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Business of the House

Volume 458: debated on Monday 26 March 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement altering the business of the House for tomorrow in the interests of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland:

Tuesday 27 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion. Followed by proceedings on the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No.2) Bill followed by conclusion of the Budget Statement. Followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments to the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No.2) Bill.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been signified.

The business for Wednesday and Thursday remains unchanged and as previously announced.

Wednesday 28 March—Motions relating to communications allowance, notices of questions during September, Select Committees (Reports) and parliamentary contributory pension fund. Followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The House will recall that the St. Andrews agreement set out a timetable for devolution; and the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 set in statute the date for the restoration of devolution as 26 March—in other words, today. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have repeatedly made it clear that, nine years after the Good Friday agreement and following countless rounds of talks and negotiations, the point has been reached where substance has to take over from process. Both my right hon. Friends have stated in categorical terms—and I have underlined in the House—that if the path to devolution today as laid out by the British and Irish Governments were not followed, the parties would have to reach agreement on a way forward themselves.

Our way, which in November Parliament endorsed without dissent in the 2006 Act, has been clear: that if devolution did not happen today, dissolution would happen tomorrow. That is why I made it clear, both last Thursday and the Thursday before, that the Government planned no emergency legislation as the Democratic Unionist party had requested—a position reaffirmed to its leadership team in a meeting last Wednesday by the Prime Minister.

In the long and difficult history of Northern Ireland, our approach to date has been based on a reality—that up to now there has never been a consensus or a way forward agreed between the parties. All the achievements since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, however momentous, have depended on the two Governments calling it as they thought best. Until today, that approach has been the only one available because the parties themselves have been unwilling to do so their own way.

However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was informed earlier today that an agreed way forward to devolution has now been found. The leaders of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein—the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams)—met for very the first time this morning at Stormont, and have agreed to participate in a power-sharing agreement on 8 May. Right hon. and hon. Members will recognise the extraordinary significance of that. Many in the House and beyond would never have expected such a development in their lifetimes. The fact that it has been achieved is a tribute not only to the work of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State but to their predecessors in both Labour and Conservative Administrations who, throughout the past 35 years, worked tirelessly to bring about a settlement that would allow devolution to be restored and to end direct rule in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, it is a tribute to the commitment of all the political parties in Northern Ireland.

This morning, following their meeting, the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein together asked Her Majesty’s Government to introduce emergency legislation immediately to give effect to their agreement. To achieve that within the framework put in place last November by Parliament in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, it is essential that the necessary changes to that Act be made by midnight tomorrow. I am therefore proposing to the House a change to the Order Paper tomorrow to allow a very short technical Bill to be considered to put the necessary changes in place. My noble Friend the Chief Whip in the Lords will make a similar request in the other place.

I appreciate that this is an exceptional situation—but these are exceptional circumstances. If the representatives of Unionism, republicanism and nationalism can reach agreement on what the whole House will hope will be a final political settlement in Northern Ireland through a shared future, it is right that this House should do all that it can to facilitate that in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. A Bill will therefore be put before the House tomorrow with the aim of Royal Assent before midnight. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will cover all the key points during consideration of the Bill, I am sure that the whole House will understand that tomorrow’s oral statement, of which I gave notice last Thursday, will now not take place.

As the Leader of the House has said, this is a significant day for Northern Ireland, and we welcome the fact that agreement has been achieved, and that devolution will now be restored in Northern Ireland. As the Leader of the House has done, I pay tribute to all those, across Governments and parties, who have worked to that end. We, too, want the legislation passed through Parliament, and we will co-operate to ensure that it gets through in the required time.

Important though the new emergency legislation is for Northern Ireland, the Leader of the House’s statement has implications for the rest of our business this week. The introduction of a new Bill tomorrow will have particular implications for our debate on the Budget. What is proposed will cut short that debate, especially were the Government to meet the expectation of many right hon. and hon. Members for a statement on the capture of armed forces by Iran.

Why does the Leader of the House intend to cut debate on the Budget short? Surely we should ensure that the time for that debate is protected, and he has options to do that. He could, of course, extend the time for debate tomorrow. Preferably, Parliament’s sitting this week could be extended: we could sit on Friday, or on Monday of next week. Agreement in Northern Ireland, and agreement on a restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, is a significant step, but should not be an excuse for the Government to ride roughshod over Parliament and shorten debate on the Budget. We welcome the agreement, and we will co-operate in getting the legislation through, but I urge the Leader of the House to look again at the order of business for this week.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her welcome, on behalf of the Opposition, for the principle of what we propose tomorrow. As I said in my opening statement, we pay tribute to the Conservative Administrations and Opposition for the constructive part that they have played in achieving what is a historic moment. I reassure the right hon. Lady and the Opposition, who I know are anxious to debate every last detail of the Budget, as, indeed, are we, that we are ready to extend tomorrow’s parliamentary day by a significant amount. The timing can be agreed between the usual channels in the usual constructive way. I hope that that helps the House. We will also consider whether to make a statement on Iran.

I, too, thank the Leader of the House for his brief statement. What has been achieved in Northern Ireland appears to be both extraordinary and welcome news, and we very much hope that it comes to fruition. It is right to put on record our appreciation to all concerned, in all parties, who have worked so hard to achieve a result.

The Liberal Democrats have been sceptical about deadlines. We were sceptical last time, and we would be even more sceptical were another deadline to be reached and passed without resolution. I believe that the country would expect us to put aside any consideration of the order of business in order to accommodate what might be an historic settlement, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that that must not, and need not, be at the expense of giving proper consideration to the Budget. Do I understand from what the Leader of the House said that he will fully protect the time set aside for the Budget debate tomorrow? If not, will he consider having a later sitting on Wednesday so that we can conclude the Budget debate and the Divisions on the Budget resolutions without losing any of the time that has been set aside for the other matters that are due to be debated on that day? It would be extremely helpful if he were to make that clear.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. As for scepticism about deadlines, I think that the whole House will agree that were it not for the very clear deadline that was set in the St. Andrews agreement Act, it is unlikely that these very constructive events would have taken place. I have already said that we are willing to extend the parliamentary day tomorrow, but I cannot agree that there will be exact, minute-for-minute injury time. We are working on that, but it is a matter for the Whips of the different parties to agree. We recognise that the time for tomorrow’s debate on the Budget might need to be extended. As for statements, hon. Members know that statements and urgent questions are bound to eat into the normal public business. That is a straightforward reality.

As it is important that there should be adequate debate on the important Northern Ireland measure, which we all welcome, why does not the Leader of the House follow the precedent that we used at Christmas, when we resumed the Queen’s Speech debate after it was interrupted for Northern Ireland legislation? Why not resume the Budget debate on Wednesday and devote tomorrow to this historic event?

We have to get the whole thing through tomorrow, which means that we have to debate it early so that the other place can then debate it. It is a very short Bill—[Hon. Members: “Start early.”] I am in favour of starting early and finishing late, but others in this place have taken different decisions on that. However, that is another debate.

We have to debate the Bill first in the order of business, after any statements or urgent questions, and it must then go to the other place. Any amendments have to come back to us, and there may be some ping-pong between the Houses, although we hope not. In that situation, it makes sense to continue debating the Budget. This does not really compare with what happened in November, because that Bill was much longer and more complicated.

Clearly, these are exciting times. The Leader of the House is absolutely right to bring in the emergency legislation tomorrow—I am sure that it will have the full support of the whole House. However, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) for his comments that the Budget debate should be concluded on Wednesday. I say gently to the Leader of the House that there is not very important business on Wednesday; indeed, we might be doing a great favour to the Patronage Secretary by withdrawing the debate on the casino order, which she might well lose.

The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my answer: quite important—very important—Government business is tabled for Wednesday, and I think it would be convenient for the whole House if it were dealt with on that day.

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge the personal contribution of John Major, who is generally recognised to have started the process that should lead to sustainable peace in Northern Ireland? Will he also reconsider the business tabled for later this week? As one of the usual suspects when it comes to the Easter Adjournment debate, I can assure him that we should be very happy to sacrifice some or all of that debate to accommodate other business this week, so that the Budget debate is not curtailed.

It is nice that the hon. Gentleman should think that the amount of time available for debate on constituency and wider issues on the motion for the Easter Adjournment is in his gift. In any event, I shall bear in mind what he said.

Of course I pay tribute to John Major. I did so in general, but I am happy to do so in particular as well. His was a very significant contribution to what has happened today.

The Leader of the House’s historic announcement of the legislation for tomorrow is obviously welcome on both sides of the House, as is his agreement to make a concession on the time for debate on the Budget, but may I return him to the question from my right hon. Friend the Shadow Leader of the House and ask for an assurance that none of this will compromise time for a statement on what has happened to the 15 service men who have been seized by the Iranians? Many of us will want to ask questions about, for instance, the rules of engagement that made that possible.

The granting of time for an urgent question is a matter for you and you alone, Mr. Speaker. As for the issue of a statement, there must be a statement this week, and we are discussing with the usual channels which would be the most appropriate day for it.