It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I want to focus attention on something that I believe represent one of the greatest errors of the previous Government: the special treatment that has been given to abstentionist Members of Parliament that enables them to claim Westminster allowances and the Short money that is supposed to be used for the purposes of parliamentary activities.
There is only one elected party in the House that refuses to take its seats, so that policy is not driven by a need to address a general problem. The problem is one single party seeking and getting preferential treatment. There is now a special status of MP, and the principle that the same is expected of and awarded to all Members of the House equally has been abandoned. A number of us have been absolutely consistent on the issue. We opposed the original decision to grant these allowances; we supported the attempts by the then Conservative Opposition to overturn them; and we believe that now is an opportune moment—in a new Parliament, with new politics and with the public concern that rightly exists about the wastefulness of public expenditure, value for money and so on—to turn our attention once again to the issue, particularly given the promises made by senior members of the Conservative party in the run-up to the election.
The issue arose in 1997 and in 2001, with the respective Speakers of the House at those times ruling that Sinn Fein should not be granted allowances. On 14 May 1997, the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
Sinn Fein challenged that ruling in the courts. Indeed, it took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, no less, and was unsuccessful both in the domestic courts and in Europe, which demonstrated that the decision was perfectly just and correct. Given the courts’ dismissal of the various legal challenges, it is spurious to defend the present situation by saying that it recognises of the rights of a section of the electorate.
In 2001, the then Labour Government presented a motion to reverse the decision of the Speaker, although that motion did not apply to Short money. It is now worth reminding those who sit on the Government Benches what they said while they were in opposition. I exclude from that the Liberal Democrats, including the Deputy Leader of the House, who will respond to the debate, because I understand that they abstained or did not take a particular position one way or another throughout the discussion of the issue.
I hope that Conservative Members who are now in government will clearly spell out the opposition to the position that was evinced during the Conservatives’ days in opposition. One Conservative spokesman—Quentin Davies, the then shadow Secretary of State—denounced the proposal when it was first introduced, saying that it involved
“more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA”
“treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions.”
The argument that Sinn Fein received comparable allowances in the Northern Ireland Assembly was advanced as a justification, but the then shadow Secretary of State said rightly:
“There is in fact no comparison at all between the position in Stormont and that in the House, because Sinn Fein-IRA have agreed to take their seats in the Assembly at Stormont and in the Executive there”.—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 160-162.]
When an equivalent to Short money was provided to Sinn Fein, such opposition in principle was restated by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—now Home Secretary—when she said:
“The issue before us is not about the Northern Ireland peace process or about the resumption of the Assembly; it is about the role of Members of parliament, what it means to sit in the House and the nature of the job of being an elected representative of this place. It is primarily on that basis that we oppose the action that the Government are seeking to take and will be voting against the motions.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 912.]
Is not the patent absurdity of this that all of us, as Members of the House, receive expenditure for staying in London when we attend Parliament, yet there are MPs who do not attend Parliament but still obtain the expenses and the allowances?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the coverage of the expenses scandal, it was revealed that Sinn Fein Members were claiming nearly £500,000 in accommodation costs for being in London primarily on parliamentary duties although they do not even attend the House. I can describe the situation no more eloquently then the current Secretary of State who, in light of that particular point, said in the Daily Mail on 8 April 2009:
“It is completely unacceptable for Sinn Fein representatives, who won’t even sit in Parliament, to claim hundreds of thousands at the taxpayers’ expense.”
We have just faced an emergency Budget in which there were no concessions for pensioners, disabled people or families living in poverty. Why should this Government allow a situation in which continual concessions are made to a party that does not come to this House?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland—and indeed right across the United Kingdom—who find it incomprehensible that public money should be spent in this way. That view is shared by the Secretary of State, who said on 8 April 2009 in The Guardian:
“it is inconceivable that incoming Conservative MPs would vote to continue paying millions of pounds of public money to elected members who do not take their seats.”
We look forward to the Secretary of State, other members of the Government and Government Back Benchers fulfilling their clear, unambiguous promise and commitment to ensuring that millions of pounds of public money are not wasted, as at present, through a two-tier system for Members of Parliament.
I simply offer to Conservative Members the arguments set out in their own words and, as I said earlier, I gently remind the Liberal Democrats them that they chose not to take any position on the issue and granted their Members a free vote. I have no doubt that if the matter were put to the House, there would be a clear majority in favour of removing these allowances, which should never have been granted in the first place.
An argument that has been advanced—it was cited at the time—is that the granting of allowances and so on is a step towards normalisation and that that is necessary to encourage Sinn Fein towards full democratisation and participation in the political process. Indeed, it was felt by some that such a policy would encourage Sinn Fein Members to come to Parliament—effectively killing abstentionism with kindness. That could be one interpretation of the Prime Minister’s recent comments in the House, which I will come on to in a moment.
The granting of allowances to Sinn Fein in 2001 has demonstrated the poverty of that particular argument, however. Following the decision, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, predicted that Sinn Fein would end its policy of abstention. The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, has made it absolutely clear that
“There will never, ever be Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the British Houses of Parliament.”
Martin McGuinness has added for good measure that even if the Commons Oath were removed, Sinn Fein Members would still refuse to take their seats. Let no one in this House be under any illusion that bending over backwards, granting allowances, changing and bending the rules, creating a two-tier system of Members of Parliament and interfering with the Oath of Allegiance that Members take will have the slightest impact on Sinn Fein Members taking their seats here in the House of Commons.
Beyond the past debates on the decision, there is also a wider issue of confidence in politics, which I have raised on a number of occasions in this Parliament. That issue was examined by the Kelly review, but the subsequent report made it clear that the decision lay in the political arena by stating:
“The decision to give Sinn Fein Members the right to claim for the full range of expenses without taking up their seats in Parliament was a political one, taken in the light of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
That is an interesting comment. I would have thought that such a decision should be taken in the interests of the whole House, not in the interests of the political process in Northern Ireland. The report continued to say:
“Removing it would also be a political decision.”
When I raised the matter recently in business questions, along with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and others, the Leader of the House replied that it would now be a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has stated:
“The Oaths Act 1978 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may not receive a salary; a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise.”
It is therefore clear that IPSA will administer whatever system is put in place by the House, but it remains for the House to decide whether abstentionist Members are entitled to allowances and Short money. Even the administration of Short money is still a matter for the House authorities, rather than IPSA.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that while other Members had to pay back money following the review of allowances, one Sinn Fein Member who claimed £18,000 last year for travelling to London, despite having come to London only once, has not had to pay back one penny?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that matter, which was previously raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). In the public mind, that beggars belief, and people cannot understand why some Members receive allowances to carry out parliamentary duties in London when they do not attend the House in London. I read in the news today that a Sinn Fein spokesperson has again attempting to justify that by saying:
“We negotiated the right to have offices and costs and expenses so that we can properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for us.”
Well, the fact is that Sinn Fein Members do not properly and thoroughly represent those who vote for them, or those who do not vote for them, because they do not come here. One of the main roles of an MP is to be in the House, taking part in its activities and debates. If Members do not do that, they should not be entitled to the rights, privileges, costs, offices and allowances that come with being an MP.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned the question of money. When everything is taken into account—from Short money to allowances—it is clear that Sinn Fein Members will claim between £3 million and £4 million over the course of this Parliament unless something is done about it. That is absolutely unacceptable.
The situation with Short money is even more untenable. The motion on Short money that was passed on 8 February 2006 created a special and distinctive scheme specifically for Sinn Fein—for Opposition parties
“represented by Members who have chosen not to take their seats”.
The resolution states that the money is to provide for
“expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support to Members designated as that party’s spokesman in relation to the party’s representative business.”
For the rest of us in the House, whether Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, those representing smaller Northern Ireland parties or Members of any other party, all the funds granted as Short money must be used to support parliamentary business only. We have no equivalent extension for “representative business”. That term is so wide that it is meaningless; the money can be used for virtually any activity one cares to think of. I am sure that there are Members in the House who would love to be provided with public money under such terms so that they would not have to account for whether it is spent on activities that fall within the category of parliamentary business.
We now know the scrutiny that is rightly given to the expenditure of such moneys, and yet we have a resolution passed by the House, which was introduced by the Labour Government, that allows for a fund that gives Sinn Fein hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of a Parliament to carry out all sorts of activities, while other parties that might have won far more votes cannot access public money for the same activities. That points once again to the absurdity of the current arrangements.
By way of conclusion, I will refer to the Prime Minister’s recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim during Prime Minister’s questions:
“There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
There will be an enormous backlash not only among Members, but among the wider public, if we go down the route—I hope that the Prime Minister is not suggesting this—of once again setting aside the proper rules and procedures of the House to try to accommodate Sinn Fein. As I have already illustrated in my remarks, that will be to no avail anyway, because Sinn Fein Members will pocket that as a concession and claim their expenses and allowances having once again diminishing the British status of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland, but they will not in turn take their seats.
I appeal to the Government to deliver on the promises they made in the run-up to the election and for the Secretary of State or the Leader of the House to come forward with a motion to implement what I believe is a sensible proposal: to make all Members in this House truly equal. There is nothing to stop Sinn Fein Members coming to this House and receiving allowances and Short money, but they should be required to do what the rest of us do by representing their constituents properly in this House.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it. We are fully aware of the strong views held on all sides of the argument, but he has expressed his view on behalf of his party extremely well. I am also pleased that he has the support of his colleagues who intervened—the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson). The matter of allowances for elected Members who do not take their seats has always been controversial. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cover the same history that he mentioned in his remarks, but it is crucial to our understanding of where we are in relation to allowances.
The matter was first raised by Sinn Fein in 1997 with the then Speaker, now Baroness Boothroyd, who clearly and explicitly upheld the long-standing convention that Members who did not take their seats should not have access to the House’s facilities on the grounds that the House does not permit what she described as “associate membership.” That decision was subsequently upheld by her successor as Speaker, now Lord Martin of Springburn, following the 2001 election.
In December 2001, the House debated and agreed a motion to permit elected Members who had not taken their seats to have access to the House’s facilities, including allowances, to support them in their representative work on behalf of their constituents. On 8 February 2006, a similar decision was taken on representative money, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and which is analogous to Short money. That resolution provides for the payment of
“expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support”
to parties represented by elected Members who choose not to take their seats, and by statutory requirement, political parties whose Members do not take their seats are not eligible to receive policy development grants. As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Members who do not take their seats cannot have parliamentary duties; none the less, they are the elected representatives of their constituents and have representative duties in which the provision of allowances is intended to support them, on the basis that the House previously agreed.
As we are all aware, there has been a much wider debate on allowances over the past year. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recognised when it reported in November that the decisions on allowances for elected Members who did not take their seats were political, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. The previous Government promoted the arrangements specifically—it would appear—to support the political process in Northern Ireland and to encourage Sinn Fein to play a greater role in mainstream politics.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up the position adopted by parties in previous debates and before the general election. There are Members who have always opposed the decisions on the grounds that all MPs elected to serve at Westminster should carry out their full duties in representing their constituents, and that includes participating in the business of the House. They have always seen this as primarily a House of Commons issue and agreed with Speaker Boothroyd at the time on “associate membership” of the House. He also said that some Members have always taken the view that the matter should be subject to a free vote—that is, it is for individual Members rather than the parties.
Since the decisions were taken, circumstances in Northern Ireland have changed considerably. We have a new devolutionary settlement, which is at the heart of the peace process. Northern Ireland is now firmly set on the political path, with Sinn Fein Members playing a full role in the Assembly. Though dissident republicans continue to try to undermine those who are committed to the political process, there is no question—I hope and pray—of a return to the troubled decades of violence. As a result, it is time for us to look again at the issue. It is clear that there are real and strongly felt issues of principle under discussion.
The Belfast agreement is clear: Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the United Kingdom until or unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote otherwise. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the agreement, and there is therefore no good reason why its Members should not take their seats at Westminster. Whatever arguments were made in 2001 and 2006, they were made in a different political context. Northern Ireland has moved on. The principle for the future must be that all elected Members should take their seats and play as full a role as possible as Members of the House.
The Deputy Leader of the House clearly indicated that there would be a change. I am reminded of a book that I studied at school—“Animal Farm”. It said:
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
It is time that all the animals on the farm were equal, and Sinn Fein has to be equal to the rest of us. If we are accountable to a process as democrats, Sinn Fein is equally subject to it. Reassurance from the Deputy Leader of the House is good news, but can he give us a time scale on how this will work?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I cannot set out a clear timetable, but if he listens to what I have to say in my later comments, I hope that he will be reassured that the Government take the matter very seriously.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister already made his position clear, although not, I suspect, as clear as the right hon. Member for Belfast North would wish. In answering the question from the hon. Member for South Antrim on Wednesday on allowances, he stated:
“My views about this issue are on the record, and they have not changed. I would like to see if we can make the argument. There is not a case for Sinn Fein Members not to take their seats. I think that at the moment we let them off the hook, so I would like to re-examine the argument and see if we can find a new way of doing this.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 291.]
In addition to the changes in Northern Ireland, there have also been shifts in the parliamentary landscape that will need to be considered. The creation of IPSA was an essential step in cleaning up politics by bringing to an end the discredited system of self-regulation. Allowances, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, are, of course, now a matter for IPSA, not for the House. However, the right hon. Member for Belfast North is correct in what he said about IPSA’s approach; I understand that it intends to observe the status quo by continuing to pay allowances, but not salaries, to Members who do not take their seats. Last Wednesday, IPSA set out its position as follows:
“a Government motion passed through the House of Commons in 2001 established the position that MPs who do not take the oath may claim expenses related to their Parliamentary business. IPSA regards itself as obliged to follow these motions and intends to do so unless the House decides otherwise.”
A question was raised on how IPSA interprets those decisions in terms of the criteria applied to individual expenses claims. I assume and hope that IPSA will apply exactly the same criteria to a claim from a Sinn Fein Member as it would to any other Member of the House.
I want to ensure that the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that it is not only Members from Northern Ireland who feel strongly about this; many Labour Members voted against the original decisions. I welcome the move that he appears to be making, but we need to do this quickly, because it is just not fair. The new coalition Government were elected on one thing more than any other—fairness.
I know that there were views across the House that were at variance with the previous Government’s position when the decisions were taken.
Representative money is a matter for the House. Any change to the current position requires a decision of the House and a debate at which Members can again put forward their views.
I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments, and to those of his hon. Friends and others. I will ensure that the arguments raised are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister. The Government will listen to all sides of the debate, but we are mindful of the very strong views that have been expressed in the debate today and the real issues of principle at play in relation to financial assistance for those MPs who do not take their seats.
Over the coming months, Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today. The right hon. Gentleman has my assurance of that. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on expressing his views clearly and precisely. I will ensure that they are communicated to my right hon. Friends who will deal with the matter in the future.