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Business of the House

Volume 488: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2009

I beg to move,

That, in respect of the Northern Ireland Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.

The motion simply allows amendments to be tabled before Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill next Wednesday. That will be necessary if the programme motion, which will allow all the Commons stages of the Bill to be taken in one day, is accepted on Wednesday.

The context of the Bill is important and, indeed, is the reason for tabling the business motion, which, I hope, is for the convenience of the House. The agreement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 18 November set out a process that would move Northern Ireland towards the completion of devolution with the resolution of the thorny matter of policing and justice. That will be a crowning achievement, if we can get there.

The Northern Ireland Bill affects those elements of the November statement and the Assembly and Executive Review Committee report that require primary legislation. The Bill provides a framework for the post-devolution Administration—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy Leader of the House, but, to echo his first words, the motion is narrow, and we should not start to anticipate the programme motion, which may be tabled at a later stage. If he seeks to widen the argument now, apart from my having the duty to rule him out of order, he would widen the debate to the extent that other hon. Members might want to participate. Then we really would have a problem.

That is of great assistance to my speech. I do not wish to stray into considering the programme motion—I merely wanted to provide some context so that people understand that the only reason for the business of the House motion is to enable Members to table amendments in the next few days. If they are tabled tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday, they could be published before Second Reading. That is not the House’s normal custom. It is necessary only because we hope that the programme motion will be carried next Wednesday. That would enable us to take all the Bill’s stages in one day.

One other point is material. The House requires speed only because there will be further stages after the Bill completes its passage here—namely, a Bill in the Assembly to establish the department of justice and a resolution by the Assembly, followed by Orders in Council, which must then come before the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you agreed with me that the motion is a simple one. I recognise that the time scale for the legislation is compressed, but the Government have allowed 10 days between the introduction of the Bill and the debates to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members can familiarise themselves with the detail and, if necessary and if they choose to do so, table amendments before Second Reading. I hope that the motion has the support of the House today.

Order. I call Mr. Shailesh Vara. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that it is helpful to rise in one’s place if one is seeking to be called.

I may have been here three and a half years, but your advice is always welcome, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It shows that no matter how long one has been here, there are always things to learn. I will keep my comments brief. We are operating under unusual circumstances, and, in a different context, we on the Conservative Benches would perhaps have taken a different view. However, all things considered, we will be supporting the motion before us.

This debate is about an unusual procedure, although obviously not one that is out of order, because it has occasionally been used before. However, it is an unusual procedure to enable amendments to be tabled before Second Reading. We have procedures in this House for a reason. We have them to allow orderly debate, particularly on legislation, in order to ensure that Members have proper opportunities to raise points that they think are important, that those points are properly considered by the proposers of the Bill—in this case the Government—and that there is a possibility to amend the legislation.

That is why we have the well-established procedure of after First Reading having, Second Reading, which is an opportunity to consider the principles of a Bill. Following Second Reading, we have the opportunity to table amendments, with careful provisos to ensure that amendments are not tabled at the last moment and, therefore, that amendments do not come before the House that hon. Members have not had the opportunity to peruse properly. Then we have the Committee stage, which enables proper clause-by-clause, line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill. Then, again after an appropriate period, the Bill, as amended, is reported to the House, with the opportunity for amendments to be tabled and for further consideration before Third Reading.

We are talking about hon. Members having the opportunity to peruse amendments, but it is crucial that the process should give outside organisations and outside interests the time to look at what has been tabled and therefore the chance to influence hon. Members.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: that is why there should be substantial reasons for deviating from the normal process.

I do not wish to pre-empt the consideration of the programme motion, which we anticipate will come before us next week. However, in considering the motion before us today to enable the tabling of early amendments, which is predicated on the assumption that the programme motion will go through and that it will require the House to consider all stages of the Bill in one day, we should at least have the opportunity to raise our concerns.

The problem with the programme motion next week is that it is like a mafia offer. If we debate the programme motion, protest at how short it is and relate it to this debate, we will be eating into the precious minutes available for Second Reading, Committee and Report. Also there might be statements. It is a charade.

I have a good deal of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

What might be the reason for the proposal to table amendments before the basic principles of the Bill have been considered on Second Reading? There are two possible arguments. One is that the urgency of the matter will be such that a programme motion will receive ready assent from hon. Members once it is put before the House, because the urgency is transparent. However, we know that the deadline to complete the remaining stages of the Bill in good order—as many of us want to do—before Royal Assent is not until the end of March. This is the lightest legislative Session that we have ever had, and there is ample time to give more than one day to the consideration of this important Bill. It could have historic significance for Northern Ireland and we ought to give it proper consideration. The argument that we need to be able to table amendments early because this is a matter of urgency is unsustainable, because it would be quite possible for the House to maintain its normal procedures without difficulty in this regard.

The other, less satisfactory, argument would be to suggest that there was consensus among all those in the House on the objectives and details of the Bill and that any amendments should be tabled early to enable proper and swift progress to be made. I do not believe that such consensus exists, however. Yes, there is consensus on the final objective of the Bill. I doubt whether any hon. Member does not wish to see the repatriation to Northern Ireland of the justice functions to ensure proper devolution. The issue is not the final objective, but the detail.

The Bill is not that long; it contains only five clauses. It would not take long to give any amendments proper consideration in Committee in the normal way. So we are talking about a week—or perhaps two, at a maximum—in Committee. That would not disturb the timetable—[Interruption.] The Minister says that it would, but he cannot deny that we have a window of opportunity between now and the end of March for the Bill to be given Royal Assent—[Interruption.] He says that that is not the case. Will he please tell the House why not?

The Government are very keen to ensure that all the processes to which I have referred—some of which, including the timing, are not within our gift and have to be undertaken by the Assembly in Northern Ireland—can be completed by the summer recess. In order for that to happen, the Bill has to be out of both Houses by mid-March.

I think that the Minister is badly advised on that point. I think that that is not the case, but he will no doubt check the actual terms with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.

This is a matter of principle. These changes to our normal procedure are being made not for the convenience of the House but for the convenience of the Executive. They have had since November to bring forward this Bill, but they have not done so. Now they are proposing that we table amendments to it before we have even had the opportunity to discuss its basic principles on Second Reading. That is an abuse of the procedures of the House. We have had Northern Ireland Bills where this has been necessary and welcome, because of the need to make very quick progress, but this is not such a Bill. It is not a Bill about which such arguments can properly be made, and I wish to put on record my protest at this abuse of the normal procedures of the House without any adequate reason.

I do not intend to vote against the motion, because to do so would provide a pyrrhic victory. It would prevent amendments from being tabled if a programme motion was passed next week and the Bill was to be considered in a single day. That itself tells us what an abuse of the process this is. If we do not pass this motion today, a Government Bill will be rubber-stamped by a majority in the House without any proper consideration. That cannot be the right way for the House to proceed.

I rise because I have objected to this motion over the past two nights and because I have consistently criticised in this House successive Secretaries of the State for Northern Ireland for pulling the same stunt time and again. They always come to the House saying that legislation must be passed not expeditiously, but in one day. That is repugnant to me, and it should be repugnant to this House, as it makes a total nonsense of what we do here.

Following up the point of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), speaking for myself—I will perhaps elaborate when we debate the programme motion next week—I think that all we needed was the separation of one evening between Second Reading and then Committee and Third Reading. Indeed, it was originally intended that the legislation would be dealt with this afternoon. I put this question to the Minister: why was it not possible to have Second Reading today and Committee and Report on the Floor of the House next Wednesday? That would have been the most appropriate arrangement, and it would have been consistent with what is happening in another place. Time and again, we find that the House of Lords spends two days on such a matter, while the House of Commons goes through the charade of giving a rubber stamp.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who may be interested to know that the provisional business given for another place indicates that it will take Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill on Monday 9 March, and Report and Third Reading on 11 March. The other place therefore has the opportunity to debate the matter properly, while we in the elected House do not.

Yes, and it will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that surprisingly there is invariably a statement on Wednesday—we sometimes have two statements—yet we have to finish our business by 7 o’clock. If we have a programme motion to consider and then Second Reading, Committee and Report, the idea that we will have had proper debate is simply a fiction.

Our colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party will legitimately and not unreasonably expect to say something about the Bill, as will Social Democratic and Labour party Members. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is likely to want to come along, and there are other parties—I think the Liberal party speaks here on a proxy basis for the Alliance party. It will be a nonsense.

This motion is necessary to get over the embarrassment; it facilitates the charade of next week. I am not prepared to acquiesce in it by my silence, and we should bear it in mind that my right hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Mr. Hain) and for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) have done this time and again. I support the legislation in principle, but it does not have to be done with a wave of a magic wand; it needs proper examination.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a broad consensus in Northern Ireland about the principle of devolving policing and justice powers, but will he accept it from me that there is also a broad swathe of opinion in Northern Ireland among those who are quite content to allow the present position to pertain for months, if not years, in order to allow what is happening at the moment to stabilise, and only then to proceed in the fullness of time, thus negating the need for the process that is under way today?

I accept, of course, what the hon. Gentleman says; he speaks for his constituents in East Londonderry and he knows the territory—I use the term in the broadest sense to mean the Province—very well. He knows that I accept his views on these matters.

The motion before us basically means that whatever is said on Second Reading will not be able to influence or counsel anyone as to the nature of the amendments they table. What burns me up is that the minutes of Second Reading will be a total charade. What normally happens, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, particularly when it comes to legislation that is not party political, is that people want to reflect on and contemplate the details of what is said on Second Reading. Undertakings are often given, which mean that further amendments will not need to be tabled. Sometimes amendments are needed to probe, but that has to be done before Second Reading—before seeking undertakings from the Secretary of State.

There are undertakings to be sought; let me provide one example. The Bill proposes that arrangements facilitated by it will go on until 2012, and there is a sunset clause. That assumes, however, that the Alliance party will still be part of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the next Stormont general election. The Bill makes no provision for what will happen otherwise. There is a vacuum—a void. I should like the opportunity both to press the Secretary of State on Second Reading and to table an amendment after Second Reading, to take cognisance of what might well prove to be another constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland in 2011.

Like my hon. Friend, I believe that no legislation should be microwaved through the House in this way. The Bill makes changes to—and arguably does injury to, in some cases—at least four pieces of legislation that the House has passed in the last 10 years or so. The Bill will have unforeseen consequences, especially if it is passed hastily and legitimate amendments are not even considered. It will also have foreseen consequences for which no one should wish to provide—namely the collapse, or dissolution, of a Department in 2012, and possibly no Minister’s being appointed after 2011. That is not a sensible way for the House to legislate.

I agree with those comments, which buttress the concern that I have expressed about the motion.

You will have observed in your reading of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it not only creates a Ministry of Justice, but deals with judicial appointments. I am not opposed to those measures, but they are extremely intricate. In any United Kingdom or, rather, England and Wales legislation, the Secretaries of State on both sides pore over such matters. They chew the cud. They ask for reassurances. All these measures, however, will go through in an afternoon. Moreover, if unamended, the Bill will allow major subordinate legislation to be passed elsewhere, in the form of an order, in an hour and a half.

I wish to acknowledge the courtesy of the Leader of the House, who met me earlier today to discuss the issue at some length. I indicated to the Deputy Leader of the House, by means of a nod and wink, that I wished to know whether there was any news. Apparently there is not, in which case I am disappointed, but I am grateful for the courtesy shown by the Leader of the House in the first place.

As was made clear in the Chamber when I issued a challenge during business questions, the Government argue that this is not merely a matter that requires expedition, but a matter of the utmost urgency. They imply that if the hon. Member for Thurrock frustrates the process he is a dead rotter, because he will scupper the whole architecture of the future of Northern Ireland justice. They also say that they want the legislation to be enacted and up and running by the first anniversary of the creation of the Northern Ireland Executive—and, they say, it is now two years since the creation of the Executive, so we are way behind time. Some people who do not appear in the House are complaining. Well, I do appear in the House, and I want to enact the legislation correctly. As I said to someone this morning, the second anniversary is not 1 May, as the Bill claims, but 8 May. That gives us an extra week in which a day can be allotted for the Committee stage and Third Reading.

The hon. Gentleman is making an extraordinarily powerful speech with which I entirely agree, but I seek his advice on one point. If the House divides on the motion—in which case I shall be inclined to vote against it—might that not mean that no amendments can be tabled? Are we in a Catch-22 situation?

That is why I observed earlier this afternoon that this was like a mafia offer: an offer that I cannot refuse. I do want the opportunity to table some amendments, inadequate though that opportunity is. At least their lordships may pick them up, seeing the nonsense that has gone on in this place. At least we shall be able to flag up some amendments that have not been explored. That does not mean, however, that we should do the ultimate in rubber-stamping and nod the motion through, as we did last night and the night before, without its being made clear to the current Leader of the House that we have had enough, and will refer to this debate on the next occasion when Northern Ireland legislation has to go through its stages in a single day.

I find wholly bogus and somewhat offensive the suggestion that we have to cut, and make a sham of, our practices in order to facilitate the Northern Ireland Assembly. Both individual Members and the body itself have my greatest respect, but with respect, it has plenary Sessions two days a week at most, finishes at 6 o’clock, and will adjourn in June or early July. It has been advanced to me that that is why it is imperative that this mother of Parliaments must fit in with the Northern Ireland Assembly and go through this nonsense. That is not acceptable. I hope that there might be some change even at this late stage, especially given that the Deputy Leader of the House has indicated that the Leader of the House is still contemplating the issue.

Let me explain what I propose: we should have the Second Reading next Wednesday, the opportunity to table amendments after that, and proceed again as swiftly as is sensible and possible to facilitate Northern Ireland Members in particular, so that probably the following Wednesday we would have the Committee and Third Reading.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has made powerful points this afternoon with which my party is in agreement. He says that he has been told that what is proposed is being done in order to facilitate the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am a Member of that Assembly—indeed, a member of the Executive, and there are colleagues present beside me who are in even more senior positions in the Northern Ireland Executive—but I am not aware of any request from the Northern Ireland Assembly to the effect that this legislation has to be introduced on a particular date or that it has to be rushed through in a particular day. The hon. Member for Thurrock made the point that even if this needs to be done speedily, it does not need to be done in one day, and that time can be found in order to allow at least a gap between some stages, which would allow both proper reflection and consideration of some of the issues and amendments to be tabled in the normal way.

Is not the main factor in determining the timing of this matter whether there is an end date? As no end date has been agreed for the devolution of policing and justice, however, is there not plenty of time to have a full debate in this House and the other place, and to allow the Assembly to have legislation?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, he speaks with great authority on these matters as he is the First Minister of Northern Ireland as well as a Member of this House. He makes the point that was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell): the urgency on this matter seems to be coming entirely from one direction—the Government. It is not a demand of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the parties there. The Government must recognise that by seeking to build up a sense of urgency and a sense that these matters must be dealt with within a very constrained timetable they do not contribute to building confidence in Northern Ireland that the matters have been dealt with in a proper, sensible and thorough way.

People in Northern Ireland regard policing and justice and the devolution thereof as an extremely serious issue. It has taken up enormous amounts of time in discussion among the parties in Northern Ireland, because given our history and the sensitivity of these issues, any decision to devolve policing and justice is a very serious step, and it has to be done on the right conditions and when there is confidence in the community. That remains the position.

On the legislation, I take issue with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). From the perspective of Unionism, and particularly of the Democratic Unionist party, we are content that many of the legislation’s provisions are helpful and an advance on the previous position. I know that the hon. Gentleman sees it as a retrograde step, and I know that he takes issue with Sinn Fein on their negotiating ability on some of these issues—

Order. May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that he should return to the question of timing, which is the issue before the House?

I shall do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The issues need proper consideration, instead of being crammed into a short space of time. They deserve to be debated at length, and there is no reason why we should take only one day.

Time and again when we deal with Northern Ireland legislation—and it seems only to apply to Northern Ireland legislation—it is rushed through in a short time. That is not acceptable. It is not right and it should not happen, especially in relation to this very important issue.

It has been said that this timetable is necessitated by the requirements of the Assembly. As other hon. Members have pointed out, there is no reference or record showing that the Assembly has made such a request or that there is such a demand, and there is no business specifically timetabled for the Assembly in this respect, even though some of us regret that fact. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee has not agreed anything that would suggest that it expects legislation to be introduced within a given time. The relevant legislation in the Assembly would have to be tabled jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I know of no agreement between them to do so or with the Committee to schedule business in the Assembly on that basis. The House therefore cannot rely on the impression that was given by the Deputy Leader of the House in that respect.

I have already indicated that, like others, I do not believe that microwave legislation can be a good idea in any circumstances. This legislation has implications. It will change things that were provided for in various bits of legislation over the past few years, and we need to tease out whether it does so carefully, properly and responsibly. Many of us wish to table amendments that would offer better fall-back positions than the Bill does. The fall-back positions in the Bill are more like fall-down situations, such as Departments being dissolved, left without a Minister or having their functions broken up and distributed across other Departments. Some of us will table amendments that would create a reliable fall-back situation, but in all likelihood there will be no time for those amendments to be dealt with.

What the hon. Gentleman has said, and what DUP Members said earlier, convinces me that it would be unwise for amendments to be tabled before we have had the opportunity to hear what the parties in Northern Ireland have to say about the legislation, but that will not be possible under the timetable before us today.

The hon. Gentleman makes a telling and important point. It may be useful that there is some agreement on that particular aspect, at least in procedural terms, between a party such as mine and a party such as the DUP. We obviously differ on some of the substance of the Bill. For example, my party wants to see the devolution of justice and policing happen quickly, but it must happen on the right terms. We disagree with the DUP about the injury that the Bill would do to previous provisions, including the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, but we share a common concern that if we are to be competent, responsible legislators, we should all have a fair chance to air our views and table amendments. That would be the best approach for the reputation of politics. Legislation for the optics, especially to suit a party that is not here, is not the best way for this House to conduct its business.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whose speech as a parliamentarian will, I hope, have been noted by those on his Front Bench. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House has taken on board the comments made today.

I am afraid that this is not a one-off incident. Time and again, we have seen the time for Parliament to debate a controversial issue dramatically restricted. It is not in the Government’s interests to do that, as it appears that they are hiding from proper scrutiny. As we have already heard, we are in a Catch-22 situation. If we vote against the motion, no amendments can be moved. I hope that the Leader of the House will have heard the debate and will propose a revised timetable.

This year, the House is sitting for one of the shortest periods in living memory. If we had not had this debate, we would have finished three or three and a half hours earlier than we were required to. The problem is not that there is not time, but that the Government are rushing through something that they do not want scrutinised. The Deputy Leader of the House is shaking his head, so I assume that that means that he has changed his mind and will give more time for proper scrutiny. Failure to do that reflects badly on the Government and does not help their case. If the Deputy Leader of the House wants to intervene and argue against that point, he can, but I am afraid that it is true that time and again the more controversial the issue, the less time we get to debate it.

Far be it from me to persuade the Deputy Leader of the House to contribute if he has no desire to.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On Monday afternoon, this House welcomed 125 British servicemen and women on their return from Iraq. They were members of 7 Armoured Brigade. How can I place on record thanks to the staff of this Palace for welcoming those troops so warmly? A lot of them completely put themselves out, doing things that are unusual in this Palace, such as opening doors to allow people to walk through in a way that was suitable for those servicemen and women in uniform. Can we place on record our thanks to the staff as well as our thanks to our armed forces?

The hon. Gentleman asks how he can put his thoughts on the record. First, I think that we would all sincerely share his thoughts. Secondly, he has put them firmly on the record and has done so well.