I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
After the long negotiations at Hillsborough Castle and the drama of Tuesday’s vote in the Assembly, we now come to what I expect—or perhaps I should say “I hope”—will be a rather more low-key debate on the setting of salaries and allowances for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I want to begin by congratulating Northern Ireland’s politicians on taking the decision on Tuesday to transfer policing and justice powers on 12 April. I also want to thank again all those who have an interest in Northern Ireland affairs, wherever they sit in the House, for their support for the devolution process. I particularly want to thank colleagues who speak for the Opposition parties on these matters; whenever we can, we try to work towards a consensus. Putting power into the hands of local people is the answer and the way forward. As we debate the orders that were laid yesterday to facilitate the completion of devolution, I am confident that we will continue to see cross-party consensus here at Westminster.
From my Back-Bench position, may I reciprocate by offering my praise to the Government for what is probably their most successful Department? Twelve or 13 years ago, many people did not think that it was possible to secure a lasting peace, but I am sure the Minister would agree that the transfer of policing powers pretty much guarantees that we will never go back to the dark days of the troubles.
We have just over three hours for this debate, and in that time, it would not be possible for me to give a full list of all Labour’s achievements in government. However, I am happy to accept the comments of the hon. Gentleman, who played a considerable part when he spoke from his Front Bench on Northern Ireland matters.
The Bill before the House today will enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to delegate control of its salaries and allowances to an independent body. At present, the Assembly is explicitly prevented from delegating such functions under section 47(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill will remove that restriction and enable the Assembly to confer the functions of setting salaries and allowances for Assembly Members on an independent body. In keeping with the spirit of devolution, the Bill does not place a duty on the Assembly to change its system of determining salaries and allowances; rather, it leaves it up to the Assembly to decide what type of system to adopt. Presenting the Assembly with the power of delegation is not as straightforward as merely removing section 47(7) of the 1998 Act. The Bill therefore expressly provides that the Assembly may delegate control of its salaries and allowances, and also makes a number of important technical consequential amendments.
The Bill, however, is short. It consists of only three clauses and no schedules. Clause 1 amends section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to enable the Assembly to delegate the power of determination in relation to the setting of salaries and allowances. The clause introduces two new subsections to the 1998 Act. Proposed new subsection (2A) will make it possible either for the Assembly to determine salaries or allowances payable to Members or for those salaries and allowances to be determined by a person other than the Assembly. Proposed new subsection (2B) makes it clear that different salaries may be set for different jobs, such as those of Ministers or Whips.
Clause 2 makes consequential amendments to section 48 of the 1998 Act. That clause deals with pensions, allowances and gratuities for persons who cease to be Members of the Assembly or who cease to hold certain offices but continue as Assembly Members. Clause 3 deals solely with the short title and commencement, with sections 1 and 2 of the Bill coming into force by commencement order. It will, of course, be a matter for the Assembly to take this matter forward following the passage of the Bill, and I understand that a Bill will be brought to the Assembly that will establish an independent body to set salaries and allowances. I am also told that the intention is to have the Assembly legislation in place prior to the next Assembly election, which is scheduled for 2011.
Is it understood and accepted that when someone is in the position of having a dual mandate, a reasonable case exists for that person to receive both salaries on the grounds that they are doing the work? I know that there are constraints on public expenditure and some issues of principle as well, but it seems difficult to understand why a person doing work in two Assemblies should not be paid for both jobs.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had an advance copy of my speech, but I was at that very moment about to come to the question of dual mandates. When the Bill was first published, it dealt simply with whether the Assembly should set allowances and salaries or whether they should be delegated to an independent body. Certain amendments, however, including a Government amendment, were considered in the House of Lords, suggesting that the salary of the Assembly Members should reduce to zero if they received a salary as a Member of Parliament or indeed as a Member of the European Parliament.
If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he argues that if someone is carrying out a dual mandate, they should receive a salary for carrying out both functions. The Government’s view—I think that this was also the consensus view in the House of Lords—is that they should not receive the salary for the second job, but should continue to receive the allowances for both functions, because their constituents should not suffer from any loss of service. The consensus view in the other place—and I hope and expect in this place, too—is that when someone claims a salary as a Member of Parliament, they should receive no salary for being a Member of the Legislative Assembly.
The issue does not arise in my case and is never likely to. As it happens, I still do not understand the logic behind the position, although I do understand the dilemma. When the person receives an allowance, the Minister says that it is for the constituents, but the reality is that the work is still being done, so a salary is still relevant. The issue remains a real problem.
I do not think it is, given what the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said. Although it is true that two different institutions are involved when the Member of Parliament is also a Member of the Assembly and that secretarial and other support should be provided to serve constituents in both areas, there are only so many hours in the day and there are only so many constituents—thus the Member should be paid one salary.
It will certainly not be helpful.
This business about there being only 24 hours in a day is absolutely right. It seems acceptable in the UK to have two castes of MPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly, while Ministers are on a very significant and disproportionate salary in comparison with that of the legislators. That is unhealthy and, human nature being what it is, it militates against principled resignations. At the time of the Wilson Government and before it, there were far more principled resignations. The disparity between the salaries of Ministers on the one hand and of MPs and MLAs on the other is unhealthy and it runs against principled resignations. I want to put that on the record.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to put that on the record. While the hon. Member for Stone and I have had an exchange about whether one or two salaries should be paid, the key point is that everyone recognises that we are dealing with an interim period here. The Kelly report made clear the expectation that dual mandates would end by 2011 or by 2015 at the very latest, so in any event we are seeing the beginning of the end of dual mandates. The days of someone being both an MP and an MLA, as described by the hon. Member for Stone, are almost over.
I preface my remarks by saying genuinely that I mean no disrespect to any hon. Members from Northern Ireland or those who represent Scottish constituencies. The question of allowances, however, seems perverse. In the House of Commons, the same office cost allowance applies irrespective of whether a Member represents Scotland, England or Northern Ireland. Yet health, housing, transport and education are dealt with by the MLAs. How can it be right for a Member representing England to receive exactly the same office cost allowances as his colleague from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, while an MP who is also an MLA is given additional resources to do the same kind of work? Either English Members of Parliament are not being given enough resources, or those who represent Scottish, Welsh and Irish constituencies are being given too much.
Order. The debate is in danger of widening beyond its remit.
Order. Let us not worry too much about who started it. I am more concerned with who ends it, and that is me.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has not only widened the debate, but taken me beyond my responsibilities. However, it may interest him and other Members to learn that the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission has said that from the beginning of the next Session of the Assembly, the office costs allowance of an Assembly Member who is also a Member of Parliament should be halved, which reflects the amount of additional work carried out.
I do not particularly want to pursue the “Cash question”, but I wish to put down a marker for the Minister’s consideration. I understand the logic employed by those who argue that the dual mandate is wrong, but ultimately it is not for us to prohibit but for the electorate to decide. If the electorate decide that they are best represented in this place by someone who also represents it in a regional Parliament, is it not a little odd for us to prohibit that?
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is ultimately for the electorate to decide who represents them in this place, in the Assembly, or anywhere else; and it is for political parties to determine whether it is appropriate for people to stand as candidates for different legislatures. I think that there is now a consensus on that.
We can understand why dual mandates arose in a part of the United Kingdom that was riven with conflict, and where people encountered difficulties in standing for political office. We respect those who did stand for election to councils, to the Assembly and, indeed, to this place, but we are moving on from those times, and with that maturity comes the opportunity to focus attention on the one legislature to which people are elected.
No, it is to do with the constitutional arrangements in the context of devolution. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for as long as there is one United Kingdom and one sovereign Parliament with jurisdiction over the other UK countries, the issue of the dual mandate—even in the context of increased devolution—will continue to be an issue of constitutional importance and significance.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is pleased to have had an opportunity to put his views on the record.
It will, of course, be for the Assembly to implement all these measures following the passage of the Bill. I understand that a Bill establishing an independent body to set salaries and allowances will be presented to the Assembly, and I am told that it is intended to be in place before the next Assembly election, in 2011.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the only devolved legislature that is unable to delegate control in relation to the setting of salaries and allowances. The Welsh Assembly has an independent review panel to consider pay and allowances, and although the salaries of Members of the Scottish Parliament are linked to Westminster salaries, the Scottish Parliament also has power to delegate control of allowances. The Bill will create independent control of salaries and allowances for all the devolved legislatures. From the correspondence and discussions that I have had with the Speaker of the Assembly and with politicians of all parties, I know that there is a firm intention to take this matter forward once the Bill passes through the House.
It is important that we make these changes. It is a change to primary legislation—to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to facilitate the choice being available to Members of the Assembly. To conclude, the Government believe that it is right to move towards independent control of salaries and allowances in the Assembly.
I join the Minister by saying how pleased Opposition Members were to see the Northern Ireland Assembly agree to the devolution of policing and justice measures, which we see as the final piece in the jigsaw of devolution. It will enable the parties in Northern Ireland now to concentrate on the everyday issues that affect people in the Province, education being one of the most important. We look forward to the orders coming before the house on 22 March and we will support them.
I also agree with the Minister that it is useful when we can work together on these issues. He and I have had a number of meetings on the Bill. It is a short Bill—only three clauses—but we have had at least that many meetings on it and probably more. But I think that that has been useful; I say that to inform the House, if I needed to, that there is bipartisan support for what is going on in Northern Ireland. The issues are too important to be discussed in a party political way; they are bigger than that and we try as far as we can to work together with the Government. We do not always agree but when we disagree, we do so in a civilised way, which is the way forward.
We welcome the Bill, which addresses two of the main issues of concern. The fact that politicians—not just in Northern Ireland—do at present set their own salaries and allowances is looked upon by the public with some incredulity. I am pleased that that is changing for the Westminster Parliament and it is right that we introduce the Bill to give the Northern Ireland Assembly the ability to change that arrangement as well. There were good reasons for the Bill being introduced originally as it dealt with double-jobbing, which I will come to in a moment. Things have moved on—the Minister is right—and it is only right that we look at the Bill again.
I entirely agree that an independent body should set the salaries and allowances of Assembly Members. That is a start towards trying to restore at least some trust and faith in the political process. That is the way we have gone here in Westminster—I believe rightly—and the principle is right. As the Minister said, the Assembly cannot delegate such responsibilities at the moment, but the Bill brings Northern Ireland into line with Wales and Scotland.
We felt—it was certainly the case in the other place—that the proposal was slightly weak in that it did not require the Assembly to move in the direction outlined but merely gave it the competence to do so. The noble Lord Glentoran tabled an amendment to require the Assembly to delegate the decision making to a separate body. The Government, and the Liberal Democrats for that matter, did not support the amendment, so we are where we are. But I am heartened that the Minister believes that a Bill will be brought before the Assembly to make that move before 2011 when the next Assembly elections will be held. That is a good thing; I will not make too much of that in the debate as we understand that progress will be made in that respect.
The second part of the Bill deals with the removal of the salary of Assembly Members if they also sit in one of the Houses of Parliament or the European Parliament. Again, we support that move and believe it is a step in the right direction. The Minister briefly referred to Sir Christopher Kelly’s report on MPs’ salaries and expenses. Its recommendation 40 states:
“The practice of permitting a Westminster MP simultaneously to sit in a devolved legislature should be brought to an end, ideally by the time of the elections to the three devolved legislatures scheduled for May 2011.”
That is a very clear statement, and we entirely agree with it for a number of reasons, which I shall come to later.
In an article in the Belfast Telegraph in May 2009 my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out that being an MP is not a part-time job, and I think all Members of this House would agree. I fully understand the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr. Cash) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), but it should be pointed out that if people are physically sitting in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they cannot also be physically sitting here in this Chamber, and they cannot at the same time be attending Committees both here and in the Assembly. I think that the public—our constituents—have the right to see that at least we are available for parliamentary business on a regular basis, and that is simply not possible if people are required to serve in two places.
However, does my hon. Friend not agree with me—and, indeed, the Minister—that if there is to be a prohibition, it is okay for organised political parties to choose to adhere to it, but there should not be a provision in law? At the end of the day, it is up to the electorate to decide.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I have thought about this issue at length. May I return to his question in a moment, however? First, let me say that when the Northern Ireland Assembly was originally set up, it was right for us not to outlaw dual mandates, because that would have meant that Assembly Members and Ministers could have been very inexperienced. Through having the dual mandate, people who have become Ministers are, by and large, quite experienced politicians, and not necessarily just in Northern Ireland, but here in Westminster as well. I therefore think there were good reasons for not outlawing dual mandates at the start, but we have moved on now.
Let me now directly answer my hon. Friend’s question as best I can. This issue is not only about whether people are able to spend sufficient time both in the Assembly and here—and I have personally witnessed occasions when it has been impossible for hon. Members from Northern Ireland to serve on Committees here, which is not a good situation, as I do not think that allows them to do both jobs properly. There is a further point to make, about people’s ability to serve two masters. Westminster MPs should be able to take a dispassionate judgment on the workings and performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I do not think they are entirely able to do so if they also sit on that Assembly. Therefore, I do not think this is merely an issue of time; I think it is also about whether one person can serve two masters.
This is a very important issue in the Northern Ireland context, because, after all, five Members who have been elected to this House have never taken their seats. When they appealed to the electorate to elect them, their constituents knew they would not take their seats, but, nevertheless, they were returned. If we go down the road my hon. Friend suggests, the logical consequence is surely not to allow people who are not prepared to take their seats to stand for election.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) takes me on to a slightly different issue. I understand that when Sinn Fein candidates stand before the electorate at a general election, they say to the electorate that they will not take their seats if they are elected.
Yes, they do take their expenses.
I am very unhappy about the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire raises. I agree that Sinn Fein Members tell their electorate that they will not take their seats, and the people who vote for Sinn Fein might accept that. However, people who vote for the Social Democratic and Labour party—or the Democratic Unionist party or the Ulster Unionist party—have a right to be represented in this House, so I do not think that is acceptable for those who are elected not to take their seats. I would much rather that Sinn Fein Members take their seats in this House. I do not know whether I have fully satisfied my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, but I have given the reasons why our party’s Front-Bench spokesmen oppose the practice of holding a dual mandate. The Bill was too narrow in scope to include an amendment that would have corrected that situation and we should have liked to amend it to outlaw the practice. But we are where we are, and in the Lords the Government tabled a compromise amendment that we were happy to agree to.
A Conservative Government would revisit the issue, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said. We recognise that most Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are engaged in two jobs, but many of them agree that things have moved on and they have to change. If elected to Government, before introducing legislation we would try to come to a voluntary agreement—a negotiated settlement whereby the practice does not continue; but my right hon. Friend has said that if necessary, we would consider introducing legislation to bring it to an end. We feel that is what the public require. They also want a separate body to set allowances and salaries in Northern Ireland, rather than the Members who receive them. For those reasons, I am happy to support the Bill.
As a Member of this House who has also been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and sits there, I begin by declaring the appropriate interest.
The Bill is welcome because it will help to discharge the agreed wish of all the parties in the Assembly—to make sure that we move beyond the strict provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which obliges the Assembly to be responsible for setting its pay and pension arrangements, to appoint an independent body. Because the Assembly is bound by the 1998 Act, legislation is needed in this Parliament to enable the Assembly to do that. As the Minister indicated, that is the clear wish and intent. The Speaker of the Assembly and relevant officials have committed themselves to providing a Bill. We know that Bills are often promised and we commit ourselves to all sorts of reforms and schemes of legislation in Northern Ireland that are often delayed. I hope that that Bill will not be one of them, because it is important.
I recall the 1998 Act and the issues that determined the drawing up of the rules. Northern Ireland Office Ministers at the time felt that that was the way to do it. They did not want to open up other issues. They thought that setting up other bodies might be more complicated and could give rise to other questions. That was then. We are all in a different place now and are looking at the issues in the light of different considerations and different public attitudes.
This Bill has been given welcome amendments to make further moves on the question of the dual mandate. I stated my personal position in the Assembly as far back as February 2009, in a debate on dual mandates: if I was re-elected to this House it would be on the basis that I would stand down from the Assembly. I did not believe that the dual mandate was sustainable, particularly if we achieved the devolution of justice and policy and had a more complete and settled Assembly, freer from some of the duplication of business that goes through this place and also plays out in the Assembly. Such things gave rise to parties needing people to perform a dual mandate, with particular obligations on those in leadership positions to be in both the Assembly and the House at Westminster. The more the business in both Chambers becomes distinct, and the more complete and settled the process, the more the case for such transition juggling disappears. I set out clearly in personal terms that that was the case.
My party made those points in submissions to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee as far back as late 2007. We said that all parties needed to agree and commit to either a fixed date or a point in the electoral cycle when dual mandates should end. Unless we get a fixed position on that from all the parties, one party will use what another party is doing as its excuse for having to continue the dual mandate, particularly when leadership figures in one party have dual mandate and make that claim on the basis that there is some justification for it, by way of advantage or influence. Other parties would also feel compelled to do or justified in doing the same, so it needs to be set.
There have been motions and debates in the Assembly on this issue—not just the one in February that I have mentioned but another last November when the Ulster Unionist party tabled a motion that highlighted the Kelly committee recommendation that 2011 would be a desirable end-date for the dual mandate. My party supported that motion and opposed the Democratic Unionist party’s amendment that 2015 should be the backstop, so we were saying that the dual mandate should be terminated sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party combined to go for the later date—the Alliance completely confounding the position that had been taken up on its behalf, based on its previous position, by the Liberal Democrats, including by Members of another place and this House who had raised that issue in early-day motions. So, the Alliance party confounded its position—all, as we know, in pursuit of other gains, offices and privileges. [Interruption.] It changed its position on that. We, at least, have been consistent on that issue and others, and we have not embarrassed our friends or ourselves in anything that we have done in that regard. I say that to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) who is making remarks from a sedentary position.
The amendment tabled in another place to end the practice by which someone who has a dual mandate receives a third of the salary of an MLA if they are also an MP is welcome and we agree with it. Indeed, that is one of the things that we suggested as far as back as the submissions that we made to the AERC in November 2007. However, the steps to reduce the dual pay, or the fraction of dual pay, should not, of themselves, be seen to deal with or discharge the question mark over dual mandates per se. For reasons that other hon. Members have touched on, I believe that the issue still needs to be clearly and cleanly resolved in its own terms.
The amendment perhaps does not go far enough, because although the Bill allows people to be Members of the Assembly and not be paid as MLAs, it still allows them to be Ministers or other office holders in the Assembly and to be paid as such. I believe that a Minister in an Assembly should be full time, accountable and available to that Assembly and should not also be in another place. That is my position and that is why I did not take up an appointment as a Minister in the current Executive when I could have done so when devolution came in 2007. Having been a Minister before, when I was not an MP, I knew the pressures, issues and difficulties of the work, so I made that choice. I still think that that is an issue to consider and I would welcome a further amendment to the Bill on that. If there were such an amendment, I would accept an exception, if Members wanted one, for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which should of course be elected by the Assembly, although they currently are not in what is a departure from the Good Friday Agreement, under the St. Andrews agreement. If we were to revert to having the Assembly elect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, then I would say, in the same spirit as the comments of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), that the Assembly should have the choice to elect whomsoever it chooses as a Member. Otherwise, there should be that restriction on the role of Ministers as a matter of principle.
People have been able to justify the dual mandate until now because of all the circumstances, transition and change. Some of us, including the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), have been able to use our different roles in a complementary way—in changing credit union regulation, for example. We both used our positions on a Committee in the Assembly to address the issue there, and we are also using our positions here to take forward the other side of that issue. There are other examples about which we can say that we have been able to use the roles in a sensible and complementary way, but I do not believe that those good examples can be stretched any longer into a general rule of justification for dual mandates.
I believe that the business that will confront this House in the next term will be big enough and that it will touch on the lives of many people in Northern Ireland. It will interface quite heavily with devolution. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that there is such a neat and total separation between all the public business that is conducted in this House and the strict confines of devolution, given the budgets and laws that are set here. In many ways, they have consequential implications and direct impacts on the discretion and choices available to the Assembly and the Executive. However, I believe that we need to move into a situation where the people of Northern Ireland know clearly that their MLAs are full time, committed and active in the Assembly and its channels. The same must be true of MPs here.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to this House’s status as a sovereign Parliament. However, I must point out that legislation has been passed in this Parliament—not in this term, but during the peace process—to amend the previous restrictions that meant that a Member of this House could not also be a member of the Oireachtas, either as a TD or as a member of Seanad Eireann. The restrictions also meant that a person could not be a member of the Assembly in Northern Ireland and a member of the Oireachtas. They have been lifted, but the Bill does not deal with the question of what happens when a person is a member of the Assembly and of the Oireachtas. People are now legally entitled to belong to both, so what happens now? If we are going to look at things in their totality, that should be borne in mind as well.
May I join others in expressing my pleasure at taking part in a debate on what is, for once, a fairly non-contentious piece of legislation? We have come through yet another period in Northern Ireland politics when the debate has been occasionally fraught and sometimes even febrile, so dealing with a Bill that is essentially the subject of consensus—among the parties, if not necessarily always within them, apparently—is indeed a pleasant change.
When he introduced the Bill, the Minister said that it was short and that he could be short in speaking about it too. I think that perhaps I can be even shorter. Along with others, I think that the Bill was framed and conceived to be permissive rather than directive, and that giving the power to delegate allowances from the Northern Ireland Assembly to a free-standing body is a sensible way to proceed.
That approach understands the nature of devolution. It would be entirely wrong for this House to start telling the Assembly what it ought to be doing. In any event, and for all intents and purposes, it is pretty clear that that is the intention of those who currently sit in the Chamber in Belfast, so it appears to me that we will all end up at the same destination, whichever route we take.
The only element worthy of some debate today is the question of dual mandates. I have long taken the view that the continuation of dual mandates is unsustainable; perhaps I am informed particularly by the fact that I represent a Scottish constituency. If the situation is unsustainable for a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Belfast, it must surely be unsustainable for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Only one person holds such a dual mandate and I hope that after the general election there will be no others. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) eloquently explained, it is simply not sustainable for people to seek to represent constituents in two separate Chambers at once.
There is a different issue in respect of somebody who is a Minister in Belfast and also represents constituents here—that much is understood. However, there is a distinction to be drawn. Being a Minister gives extra responsibilities to a person while they are in London, but being a Member in Belfast and London, or Edinburgh and London, requires people to be in three places at once, rather than just two—we have to add in the constituency at the same time.
As others have said, the situation arose for good and understandable reasons. It is a mark of the progress that we have made that we should now regard the Northern Ireland Assembly as sufficiently mature for the question of dual mandates to be able to be consigned to the history books rather than being a feature of contemporary politics. I agree with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that we should eventually look to an abolition de plano rather than merely the removal of the salary. However, the provisions represent a helpful and necessary first step; at the very least, there should not be a material advantage to those who seek to use the system to acquire a second or third job by being a Member here as well as in one of the devolved institutions.
There is very little with which we would take issue in the Bill. Perhaps some further teasing out of these issues will be allowed in Committee, but this is a sensible measure that commands a broad consensus. We are pleased to be part of that consensus.
I should like to start by making reference to the Minister’s welcome for the decision taken by the Assembly in the vote on policing and justice. I have to put it on the record that there is a lot of disappointment in Northern Ireland today at the stance of the Ulster Unionist party, now a sister party of the Conservative party. It did not support policing and justice. That seems very hypocritical and it is very sad that the party should have taken that decision. But we are where we are.
On the face of it, the Bill is short and fairly technical. It amends section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly, if it so wishes, to delegate responsibility for the salaries and allowances of its Members. I think, and my party believes, that that is a wise move that will be widely welcomed. Politicians should not be responsible for setting the level of their salaries or allowances.
The Bill makes another important amendment to section 47. Clause 1(5) will amend section 47 to ensure that a Member of the Legislative Assembly who is also a Member of either House of this Parliament or of the European Parliament will not receive a salary from the Assembly. That is already my party’s position; it has made that very clear. Even before that proposal, the Democratic Unionist party had, of its own volition, stated that any Member of this House who would be a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly after this election would not take any salary whatever from the Assembly. I therefore warmly welcome the proposed change, which will put into legislation what we had already said we would do voluntarily. Other parties had not set out their position as clearly. If a Member of this House is also a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he or she should not be paid for the latter. For my part, since being elected to this House I have donated my Assembly salary to many causes and youth organisations in my constituency. That is on the record in the Assembly and in the press, and I am glad to say that this year alone my elected friends and my donations have contributed well over £20,000 to Upper Bann.
The reputation of this Parliament, of the United Kingdom’s Assemblies and of politics in general has been seriously damaged by the recent controversy and the heated debate throughout the nation about politicians’ expenses and so on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Sir Christopher Kelly, who told the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee that any new body appointed to regulate salaries and allowances should also have the power to investigate any alleged wrongdoing without a formal complaint being made? That will add to the transparency and accountability to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, I agree 100 per cent., and our party is on the record as having said that.
Every political party has had cause to be embarrassed by the events of last year. Sometimes that embarrassment has been the result of guilt, and on other occasions it has been the result of wrongdoing, but none the less politicians need to understand that the world has changed. Expectations have changed. Politics and politicians need to change, too, and some time ago my party set out a series of proposals that were aimed at reform. Our suggestions incorporated salaries, allowances, accommodation, the employment of staff, MPs’ outside employment and the operation and oversight of the Fees Office. We were attacked by our political opponents even as we did so, yet many of those who attacked us were content to take little or no action themselves. We made a full submission to the Kelly inquiry, and we are totally committed to supporting the implementation of its recommendations in full.
The DUP remains fully committed to ending dual mandates, and we have taken the lead on that matter. Unfortunately, other parties in Northern Ireland have not committed themselves. Ours is a growing and thriving party, and many in the ranks of the DUP have the potential to play a significant part in politics in Northern Ireland. We want to nurture and develop that rich and diverse pool of talent, and that is what we are doing.
It is clear that we have already embraced the spirit of the Bill. We are already moving towards implementing one of its core provisions—and going beyond it. The same cannot be said for other political parties in Northern Ireland. While they snipe at the Democratic Unionist party, they are, it seems, quite prepared to maintain a double-jobbing mentality. The Ulster Unionist party contains in its ranks several representatives who have more than one job. Some are farmers, some are antique dealers and their party leader is a councillor and an MLA. Indeed, in the past we had double-jobbers, such as my predecessor, Lord Trimble, who was an MP, an MLA and the First Minister. Not a single person ever raised a single criticism of him on that matter from these Benches—not one. There are, however, many people back at home in my constituency of Upper Bann who are very critical of the fact that despite holding so many offices and having access to many allowances, he decided that a single part-time constituency office on double yellow lines at the busiest set of traffic lights in the town of Lurgan in my constituency was sufficient constituency provision. As can be seen from that, there are serious issues about in how many Chambers politicians represent their constituents. However, there are also very important issues about the level of provision and the kind of representation politicians give to their constituents.
In conclusion, as I said at the start of my speech, the Bill is a step in the right direction. More steps will be needed, whether we make them through legislation in this House or through some other mechanism for another day, but I and my party are on record as welcoming this step forward and I am more than happy to support the Bill.
Everybody who has spoken up to now supports the Bill, and so do I. May I begin, as others have, by congratulating those who voted as they did in Stormont, including the party of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and that of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), on Tuesday night? I deeply regret the fact that the Ulster Unionist party did not feel able, at the very least, to abstain. I warmly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for the efforts that they made to persuade the Ulster Unionist party to support the provision. No criticism can be levelled at them, but I believe that the UUP took a regrettable decision and I want to put that on the record.
I also want to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, who approaches his tasks with a wonderfully genial approach, that I do not disagree with him on the subject of dual mandates any more than I disagree with any other colleague. It is just a question of how one comes to the solution. I believe that the dual mandate has played a real part over the past few years in getting us to where we are today. I think that we would all say that the presence of Northern Ireland politicians in this Chamber who have been struggling to create and then to recreate an Assembly in Belfast has enriched our deliberations and continues to do so.
I do not think that the dual mandate is the ideal solution in perpetuity. I personally think that it is entirely commendable that the parties are seeking to outlaw within the party rules the dual mandate and so I have no disagreement with my hon. Friend on that, nor with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It is just a question of how we arrive at the solution, because at the end of the day the electorate must be in a position to elect people whom they wish to send here in the knowledge of all the shortcomings.
I cited the example of Sinn Fein and I deeply regret the fact that its Members do not take their seats here. I deeply regret that there is no Sinn Fein Member on my Select Committee. I have pleaded with them to alter that state of affairs. I have not succeeded and I do not think that there will be any chance of success in the foreseeable future, but am I the one to say that they should not be eligible to stand? They have made their position plain to the electorate. There will be many people in each of their electorates who deeply regret that and vote for other parties, but unless we have proportional representation, which I do not personally favour, I am afraid that those who support the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP and who live in Sinn Fein constituencies will be, to a degree, disfranchised. We have to face up to these facts of politics in Northern Ireland.
I hope that we can move to a situation where all the individual parties have a common line on the dual mandate. I do not have terribly strong views on whether that happens this year, next year or the year after that, but we need to move towards it.
What is much more important is that we need to ensure that the fragile institutions of the Assembly and the Executive are sustained: that is crucial now that they are about to take on the extra responsibility of policing and justice powers. They need good and firm friends in this House, and in the new Parliament, to ensure that they succeed. I entered the House when all the Ulster Unionists, who were virtually the entire representation of Northern Ireland, sat on the Conservative Benches and took the Conservative Whip. We have moved a very long way from there. We have had some extremely difficult and troubled times that I do not wish to go back to—none of us does. We have to ensure that what has now been established is reinforced, built on and supported.
The most heartening feature over the past troubled decades in Northern Ireland has been the bipartisan nature of politics. As I have said before in Select Committee sittings and elsewhere, the Minister of State is an exemplary Minister who is highly regarded throughout the Province, and rightly so.
I am speaking of the Minister of State. That is not to cast any aspersions on the Secretary of State; I am talking about the Minister of State because he is the Minister who is here today to reply to this debate.
The Minister has been exemplary in the way that he has fulfilled his duties. He would be the first to admit, however, that his job has been made easier by the constructive support that he has received from my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and, indeed, from the successive spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] Of course he has had support within Northern Ireland, but I am talking about this House, where he has had the support of the major UK parties. That must have made his task pleasanter and easier, and long may it continue. Whoever has responsibility for Northern Ireland in this House in the new Parliament—if it is a Secretary of State, they will be a Secretary of State shorn of many of the powers that the present one had when he first came to office—needs that cross-party, bipartisan support to ensure that we build on the achievements of recent years.
This is a modest Bill, but I think a good one. It is, rightly, permissive in giving Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly the right to decide how they will have their affairs regulated. There is one appeal that I would make to them. We have had a troubled year in the history of this Parliament; it has been the saddest year of my political career.
I can see the hon. Gentleman nodding vigorously, and I know that you share those views, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It has not been a good year. I do not want to make any criticisms of anyone in particular, but to a degree this House has been panicked into making certain decisions and setting up certain bodies. I am glad that our pay and allowances will be regulated and decided upon by an outside body, but the way in which we rushed to this means that I am not entirely convinced that those who are in charge of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority completely understand what it means to be a Member of Parliament. I would say this to our friends in Northern Ireland: you have time to avoid that problem, so if you are going to have an independent body, be it an offshoot of IPSA or a wholly different body based in and drawn entirely from the Province itself, for goodness’ sake make sure that you take your time and that you are not bounced into a series of rules and regulations that could infringe upon the sovereignty of your Assembly just as I fear that some of the rules and regulations that are being drawn up will infringe upon the sovereignty of this Parliament. I will not be part of it, any more than the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) or my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) will be. Nor, indeed, will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I can speak for all of us in saying that we will miss this place enormously, because we all love it, but it is passing into uncharted waters. It is terribly important that those who regulate our financial affairs do not do so in a way that deters those who are determined on public service and militates against the family man or woman of modest means. We are in danger of making those mistakes here, and I hope that those who represent their constituency in the Assembly in Northern Ireland will learn from our mistakes and take their time in deciding upon and setting up any independent institutions.
With those words of caution, which I hope are entirely relevant and which are meant to be entirely helpful and constructive, I commend the Minister and the Bill. I wish all those who will have to wrestle with these problems in Stormont every possible success in so doing.
Order. The hon. Gentleman needs the leave of the House.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond briefly to what has been a thoughtful, if short debate.
I am grateful again for the support of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for devolution in general and for this particular Bill. He is right that we have discussions outside the Chamber, and I would encourage any Minister and Opposition Front Bencher to do that whenever possible. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, on a number of occasions when there is common ground between us, we should seek out that ground and occupy it together. I was pleased that his noble Friend Lord Glentoran was able to join us for some of our discussions, because he had fair, legitimate questions to ask about the Bill and other matters. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was initially a sense that the Assembly should perhaps be forced to take the action set out in the Bill, but the reassurances that we received from the Assembly’s Speaker and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission helped persuade his noble Friend and others that the Assembly was serious about the matter and could be allowed to get on with exercising its legitimate choice.
The hon. Gentleman, and every other Member who spoke, referred to the dual mandate. There were a range of opinions on that, and through discussions the Government brought forward a change that I believe satisfied everybody, at least to some extent, by reducing to zero the salary of a Member of the Assembly in the given circumstances. We are all clear that we are in a period of transition in relation to dual mandates, and we have had a good airing of the discussion about that this afternoon. Importantly, we remembered that the core purpose behind the Bill was not to end dual mandates but to facilitate a choice for the Assembly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) referred to the fact that often Bills are promised and then delays occur, but I cannot envisage Members of the Assembly seeking re-election or fresh election without the matter having been resolved beforehand. I am confident that it will have been dealt with before the next Assembly elections. He also made the important point that whichever legislature an individual is elected to, they should focus strongly and entirely on the matters before that particular legislature. As he said, it is perfectly legitimate for a Member of Parliament elected by constituents in Northern Ireland to come to this House and focus entirely on the matters that come before it. He himself takes a great interest in a range of issues, and there are matters from fiscal policy to foreign policy in which MPs from Northern Ireland should participate fully.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly made the point that the Bill does not tell the Assembly what it has to do but gives it a choice. I endorse his comments on dual mandates, about which he feels very strongly, and I am pleased that he had the chance to express his views. I entirely agree with him: the fact that dual mandates are beginning to come to an end in Northern Ireland is a sign of political maturity and we should all welcome it.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) clearly set out his party’s view on the Bill and on dual mandates generally. He made a number of party political points, on which, as I am sure he will understand, I do not particularly want to comment. However, I recall one important phrase that he used on the need to nurture the pool of political talent. That is something that every political party in the United Kingdom needs to do, but it is particularly important in Northern Ireland. We want a new generation of politicians to come along and build on the tremendous achievements of this generation of Northern Ireland politicians. He is entirely right to say that that should focus the minds of all political parties.
Ah! The hon. Gentleman was declaring the same interest as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle.
We will all miss the contributions of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) to debates in this House on a range of issues, but particularly on Northern Ireland. He has always taken a great and serious interest in Northern Ireland. It has been great to see him exercise that interest in his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee over a long period. His contributions are at times robust and at times supportive, but they are always appropriate for the topic in hand. We will miss him, but I am sure that others will come to take up those interests, and it is important that they do so. He made his views on dual mandates very clear, and the House heard them. Again, the Committee’s interest in a range of democratic accountability issues, including the importance of devolution of the institutions and ensuring that they are as strong as can be, has been important. We will all reflect on the points he made.
In the hon. Gentleman’s conclusion, he made the extremely important point that although we have seen tremendous achievements over recent months and even in recent weeks, we should not just assume that everything is now completed. He referred to the Assembly as a fragile institution. It is still early days, and the culture of governance needs to develop further in Northern Ireland. As welcome and as important as those developments are, Northern Ireland politicians, whether they represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House or in the Assembly, will still need friends in this place to take an interest, and to show support and solidarity with them. I believe he said that Northern Ireland will need good and firm friends, as indeed it will. However, we can look back over this week and recent months, and indeed the 12 years since the Good Friday agreement, with some satisfaction at what has been achieved.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about all-party support. Although the process has happened under this Government, it has happened with all-party support for what we have done. He asked rhetorically whether the current situation could have been achieved as it has been without all-party support, and he is right that it could not. Our achievements have required the all-party consensus that we have sought to achieve here. That is not to say that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury does not ask difficult questions in Committee or in debates on the Floor of the House—that is the purpose of scrutiny in this House—but we have retained a consensus when possible, which has been essential to the progress that we have seen in Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Northern Ireland assembly Members bill [lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords]:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on consideration and Third Reading
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be completed at one day’s sitting.
3. Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
5. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee and on consideration and Third Reading.
6. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Lyn Brown.)
Question agreed to.