[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
It is certainly a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Roger. I realise that another debate is taking place in the main Chamber in which there is a lot of interest. However, the issue that I want to bring to the attention of my hon. Friends and hon. Members is also worthy of the attention of Members of Parliament and the Government.
It has been said that a week is a long time in politics, but the issue of the continued payment of taxpayers’ money to a political party that refuses to fulfil its obligation to represent the constituencies to which it has been elected has been rumbling on for almost 20 years. In that regard, the issue has a lifespan that represents a political aeon. Despite the repetitious nature of the argument, there is a fundamental principle at stake: those who do not take up their seats in this House should not receive the benefits that come from being represented in this United Kingdom Parliament.
That is an important principle and should not be casually tossed aside or ignored no matter how politically inconvenient it has been for successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative-led, to examine. The previous Government have been indicted on many issues by those who now form the current Government—the handling of the economy and the present financial situation being chief among them. However, some of those who are now in the Government were also deeply critical of the previous Government for their decision to grant special treatment to no-show MPs that enables them to claim Westminster allowances and receive their own specially crafted version of Short money.
I sincerely hope that our friends on the Government Benches, members of the Conservative party, will not now forget their previous utterances on this important matter. Today, I take the opportunity of reminding them just what they had to say about this disgraceful situation.
When we are elected to the House of Commons, we represent our constituents. We therefore know what is expected of us. We should be diligent in attending to our constituents’ needs and in speaking up for them in important debates in this House. Before this situation developed, every Member of Parliament was equal in that regard: from the Prime Minister down to the most humble Back Bencher such as me. Everyone knew what they were required to do.
By granting the request of Sinn Fein for special treatment, the previous Government broke that important principle, and in so doing they created two classes of MP. The ending of that situation would create a truly level playing field, and would bring to an end the present discriminatory situation. My party has opposed the situation from the start.
I came to this House in 1983, some 30 years ago. I represented the constituency of Mid-Ulster, which had been part of a previous redrawing of the boundaries and a part of the gerrymandering process at the time. It is where I was born, reared and grew up. In fact, as a child, I was privileged to have my music lesson in the home of our Member of Parliament, the late Mr George Forrest.
In 1997, after the gerrymandering of the boundaries for the Mid-Ulster constituency that divided it in two, I stood for election. I lost my seat to Martin McGuinness, who is now the Deputy First Minister in Stormont. I can remember the abstentionist views that were expressed by Sinn Fein down the years. The seat had been represented by Tom Mitchell, an abstentionist MP; Bernadette McAliskey, or Bernadette Devlin as she was known; and George Forrest, the Unionist Member, who was initially not connected with any political party.
When I lost that seat, the post was taken up by a Member of Parliament who did not come to the House. In fact, on a number of occasions, I and other Members of Parliament have been asked to raise issues by people in that constituency—my son represents the seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly—because the sitting Member of Parliament was not there to raise them. While those MPs were not here, they were receiving representative money—that was the fancy term that was used.
My party opposed that situation from the very start. When the idea of paying special allowances to Sinn Fein was raised by the Labour Government, we were forthright in our opposition. Others were equally forthright when they were sitting alongside us on the Opposition Benches—now they are on the Government Benches. That is why the Democratic Unionist party backed Conservative proposals to end the payment of these moneys to Sinn Fein. The Conservative party correctly judged that the prospect of lavishing taxpayers’ largesse on a party that does not come to this place or represent constituents here was an intolerable concession made for cynical political reasons. The decision was connected with buying Sinn Fein’s complicity in the political process in Northern Ireland—serving up goodies to them to bring about the complete ending of the IRA criminal enterprise. We supported the Conservative opposition to that concession, and we are now calling on the Conservatives to make good in government the promises they made in opposition.
Let me give the background to this situation. While making much of their public contempt for this House and the other institutions of our United Kingdom, Sinn Fein has devoted considerable time and energy lobbying to enjoy access to the financial resources of an institution that they profess to hate. As we say in Ulster, “They hate the Crown, but they love the half crown.” They first raised the issue in 1997, and it was raised again in 2001.
There are some of us who have had the privilege of sitting under the wise judgments of the formidable Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell. I regarded her as one of the best Speakers that I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She was a no-nonsense Speaker who defended the integrity of the House of Commons and its rules with an honesty and an impartiality that was second to none. When asked to rule upon this matter in May 1997, she was clear in her judgment. She said 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.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
The logic of that argument is impossible to argue against. Sinn Fein thought otherwise and decided that it would use legal recourse to gain access to the money. This culminated in the issue being fought out in the European Court of Human Rights—a favoured avenue for those who seek to challenge the authority of the House.
The European Court ruled against Sinn Fein and upheld the validity of the Speaker’s ruling on the matter. This is an important point. Not only does the ECHR ruling recognise that Baroness Boothroyd made the correct judgment, but it debunks totally the idea that the current arrangements are a recognition of the rights of the people who choose to be represented by Sinn Fein abstentionist MPs. No one is being discriminated against if the policy of paying allowances to Sinn Fein is ended. On the contrary, equality and balance are restored.
The present situation was created by a previous Labour Administration. In 2001, they tabled a motion that would overturn the decision that the Speaker had made. The then Government made it clear that their decision did not apply to Short money. The decision was rightly seen as an unmerited concession to Sinn Fein as part of the political process under way in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein was to be encouraged down a purely political path at the expense of the rules of the House of Commons, and of course regardless of the cost to the taxpayer.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who is now the Home Secretary, identified the weakness in the Government’s position when she said in the debate on the unwanted changes:
“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.]
The Conservative party was equally forthright in its public pronouncements on the issue, inside the House and outside it. The proposals represented, one spokesman said,
“more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein...treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 160.]
Both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and the Conservative party generally were absolutely correct in their assessment of the situation. The reality was that the previous Government used taxpayers’ money and disregarded the rules of this House to facilitate republican dogma around the issue of the Oath or affirmation.
Sinn Fein is not the only Irish nationalist political party represented in the House of Commons. The SDLP has representatives elected for Foyle, South Down and Belfast South, who, although seeking to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, come to this House and make their arguments to that effect. I do not agree with those arguments and I will strongly argue against them, but does anyone seriously believe that they are any less committed to the goal of a united Ireland because they come and sit in the House of Commons, represent their constituents and fight their constituents’ corner? This is a taboo that exists only inside the heads of Sinn Fein schemers, and it is disgraceful that public money should be used to subsidise such self-indulgence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When we look at the economic situation in this country, where families have to struggle to make ends meet, a political party, over the lifetime of a Parliament, is receiving some £500,000. It does not come to this House, does not take the Oath and does not carry out the day to day functions that every other party has to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such a valid point. We are constantly being reminded that we are in a deep hole economically, yet we find that representative money is without the same scrutiny and accountability that applies to Short money and to every other political party and elected representative. We all know that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has stringent rules for MPs’ expenses. There is a proper accountability, and rightly so. However, unlike every other party in this House, Sinn Fein can use that money for political ends and political purposes, rather than being subject to the accountability of using it for representing constituents.
On the scrutiny of MPs’ expenses, it was interesting to note that one Sinn Fein Member made a single flight to London from Northern Ireland, yet they claimed £18,000 that year for accommodation. I do not know what hotel they were staying in or what champagne they were drinking, but it must have been very expensive. They claimed for one flight and £18,000 for accommodation, yet this House and the scrutinisers did not lift an eyelid in surprise. Of course, we should not be surprised, bearing in mind the other things that Sinn Fein-IRA were up to at that time. It was a cynical ploy, which it has used right up to this present moment.
Pensioners are not able to get appropriate moneys and there are cutbacks in the welfare budget and every other budget, yet we are told we will still play the game for one political party in opposition to every other party. Every other party has to play by the rules of the game in politics, so it is not right that one political party is able to absent itself from that situation. It is a disgrace. It is discriminatory and therefore totally unacceptable. Why should pensioners, young people and the unemployed or people who are endeavouring to get into work find themselves in difficult situations financially when we have a political party walking away and enjoying the fruits of not representing its constituents in this mother of Parliaments?
Sinn Fein also sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It says it does that because of its political allegiance to a united Ireland, so it is showing its distaste and objection to the United Kingdom and being a part of a British institution. Let us examine that. Sinn Fein sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly, an institution created by statute of this House of Commons. It is a British institution. The laws passed there, just like the laws passed here, go to Her Majesty the Queen to receive Royal Assent. Sinn Fein Ministers participate in that process on a day-and-daily basis. As a benefit of its participation in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein receives money for party administration and support staff, just like every other party. It takes that money as a benefit of its participation in the Assembly at Stormont—participation that it does not undertake here, yet it is paid the money without representation.
The argument that the special arrangement at Westminster is equivalent to that at Stormont is simply not true. In opposition, the Conservatives drew the same distinction as we do. The then shadow Secretary of State, Quentin Davies, said:
“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. 162.]
Given subsequent developments, and Mr Davies’s departure to the Labour party, I appreciate that some Conservative Members might not want to hear a quote from him, but I believe that he was entirely correct in his annunciation of the party position, and I trust that he and his colleagues still hold to that.
In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the Conservative party made several clear-cut commitments on the continued payment of allowances to Sinn Fein MPs. The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), was equally vocal on the issue. In the Daily Mail of 8 April 2009, he said:
“It is completely unacceptable for Sinn Fein representatives, who won’t even sit in Parliament, to claim hundreds of thousands at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Although he is no longer Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he might consider that he has been given a higher position in government, he is a member of the Cabinet. Who can argue with his statement? On one of his many visits to Northern Ireland during the European election campaign, he made clear what direction the Conservative party would take on the issue—I ought to know because my constituency was one to which he seemed to pay special attention. He said that
“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.”
That is a clear statement. There is no ambiguity and no way round it, and there is no justification for his shifting from the position he announced before the election.
With the greatest respect, Gerry Adams has said a lot of things. He has said that he was never a member of the IRA, yet he was seen as one of its leading members in the city of Belfast, so we have to be careful with what he has to say.
That highlights something else that is galling to the Unionist community and, indeed, to every law-abiding citizen. There seem to be elected representatives in Northern Ireland, and now even in the Irish Republic, who are treated differently from other Members of Parliament. I suggest that everyone is equally subject to, as well as equal under, the law. That ought to apply to Gerry Adams and to Martin McGuinness; it certainly applies to my hon. Friends and colleagues and to every other Member of this House. As far as Adams, who now sits in another Parliament, is concerned, I would take certain statements from him with a pinch of salt.
Given such a catalogue of publicly stated positions, there can be no doubt as to the stance of the Conservative party, which is the major partner in the coalition Government, on this issue. The chickens have come home to roost. It was easy for the Conservatives to point the finger at the Labour Administration. It was easy for them to go through the voting Lobby whenever a proposal came from the Labour Government, but now the responsibility rests with this Administration and they will not be able to get out of facing up to it. That is what government is all about, and we are told day-and-daily that government is about taking hard decisions. I suggest that this Government have taken many harder decisions than this, on cutting benefits and so on, and they believe that they do so in the interests of the economic well-being of the country. I do not doubt their sincerity or the premise on which they present their case, but if they make such decisions on those grounds, there are no grounds whatever for them to move away from the principle of every Member and every party in this House being equal and being treated with equality.
There were clear and unambiguous statements that an incoming Tory Administration would mean the end of the wasteful and anti-democratic use of public resources. I can imagine the Government spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), preparing the argument that this is not a Conservative Administration, and that is true. But it is a Conservative-led Administration, and the Prime Minister is a Conservative Prime Minister. He might say that there is a coalition and, as a consequence, some things that were said on the assumption of an overall Tory majority have to be reviewed. The logic of that argument is correct, and it means that we need to consider the matter of the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats, for whatever reason, did not adopt a formal position on the issue back in 2001, choosing instead to afford their Members a free vote, and I have not heard or seen anything from the Liberal Democrat leadership to indicate a change in that position. Liberal Democrat Members can vote freely on the matter, and I have no doubt that a great many of them, perhaps even a majority, would be persuaded by the arguments made so eloquently by their coalition partners. I certainly hope that that will be so. The coalition has taken hard financial decisions to try to rescue our country from the economic pit that it finds itself in, so it has to face the hard decision concerning this money.
The logic for introducing the changes back in 2001 was flawed. Not only was it based on handing out concessions to a political party that at the time refused to come up to the same minimum democratic standards as the rest of us, but it served to create two classes of MP and to render as nothing the rules of this House. In practice, it has demonstrably failed. If the plan was to kill off abstentionist politics through financial inducement, it has not worked. The Sinn Fein position is as immovable as it was 20 years ago. Despite the fact that Martin McGuinness can meet the Queen or that Sinn Fein Ministers participate in the institutions at Stormont, Sinn Fein has indicated repeatedly that it would not, even if the Oath or affirmation were removed, attend the House of Commons. Its Members receive allowances from the Northern Ireland Assembly as a benefit of their participation there, and the same logic should apply here. No show should mean no pay. I urge the Government to act in that regard without further delay, and make good their many and repeated public promises on this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate.
The obligations of Members of Parliament are many. One of the additional onerous tasks on a small number of Members of Parliament, usually one in each party, is to be a treasurer. I say “onerous task” because I had the misfortune of agreeing to have that post foisted upon me many years ago. I have lived to regret it—I mean, never to regret it—ever since.
With that post, of course, comes part of the onerous task of ensuring that the political party’s accounts are supplied, maintained, updated and kept in order on a regular basis. That includes the money known as Short money. I say that because I have a number of years’ experience of knowing how rigorous and assiduous each political party has to be in giving its returns through the Electoral Commission on all income and expenditure, including the money known as Short money.
Each and every treasurer in each and every political party is in that position, with one exception, which is the political party so comprehensively alluded to by my hon. Friend: Sinn Fein. Members should by now know—and if they do not, they will know by the end of the debate—what the representative money was about when it was devised. If we cut through all the red tape and all the diplomatic doublespeak, representative money was about the Government here in Westminster attempting to roll out a green carpet in the House of Commons or a red carpet in the House of Lords—any kind of carpet—in the hope that, at some point in the future, Sinn Fein Members might say, “Okay, guv, the game’s up. We’ll enrol, we’ll sign up, we’ll take the pledge and we’ll come.”
As my hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) have indicated, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it does not intend to change its position. Sinn Fein has made numerous claims that have been abandoned, of course, but it is fairly clear at the moment that it does not intend to abandon that position. Even if it does, what we are suggesting does not run counter to any position it might adopt. We are simply saying that a system should be put in place that represents a level playing field, and that is rigorous and exhaustive for every political party so that no one is exempt and no one can operate under a different set of rules.
Sinn Fein has for many years had an abstentionist policy, to which it is entitled. If Sinn Fein puts that policy before the electorate in a number of constituencies and Members are legitimately returned on that basis—however illegitimate all the other things that Sinn Fein stands for may be—it may legitimately say, “We were elected on an abstentionist ticket, and therefore we are not going to take our seats.” It should be spelled out in advance that, if a party does that, it will not receive money for which an integral part is attendance in the House to carry out duties here. If Sinn Fein wishes to forgo that money, that is a matter for the party.
We all know that representative money was an attempt to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold. We also know—I more than others—that the rules for income and expenditure for my political party, and all other political parties, are different from those for Sinn Fein, because of the rigorous nature of the rules on accountability for what representative money, the money known as Short money, may be spent on.
We should recall the scale of Sinn Fein’s income, including representative money. According to the most recent accounts submitted by Sinn Fein, the party had an income of £1.25 million in the last recorded year. To give an idea of the pro rata scale of that income, it would be similar to the Labour party having an income of some £35 million and spending about £33 million or £34 million. The difference is that the Labour party would not be spending more than £30 million on employing hundreds of people, many of whom used to kill people, which is what Sinn Fein does. Sinn Fein employs scores of “former combatants.” When Sinn Fein runs out of money to employ people on that basis, as has been the case in the Stormont Assembly, it sometimes tries to employ one of the “former combatants” as an adviser to a Minister until there is a furore and it has to sideline that person and bring in someone else. That is what Sinn Fein uses the money for.
Sinn Fein is a wealthy political party. Indeed, according to the most recent figures in the public domain, it is the wealthiest political party in Northern Ireland. No one should get caught up in some sort of false sympathy and think that such a measure might in some way impinge on Sinn Fein’s capacity to represent people.
Our contention is simple: Sinn Fein should abide by the rules in the same way as everyone else. Abiding by the rules is a concept that, up to 15 years ago, was not really something Sinn Fein could do very well. Sinn Fein did not abide by the rules. It thought, “Rules are for others, not for us.” Sinn Fein now has to abide by rules.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point, but is it not true that the fact we are having this debate means that, up to this moment, Sinn Fein is not abiding by the rules? The Government are not making Sinn Fein abide by the rules by which every other political party has to abide. The inequality being accepted here runs contrary to many of the other decisions that the Government have taken; they are telling us that there must be equality.
That is why there must be a review of the rules of this House. We spent a long time with the Conservative party when it was in opposition before the last election, and with the Government since the election, reminding them of their commitment before 2010 on the need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland had a degree of assurance that moneys were being spent appropriately.
Every Member of this House, from every political party, knows that even perfectly legitimate expenditure and income is questioned and examined by our constituents. If that is the case for rigorously accounted income and expenditure, we can imagine what people are thinking about other moneys that are set aside separately for one party and for one party alone. There is rising resentment in Northern Ireland, and it is not confined to Northern Ireland, because on occasion I have had correspondence from residents in other parts of the UK who are equally annoyed and angry at the lack of accountability that exists for one political party.
Whenever this issue arises—other hon. Members will see this, too—we get correspondence from Sinn Fein Members saying that they will arrive here on sporadic visits to inform people and Members about the situation in Northern Ireland. We had a flying visit a couple of weeks ago by an abstentionist Member to inform other MPs about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Those visits normally coincide with the issue we are debating coming to the fore again. Why is that? It is not just a cynic who would be led to believe that when Sinn Fein Members see the prospect of this special money being reviewed and possibly taken from them, they hop on a plane from Belfast to London, and a hurriedly arranged meeting to update Members is on the cards. People are asked to come along and hear what is happening with the flag protest or the austerity measures. Members are perfectly entitled to ask questions about those issues and be updated on them, but not on the basis of Sinn Fein sporadically trying to justify the moneys it gets.
For that and a number of other reasons, I believe and hope that the Minister will respond by giving some assurance. We use the phrase “hard-pressed taxpayers” lightly, but people are suffering. They are examining each and every aspect of Government policy. They are looking at welfare reform and every pound they spend, as well as every pound the Government spend. When people see an unjustifiable and indefensible position such as this, they say, “The time has come to review, to change and to abandon the special status.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that Sinn Fein’s most recent ploy of holding little seminars and little meetings is in many ways an affront to democracy? Over the years, Sinn Fein Members have become used to concession and appeasement whenever they raise their voices, and they feel that, if they raise their voices in opposition to what has been suggested today, the Government will somehow back down again.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We know that some of the representative money can be used in a creative fashion. Sinn Fein are masters not only of financial creativity, but of a series of other creative measures. Anyone who denies that Sinn Fein is not just misusing this money, but using it for purposes for which it was never intended, is living in cloud cuckoo land. The time for this matter to be reviewed has long since passed. Time needs to be set aside for a review. Every Member who is elected to this House has to be treated on an identical basis. If we take our seats and make representation, whether it be good or bad, we are judged at the following election by our electorates in our constituencies. If we decline to take our seats and are elected on that basis, we should not get representative money for failing to represent our constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on bringing this matter to the House. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on his contribution. Both of them made heartfelt contributions. They espoused the concerns that we all have on this issue.
The issue greatly troubles my party, and it should trouble every party—the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, Labour and all the other parties too. The tremendous scrutiny of expenses is essential for us to be able to stand by every pound that is allocated. It is important for us as parties to account for all that money. It is also important for Sinn Fein as a political party to account for the moneys that it receives in this House.
The issue of Short money being paid to those who do not take their seats has been raised, and I cannot see how any Member of this House can justify the unjustifiable. We in the Democratic Unionist party can use Short money only to carry out parliamentary duties, and rightly so. This matter is of some importance, not only to us as MPs, but to our constituents. I receive regular correspondence about it. Members of my party and members of other parties ask, “When will the Government address the anomaly of Sinn Fein expenses at Westminster?”
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only is there an inequality in this House, where all Members should be treated equally, but an inequality in the press and in the BBC today? If the Democratic Unionist party was identified as doing the things we are talking about, the press would crucify it—it would be the same for every other democratic party—but for some reason they do not touch Sinn Fein.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is clearly an issue that we all feel particularly peeved and concerned about. There seems to be a double standard when it comes to Sinn Fein compared with every other political party.
The 1999 resolution on Short money did not specifically state that it could not be used by parties who had not taken the Oath. It was understood that, as it was specified for the carrying out of parliamentary duties, those who do not sit in Parliament should not access it. That is clearly the position, and that is where we stand on the matter. The 2008 motion, however, which was specifically for those who do not take their seat, allowed such a party to access the money for its representative business. As I was listening to my colleagues, I thought, “Sinn Fein are the hokey-cokey party.” They are in, they are out and they are shaking it all about. They are in for the money, but they are out for representation. If money is going they are part of it, but then they get outside and they do not want to represent their people here in the mother of Parliaments.
I have had occasion to speak to some Sinn Fein Members when they come here. I spoke to the Deputy First Minister, and I said, “It’s great you’re here. Are you now coming in here to represent your constituents?” and he said, “No, I’m not.” I had occasion to speak to the Member for Belfast West two or three weeks ago on the same issue. He was here expressing concern about benefits and welfare reform, but he was not prepared to express them in the Chamber to try to change the Government’s mind and support those who have concerns about welfare reform. Sinn Fein Members are in when it comes to taking the money, but they are out when it comes to representing the people. Many of us are concerned about that.
It is completely unacceptable that Sinn Fein Members refuse to take their seats and that they use funds for press and publicity that the rest of the Commons cannot use. Where is the parity between Members? Members will be aware that Sinn Fein was the largest-spending political party by a mile in the past year. It spent £1.16 million out of a total of £1.27 million. Those figures are confirmed by the Electoral Commission, which means there is clear support for what I am saying. The Electoral Commission records party political direction and expenditure across the whole UK and compares them.
If Sinn Fein was spending money to carry out its activities in this House for the democratic process, I would understand, but the fact remains that Sinn Fein Members still do not attend this House in the full way that they should. It has five MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the £500,000 that Sinn Fein has drawn down, and our concern about that is on the record.
Sinn Fein members do represent their colleagues at the Assembly and on councils, so there is a democratic process that they feel committed to. Since we are all under the democratic process of this House, we acknowledge the status of Westminster and the position of Her Majesty. We also have that in our chambers in the councils back home and at the Assembly, so there is clearly an issue for us there as well.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has raised the matter of funds being raised overseas and suggested that it is time it was brought to an end. He has said:
“We have had concerns for some time that Sinn Fein can raise significant sums outside of Northern Ireland and in any review of funding of parties in Northern Ireland this should come to an end.”
Other issues are involved—not just the House expenses that those Members draw down without representing their people, but what they do in other countries. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 banned donations by foreign nationals. We support that principle and oppose the anomaly that permits a political party to be funded by citizens and organisations from another state. That is not the practice anywhere else in the UK, and the DUP supports it being brought to an end. As well as political allowances for parties, we want to consider the question of funding from overseas.
In 2011 my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) raised the subject and made it clear that the practice had to stop. That is why today’s Westminster Hall debate is happening. In 2013, I ask again what has been done to stop the practice in question. What action has been taken and by what date will the issue be addressed? The issue is of some importance to the Democratic Unionist party and all Unionist parties throughout Northern Ireland, but Labour Members are also concerned, and have asked questions, and so are Conservative Members, some of whom unfortunately cannot be here today because of the debate in the other Chamber. They want the anomaly to come to an end. The DUP has brought the matter to the House, but it concerns us all.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s remarks. Would he, like me, be interested in knowing what consultation the Government have held since coming into government? The question greatly exercised the mind of the Conservative party before the election—including in my constituency—and even exercised the Prime Minister, when the Conservatives tried to get someone else, namely Sir Reg Empey, into the South Antrim seat instead of me. Since then, have there been meetings or consultation about the matter with Her Majesty’s Opposition and the rest of the parties?
Indeed, we have concerns about the involvement of other parties and their opinions. In response to a parliamentary question the Secretary of State said:
“I have had a number of discussions with representatives of political parties on this issue. These discussions are continuing.”—[Official Report, 29 February 2012; Vol. 541, c. 314W.]
Nothing was done. In response to a question from a Labour Member he replied:
“I have had no discussions with the House of Commons Commission in relation to this issue.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 955W.]
Again, nothing was done. The same Member asked again about donations to such parties, and the reply was:
“We will legislate to deliver this as soon as we can.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 886W.]
There are words but no action. That is the problem we have. Perhaps hon. Members can gauge the frustration that we experience as representatives, when our people regularly bring the issue to our offices and doors and when we meet the Members in question swanning in and out and not making any contribution.
Since 2008 the Government have deplored the situation in which Members will not take their seat and honour the Queen as they should, but will gladly accept the Queen’s head on notes, as has been said. I do not ask for an assurance. I ask for an action—something to say that the current grossly unequal practice will stop. All of us in the House are conscious of the taxpayer, and of what money is available. We must be mindful of taxpayers, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry said; it is important to stress that. Taxpayers will be happy if the unequal practice stops, and so will every MP who takes pride in their seat, and in being appointed to the seat of democracy, with the privilege it brings. We will also be heartened by the fact that absenteeism will no longer pay greater dividends than involvement, and that more money will not be shelled out for disrespect than for basic respect for the great process that we all work hard to be part of.
First, I apologise for not being here for the beginning of the debate to hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), as I was taking part in the debate on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. That debate is of considerable interest and importance and, if it were not for that, many hon. Members who are in support of the debate here, and of the view that my hon. Friends have put—hon. Members who have told us so, and who would welcome a debate in the main Chamber, to which we will no doubt shortly be treated—would be here too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim on securing the debate. I want to make some brief remarks. As has been mentioned, I raised the issue in Westminster Hall on 30 June 2010. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who, like the current holder of the post, is a member of the Liberal Democrat party—said:
“Over the coming months, Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward”—
not “if” or “possibly” but “how” to do so—
“in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 253WH.]
To continue the theme that my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was developing, about there being plenty of commitments, but no action, at business questions on 7 July 2011, the then Leader of the House, who is now the Government Chief Whip, said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) about the inequitable situation in which there are two classes of Member, that
“the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is having discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland”.
For what purpose was he doing so? It was
“with a view to bringing that unsatisfactory situation”—
so it is acknowledged by the Government that it is unsatisfactory—
“to a satisfactory conclusion.” —[Official Report, 7 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 1661.]
We very much welcome those commitments. That question followed one that I raised in business questions, and have consistently raised on the Floor of the House.
Government spokespersons have on several occasions said that the matter is being discussed, and that it is hoped that satisfactory solutions will be brought forward. Today we want to highlight the need to get on with it, and bring about some kind of conclusion—now that we are more than halfway through the Parliament—and reach a decision. We heard in the debate in the main Chamber about the need for certainty—drawing lines under issues and moving ahead. We heard a lot of talk about equality and fairness, in relation to Members and the constituencies that they represent. People in all parties are concerned about fairness and equality among Members of the House. Some parties may not be represented here today, but it has been made clear in their discussions with us that they do not accept as proper and fair a situation in which, although they are confined to spending parliamentary allowances on constituency and parliamentary work—as everyone accepts is right and proper—under the representative money arrangement, Sinn Fein can spend that money on party political campaigning and activities, without reprimand or possibility of its being taken away. That immediately puts it at a considerable advantage over other parties.
The advantage is not just over the Democratic Unionist party, or other Unionists. Sinn Fein is also put at a considerable advantage over its nationalist rivals for votes, who take their seats in this House. Its nationalist rivals—who, to be frank, are more likely to garner votes from Sinn Fein than we are—are at a severe disadvantage, because they play by the rules. They come here and have to spend their money, in accordance with the rules of the House, for parliamentary constituency purposes. Sinn Fein Members do not have to take their seats, do the work or come here, yet they can spend their representative money on party political campaigning. There is absolutely no justice in it at all.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Social Democratic and Labour party is indeed at a disadvantage? Although its Members are here in the House representing their constituents, their opponents in Sinn Fein can use the money from Westminster on political propaganda against them. Is it not also true that nobody will be discriminated against if action is taken on the policy of paying allowances? On the contrary, we are asking for equality and balance to be restored.
I agree, and that absolutely backs up the points that I was making.
Sinn Fein says in a statement published this afternoon that this debate and the efforts of Members from different parties to raise these issues in the House are
“an attempt to disenfranchise our constituents, and it’s unacceptable”.
That is utterly preposterous. No attempt whatever is being made to disfranchise the constituents represented by Sinn Fein; it is Sinn Fein Members who are disfranchising their constituents by not representing them properly in the House to which they were elected. They are the ones who chose not to take their seats.
Sinn Fein Members could take their seats and have access to all parliamentary expenses and allowances on the same basis as everybody else, but they have chosen not to. Ultimately, if they are saying, “We are elected on the basis that we abstain, and on principle we are not going to take our seats,” one would think that the same principle would extend to not taking the money either, but obviously there are limits to principle when it comes to Sinn Fein.
Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of irony that one of Sinn Fein’s magic mantras is equality? That word is normally used in any debate in which they engage, yet they seem to want to shy away from this debate. That is what we are demanding: equality in how moneys are given out in the House and how they are reported and accounted for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Equality is one of their great mantras, and we hear it over and over again, but in this situation, they want a unique position, in which they have a special class of MP who can avail themselves of the moneys without taking their seats and enjoy an advantage over everybody else in the use of those moneys. It is a totally iniquitous position. This is not about disfranchising anyone in Northern Ireland. It is Sinn Fein who disfranchises its own constituents by not coming here or engaging in parliamentary work.
Sinn Fein has long since conceded the point of principle. Its members are prepared to take their place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, accept posts as Ministers there and enact legislation under the Queen. They are prepared to take their seats in Dail Eireann and to be part of structures that they once denounced as separatist, partitionist and illegitimate. They are prepared to take their seats in the European Parliament and denounce the European Union, but uniquely, they will not take their seats here, although they want all the financial advantages and privileges that go with it, and indeed special privileges and advantages. This is not about principle and it is not about disfranchising anyone. For us, it is about equality and fairness.
To put the latest figures on the record, in the year 2005-06, Sinn Fein Members received £35,163 in representative money. In 2006-07, they received £86,245; in 2007-08, £90,036; in 2008-09, £93,639; in 2009-10, £94,482; in 2010-11, £95,195; in 2011-12, £101,004. In the current year, 2012-13, they will get another £105,850. By the end of this financial year, they will have pocketed almost £750,000 since the introduction of the money in 2005, for activities not necessarily to do with parliamentary, constituency or any other type of work. They may have spent it on party political campaigning.
Taxpayers throughout the United Kingdom are entitled to be outraged at that abuse of public money. We have been told that it will be addressed, and it is now time for the Government to take action. We look forward to hearing when that action will happen.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is not the first time, and I hope that it will not be the last.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate, and on his clear and comprehensive exposition of the history and background of the topic. I also thank him for his passionate articulation of his strongly held views on the matter, which were echoed by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). It is worth putting on record how consistently Democratic Unionist party Members have presented their arguments and their case.
The measure to provide representative money was introduced by the previous Government in 2006 as a result of negotiations with Sinn Fein on a range of issues. Since then, we have made great progress in Northern Ireland, and despite the scenes that we have seen in the last few weeks, the political landscape has changed dramatically. DUP and Sinn Fein Ministers have sat together in a power-sharing Executive for six years. Policing and justice is devolved, and support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is required of all parties in the Executive.
There is no better illustration of how the landscape has changed in Northern Ireland than Liam Neeson’s comments yesterday on receiving the freedom of the borough in Ballymena. He thanked the DUP publicly for our contribution to making life in Northern Ireland better.
I pay tribute to the efforts made by all politicians, including those from the DUP, to make life better in Northern Ireland. One can only hope that the peace process continues and progresses as it has done in recent years, despite the problems experienced in the past few weeks.
Much, too, has changed in the House. How public money is used has never been under greater scrutiny. MPs’ allowances and funding for opposition parties are carefully monitored, as is right. It is clear that representative money is an anomaly that needs to be looked at. Our view is that it is a matter for the House and must be decided by the House.
The DUP has consistently argued for the removal of all moneys paid to Sinn Fein and its MPs. However, this debate focuses on representative money. Sinn Fein will receive more than £108,000 in public money in the form of representative money in the current financial year, in addition to the Members’ allowances to which each of the five MPs are entitled. Its Members do not receive a salary, of course, but it is important that there is an equal playing field among opposition parties in how financial support for their work is calculated and what activities they can use such money for.
In June 2010, the then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), said that the Government would look into the issue and discuss it with the Northern Ireland parties. The Prime Minister has repeated that commitment inside and outside the Chamber since then, as has the Leader of the House. It is clear that the DUP’s patience on the matter has been tested. The Government should indicate where they are and how far they have progressed in reviewing the situation, as they said they would.
We believe that all Members should take their seats and play a full role in the business of the House. Representative money was introduced in a different political context, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. It is right that it should be looked at to ensure that it meets the standards set by this House and demanded by the public.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on securing this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on taking part.
The hon. Member for South Antrim said that there was an important debate going on elsewhere today, but the debate in this Chamber is equally important. He made his representations in a calm, focused manner. He encouraged me perhaps to speak for Conservative Members when they were in opposition and for a former Conservative Member who defected to the Labour party. I am not particularly well placed to do that. In the debate in the main Chamber, the Leader of the House was asked to comment on the Liberal Democrat manifesto, but felt unable to do so. I am not in a position to comment in any detail on what Conservative Members may have said in opposition.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the audit that applies to parties’ financial expenditure, as did the hon. Members for East Londonderry, for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Strangford. If hon. and right hon. Members have suggestions about how improvements could be made to that audit process, I am sure that the Government would be happy to ensure that they were passed on to the appropriate place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I understood the point that he and his colleagues made.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for South Antrim asked what meetings had taken place. I confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, her predecessor and ministerial colleagues have discussed this issue on a number of occasions with representatives of the party, both in the House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In passing, in his willingness to take on financial responsibilities for his party the hon. Member for East Londonderry is a braver man than me. In my experience, that normally involves people taking out their own cheque book to cover the difference, but I hope that is not so for him.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned that in a previous debate in this Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), then Deputy Leader of the House, gave certain undertakings. I hope that, at the end of the debate, the right hon. Gentleman will feel that we have made some progress. I should like to put some things on the record. It may be helpful for me briefly to set out the financial assistance available to opposition parties, specifically those whose Members have not taken their seats, without going over too much ground that has already been covered.
Short money for opposition parties in the House of Commons was introduced by resolution of the House in 1975 to assist opposition parties in carrying out their parliamentary business. Although that is not defined precisely, the money is used largely for the employment of research staff and support to the Whips’ Offices. In addition, Short money is used for funding for opposition parties’ travel and associated expenses, and funding for running costs of the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Levels of funding are calculated with reference to the number of seats won at the previous general election, with a sum for the number of votes gained by the party. I had wondered whether other parties from Northern Ireland might attend, to ask why they were not entitled to that funding. In the House of Lords, Cranborne money, the equivalent of Short money, was introduced in 1996. Hon. Members know that Short money is available only to parties whose Members have taken their seats, so Sinn Fein is not eligible.
In July 2005, the IRA formally announced an end to its armed campaign and undertook to pursue its aims by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. That paved the way for the provision of a new representative allowance payable to Members not taking the Oath, which is the subject of the bulk of this debate. On 8 February 2006, the House passed a resolution providing financial assistance to such Members towards expenses
“wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the employment of staff and related support to Members designated as that party’s spokesmen in relation to the party’s representative business.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 897.]
Expenditure is audited in the same way, whether it is Short money or representative money. The term “representative business” is not specifically defined, although it is understood to include expenditure on press, publicity and related purposes. The sums provided are calculated on a similar basis to, and can be seen as an equivalent of, Short money. The right hon. Member for Belfast North set out the expenditure incurred by Sinn Fein.
In the context of this debate, it is important to note that both this House and the political situation in the Northern Ireland have changed significantly since the debates of 2001 and 2006. I know that all hon. Members would acknowledge that. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein Members play a full role in the Assembly. Despite attempts by dissidents to undermine the peace process, Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement has set it on a political path. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the Belfast agreement, which states that all parties
“recognise the legitimacy whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status”,
“it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
It is true that Sinn Fein is elected on an abstentionist platform, so the electorate are well aware of its stance on taking seats and vote for it anyway. Nevertheless, the Government’s view, as the Prime Minister said in January 2011, is that
“we should be aiming for all Members who are elected to take their seats in this House.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 290.]
It is the Government’s view that the issue of representative money for parties that do not take the Oath is primarily a matter for the House itself to resolve.
In 2001 and 2006, the previous Government introduced motions to facilitate decision and debate. In 2010, this Government introduced proposals from the Wright Committee to establish a Backbench Business Committee, giving Back-Bench Members direct access to the scheduling of business on the Floor of the House. When my predecessor as Deputy Leader of the House responded to a debate on this issue in June 2010, which was mentioned earlier, the Backbench Business Committee was in its infancy, having elected its Chair only the previous week and not having met to schedule a debate. It was right then that the Government decided that at such an early stage it was not appropriate to ask the House to come to a swift resolution. The Backbench Business Committee is now an established, successful part of the House of Commons and has scheduled debates on a wide range of issues that might otherwise not have come to the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for South Antrim may wish to consider approaching the Backbench Business Committee to demonstrate that the House should come to a view on this issue, on which there may well be a range of opinions that would benefit from being debated and, if appropriate, voted on.
I appreciate the attention that the Minister has given to the matter in his speech, but the Government cannot abdicate responsibility. They should be leading. There is an inequality among Members of the House which has been acknowledged by everyone, as enunciated by the Prime Minister and others for some time. Surely it is time for decisions, with Government leading rather than relying on a humble Back Bencher to bring the issue to the Floor of the House of Commons.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the agreement to provide representative money to Sinn Fein Members was made through a resolution of the House. He should go to the Backbench Business Committee because, in my experience, it is now in a position to provide for debates promptly. If it looked favourably on his approach, I am confident that the debate could be held soon after he sought it.
The subject generates strong views and is clearly an important matter of principle. Hon. Members have used the short debate today to set out some of those views. I hope that, in providing some background and a route open to Members for achieving a resolution, I have been able to assist hon. Members who wish to make progress.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made some forceful points. I hope that, in responding to the debate, I have provided a route by which he and his colleagues could ensure that the matter was debated in the House, which would allow for the views of all Members to be expressed. Indeed, depending on how the motion was presented, it could be something on which the House might vote.
From what the Minister is saying, the Government are clearly not going to take the issue to the Floor of the House themselves. I will certainly be making the approaches suggested, but the notion of a Government who pride themselves on enunciating the principle that inequality must be done away with does not sit well with a Government who are afraid somehow to bring the subject of our debate to the Floor of the House. The Government should act, because every Member ought to have equality and, equally, ought to be treated fairly.
I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said and his request that the Government should undertake the matter. I will ensure that that is communicated appropriately, but he and his colleagues have the opportunity to bring the subject to the attention of the House by using the Backbench Business Committee, which has been successful in bringing often controversial matters up for debate. I hope that he will use that opportunity.