so that when the three months from today expires, it will take appropriate measures if, for any reason, full compliance has not been achieved?

It is fair to say that the Committee has at its disposal measures that it can take against any Member who is unprepared to comply with the requirements that I hope we will approve today. That being the case, will my right hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Committee, reassure us that the matter will not be lost sight of, that it will not be allowed to slip by unnoticed and that his Committee will, if necessary, consider the matter and bring to the House any recommendations that it may have?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does my right hon. Friend understand that the measure might cover the money received by Sinn Fein for the funding of the party? All Members of political parties in this House are subject to very strict rules about the amount of money that they receive and where it comes from. I wonder whether Sinn Fein might be covered as well as the other legitimate parties of the House in matters relating to fund-raising, not least from Noraid in north America.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend raises an interesting and, I suspect, important point. Although it is not really my province and I should want to seek advice from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, my initial response would be that the best test would be if someone were to make a complaint to the commissioner and that he should determine whether it was a matter for the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That would be the correct procedure and vehicle. However, as my hon. Friend raises such an important point, I am sure that it will not go unnoticed.

I am happy to lend my support and that of my party to the motion.

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