Belfast Telegraph

London Notebook: Queen's Speech may have unintended consequences

Tony Grew

The Queen will travel to the Palace of Westminster tomorrow morning for the state opening of Parliament. This solemn, stately and slightly over-the-top ceremony marks the start of the new session.

The Queen's Speech will set out the legislative agenda for 2013/14: a Bill that will end double-jobbing for Northern Ireland's MPs is likely to be included.

The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, published in draft in February, also changes the rules on donations to political parties here to make them more transparent. We can expect to see announcements on immigration, including plans to make it easier to deport foreign criminals. Landlords may also be made responsible for checking their tenants have a legal right to be in the UK and doctors and nurses may be told to perform similar checks before people can access health services.

A Recall of MPs Bill, designed to restore faith in the political process after the expenses scandal, is also expected in the speech.

A largely theoretical Bill, its proposals are ill-suited to Northern Ireland's complex political culture. It will create a mechanism for constituents, via a petition, to recall their MP and trigger a by-election. The proposal was in the coalition agreement and a draft Bill was published in 2011.

A major concern was that an MP's political opponents would only need to gather signatures from 10% of the electoral roll to trigger a recall. The Government proposed that the power would rest with the Commons, not with the voters. Under the new proposals, MPs judged by their peers to be guilty of 'serious wrongdoing' will be subject to a petition. Any MP who commits a crime and is given a custodial sentence will automatically face a petition.

The Recall of MPs Bill could have all sorts of unintended consequences in Northern Ireland. The current law that disqualifies an MP if they are sentenced to 12 months in jail, the Representation of the People Act 1981, was introduced after hunger strikers, such as Bobby Sands, were elected.

Since 1979, 14 Northern Ireland MPs – all unionists – have served custodial sentences for civil disobedience. In seats held by Sinn Fein, unionists could hold their own petition, arguing that abstentionism is unacceptable behaviour for a sitting MP. The Commons would then be in the position of denying constituents the right to a by-election, in spite of a threshold of 10% being reached.

In any case, the Bill has been drawn so narrowly its provisions are unlikely to be used. But it creates the potential for point-scoring and game-playing that politicians will find hard to resist.

Belfast Telegraph


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