[Relevant documents: The Second Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, HC 1003, and the Government response, Cm 8621.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Unlike every other Northern Ireland Bill of recent years, the legislation before the House this afternoon is not being rushed through to resolve a crisis, to deal with security matters or to revive collapsed institutions. Today, we are considering a new kind of Bill for Northern Ireland: a Bill for more normal times—times in which Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom is settled on the basis of consent; we have a stable and inclusive devolved Government at Stormont; and the focus is now very much on the politics of delivery.
Many of the measures in the Bill—in contrast to previous legislation—have been prepared in the light of public consultation, followed by pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and his Committee for the seriousness and diligence with which they approached their task of scrutinising this legislation. Several aspects of the Bill have been improved in response to their recommendations.
So the context for this Bill is much more stable than that for previous Northern Ireland-related legislation. Devolved government is well established and the Northern Ireland institutions have been running continuously since 2007. In May, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister published an ambitious programme to address sectarian divisions, including dismantling all peace walls within 10 years. Just 10 days ago, they, I and the Prime Minister signed a substantial economic pact to help Northern Ireland compete in the global race for jobs and investment. The agreement reflects the maturing relationship between the Government and the Executive, and it will see the two Administrations working more closely together than ever before on crucial issues such as business access to finance, improving infrastructure, and supporting research and development.
Of course, last week Northern Ireland also played host to the highly successful G8 summit—something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The Prime Minister’s decision to bring the G8 to County Fermanagh could not have been more fully vindicated. Lough Erne provided a spectacular backdrop for the meeting of eight of the most powerful people in the world. The summit was a great opportunity to showcase the best of the new Northern Ireland, which is a great place to invest and a great place to visit. A highly effective policing operation delivered the most peaceful G8 that anyone can remember. Let me take this opportunity to thank the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partner agencies, including the Garda Siochana, for all their work in making that possible and for their continuing vigilance against the terrorist threat that remains so severe in Northern Ireland.
The Bill makes a number of institutional changes. The measures do not reopen the political settlement enshrined in the Belfast agreement or its successors, but I believe they will improve the way that politics works in Northern Ireland in a number of significant ways. For example, the Bill will open the way for more transparency about political donations, it will modernise the way that elections are run and it will see an end to dual mandates in the Assembly and the House of Commons.
Let me take the points about transparency first. As the House may well be aware, Northern Ireland is subject to different transparency rules on political donation from the rest of the UK. The concern has always been that the publication of donor names could deter people from making political donations because of fear of violent reprisal. Let me be clear that the Government’s ultimate goal is full transparency, with the rules in Northern Ireland being brought into line with the rest of the UK but, having considered the matter carefully, we have concluded that the security situation has not improved sufficiently to enable us to do that and that it is not yet right to start publishing donor names.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for taking an intervention so early in her speech. The Secretary of State began with words with which no one could disagree. She said that the Bill is happening in more normal times in Northern Ireland; I could not agree more. She proceeded to talk about the G8 summit, which has been a huge success, and I thank her for expressing appreciation of the PSNI and the Garda Siochana. Will she take into account the fact that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want the anonymity of political donations to be removed and want transparency? What justification is there for keeping that anonymity in more normal times for Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I share the goal of those who want to see the extension of the GB regime to Northern Ireland, but, as I have said, I feel that the time is not right for that because the security situation has not improved enough since the rules were first devised. It is a pity, but the Bill will enable us to make progress towards the ultimate goal, which the hon. Lady and I both support.
Clauses 1 and 2 will enable us to make progress towards exactly the sort of normalisation that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) wants to see. They will give the Government the power to use secondary legislation to increase transparency gradually, stage by stage. As a first stage, in response to the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we propose to move as swiftly as possible to the publication of draft secondary legislation, if the Bill passes all its parliamentary stages.
On the question of people being in support or not in support of greater transparency—we certainly support greater transparency—will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Electoral Commission, as well as the Social Democratic and Labour party, preferred option 3 in the Government’s option paper? It said that there were
“concerns…about the risk of intimidation of donors which justified withholding identities”.
This is not just a party political point; the independent Electoral Commission reached that conclusion, which is in line with the Government’s proposals.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has expressed support for a number of the provisions in the Bill. We have listened carefully to the commission in preparing the Bill, given the impact that the commission has on the running of elections and the mechanics of politics in Northern Ireland.
If the Bill passes all its stages, we envisage that secondary legislation will cover matters such as the number and amount of donations, the type of donor—that is, whether they are individual or business donors—the date of the donation and whether it came from an Irish source.
Clauses 3 to 5 are a key part of the Bill and will ban the holding of dual mandates in the Assembly and the House of Commons. That has been a matter of concern in Northern Ireland for some years and the committee formed prior to the 2006 St Andrews talks agreed that dual mandates should be phased out. Further concern was expressed during the MPs’ expenses crisis, including by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Most important of all, an end to double-jobbing was an important commitment made in the 2010 Conservative manifesto for Northern Ireland. Clauses 3 and 5 will enable us to keep the promises we made to the electorate in 2010.
I fully support clause 3, but will the Secretary of State explain why she is making arrangements for Members of the House of Commons to be disqualified from membership of the Assembly, but not making similar arrangements for Members of the House of Lords? I know from personal experience that many Members of the House of Lords from Northern Ireland do an excellent job; the question is whether they can do that job and be Members of the Assembly. The Government have decided that Members of the House of Commons should not be Assembly Members; why is it okay for Members of the House of Lords?
The right hon. Gentleman asks a fair question, and his position is supported by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I reflected carefully on the matter and, in the end, we decided not to go down that route because we feel that the issues are simply not as strong in relation to the House of Lords. It has always been a different type of Chamber, where people are involved in alternative jobs and careers; there is not the same degree of public concern about dual mandates with the House of Lords; and the lack of a constituency and responsibilities for Members of the House of Lords also provides a reason to distinguish them from Members of the House of Commons. We will listen to the debates in this House and in the other place with an open mind, and if the Lords themselves wish us to act on this, of course we will consider their views carefully, but we believe that the focus of the legislation should be the key cause of concern in Northern Ireland, and that is dual mandates in the Assembly and the House of Commons.
The Democratic Unionist party has strong views on these matters—[Hon. Members: “So did your party in your manifesto.”]—but they are not relevant to the Bill. No doubt hon. Members will have the opportunity to raise those concerns as the debate continues, and I am sure that, on a future occasion, the whole House will have the opportunity to express a view on the status quo regarding parliamentary allowances and what changes should be made.
Will the Secretary of State clarify, for the benefit of the whole House, whether Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly can also sit in the House of Lords? Is there a precedent that the Secretary of State is following, or are we just making it up as we go along for Northern Ireland?
There is no legislative ban on Members of the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament being Members of the House of Lords. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is seeking to introduce legislation on dual mandates in the Welsh Assembly and the House of Commons. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has not taken that step. We believe that there is a case for looking specifically at Northern Ireland, where this has arisen as a problem. The Committee on Standards in Public Life commented that the issue was particularly entrenched in relation to Northern Ireland; that is why it was the subject of the manifesto commitment relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not other Assemblies.
The Secretary of State described dual mandates as a problem, but during the difficult years of the peace process it was absolutely essential that Members of the House who were in leadership positions took seats in the Assembly to help it through those initial years. It is therefore regrettable that she described it as a problem: it was part of the solution, in terms of moving Northern Ireland politics forward. Thankfully, we have moved on, but let us not look back and say that it was a bad thing.
I would certainly agree that there are a number of reasons why there were more dual mandates in relation to Northern Ireland than for other parts of the United Kingdom. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there may have been justified reasons for that at the time. However, things have moved on, and it is a greater sign of normalisation that, arguably, what might have been a need or justification in the past is no longer relevant today.
In response to a recommendation on double-jobbing from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the Bill bans double-jobbing in the Assembly and the lower House of the Irish Parliament to maintain parity. I am grateful to the Committee for highlighting that issue.
As I have said, we do not see the same pressing issues applying in relation to double-jobbing with the House of Lords, and that applies equally to the upper House of the Irish Parliament.
Clause 6 will enable the Assembly to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly, subject to consent from Westminster. There is widespread acceptance that Northern Ireland has high numbers of elected representatives. Scotland, with a population of just over 5 million elects 129 MSPs, but Northern Ireland elects 108 MLAs to represent just 1.8 million people. While there were perhaps good reasons for that when the institutions were set up, we feel that the case has now been made for change.
As yet, there is no cross-party agreement on the appropriate size of the reduction in the number of MLAs, and I certainly hope that Northern Ireland’s political leadership can reach a settled view on this as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Bill moves things forward by enabling such a reduction to take place without further primary legislation. The Bill also contains a number of provisions allowing us to update the rules on electoral administration.
Electoral registration rates in Northern Ireland are at something like 70%—the lowest they have ever been, and the lowest rate anywhere in the UK—after 10 years of individual electoral registration. Will the Secretary of State use the Bill to redress that imbalance, and what is her view of the fact that if 30% of the public are not on the electoral register, people do not have a functioning democracy?
We have taken action outside the scope of the Bill to do the necessary work to update the content of the electoral register. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it needs to be updated, and we have set aside funding to enable that to take place over the coming months.
The Bill deals with issues such as performance standards for electoral registration officers; residence requirements for voting; the canvass form; and declarations by overseas voters. Clause 7 introduces five-year fixed terms for the Assembly from now on, and moves the date of the next Assembly election to 2016. When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was debated in 2010, concern was expressed that a general election in May 2015 would overshadow polls for the UK’s devolved Assemblies scheduled for the same day and cause voter confusion. The decision was taken to extend the terms of the Scottish Parliament and of the Welsh Assembly. Lord Wallace, speaking on behalf of the Government, indicated in the debate in the other House that the Government would consider a similar extension for the Northern Ireland Executive after consideration of the triple poll of May 2011. The Bill now brings the Northern Ireland institutions into line with the approach adopted for Scotland and Wales, avoiding the clash with the 2015 general election and making future clashes much less likely.
Clauses 8 and 9 give the Northern Ireland Justice Minister the same security of tenure as other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. This reflects cross-party negotiations that led to the agreement in the Assembly on the method for selecting a Justice Minister and that were part of the historic agreement on the devolution of policing and justice powers.
Clauses 10 to 12 would permit the devolution of certain arm’s length bodies without further primary legislation. These include the Human Rights Commission, the civil service commissioners and the district electoral areas commissioner. Before devolution could take place, though, there would need to be full consideration, a vote in the Assembly, and confirmation via secondary legislation approved by Parliament.
As well as consideration of these and other measures in the Bill, I am sure our debates will give us the opportunity to reflect on what the next steps for institutional change in Northern Ireland should be. The Government do not rule out more far-reaching changes to the institutions in the future, but any future reforms would have to be consistent with the principles of power sharing and inclusivity at the heart of the Belfast agreement, and they could go ahead only if they had cross-party and cross-communal agreement.
The perennial question for all institutions of government is how to improve delivery. A growing number of people think this could come about by facilitating the emergence of a formal Opposition within the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although MLAs of course provide regular and careful scrutiny of the Executive, the Government have been clear that they would like to see a more normal system emerge, which accommodates a Government and a formal Opposition. As yet the consensus that we would need in order to legislate has not been achieved, but I believe that the consultation that my predecessor ran last year on this has pushed the issue forward.
I welcome the fact that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee are now looking at steps that the Assembly itself might take in this field. I certainly encourage the larger parties to be generous towards parties that might consider that they could best serve the electorate by choosing to be in opposition, or that do not have sufficient strength in the Assembly for a seat at the Executive table. As parliamentarians we recognise the democratic value of challenge to our views, even where that can be uncomfortable. Innovation often comes from those who are prepared to take on the prevailing consensus.
In conclusion, it is a good thing that the Bill is not surrounded by the drama or the breakneck urgency of Northern Ireland Bills of the past. It offers an important set of changes, none the less. In pressing ahead with targeted improvements to the way politics works, I hope the Bill will play its part in helping to address the challenges faced by today’s Northern Ireland and its political leadership. Despite some welcome signs that the economy is beginning to heal, the economic climate remains difficult. As President Obama reminded us in his memorable address at the Waterfront hall in Belfast last week, there are many miles to go before Northern Ireland has the shared society we all want to see.
The President was introduced in Belfast by 16-year-old Hannah Nelson from Methodist college, Belfast. With great composure, she told the packed hall and the global media that
“we should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward…We need to listen to each other and we need to compromise. Most importantly, we need to clearly value each other. Peace is not easy and it takes a lot of work to make it happen.”
Her message is one that has resonated across Northern Ireland. Sectarian division carries great risks to progress on the economy, to security, and to the general well-being of Northern Ireland’s people. It profoundly influences how the world sees Northern Ireland, not least when the tensions that it causes on flags and parading spill out on to the streets. This debate and the Bill provide us with an opportunity in this House once again to pledge our support to the people of Northern Ireland and their political leadership in their continuing efforts to build a prosperous and united community of which all of us can be proud. I commend the Bill to the House.
This is a remarkable time for Northern Ireland and a good time for the House to discuss the Bill. The coverage of President Obama’s visit to Belfast last week and the sight of world leaders attending the G8 summit in Fermanagh were powerful, moving and hugely uplifting. Some 2,000 young people from schools across Northern Ireland were reminded that the future belongs to them and that it is their attitude and decisions that will take us forward. The President’s words will serve to inspire those in the Waterfront hall and far beyond to make rhetoric a reality and to deliver progress for the next generation.
From a Northern Ireland perspective, the G8 summit was everything we had all hoped it would be. I again congratulate the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister on their work and their foresight in deciding to hold such a prestigious international event in County Fermanagh. Indeed, the Prime Minister told us last week that each of the world leaders commented on how incredible it was that such a summit could take place in Northern Ireland, and in the most tranquil and beautiful surroundings of Lough Erne.
Thanks to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, their colleagues from other police forces in the UK, and An Garda Siochana, the G8 met safely and securely and the accompanying protests took place peacefully and respectfully. The people of Northern Ireland and their representatives in this House and in Stormont can rightly be proud of what that showed the world last week. I know that everyone in this House and right across the United Kingdom and Ireland share that pride and that sense of success and achievement. It is in that context that we are discussing the Bill today and not, as was so often the case before, in a time of crisis.
Of course, as the Secretary of State suggested, and as Members know, there is more to come. We are halfway through Derry/Londonderry’s year as UK city of culture. I spent a great weekend there at the start of this month, visiting the newly developed Tower museum, which charts the city’s incredible history, the London street art gallery, which showcases the work of emerging artists, a moving exhibition showing images of Derry during the troubles and the new Shirt Factory art project. I also attended my first Ulster championship Gaelic football match, between Down and Derry, although my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will remind me that I did not bring the home team much luck.
I hesitate to get involved in discussions about Gaelic football fixtures, but my next remark was going to be that the result will have pleased my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
Everyone knows that challenges remain and that there remains much work to be done. The threat from dissident republican groups remains high, and those who seek to destroy the peace and progress are still intent on carrying out their murderous activities. It is only the bravery, dedication and skill of the police, army technical officers and the security services that have prevented the terrorists from succeeding. The loyalist flag protests have shown that there is still work to be done, so we cannot be complacent. I join the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable in calling for a calm and peaceful summer.
It is in that context that we are considering the Bill today. Let me say something I have said many times before: the Opposition are committed to working with the Government in a bipartisan way where possible. When we believe that the Government are acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland, we will support them. When we disagree, we have a duty to challenge them and hold them to account.
I must say that in some respects I am disappointed with the Bill, not so much because of what is in it, but because of what is not. “Miscellaneous” suggests that all that is needed is some tidying up by Westminster and that it is a case of putting forward some minor amendments and small adjustments. Indeed, most of the Bill’s provisions have been discussed with the Northern Ireland parties and command general, if not universal, support. In principle, we support the ending of dual mandates, the extension of the Assembly’s term—temporarily and then permanently—giving security of tenure to the Justice Minister and devolving power on the size of the Assembly. We want to move to full transparency and accountability in political donations. Clearly, we will look at the detail of all the proposals in Committee, but by and large they make sense.
However, the Secretary of State will know that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is looking at the size of the Assembly, the number of Executive Departments, designation, the composition of the Executive, and provision for opposition. These are difficult and sensitive issues. The principles of power sharing and inclusivity are fundamental, but there is an acceptance that the system could be improved and there are demands for more accountability and more rigorous scrutiny of the Executive.
As a precursor to the Bill, the previous Secretary of State last year launched a review of the operation of the Assembly during a speech in which he criticised the Assembly and the Executive. I said at the time that that criticism was largely unwarranted and unnecessary and suggested that the Government work in partnership with the Executive and the Assembly to look at how they and the Northern Ireland Office could work more effectively, individually and collectively. To be fair to the current Secretary of State, she has taken an approach more in line with that thinking. However, I worry that in some respects she has gone too far the other way and has not engaged with some of the issues.
I have said before that devolution should not mean disengagement. The Bill gives the House a chance to put its views appropriately and constructively and I hope that, as the debate goes through the House, the Government will reflect on how they could take that opportunity.
In replying to the debate, will the Minister of State tell us what discussions he has had on the progress of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee’s work? Have the Government had any requests from that body or the Executive for the inclusion of measures that have not been included in the Bill? These are difficult and challenging areas and it will be hard to find agreement, but I sense from everywhere that there is an increasing desire to make progress a little more quickly—something, as I have said, that will undoubtedly be discussed in Committee in more detail.
Many other issues affect people in Northern Ireland, of course, and there is demand for politicians here and in Stormont to concentrate on building jobs and growth, tackling youth unemployment and creating opportunity. Of course, there are also the continuing challenges in health, education and welfare. Many of the decisions are devolved, but there is a role for the House to play in supporting the Executive as they seek to build peace, progress and prosperity.
The Government should also remember that they have a huge responsibility for economic and welfare decisions that affect people in Northern Ireland just as much as they do people in Gedling, Chipping Barnet or Hemel Hempstead. Is there nothing that the Bill could have contained that looked at the impact of Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Government’s economic and welfare policies on Northern Ireland, given the particular circumstances of a society emerging from conflict?
We know also that great strides have been taken to encourage business, tourism and economic progress. Indeed, later this week, alongside the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) in his capacity as Finance Minister, I am meeting a range of business organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Northern Ireland chambers of commerce, the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association and others, to take forward plans for a small business Saturday. We need to do all we can to help business and build prosperity in communities where there is a high level of economic inactivity and a lack of opportunities, which create such a sense of despair and hopelessness.
Perhaps I can provide the shadow Secretary of State with some reassurance. The proposals agreed in the economic package between the Executive and the Government are meant to complement the institutional changes in the Bill. We will work hard to deliver on those, including with a major G8-themed inward investment conference in October and, hopefully, the prompt extension of start-up loans to Northern Ireland, on which my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is making an announcement today.
Obviously, we all hope that those measures are successful. As I have said, I thought the package announced by the Government a few days ago was a step in the right direction. However, I am talking about the sense of urgency needed to accelerate progress and saying that the Government here in London should recognise the huge impact that Treasury decisions have on Northern Ireland, which has particular circumstances as it emerges from conflict. The Secretary of State will know, from hon. Members here and representatives she meets in Northern Ireland, of the real concern about the impact in many communities of joblessness as well as the Government’s welfare changes, the impact of which the Government need to reflect carefully on.
Huge progress has been made on policing and justice. I welcome the changes made to ensure security of tenure for the Justice Minister. I encouraged the Government to legislate on that more than a year ago, and I am glad that the relevant measures are included in the Bill. David Ford, the current incumbent, does a good job in tough circumstances, and I pay tribute to him. Further to policing and justice, I will continue to raise the very serious issue of the National Crime Agency’s inability to operate in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. He said that the Bill contains measures that will clearly have broad support in all parts of the House. He is right, however, to argue with some urgency about the need to return to provisions in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 that are still not in operation, and have no likelihood of being so, in Northern Ireland. That is very good news for criminals and very bad news for the people of Northern Ireland.
The fact that the National Crime Agency cannot operate in Northern Ireland as it does in the rest of the UK is a source of great regret to us all. I hope that as we go through the Bill we can look at ways in which we may continue to support the Secretary of State in putting pressure on the Home Secretary to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to get the legislative consent necessary for the agency’s remit to extend to Northern Ireland.
The Executive’s publication of their strategy on community sharing and integration is to be welcomed. However, that does not mean that there is no longer a role for Westminster and the Government to play in helping to build a shared future across Northern Ireland, with no community left behind. I would have liked the Bill to include a measure to consolidate the work of the Executive and, most importantly, of the thousands of individuals and organisations doing hugely important work to bring people together in friendship, understanding and co-operation.
Some weeks ago I spoke to a group of students from Queen’s university and the university of Ulster. I was struck by their confidence, ability and experience. Let us be clear: these young people, aged 18, 19 and 20, were not untouched by sectarianism. I was genuinely surprised to hear from one very bright and articulate student that the first time she had, in any real sense, met someone from the other side was when she went to university. We have a duty to ensure that in future 18, 19 and 20-year-olds do not have to leave home to meet their neighbours.
The Bill contains provisions relating to arm’s length bodies such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which does important and valuable work. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State outlined what role she sees for it in future and shared her views on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
On the electoral registration provisions, I add a note of caution. We need to get the balance right between ensuring that as many people as possible who are entitled to do so engage in our democratic process while protecting against the kind of electoral fraud that is an affront to that process.
In this Second Reading debate, the main point that I want to make to the Government is that they should reflect on whether anything more could be included in the Bill that would help to build peace, progress and prosperity in Northern Ireland. I am always glad, and often surprised, to learn how keen people in Northern Ireland are for us to visit to hear their stories and share in some of their experiences. Nowhere has this been more evident than in engaging with victims and survivors. It is always an incredibly humbling and emotional experience to speak with those who have lost loved ones. The heartbreaking stories that I have heard have moved and affected me greatly, as I am sure they have many others.
I have met dozens of victims and survivors, some with organisations, some individually, right across Northern Ireland. Some months ago I spent time with a woman whose two brothers had joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary together on the same day—a very proud one for her family. One of them was killed in a car bomb just a few months later, and just as she was beginning to recover from that, the other was killed in a mortar attack on a police station, 15 years after his brother. It devastated her and her family. I also met the mother of a young girl aged 12 who died in her father’s arms just yards from her home after being shot by a soldier. There was no explanation of or justification for either of those events.
These are very difficult and painful things to speak about, but we have had many difficult and painful conversations in Northern Ireland, and we need to have this one. Is there nothing we can propose in the Bill that would help this process and take it forward? The Government say that there is no consensus on the way forward and therefore no possibility of agreement. In essence, that it is to do with them. I fundamentally disagree, as Members will know. Dealing with the past—the legacy of the troubles—is expressly a responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. It cannot act alone, of course, and I have consistently said that we need a comprehensive and inclusive process with victims and survivors at the centre. The last time we debated Northern Ireland on the Floor of the House, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked me what I meant by that. I repeat today that the Government, in partnership with the Irish Government, have a duty to lead, but not to prescribe. They must create a vehicle through which these issues can be discussed and resolved. Of course, that will take time and it will not be easy, but the prize will be worth it. Victims and survivors are not afraid to talk about the past; the Governments should not be either.
Just last week, I went to St Ethelburga’s church, which was blown up by the IRA in the Bishopsgate bombing in 1993, where I saw the Theatre of Witness production, “From the Rubble”. It was an incredibly powerful performance that bore witness to the wounds of the past, which are still visible to many in Northern Ireland. The performers were not acting, but telling their own real stories. One said that we need to have an eye on the future, as well as an eye on the past. We cannot ignore the past, but we must not be trapped by it either.
That is why I am saddened that the Government cannot find a way in the Bill to allow the issues of the past to be discussed and addressed, so that consensus may emerge. The legacy of the past has to be dealt with and the Government must consider the impact that it has on the victims, the survivors and everyone in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Opposition spokesman for his moving words, for his genuine concern for the victims of the terrorist campaigns in Northern Ireland and for the time he has taken to meet many of the victims. He speaks of the British and Irish Governments taking the lead. Does he accept that it is not just a matter of taking the lead? We have heard a lot from our Government by way of apology and inquiry, but precious little from the Irish Government, despite the evidence that Irish Ministers were involved in arming the IRA at the beginning of the troubles and the growing evidence of collusion between Irish state forces and paramilitary organisations. If the Irish Government are to take a lead, they need to accept that they too have a responsibility to acknowledge the wrongdoing of the past.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me. I appreciate them when we are discussing such a sensitive matter. I say to him that everyone needs to be involved in the process of coming to an understanding of what happened and of how we can move forward.
Westminster still matters to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland must matter to Westminster. The Bill gives the House of Commons the chance to demonstrate that through our deliberations. The UK Government should work ever closer with the devolved Administration to do the best that they can for Northern Ireland and its people. The key message from the peace process that we should share with the world is that an end to conflict is only the start of the peace. Along with the Irish Government, and with the support of the European Union and the United States Administration, we must continue to provide support and encouragement as Northern Ireland continues to move forward. That is our responsibility, that is our role and that is how we will build peace, progress and prosperity in every community in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Government for putting the Bill out to pre-legislative scrutiny. Analysing it was an interesting task for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I thank the Secretary of State and Minister of State for taking on board a number of our recommendations and for considering the other points that we made. I thank all members of the Committee, many of whom are present in the Chamber, for their hard work and for the benefit of their experience, particularly of those who are from Northern Ireland.
I do not want to single out one political party that gave evidence to the Committee, but it demonstrates the considerable extent to which things have moved on in Northern Ireland that the formal evidence session that we held in Belfast with Sinn Fein was, as I understand it, the first time that that political party had given public evidence to a Committee of the House of Commons. I think that is a significant step forward. I thank all the witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee in Belfast and in Westminster. As those on the Front Benches have said, things in Northern Ireland have moved on enormously.
The hon. Gentleman rightly alludes to progress, with members of Sinn Fein giving evidence to the Committee. Does he agree that that is a good and significant step forward, and certainly beats impeding police officers in the course of their duty in Belfast at the weekend during an Orange Order parade?
I agree entirely. It is sometimes a case of two steps forward and one step back. I was in Belfast this morning and the newspapers were full of that incident in which a person was injured. Two weeks ago, members of the Committee visited Washington and spoke to a number of people. There was an overwhelming feeling that much had been sorted out in Northern Ireland, but the incident at the weekend, flag protests and the murder of Mr David Black last November do nothing to attract investment. They deter investment, and that is a tragedy. I hope we can move forward more smoothly.
We made a great deal of progress in attracting Sinn Fein to give evidence to the Committee. I would go further and say, as we did at the time, that it is time that members of that party took their seats in this Parliament so that they can come and make their case here. They claim they do the job anyway, but they do not. They do a job, but they do not do the job of parliamentarians, even though they accept the expenses and allowances that go with it. We ought to be able to move forward a little more in that respect.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman shares the concern of many of us on these Benches and in the Province that the onus is on elected representatives not only to obey the law, but to do so in public. What we saw at the weekend was a travesty of the law: two elected representatives, one of whom sits on the policing board, clearly flouted the law. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is an onus on elected representatives from Sinn Fein to be more observant of the law?
Everybody has to observe the law. The law cannot be applied differently to different people, regardless of who they purport to represent, so I do not disagree with a word the hon. Gentleman has said.
We are in a better place than we were. As the Secretary of State said, it is a welcome change to be considering legislation relating to Northern Ireland that is not a desperately urgent response to a terrible incident. On at least a couple of occasions while I have been a Member, the House has been recalled during the recess to consider such a matter urgently. It is right to move things forward in a more measured way if possible. The Committee looked at the Bill in great detail and supports much of what it proposes. I will discuss three or four issues in my speech, which will be fairly brief.
On donations, the Committee welcomes the move towards normalisation. The objective has to be to move Northern Ireland towards being a normal society and a normal democracy. We have some way to go, but we are slowly getting there. We felt that we ought to move quickly from October 2014 to full publication of who has made donations. We understand that there is a security issue. A number of witnesses and members of the Committee said that there is a risk for people who stand for Parliament, Assembly or council; for those who support them by delivering leaflets, canvassing or putting up posters; and for those who sign nomination papers. The question was whether donating money constitutes a different risk. We were not persuaded that it does, so we want to see greater progress on the publication of donations.
We said, though, that those decisions had to be taken in the light of the security situation. We wanted the Bill to state that the Secretary of State should consult the respective security services before taking such a decision, but she has decided not to include that. I mention that because although we recognise that there are problems, in principle we want to move towards a more normal politics in Northern Ireland in which there is less suspicion, and if everything is out in the open, surely that is a better way forward than the way we have been going so far. We also insisted, however, that anyone or any organisation that made donations prior to the change or notification that those donations would become public should remain anonymous, because when they gave those donations, they depended on that anonymity.
We support the ending of dual mandates. In fact, we would go further, as has been alluded to already. We think that Members of the Assembly should not also be Members of the House of Lords, the European Parliament or the Senate in the Republic of Ireland. I understand fully the points made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who has left the Chamber momentarily, about how important it was at the time for experienced politicians to take the peace process forward in Northern Ireland—that was certainly essential —but we have moved on. Before the Assembly was restarted, many decisions about Northern Ireland were taken upstairs in Committee by statutory instrument, which was a very unsatisfactory way of governing Northern Ireland.
As Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson, I attended many of those sessions. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) was often the Minister. Because many Northern Ireland Members had the additional burden of advancing the peace process in their constituencies, many were the times when, through no fault of their own, not a single one of them could attend, and these were Committees deciding very important things for Northern Ireland. It was very unsatisfactory, but we have moved on, and people cannot be in two places at once. There is also the potential for a conflict of interest if somebody sits on two legislative bodies. We would have gone further than the Government, and we would also apply the same rules to Scotland and Wales, although I think that Wales is moving in that direction anyway.
The Select Committee welcomed the changes to the appointment and tenure of the Justice Minister—we feel that the Ministry should be more secure—and the fact that taking the position will count against the number of Ministries a party can hold, but we are a little concerned about what will happen if agreement cannot be reached. We urge the Government to seek a way forward when that happens. Could the Justice Minister be appointed another way without bringing everything down? The appointment of the Justice Minister under a d’Hondt system might be possible, although I understand the sensitivities around that. Nevertheless, we identified that as a potential problem; it has not happened, and I hope it never will, but there is a potential problem.
We disagreed with the Government over delaying the next Assembly elections to 2016. We think that people in Northern Ireland are perfectly capable of voting in two or even three elections, where necessary, and who is to say that the general election will be held in May 2015? We have legislated for it—although I voted against it—but who is to say that the coalition will last that long? It might do, but who is to say that elections will come in neat five-year terms after that? It might be the case, but it might not, so we did not see the need to change that arrangement, although we accepted that it was not necessarily the main part of the Bill.
We held many discussions about government and opposition, and a number of witnesses said that they wanted to see an opposition developing in Northern Ireland. I think I am representing the Committee’s views accurately here, but it is certainly my own view that we have to allow the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland to come forward with their own proposals and solutions to the situation. The Assembly was created in the way it was for a reason, and we all know what that reason was. We must bear in mind the Good Friday agreement requirements for a shared future, and it is difficult to come up with a solution to the problem. We recognise that there is an issue, but we feel that the solution ought to be home grown and brought to this House in the form of a proposal.
We hold a similar view on the size of the Assembly. This is not so much about the fact that 108 Assembly Members represent 1.8 million people; it is more about the fact that there are six Members of the Assembly for every Westminster constituency. Again, we know why that was done—it made the maths easier at the time—but things can move on. We should not throw away the principles of the Belfast agreement, but I do not see why we cannot, with consent, move forward on certain aspects of it.
That is a collection of some of the Select Committee’s thoughts. I should like to thank all the members of the Committee for their work and for their proposals, and to thank the Government for listening to what we have had to say. I wish the Bill well.
I join others in welcoming the Bill. It has had a long gestation period, and the previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, heralded it as a normalisation Bill. We heard about the Bill in many meetings with him and others at the Northern Ireland Office, and we were led to believe that it would contain all sorts of wonderful, amazing things for Northern Ireland. Yes, it represents progress, but it is certainly not as far-reaching as was originally envisaged. It is certainly not as ambitious as the then Secretary of State suggested when he became the holder of that office.
The then Secretary of State said many other things, too, and I shall deal with those in a moment. One such matter was allowances for Sinn Fein Members. We have talked about dual mandates, but the issues of non-representation and the non-fulfilment of mandates are equally important. The right hon. Gentleman promised that not a single Conservative Member in this new Parliament would dream of sustaining the position whereby Members who did not take their seats could claim money and expenses. I hope that the House will shortly have an opportunity to consider that matter further.
I welcome the fact that we are debating the Bill at a time when there is no crisis in Northern Ireland relating to the Assembly or the Executive. On many occasions, we have had to debate all the stages of a Bill in one day to deal with the suspension of the Assembly, with some other crisis, or with its reinstatement. Thankfully, those days have gone and we now have relative stability. Indeed, we take that stability for granted. The very fact that we are debating an extension of the current Assembly’s term for another year, and fixed terms of five years thereafter, is in indication of the progress that has been made. Who would have previously imagined that we would be discussing these proposals here today? People would have said that we were living in fantasy land if they had been suggested before. Previous Assemblies did not have this kind of stability, and even the current one that was set up under the 1998 legislation did not have it until 2007. So we have a lot to be grateful for, and we should reflect on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, but we should not take it for granted. We must remember that there is still work to be done to ensure that that stability continues.
The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State have mentioned that we are debating these matters against the background of a propitious event. The hosting of the G8 summit by Northern Ireland was enormously successful, and tribute has rightly been paid to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security forces in the Irish Republic and to the help given by other British police and security services. We have had great news, too, in recent days with announcements of significant numbers of fantastic, good-quality, high-value jobs for Northern Ireland. All those announcements are highly significant. As has also been pointed out, however, major challenges remain despite the progress that has been made. The challenge posed by dissident terrorists and other republican groups is significant. The police and security services deserve all our gratitude and our support—given in material ways—to make sure that they are ready, able and fit to combat that threat.
It is also crucial that the political parties in Northern Ireland’s civic society continue to give their full support to policing, the courts and the rule of law. One deeply disturbing issue already alluded to in this debate is the selective approach to policing that we have seen in recent months from Sinn Fein. We have seen its members picketing outside police headquarters when certain people are arrested, protesting against certain investigations and now we have seen the incident mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Chairman of the Select Committee, and others, in which a Sinn Fein Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive and a Sinn Fein member of the Policing Board, Gerry Kelly, were both seen openly obstructing police and clambering on police vehicles at a peaceful parade held in my Belfast North constituency last Friday.
Clearly, there is outrage at this loutish and hooligan behaviour. It is not the job of Assembly Members, elected representatives or members of the Policing Board to interfere in that way in the conduct of police operational matters. Holding the police to account is not, as Gerry Kelly seems to think, a question of clambering on a police vehicle and trying to stop an arrest. It is about doing the job of being a member of the Policing Board by asking questions or coming to this House, if elected to it, and asking questions; it is not about vandalism or the loutish behaviour and hooliganism that we have seen. I have written to the Chief Constable today to ask what action he is going to take to investigate fully and ensure that action is taken against those who engage in this kind of provocative behaviour, which could have resulted in serious trouble. As we saw on the night, these actions led to others getting involved in attacking the police vehicle. There are challenges that we in Northern Ireland face.
Let me move on to the details of the Bill. It does not go as far as was first envisaged, but significant progress has been made on donations, dual mandates, the removal of some powers from the excepted category to the reserved category, and justice powers. I shall deal with each of those briefly in turn.
The issue of political donations and loans falls into three main areas: transparency of donors, the timetable for moving to full transparency and—this is an issue that the Secretary of State only glanced over—an anomaly that will remain, despite the Bill, in that donations will still be able to be made to Northern Ireland parties from individuals and bodies outside the United Kingdom.
This party supports in principle having as much transparency as possible when it comes to donations. There have obviously been good reasons in Northern Ireland for granting exceptions to the rules that apply to parties in the rest of the United Kingdom. Evidence about the security situation presented to the Select Committee in its investigation of this Bill cannot be set to one side. That evidence has come from not just the Unionist side, but the nationalist side and, as I mentioned in my intervention on the Secretary of State, the independent Electoral Commission. It shows that many brave individuals and businesses stepped forward during the darkest of days to make donations. They took great personal and corporate risks coming forward with donations, and their main concern was rightly—there is evidence that when the donations were discovered, these things did happen—that they would suffer personal loss, a downturn in trade and, in some cases, even physical attack. The intimidation was a real threat and was certainly a clear attempt to silence people and prevent them from participating in the democratic process.
As we in Northern Ireland move forward and put the violence of the past behind us, it is right and proper that we move towards a system of donations and loans that is similar to that used in the rest of the United Kingdom. That should apply not only to transparency issues, but to all aspects of donations, such as who can donate. From 2014 onwards, why should there be any exceptions at all?
We support the commitment in the Bill not to publish retrospectively the names of past donors. Any future reform must safeguard the trust that people in the past have placed in the system, to protect them, their families and their businesses from disclosure.
On transparency of political donations, I agree that donors to any political party were under real and significant threat in the past, but in the present changed circumstances in Northern Ireland that we enjoy by and large—thank goodness—will the right hon. Gentleman say, without disclosing their identities and breaching confidentiality, whether it is tens, dozens or one or two donors to the Democratic Unionist party who currently feel threatened by violence?
I can do no better than to quote the leader of my party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, who, as stated in the House of Commons Library research paper, shared the concerns of other parties, including the Ulster Unionists, in saying in evidence to the Select Committee:
“In the past, businesses and businesses were attacked because of their association either with security forces or with one section of the community. You cannot be cavalier about these issues because they are real. Even if it did not happen, there would certainly be the perception among those who might be willing to donate that it could.”
I will go even further and quote the leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for South Down—[Hon. Members: “South Belfast.”] I apologise to both the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), the leader of the SDLP, who said in evidence to the Select Committee—I know he is more than capable of speaking for himself—that
“we feel that we were particularly vulnerable…in that some of our donors felt vulnerable and threatened…Sometimes the threat is not even direct, but people are put under pressure and told, ‘You gave the SDLP £1,000 this week; we think that we are entitled to £2,000 this week’. The threat is at that level. In a situation in which there are still a handful of people moving about with guns, that threat is there.”
I agree with the leader of the SDLP, with the leader of my party and with the Government, who have got this issue right. The Electoral Commission—an independent, not party political, body—also expressed such concerns.
I also fully endorse the recommendation of the Select Committee that the clause should be amended so as to provide that the Electoral Commission in future—from 2014 onwards, not going backwards—can disclose donor identity only where there is express consent from the donor; under the Bill as currently worded, such information can be published where there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that there was consent.
On the timetable for moving to transparency, I listened to what the Secretary of State has said: the Bill does not implement any provision, but simply gives the power to the Secretary of State to bring forward legislation in future for achieving greater transparency. At that point, a strong degree of caution and common sense will still need to be exercised because of the continued dissident threat to which we have referred.
The Bill states that the Electoral Commission must be consulted, but—with due respect to the commission—I think that there should also be consultation with the security forces and with the police in particular, and also with the political parties in Northern Ireland. I would be grateful for the Secretary of State’s assurance that this will not simply involve the thoughts and minds of the Electoral Commission, and that there will be a much wider consultation.
I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. Of course it would be very important to consult the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others with knowledge of the security situation, but when proceeding with any transparency arrangements, we would want to consult widely with others, including the political parties.
I am grateful for that undertaking. In Committee, we may return to the question of how the Bill might reflect it more clearly.
Let me now turn to the issue of donations made by individuals and bodies outside the United Kingdom. The Select Committee made the welcome recommendation that the loophole represented by an anomaly, or special provision, should be closed. We will, of course, examine the issue in more detail during the Bill’s Committee stage.
Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, political parties registered in Great Britain are permitted to accept donations only from UK residents and bodies. The Act extends to parties in Northern Ireland, but parties registered there may accept donations from citizens and bodies in the Irish Republic. Why was the Act brought into being? It was brought into being so that the public—the people who send us to this place—could have some degree of certainty that those who gave money to political parties had a stake in this country, and in affairs of state here. They did not want political parties to be flooded with money from people in the United States, Europe and elsewhere who had interests in the making of certain decisions, but who did not vote here, represent anyone here, or have any stake in this country other than, for instance, a commercial stake. The Act was introduced for very good reasons, yet an exception was made in the case of Northern Ireland.
Individuals and bodies in the Republic of Ireland can donate to parties in Northern Ireland in a way that contravenes the law of that country. Worse still, however, owing to our inability to regulate donations of this kind, those individuals and bodies can be used as a front for donations from other foreign or overseas countries. The Select Committee’s recognition of that problem led it rightly to recommend that the anomaly be removed.
Here we all are, saying that Northern Ireland should be subject to the same level of transparency in respect of donations and identity as every other part of the United Kingdom. We ask “Why should Northern Ireland be any different?” But why should Northern Ireland be any different when it comes to who can donate to political parties? There is no reason at all why it should. I hope that, as we consider the Bill further in the House and in Committee, Members and, in particular, the Government will look afresh at the issue. If the Government fail to close this loophole, they may rightly stand accused of giving preferential treatment to certain political parties for political reasons.
Whatever the causes for the arguments of the past, those reasons certainly do not exist today. There should be a level playing field for all political parties in Northern Ireland. There should be the same rules for all of them, and there should be the same benefits, if possible, in terms of donations for all political parties. This anomaly was introduced for one reason: to allow Sinn Fein, and other nationalists, to get money from America, channelled into Northern Ireland via the Irish Republic. That is why this was implemented. That is the reason it was allowed, and if it is allowed to continue, that will be an indictment of this House, particularly at a time when people are so concerned about the funding of political parties.
We support the provision to extend the term of the Assembly to 2016. We disagree with the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), on that point, but not because we think people in Northern Ireland will not be able to understand voting in different elections on the same day. Northern Ireland’s citizens have a long and admirable track record of being able not only to vote in different elections on the same day, but to use different electoral systems, and to do so very successfully. The terrible outcome in Scotland recently, when there was a dual election that led to thousands of spoiled ballot papers, has never happened to the same degree in Northern Ireland.
We wanted the extension of the Northern Ireland Assembly term because it has been extended in Scotland and in Wales. In both those jurisdictions, there is now a five-year fixed term. I welcome the fact that today, in this Bill, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is being treated like Scotland, Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom—and quite right too, as there is no logic whatever in saying we should be treated differently. It means that, as the Secretary of State has said, when there is an Assembly election, Assembly issues will be to the fore, and when there is a Westminster election, the issues affecting this House and Westminster representation will be debated, and there will be no confusion of the two sets of issues. That is very important.
There are, of course, two issues here: one is whether this particular Assembly term should be extended, and then whether we should move to five-year terms. The right hon. Gentleman puts a logical case for having five-year terms, but surely the Assembly did not need to be extended in this term. I think that was probably the more important point we were making.
Actually, the reason for that is the fact that, given the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2012, we will have a clash in May 2015. That is what makes it imperative that action is taken in this Parliament. The dates of the Scottish parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections were moved for precisely that reason. If we do not take action, in two years’ time there will be elections on the same day for Parliament and in Northern Ireland. That is why this measure has been brought forward.
May I preface my remarks by saying it is wonderful to see the right hon. Gentleman back on great form? I might not agree with half of what he is saying, but I am delighted to see him, as a great parliamentarian, back and on great form.
May I make an imaginary journey forward to 2016, when we will—unfortunately, from my perspective—have an Assembly election? The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will be well aware of the fact that the Easter of 2016 will be celebrated, and that could be very divisive, as that Easter marks the centenary of a significant event. Does the right hon. Gentleman have concerns—and I do just mean concerns—about that being exploited by a particular party in Northern Ireland to its advantage?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her very kind remarks. It is great to be back, and there is no better occasion to be back for than this debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is a great Bill and reminds me why I entered politics in the first place.
I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from, but I cannot agree with her. The Easter rising centenary will be commemorated in 2016, but the Unionist perspective will be, “100 years on and still no united Ireland”. One hundred years on from the Easter rising and Ulster—Northern Ireland—is more firmly part of the United Kingdom than it has ever been.
I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Lady asked that question. I look forward to her, like me, celebrating in 2016 and also commemorating another significant historic event in Northern Ireland—the anniversary of the Somme—on 1 July, as so many Ulster men gave their lives on the first day of that enormous battle. There will be many commemorations, centenaries and anniversaries affecting Northern Ireland in 2016 and the coming years, so I understand what she is saying. Although I do not agree with her on that point, I am sure she will respect my view on the issue.
Let me deal briefly with the change in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the Secretary of State has said, the powers will change from being in an excepted category to being in the reserved category. The Northern Ireland Assembly will, thus, be able to legislate, with the consent of the Westminster Parliament, and that is right and proper. We believe that there should be more such provisions, making it easier for the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate in other areas, such as its working, the make-up of the Executive and how they are formed. Of course, this should be done on a cross-community basis and as a result of negotiation, agreement and a cross-community vote, but it would send a strong signal that more of those powers are for the people and parties in Northern Ireland to agree.
Of course, Northern Ireland is over-represented, but we have 108 Members because the parties that supported the Belfast agreement in 1998 wanted the Assembly to be that big. We opposed that, for the reasons of over-representation that many Members are now talking about. The choice of six Members per constituency was a blatant attempt, once again, to get smaller parties that were, at that stage, in favour of the Belfast agreement into the Assembly at the expense of others. It did not work out that way because the Northern Ireland electorate had much greater common sense, voting for parties that would fight for change and reform, and for a better way forward. We achieved that, which is why we have the stability we have had since 2007.
I wish to add a little information and insight. When strand 1 was negotiated, the agreement between the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party on that holy Thursday night or early hours of Good Friday was for a 90-Member Assembly based on five-seat constituencies. What we disagreed on was whether there should also be a top-up, in either the first Assembly or, possibly, the first and second Assemblies, of an additional 10 Members that could account for smaller parties that might be under-represented because of the spread of the vote. That idea was not agreed by the UUP and, in the absence of agreement between us, Tony Blair stipulated it had to be six-Member constituencies—108 Members. None of the Northern Ireland parties proposed that.
I think I am grateful for that explanation. Two things come out of it that are clear. First, the SDLP and the UUP still wanted a significantly larger Assembly, with more than 100 Members, no matter the form of the electoral process. [Interruption.] Certainly, initially—
Ninety, plus, as I understand it, a further top-up, which would bring the figure to 100. So they wanted a significantly larger Assembly than the one we want to see nowadays. The second thing we learned from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was, once again, how much in debt we are to Tony Blair for so much in the political process, both here and in Northern Ireland! Whoever speaks for Labour will doubtless want to defend what Tony Blair did in that regard.
Does the right hon. Gentleman also feel that John Major played a significant part in the whole process, kicking it off in the first place?
I was not getting into the issue of credit for the peace process as a whole; I was only making reference to Tony Blair’s contribution to having a bloated Assembly in Northern Ireland. I do not think that John Major would want to be associated with that. I gladly pay tribute to John Major and others on both sides who have played a significant role in the peace process. I am glad to put that on the record.
With no difference between the views of the political parties in Northern Ireland, most of its parties are on the record as supporting a reduction in the size of the Assembly. The DUP, the Alliance party, the UUP, the SDLP and many independent Members are in favour, but Sinn Fein is not. Let us be clear that the reason we are not getting this reduction is not because the Assembly Members all want to keep their positions and the parties all want to keep the same numbers; it is because one party, Sinn Fein, refuses to accept that, in this day and age so many years on from the 1998 agreement and St Andrews, there is no need to have 108 Members any more. Let us put the focus squarely where it belongs, just as we need to do with the “blame”, if I may put it like that, for the national security issues. Again, they are the result of one or two parties in Northern Ireland taking a particular stand.
On the issue of dual mandates, our position is clear: they are being phased out. The Bill does not bring an end to dual mandates; the political parties in Northern Ireland are bringing an end to them. We in the DUP are certainly doing that. We made a commitment that by 2015 they would be phased out, in line with the recommendations made by the independent body—I cannot remember its name, because we had so many of these bodies at one time. That was what was said should be done, we committed to it and it is what we are doing. The Bill’s provisions outlawing dual mandates should apply to Scotland and Wales as well. I am glad to hear that the Welsh First Minister is introducing such proposals, but they should also apply to Scotland—Northern Ireland should not be unique in this regard.
The issue of non-representation also needs to be addressed. I alluded to it at the start of my remarks and I will close with it. Although it is not a matter for legislation, it is a matter for the resolution of this House—it is a House of Commons issue. It is a scandal that there are Members elected to this House who do not do their jobs and do not carry out parliamentary activity but get expenses, allowances and money, and not just to carry out their constituency duties—through representative money they get money to campaign. The rest of us are bound by the rules of this House and are rightly accountable for our expenditure for parliamentary purposes, but these people can spend this money for party political purposes and not a word is asked about it.
That special provision was brought in, again, under Tony Blair’s premiership. The then Secretary of State, John Reid, brought it in. It was opposed by the then Conservative Opposition, as it had been by the previous Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, and others. Sinn Fein had challenged all the way to the courts—European Courts—and had been defeated, but it was introduced as a special concession because it was argued at that time that it was necessary to bring Sinn Fein into the political process. If anyone can argue today that Sinn Fein is not in the political process, I would find it staggering. The time has now come for the House to address this issue. If we are concerned about dual mandates and about people being in two places at once, we cannot ignore the glaring issue about non-representation and a special status given to Members who do not attend. Their arrangement is actually advantageous and better than the position given to Members who do take their seats.
It is not often that I stand up to defend the former Secretary of State John Reid from criticism about his time in Northern Ireland but the measure on Opposition party money and the special terms given to Sinn Fein was actually introduced by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) when he was Secretary of State. He said that it was a necessary measure for the peace process. He refused to answer when asked what promise or threat made it so necessary, but confirmed that Sinn Fein could use the money for entirely different purposes from anybody else.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the glaring discrepancy in accountability arrangements for this money. That is not tolerable, because all the political parties that take their seats in this House are at a disadvantage compared with Members who do not take their seats and who can use the representative money for whatever they like.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is ironic that somebody like me, as the sole Member from a party, has no access to such money whereas multiple Members of another party who never turn up to this place to do the work they are elected to do have access to it for policy support and development?
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has been making his comeback with an amazing tour de force and has been very generous in giving way, but I gently point out that he has now been speaking for 34 minutes and quite a few of his colleagues wish to speak as well. As much as we are enjoying his speech, I am sure that he is going to give us his final words about his views on the Bill.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have had so many weeks to ponder and consider the contents of the Bill in relative peace and quiet that I have become carried away. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). Following your injunction, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will not go into detail on the various issues to do with the changes to the rules of court, sharing biometric data, equality and so on—not that I had very much to say about them.
The Bill is relatively modest, but it is significant in the context in which it has been introduced. It is significant in that it moves things forward in Northern Ireland, which is important because when all else is stripped away, the most important thing for those of us who represent the Province here in this House of Commons is to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.
Just this morning, pupils from All Saints’ Church of England primary school in Trysull visited me and asked me what I was doing this afternoon, and I explained that I hoped to speak on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) will be shocked to hear that they had not heard of it, but I informed them of the detail. I should say how well behaved they were and what a pleasure it was to have them visit Parliament.
I had the great privilege of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) when he was in the Northern Ireland Office, and I remember how often the Bill, what it would contain and what it would deliver would be mentioned in our discussions. It is satisfying to see so much of what was discussed in the Bill and to see progress being made. Opposition Members have said that they would have liked to see more, but it is heartening to see how much can be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House.
It was 10 years ago that I started travelling regularly to Northern Ireland to work. Even in those 10 years, one saw an enormous difference in politics, economics and stability in Northern Ireland. I must confess that the Ulster fries were as good then as they are today—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and will draw Mrs Williamson’s attention to them. I hope she appreciates that.
What has happened in the past 10 years—stability, progress—is remarkable, but what has happened in the past 20 years is even more remarkable. As has been mentioned, the Bill is about the progress that has been made and about supporting future progress.
The G8 was held in County Fermanagh. I remember visiting Lough Erne many times and seeing the beauty of it, and the whole world saw the beauty of Lough Erne. I am sure that that will be an enormous boost to tourism in Northern Ireland. Derry/Londonderry was city of culture last year. So much is happening and there is so much of which to feel proud.
We have touched on the issue of political donations, and most of my constituents, if they did not understand the context of what Northern Ireland had been through, would find it odd if political donations were not declared. The proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are sensible; they show a clear understanding of the problems we have had in Northern Ireland but take a gradualist approach that will ensure that we are open and transparent. The Electoral Commission’s polling has shown that 62% of people support more transparency and only 7% are happy with the status quo. We should welcome the fact that people feel that transparency about political donations is acceptable and that Northern Ireland is ready to see a greater level of it.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North made an important point about foreign donations from the Republic of Ireland. As we have discovered over the past few months, every multinational company has a base in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, nowadays it is more unusual for a multinational company not to have a base there. I hope that that can be considered, but the progress and the direction of travel are to be welcomed. They are what we need to see and they will build greater confidence in the political process and the political parties of Northern Ireland among all those who take part.
The Whip will have to make a note of this, but I am tempted to vote against the idea of ending double-jobbing. It is saddening to see that so many wonderful characters—great parliamentarians—might no longer be with us, but despite our sad loss if they decide to stay in Stormont I recognise that we need to deliver that proposal. We promised to deliver it in our manifesto and, as we have already heard from Northern Ireland Members, it is something on which they are ready to see progress. They are already delivering it in their political parties. Having such a provision in the Bill is an important element of building the confidence of people in Northern Ireland in the political process. I welcome it, and I am sure that all Members of this House will, too.
The idea of reducing the number of representatives in the Legislative Assembly should also be welcomed as there is massive over-representation. I accept that Staffordshire has a slightly smaller population than Northern Ireland, by 0.6 million—we have a population of only 1.1 million—but I find it hard to justify such over-representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly, with 108 Members, to my electorate. I am sure that a sensible number can be reached, to which all parties can agree. We should perhaps be willing to accept that some cages should be rattled if all parties cannot buy into the idea of bringing the number of Members down to a more sustainable level, whether that is 90 or 70—I will leave that to people who are far more knowledgeable about the matter than I am. Such a reduction will be progress. It will not only reduce the cost of politics but make those democratic representatives more relevant. I cannot think of a more horrendous idea than having six members of another assembly sitting below me in my constituency—I imagine it makes local politics a little more interesting. I am not saying that all Northern Ireland Members would be in favour of reducing the number, but it will make politics simpler and easier to understand. It will also make those who are elected to the Legislative Assembly more accountable to their electorate.
We have heard differing views on whether the election date should be changed, but I think it would be good if all the devolved Assemblies held all their elections on the same day. That would make the date more significant, not only for the devolved Assemblies but for the whole United Kingdom. If elections are held on different days and in different years, there is not so much of a national story or a local story. We must not underestimate the importance of a devolved Assembly to the lives of the whole United Kingdom. As one who believes in a united kingdom, the success of the devolved Assemblies is as important to me as it is to those who live in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. So often, the BBC and our national press ignore stories in the devolved Assemblies; I hope that holding all the elections together will make a more significant news story for the whole of the United Kingdom.
We have been waiting for this Bill. I remember the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), talking about it excitedly, and now it has arrived. It is a good Bill, I welcome it and I am happy to support it.
I welcome the fact that, through this Bill, the House is paying some attention to Northern Ireland today, but we should not lull ourselves into a false sense of security that everything in the garden is rosy and just a few tweaks here and there will make everything perfect. Attention to Northern Ireland from this House is needed. I believe it was the shadow Secretary of State who said that devolution cannot mean disengagement, but there has been some degree of disengagement.
Although I will comment on the Bill, I feel there is a need, before I do so, to set it in context. The context is that, yes, progress has been made—I agree with others on that—but there is a lot more to do. The Bill is concerned with some details of the interior decoration of a structure whose purpose and future are still being debated. Fifteen years ago, we had the Good Friday or Belfast agreement, and legislation followed in this House to put much of that agenda into law. This country—indeed, the world—thought that we had achieved the impossible and that lasting peace was copper-fastened. Sadly, that is not quite true.
It was wonderful to have an end to the violence and to hear almost all the guns and almost all the bombs fall silent. Hope gushed eternal from the people who had been oppressed, smothered, injured and damaged by violence, and they dared to dream of a life and a future, but an end to violence was not peace in any meaningful sense. Really, it was just what it said on the tin: it was an end to violence. Peace does not happen; it has to be built, and when it has been built, it has to be sustained, and it can be sustained only by people’s hope for a better life and a better future. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1998 the people of Ireland, north and south, were voting not just for peace, but for a better life that the peace would make possible.
We need our people to make a long-term personal investment in that peace, and we must show them what return they will get on that personal investment. In other words, the peace process can be sustained only if it is followed up by a prosperity process. Unfortunately, the financial boost required to pump-prime a prosperity process has never quite been delivered. We have heard much talk about rebalancing our economy towards wealth creation and away from over-reliance on public spending, but we have seen little action other than cuts in welfare. We have had a great debate about cutting corporation tax to put us on a level playing field with the rest of the island of Ireland to attract serious foreign investment, but the Treasury did not want a cut and priced it right out of the ballpark. The economy in Northern Ireland is fragile and the private sector small and extremely fragile. To date, too few of our people have seen any prosperity or, indeed, any economic benefit arrive on the back of the peace process. That is unfortunate, because they were entitled to some economic advance.
As a result, many people—those on the economic margins of our society—are looking backward, not forward, whether they be former provos peddling themselves as dissidents, or loyalist paramilitaries creating havoc under the guise of a flag protest. Incidentally, that protest wiped out most of our Christmas and hospitality season and left many of our hotels, restaurants and retailers bankrupt. Whatever the source or the excuse for disruption, Northern Ireland has quite a way to go before we can say that we have true peace. I am anxious that the Bill should not be taken as some sort of a final touch on the whole process. We will not have true peace until we have attended to all the factors that undermine peace, including economic factors, and we will not have it unless the sovereign Government recognise the responsibilities they undertook back in 1998. Devolution has been used by Government as an excuse for walking away. I repeat what the shadow Secretary of State said: devolution should not be an excuse for disengagement.
It needs to be remembered that devolution in Northern Ireland is based on an international agreement between two sovereign Governments from which neither can walk away. The British Government have an obligation to see the Good Friday agreement through to completion. Unfortunately, it is still not complete. There is an obligation to act, in co-operation with the Irish Government, to ensure that devolution is not an excuse for stagnation. I regret to tell the House that, in terms of the special objectives, devolution in Northern Ireland has stalled to some extent. The two main parties have pushed the other three parties, including mine, to the margins—they have pushed us aside and are carving up the cake in their own self-interest, rather than the public interest. The Prime Minister and this Government cannot turn a blind eye any longer: they must recognise that the two-party stranglehold within a structure that was designed to be inclusive is now preventing that structure from achieving its objectives.
After 15 years, where is the progress on reconciliation and where is there any reference to reconciliation in the Bill? Where is the progress on cohesion, sharing and integration, or any reference to them? Where is there any progress on the victims’ situation, or on dealing with the past or with divisions? I am distressed and concerned that the Bill is silent on those matters. I would prefer that we were here today to discuss how progress on those issues could be advanced and included in a Bill.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell the House how he feels it is a contribution to reconciliation for his party’s councillors to support the naming of a children’s play park after a convicted, dead IRA terrorist, who was caught in possession of the weapon involved in the murder of 10 innocent Protestants at Kingsmill in south Armagh?
There are issues here, and these people come to apologise for the failures that they have created in Stormont.
This Bill should deal with serious difficulties in Northern Ireland and offer more remedies; if it does not, it will be inadequate and less than fit for purpose. I will now discuss some of the details of the Bill—first, the clause that deals with donations and the measures that will impact on the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I was deeply concerned to hear that there could be restrictions on Irish citizens making donations to political parties in the north. Many of the greatest friends and supporters of the peace process are in the south, and without their support we would not be where we are today. Indeed, those people supported all the parties across the north, not just one or two. I would be deeply concerned about any perceived restrictions on donations from Irish citizens, because something has to be realised in these debates: we are not talking about Surrey, Sussex, Essex or, indeed, Yorkshire. Northern Ireland is different: many of us are Irish and many of us see ourselves as Irish. There is an ambiguity around the settlement that we had, which has created ambiguity. Thank God for that, because it has allowed peace to flourish. We have to build prosperity on that peace.
We want to move towards a more open and accountable system of donations in Northern Ireland, and we are happy to do so when that is possible. However, those who make donations on a certain understanding of anonymity should be protected from retrospective action unless they give authorisation. That authorisation should be specific, rather than assumed. I do not want to take up any more time, but I think I was quoted earlier, and I would endorse that. I have seen a number of people who have been intimidated, and who are frightened and worried. We have to protect them.
The hon. Gentleman said that many people saw themselves as Irish in Northern Ireland. That may be the case, but does he acknowledge that the national opinion poll last year showed that only 21% of nationalists were in favour of a united Ireland? This year, only 19% of Irish nationalists want a united Ireland. Things are changing. Is he part of that change, or is he just one of the old boys who do not want to change at all?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. A moment ago, the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) was challenged about his party’s support for the naming of a playground after an IRA terrorist. Rather than answering the point, he used the term “bigots” to refer to hon. Members in a somewhat childish reaction, instead of responding to the substantive point. Can you give a ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, on the use of the term “bigot” as parliamentary language to refer to hon. Members?
That is why I interrupted the debate. This is about having a temperate debate. It is about using moderate language. We do not want to inflame the debate. That is why I interrupted in the way that I did. I do not think that it was an appropriate use of the word, but I made that point at the time. We have moved on, and it is about making sure that it is a debate in which people have respect for one another. We are in danger of losing that respect with the use of inflammatory language.
Before we get too far with further points of order, I know that reference was not made to an individual Member, but the Members to whom the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) referred were sitting behind him. In a sense, it was a collective use of the word. I do not want to prolong this. I have given my view and I want to hear more of the hon. Gentleman’s speech.
I want to put on the record my deep concern that there are considerations to take into account about placing restrictions on Irish citizens who make donations to Irish political parties in the north. I do not wish to back that proposal, and I do not support that part of the Bill. As for transparency on donations, we want to move towards the open and accountable system to which I have referred.
We are comfortable, even though the Secretary of State has some grudge against the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and me, with the phasing out of the dual mandate in due course, and we have gone most of the way towards doing so. However, that should allow for some flexibility where appropriate, and clear lines of communication between the House of Commons and the devolved Assembly are essential. The way in which those lines of communication will be maintained should be explained in the Bill. It should be noted that there is no corresponding legislation covering the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. I am concerned that a rush to legislate on this could have unknown, and perhaps unwanted and unexpected, consequences.
Furthermore, our party would point out that the provisions do not deal with a dual mandate between the Assembly and the House of Lords. We do not agree that, somehow or other, the House of Lords is different. If there is an exclusion or ruling out of the dual mandate, it should be ruled out for all. If the Secretary of State is determined to ban the practice, why can that not be done for the upper House? Those issues need to be explored further as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.
Briefly, the reduction in the size of the Assembly should be approached with caution. Yes, we agreed to a small reduction in the context of the reduction of the number of Westminster seats—that is on the record at Stormont, where the discussions took place—but the Assembly should be as inclusive as possible, and should involve as many people as possible until a sustainable peace and good politics are well established there. We believe that until that happens there are risks.
The extension of the term of the Assembly is wrong. It is totally inappropriate for any Member given a mandate for four years to have their term extended to five years without clear justification. The election has been postponed so that it can be held at a time of possible tension, wedged between the 100th anniversary, as has been said, of the Easter rising and the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme. While hon. Members might not be involved in raising tension—indeed, we will do all that we can to reduce it—the anniversary of the battle of the Somme will increase tensions, as will the Easter rising anniversary, and it is inappropriate to hold an election between those two anniversaries.
Electoral registration in Northern Ireland is defective and while we can dot some of the i’s and cross some of the t’s in the Bill, there are some areas in which 20% to 25% of people—the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) suggested that it was 30%—are not on the register. There is a duty on someone, somewhere to ensure that that registration gap is covered and repaired.
I do not wish to say the matters in the Bill are not important—they are—but on their own they are not enough to bring progress and achieve better electoral registration. Any honest observer will say that there has been little progress overall in Northern Ireland. I urge the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government to get a grip on the stagnant situation in Northern Ireland, as we face serious problems.
Sorry, no: I want to make progress.
Months of illegality during the flags protests do not bode well for the marching season, which has started badly, as we have heard. We are now much further away from dealing with flags, marches and illegal bonfires than we were five years ago.
I want to put on the record the fact that profits from illegal fuel laundering in Ireland generally—we can split it north and south; it used to be a northern problem, but it has migrated south, and regrettably it has moved into parts of southern Scotland and northern England—amounting to £60 million to £70 million a year are swelling the coffers of the provo organisation. Much of that has now been set up as a privatised business.
I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman referred to illicit fuel laundering across the whole of Northern Ireland, right across the whole of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. If his party agreed to the implementation of the National Crime Agency that would go a long way towards trying to resolve the problem.
Issues relating to the National Crime Agency have to be resolved. We are keen that responsibility for dealing with crime and keeping the law is retained in Northern Ireland with the PSNI.
Beyond fuel laundering, tobacco smuggling creates about £100 million-worth of benefit to a wide cross-section of people. Some of them are provos, some are dissidents, many are loyalists and many are non-aligned criminals. The Bill works to convey the impression—perhaps with some justification—that we have a normal society. Yes, we are moving towards a normal society, but our society did not suddenly become normal when organised violence ended. There were generations of industrial decline, then decades of violence, which left our economy drastically skewed towards public spending. It will take at least a generation to fix it, as the Prime Minister recognised before the election.
The people who brought us the decades of violence are still there, doing rather nicely out of organised crime, which is in danger of becoming normalised. Millions of litres of laundered fuel have been seized, but not one person has gone to jail. We have a deeply divided society, with little prospect of divisions being tackled seriously if the current two-party stranglehold is allowed to determine the rate of progress. Let us be blunt and recognise just how deep the divisions are that we have and the divisions that we are asked to tackle.
We have a major challenge to tackle. The Bill should tackle the reconciliation issue, the victims issue, dealing with the past, and cohesion, sharing and integration. All these things are vital and should be included in some shape or form in the Bill, and there should be some movement on that.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for inviting me to speak in the debate. I will not pretend that I knew Northern Ireland particularly well before I was elected to this place, but sitting on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who does such a brilliant job of chairing it and keeping us all in order, I have learned quite a bit about Northern Ireland, and also from being a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
Last night I was listening to Michael Portillo’s programme on BBC Radio 4 about 1913, which happens to be the year before my father was born. Michael Portillo talked about how it was that Ireland became involved in the domestic policy of Britain and how important that was. That had kicked off in 1848, with the Irish potato famine. Today I was reminded by one of my hon. Friends that when Churchill introduced the Bill to establish the Irish free state in 1922 he famously remarked that despite the cataclysm of the first world war which had swept the world, the “integrity of the quarrel” between the people of Fermanagh was one of the few institutions that had been unaltered. Today that situation has been transformed by peace in a way that was barely imaginable 20 years ago, let alone in the 1920s. This month Fermanagh was not at the heart of a quarrel, but was the home of the world’s leaders at the G8 conference at Lough Erne. This year we are celebrating the city of culture in Londonderry, and this very week last year we saw the Irish open taking place at Royal Portrush, which I was delighted to be able to go to. Progress is being made.
Today is an historic occasion. We are not talking about the troubles. We are talking about the constitution of Northern Ireland. I want to use this opportunity to congratulate and to thank the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and also Sir John Major for all their hard work and effort in bringing about the Good Friday agreement. I thank the Americans as well and President Clinton for the effort that he invested.
I welcome the Bill. There are one or two issues about which I have concerns, such as the dual mandate, which allows people to sit in the House of Lords and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is very good indeed that we are talking about how we can create greater transparency in Northern Ireland. In the main, I agree with the Bill.
Last week members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee were in the United States of America, where we saw for ourselves how the Americans are beginning to view the situation in Northern Ireland. They think that the whole issue of Northern Ireland is sorted and is no longer a problem, but we all know because we see it in our national press and our national media that there will always remain a residue of real concern about making sure that there is peace in Northern Ireland. We learned how hard the Northern Ireland Bureau is working to encourage inward investment into Northern Ireland. That is incredibly good news. That is another example to show how Northern Ireland is moving forward to a more natural form of politics.
Measures to make political donations transparent, to stop double-jobbing, to introduce a real opposition and to create an accurate electoral register are all positive moves. The US was somewhat surprised at the recent flags protest and feared that might discourage future investment. The recent civil disturbances and what may potentially happen during the marching season should make us feel concerned about how members of society are coming forward and how it is that some young people feel disfranchised from the peace process.
I caution the hon. Gentleman. In all the discussion about people feeling disconnected and disillusioned with the political process, it is important that we do not talk about them being disfranchised. People have a franchise—the right to a vote. They may not avail themselves of that vote, but they have a franchise. We need to reconnect them and re-energise them about politics, and it is important to make the distinction.
I thank the hon. Lady for correcting me. I am sorry that I ended up making a mistake. This time last year when we were in Northern Ireland seeing the marches take place, I switched on the television to watch a documentary about the battle of the Boyne and how James II sought to re-establish his throne there. I thank the hon. Lady for reminding me about that.
It is excellent news that the Northern Ireland Executive will be given extra funds if progress is made on bringing down the peace walls. Our priorities surely should be to create community cohesion and rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Key to that is a skilled work force. As I understand it, 60% of people who work in Northern Ireland still work in the public sector. We must try to do something about that. Northern Ireland has a vibrant university sector, which has the potential to create a vibrant economy, and Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has a common land border with another EU country.
We need to encourage investment into Northern Ireland. That is why I support, as did the Select Committee, a reduction in corporation tax. Key to creating a vibrant economy are not only high skills, but better transport links. As in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency, we need to ensure that there are better transport links from Northern Ireland to England and to London. The House may be interested to know that today I wrote to the Chancellor asking for some studies into dualling the A303, which feeds into my constituency, and improving our train network. The Province needs good links not only to the UK and to southern Ireland, but to the US.
Last week’s G8 meeting in Londonderry was another good opportunity to demonstrate how Northern Ireland is moving forward. It is vital that we do not take our eye off the ball and that we continue to be as supportive as we can be to Northern Ireland and all the communities within it.
Like other Members who have spoken, I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on Second Reading, because the Bill deals with a number of important issues that relate to improving democracy and accountability in Northern Ireland.
I welcome at the outset, as other Members have done, the fact that the Bill, unlike so many of its predecessors, is not the result of a crisis or emergency and is not intended to resolve a point of instability in the Assembly. Instead, it is part of the normal democratic process. Not only does that demonstrate the significant progress that has been made at a political level in recent years, notwithstanding the many serious issues still to be addressed, and indeed the occasional setback, but it afforded the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the opportunity to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny and the Northern Ireland parties and general public the opportunity to express a view on the proposals the Government brought forward during the public consultation. That is a hugely important part of the democratic process that has helped shape the Bill, and I hope it will set the tone for future engagement on legislation relating to Northern Ireland.
I will focus on a few aspects of the Bill: donor transparency, the rules affecting dual mandates and reform of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill contains other important provisions that I support, such as those relating to the working of the Electoral Commission, but I do not have time to go into them in detail today.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way on that important point. It is essential that people are on the electoral register. I recently held an event in my constituency at which we were able to get people registered and get their photo ID, but there were a great many other places where we were unable to do that because the Electoral Commission told us it did not have the funds. Does the hon. Lady therefore welcome the fact that clause 18 refers to taking all steps necessary for the purpose of complying with the duty to maintain the registers so that every step will be taken, including releasing funds and making more funding available to ensure that people are registered?
I certainly agree that the resources available to the Electoral Commission need to be used wisely. As in every other public body, the commission’s resources will be constrained by the limitations of what is available, but I note that the Secretary of State said earlier that additional funding would be made available specifically to deal with registration.
Perhaps I can clarify the situation. The full door-to-door canvass was not due to take place this year, but I have now made the funding available, along with the necessary administration process, so that it can do so. It is for the political process in Northern Ireland, as well as the Electoral Commission, to push that forward so that we get more people on the electoral register, because if they are not on the register they cannot vote and no one can campaign for their vote.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, which hopefully will have answered some of the specific questions Members have on electoral registration.
The first issue I want to address is transparency on political party donations and loans, which I have raised in the House on a number of occasions over the past few years. Whatever the historical arguments regarding the need to protect the identity of donors, I firmly believe that the time to lift that veil of secrecy has passed. The Northern Ireland public have a right to know the identity of significant donors to political parties, as voters do in the rest of the UK, and then to judge for themselves whether such donations influence the decisions, policies and actions of parties. As long as mystery surrounds that, parties will be open to the charge that they are influenced in that way, but they will be largely unable to defend themselves against such suspicion. Although that is disclosed to the Electoral Commission, it is not made public, and that is key.
The security situation in Northern Ireland, although far from perfect, has improved significantly since donor anonymity was introduced. It is not consistent or sustainable to argue that Northern Ireland is a safe and welcoming destination for tourism and inward investment while at the same time arguing that the security situation is so grave that normal democratic scrutiny cannot be introduced.
Three primary concerns regarding the impact of transparency have been raised. I will briefly address each in turn. First, there is the fear of a threat of violence against a person, their family or property as a result of their association with a particular party becoming known. Despite the genuine concerns expressed in that regard, there appears to be little tangible evidence of specific targeting of donors as part of campaigns. However, nowhere can that be entirely ruled out. Therefore, donors should carefully consider the risk when deciding whether to donate; it is not compulsory. Knowing that their donations will be published will help to inform them as to which decision to make.
I am certainly not oblivious to, or cavalier about, the risk that being politically aligned or identified in Northern Ireland can still carry. My party leader, David Ford MLA, who is the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, is likewise cognisant of the continued risks. However, that does not insulate Northern Ireland politics from the wider public perception that politics is organised for the benefit of the few rather than the many. Notwithstanding any security concerns, if we are to increase trust and confidence in the political system, we need to maximise openness and transparency. As a result, and despite ongoing security concerns, the Alliance party voluntarily publishes our returns to the Electoral Commission on our website and has done so over the past few years, and to no disadvantage. I call again on other parties to do likewise in order to help grow confidence in the commitment to public scrutiny, regardless of a legislative requirement to do so.
Secondly, concerns have been expressed that opponents of a particular party might boycott a business if its owner or company are seen to support a particular party political view. However, in theory the same could happen in any part of the UK. Again, it is a matter that donors should consider carefully before donating, rather than a reason to deny the public their right of scrutiny. In my view, and incidentally that of Sir Christopher Kelly, as expressed in his evidence to the Select Committee, neither risk should automatically be given primacy over the principles that guide public life: openness, transparency and accountability.
Thirdly, as parties are not publicly funded and therefore rely on donations to survive, one could argue that any action that could deter donors could restrict party political activity or even the range of choice available to the electorate. I challenge that on two grounds. In order to stand for election to a council, candidates need the signatures and addresses of residents in the council area on their nomination papers, and those are published. I am not aware of parties being unable to field candidates, even in the worst days of the troubles, owing to people being unwilling to have that information published, despite it being a more direct link to elected politics. People clearly weigh up those risk but still opt to be involved, whether as candidates, canvassers, supporters, nominees or otherwise, and there is evidence that since 1998 the public’s willingness to do so has increased.
Furthermore, most parties have said, including in evidence to the Select Committee, that they receive very few donations that reach the £7,500 threshold for donor names to be declared and instead are heavily reliant on small donations from members and supporters. Even if all of those large donations were to cease, according to their evidence that would not have a disproportionate effect on party finances or activity and would not jeopardise the continued functioning of our democracy.
It is worth noting, as a measure of just how opaque donor information is in Northern Ireland, that it is against the law for the Electoral Commission even to confirm or dispute a party’s claim that it receives few donations of that magnitude. Such anonymised data pose no risk to anyone and would provide considerable insight for the public into how parties are funded and how reliant they are on a small number of donors. I think that the move towards publishing anonymised data in the interim, between now and October 2014, would be good preparation for change.
Well, given the timing of his intervention, which led perfectly to what I was about to say, perhaps that will be reviewed in due course. I thank him for making that point, because it is an important one.
With respect to the retrospective publication of donor information, I think that it is reasonable that where people had an expectation, even though the letter of the law suggests otherwise, that donations they made during the prescribed period would remain confidential even after the prescribed period ended, that should be honoured. Such historical information should be published only with their express consent, as to do otherwise would be a fundamental breach of trust.
However, I support the Electoral Commission’s proposal that the expectation of anonymity should be removed from the date the Bill receives Royal Assent, making it clear that all donations made after that date will be subject to future publication. Whether the Secretary of State decides that such publication should happen routinely from October 2014, the expiry of the current prescribed period, or chooses again to extend that period, they should be published at a subsequent juncture. I think that that ought to be pursued in Committee, as it adds clarity for donors in the interim and increases public confidence without limiting the options available to the Secretary of State.
With regard to the prescribed period and its continuation, I remain disappointed that a firm commitment has not been given to remove anonymity at the first possible opportunity. The Bill gives the Secretary of State maximum flexibility specifically to increase transparency, and I welcome the presumption in favour of publication, but both fall short of a commitment to end the inequality that exists between Northern Ireland residents and their counterparts in Great Britain. I hope that the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will be able to give some reassurance in that regard.
Finally, with regard to donations, I believe that there might be merit in considering further whether the threshold for publication of donations to Northern Ireland political parties should be reduced from £7,500 to a lower figure, given the smaller income of most local parties and the likely lower threshold at which donations may be considered large enough to influence a party’s decision. Clearly, that requires the striking of a very delicate balance between the administrative burden that it would create for what are, in the main, small organisations, and increasing transparency for the public. Such matters are not unique to Northern Ireland, so the Bill may not be the ideal vehicle for advancing them, but it would be helpful to consider them at Government level in future.
On multiple mandates, I welcome the clauses that will disqualify a Member of Parliament from also being a Member of the Assembly. I do not believe that MPs should be permitted to continue as Members of the Assembly. The primary argument that they should is that the fledging Assembly structures were unstable and senior political figures who left Westminster for the Assembly could find themselves with no mandate in the event of a collapse. Those points no longer hold true, as the Assembly is in its second successive, uninterrupted term, which represents positive progress.
A further argument advanced in favour of allowing such a dual mandate is that, for key people in party leadership roles or holding key ministerial positions in the devolved Assembly, the direct linkage with Parliament can prove valuable in keeping them fully informed of developments in both places. I do not think that that argument carries much weight in the current situation.
As deputy leader of the Alliance party and MP for East Belfast, it is incumbent on me to keep abreast of developments in the devolved institutions and keep in close contact with Assembly colleagues about the implications of matters discussed in this Chamber and the Assembly. I do not need to sit in both places for that. There are also mechanisms for the Ministers in the Executive who are not MPs to meet their counterparts in Westminster and address issues with them and vice-versa, and the majority fall into that category.
Having fulfilled the roles of MP and MLA, I strongly believe that both jobs are at least full time and require a focus that could not be achieved effectively with a dual mandate and consequently competing demands on time. It is a crucial part of the role of an MLA to be in Stormont to vote on legislation passing through the Assembly, to question Ministers and to hold the Executive to account. Equally, an MP’s work demands that they be in Westminster for a significant and conflicting proportion of the week to scrutinise and vote on legislation and policy, question Ministers and provide a voice for their constituents. Although there is a considerable overlap in the constituency casework element of both jobs, the locations and timings make them incompatible with each other, regardless of the talent, energy or ability of individual Members. Put simply, no person can be in two places at once.
A further benefit of ending dual mandates would be the creation of an opportunity not only for parties to bring forward new talent, but for the electorate to see the electoral cohort refreshed, reinvigorated and made more reflective of society as a whole. Again, Alliance as a party has voluntarily and speedily acted in respect of dual mandates, following through on our pre-election pledges and manifesto commitments to do so, within weeks of election to Westminster.
Three years on, there has been significant time and space for parties to implement fully their pre-election commitments to end dual mandates, yet many have failed to make other than glacial progress in that regard. It is important that the legislation comes forward to ensure that the wishes of the public are taken into account.
Although I recognise that the House of Lords is not structured in the same way as the Commons—its Members have no electoral mandate and no constituency responsibilities—the same conflict exists for Members of the Lords. I am disappointed that currently the Bill does not disqualify Members of the Lords from belonging to the Assembly. Given the important role of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber and the burden of undertaking detailed scrutiny of Government Bills, it would be challenging for a peer who was also an MLA, with the legislative, constituency and Committee responsibilities attendant on that position, to commit fully to the discharge of either role.
The situation is exacerbated because the Assembly and the Lords also sit at the same times on Mondays and Tuesdays, further limiting a person’s ability to participate fully in the work of both institutions. I recognise that remuneration for the work of a peer is different and reflects the fact that many peers have careers outside Parliament, some of which may also conflict with the sittings of the House of Lords, so I would have been content for the measures to end dual representation to be considered in the context of wider Lords reform, which would have addressed remuneration and allowances at the same time. However, as that has not been advanced and is unlikely to be in this Parliament, the Government should revisit the possibility of action in this Bill.
If membership of this Parliament is a disqualification for serving in the Assembly, it follows logically that membership of other Parliaments should also be. I welcome the fact that the Government are including membership of Dail Eireann as a disqualification, but just as I believe that membership of the House of Lords should be a disqualification when it comes to membership of the Assembly, membership of the Seanad should also be, regardless of any Irish Government plans for the reform or abolition of that body.
I move on to the structures of the Assembly. We believe that the Assembly and parliamentary elections should be decoupled. The roles and responsibilities of each legislature are separate and distinct, and it is important that the issues pertinent to each receive full and detailed public consideration in advance of the vote. That will be difficult if both elections are running on the same day or without adequate separation, with the risk that one set of elections would overshadow the other.
For example, national coverage of Westminster elections could eclipse Northern Ireland issues and regional focus on the Assembly could lead to inadequate coverage of national issues. Alternatively, the two could become unhelpfully conflated. I am strongly of the opinion that elections should be held separately, preferably a year apart, and that the electorate should be given a full opportunity to engage in issues affecting each legislature. On that, perhaps, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and I, the Member for Belfast East, find common ground.
I acknowledge that the Northern Ireland electorate are sophisticated and able to deal with the complexity of having not only two different elections but two different voting systems on the same day, but such circumstances are not desirable, although they might be practically manageable. I therefore support the extension of the current term and the change to five-year terms for the Assembly, as ad hoc changes to avoid future conflicts will no longer have to be made. What I propose would regularise the situation just as the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will, and that is welcome.
I am not entirely clear about the hon. Gentleman’s point, but separating the general election from the Assembly election is important. Ensuring that that separation is maintained in the long term, without ad hoc changes to the length of the Assembly term, is important.
The Assembly term was generally the one that had to be adjusted to move away from Westminster’s and that made the Assembly seem somewhat less important. That is not a particularly good message to give the electorate —that we will hold the election as long as nothing more important is happening. Resolving the issue once and for all is a much better way to move forward.
I move on to the structures of the Assembly. I turn to the arrangements for the appointment and replacement of the Justice Minister. I am pleased that the issues that my own party and others have raised in this regard are now being addressed in a manner fairer and more appropriate than the current arrangements. There are twin anomalies. First, whichever party holds the Justice Ministry will end up with an additional Ministry over its d’Hondt entitlement. Secondly, there is a lack of security of tenure for the Justice Minister, who can be removed from post by an Assembly vote, unlike any other Minister, potentially leading to under-representation in comparison to the d’Hondt entitlement were the power to be exercised.
The current arrangement is not sustainable, and although my own party has benefited from the first anomaly in this term, while remaining vulnerable to the second, we wish the issue to be addressed. The proposals before us are, in essence, the same as those that my party and others discussed in trying to come to a resolution, so we welcome their inclusion in the Bill. They will create a fairer arrangement for all the parties in the Executive, and, crucially for those who voted for them, ensure that the Justice Minister counts towards the d’Hondt allocation but, once appointed, can be removed only by resignation or through the party nominating officer, as with other Ministers.
Finally, I am disappointed that provision could not have been made in the Bill to allow the wider structures and size of the Assembly to be reformed, as seemed to be very much part of the Bill when the previous Secretary of State talked about it initially. The issue’s initial prominence seems to have disappeared.
It has long been the view of the Alliance party, throughout the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement and subsequent negotiations and reforms, that democracy in Northern Ireland would be best served by a properly funded, properly structured formal Opposition. Having, as a party, spent a considerable time as the only effective Opposition within the Assembly and been the only one of the five major parties to have been outside the Executive for much of the Assembly’s existence, we recognise the importance of that role. However, unlike other legislatures, there is no formal role, status or support for such an Opposition, inhibiting effectiveness.
We also recognise, however, that the current system was endorsed as part of the Good Friday agreement referendum and that any such change would therefore require the consent of the Assembly and should not be externally imposed. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly is considering proposals to move in that direction, although as yet consensus has not been achieved. That is regrettable. It is also regrettable that enabling legislation that would have permitted the formation of an opposition could not have been included in the Bill so that we could at least have put down a marker that it was possible, although the Assembly would be required to ask for it to be implemented. Such reform would also have allowed for much of the architecture around consociationalism, which, while managing division, has tended to copper-fasten rather than diminish it over time, without removing or undermining the protections for minorities.
Linked to such reform is the size of the Assembly. In my party’s view, the current number of MLAs is too large when compared with other levels of representation across the UK, and we would like the number of seats to be reduced. We recognise the vital importance of ensuring that proportionality is fully protected as any reform goes forward. That is the key aspect to maintaining the confidence of Northern Ireland voters. We propose that the number of elected representatives to be returned by each constituency should, as a starting point, be five rather than six. Should the number be reduced to fewer than five, there would be a risk of imbalances in terms of how reflective of the population those returned at the election would be. That has been shown in elections to Dail Eireann on the basis of three, four and five-seat constituencies. Proportionality is crucial in a deeply divided society such as ours.
We would also support a reduction in the number of constituencies. We are disappointed that that was unable to be effected as part of the proposals that went before this House, which would have resulted in 16 constituencies with five Members each. That would have taken us to around the 80 mark, which would have been extremely helpful in reducing the Assembly to a more manageable size. There is no evidence to suggest that an 80-Member Assembly would be insufficient to ensure the effectiveness of its operations, particularly if streamlining of the Executive happened concurrently.
Our proposals for a reduction to eight departments are a matter of record as part of the discussions of the AER Committee at Stormont. We believe that that, coupled with an allied reduction in Government Departments, would lead to a reduction in the number of statutory committees, thus not significantly increasing the burden on a smaller number of MLAs. We would also argue that such reform would lead to no discernible drop in the level of governance, as evidenced by the Scottish Parliament, which has similar powers and functions to those of the Assembly but fewer MSPs per head of population.
This is a second lost opportunity to right-size the Assembly after the abandonment of the boundary changes and other measures. I am pleased that such changes proposed by the Assembly in future will not require primary legislation in order to right-size it, but it is disappointing that there is not more in the Bill to drive that forward.
I very much welcome the Bill and the more positive context in which it has been introduced, although I express some disappointment about how far-reaching it is. I hope that in Committee issues such as donor transparency and the recommendations of the Electoral Commission will be addressed and taken forward.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long).
I will touch on two very significant issues, the first of which is the increased transparency of donations. I commend the hon. Lady and the Alliance party, who have been very open about this issue for a number of years. I am glad that we are sticking to the timetable of October 2014. I urge the Secretary of State, when we get there, to implement the measure post-haste, because we have reached a point in Northern Ireland at which it is very important to normalise donations and their transparency. Like everyone in the Chamber, I fully understand that Northern Ireland is in a different situation, and has certainly come from a very different place, but I am firmly of the view that it is time that donations there are completely normalised and that they become as transparent as they are in the rest of the country.
The second issue is the proposal to change the process of appointment and dismissal for Northern Ireland Justice Ministers. That is clearly a very sensitive post. I appreciate the thought and consultation that have gone into the Bill in this context as it will provide greater security of tenure. The complexity around d’Hondt should provide a discipline to the whole process that means, one hopes, that it will never need to be implemented. It is a very practical and sensible addition to the Bill.
As a number of colleagues have said, this is the first Northern Ireland Bill since 1998—the first in 15 years—to be introduced at Westminster under normal circumstances; all the others have been dealt with under emergency procedures. That demonstrates the enormous progress that has been made over the past few years, despite some of the challenges over the past 24 months. It is a very positive sign that demonstrates that even if it is sometimes inch by inch, the society of Northern Ireland is going in the right direction.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) flagged up the issue of 2016 and all the historical issues and challenges that we will have to move through. He rightly pointed out that in 1916 many people from the Ulster regiments served and died on the Somme. My grandfather served and was wounded on the Somme. He originally hailed from County Mayo and that fact demonstrates the complexity of the whole issue. When we get to the point of discussing it, I am sure that all Members of the House will deal with it as sensitively as we must.
I commend the Secretary of State for the Bill. It has taken 15 years, but it is good to have another Northern Ireland Bill debated on the Floor of the House.
I concur with much of what has been said in this Second Reading debate. The Secretary of State said that this was a Bill for more normal times. On an earlier occasion, it was described as a “normalisation” Bill.
I want to allude to a small number of issues, the first of which has been dealt with by several Members—party political donations. I welcome the fact that we are making progress towards full and open disclosure, although we are not yet where we need to be, for a number of reasons. We cannot yet fully arrive at the concluding point, but I hope that we are making significant strides towards it.
Another issue is the creation of an opposition in the Assembly, which is concentrating the minds of the Assembly and the Executive Review Committee at Stormont. For my sins, I am a member of that Committee and have an attendance rate of over 70%. The dual mandate has not restricted me from maintaining my representation role either there or here. I hope that we are making significant progress towards the creation of an opposition, although we have not reached the final stage.
We are also discussing a reduction in the size of the Assembly. Other Members have made their position clear on that. My view, and that of my party, is that we should be considering a much more significant reduction—for cost purposes, if for no other reason. The over-representation in the Assembly means that we have the almost ludicrous situation of a population of 1.8 million being represented by 108 MLAs. We should remember that the salary of an MLA is £48,000, plus an office costs expenditure allowance of £71,378—a total of £120,000 for each MLA. It should be possible to get to the point where we have four MLAs per constituency, making a total of 72. That would be a significant reduction of 36, from 108 to 72.
If we do not agree to such a reduction in the Northern Ireland Assembly and we make dual mandates illegal, the cost to the taxpayer will be in the region of £100,000 per year per MLA. If a dozen MLAs were also MPs and they stood down—thankfully we have moved beyond that—it would cost £1 million a year every year, unless there were a reduction in the number of MLAs at Stormont. Each of the parties has handled the issue of dual mandates voluntarily. I made representations to Sir Christopher Kelly about my party’s position, which is that we will phase out dual mandates.
Given that the Government introduced a non-salaried role for those of us who were in both legislatures, I would have thought that most people would say to those who want to do a second job and not get paid for it, but who are as diligent there as they are here, “If you want to do it, get on and do it.” However, we are moving towards a point where that will no longer be required.
Members have made fleeting reference to the normality of life in Northern Ireland and to the way in which the Bill reflects that. Over the last few months, Londonderry has celebrated being the first ever UK city of culture. The many celebrations over the past week have indicated the normality that is returning not just to Londonderry, but to Northern Ireland as a whole. We hope to demonstrate that normality more and more in the coming months, not just through the UK city of culture, but across Northern Ireland.
The other issue that I want to allude to is very important to citizens everywhere. I hold in my hand a badge that is important to people in every nation on Earth: a passport. It is a badge of citizenship. It declares that one can call on the services of the nation when in difficulty in another land. In Northern Ireland we have a problem that I have raised with the Secretary of State and her predecessors. Some people wish to have an Irish identity, as the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) indicated when he was not describing others as bigots. In my other hand, I hold an Irish passport.
No, it is not mine.
People in Northern Ireland are entitled to have either passport or even both passports if they so wish. The anomaly relates to the thousands of people who were born in the Irish Republic after 1949, when it left the Commonwealth, but who have lived for decades in Northern Ireland. Those people are British. They are British by courtesy of their tax-paying and their voting arrangements. They are British voters and British residents, but they cannot hold a British passport. That anomaly has to be addressed.
I hope that the matter will be raised at the appropriate point in the progress of the Bill. If people in Northern Ireland have the right to claim an Irish identity, even if they have never been to the Irish Republic, why can people who were born in the Irish Republic, but who have been British and have lived in the United Kingdom for decades not have British citizenship? They demand the right to have British citizenship, but they are currently denied that right. I hope we will be able to debate amendments to deal with that during the Bill’s passage.
As I said earlier, we are very pleased with elements of the Bill. We wish that it would go further, particularly in respect of Members who do not turn up here, but who still have their allowances paid. That will have to be dealt with quickly, if not in this Bill, then through another means. I hope that progress will be made on the measures that are in the Bill and on other issues that, although outside the remit of the Bill, will, I hope, be introduced before we get much further.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to take part in this important debate for Northern Ireland. I also want to express my appreciation to the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for the tone in which they introduced the debate on this Bill.
The Secretary of State acknowledged that we are in more normal times. Although that is true, I cannot forget the awful murder of David Black near the town where I went to school. I want to express my appreciation to the security services and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which provide daily protection for the people of Northern Ireland. They have thwarted many of the attempts by terrorists and allowed us to live in peace. Although it is true that we are in more normal times, there is still a dissident threat in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State acknowledged that devolved government in Northern Ireland is well established. The House must accept that the formula for government in Northern Ireland, with a mandatory coalition at its heart, cannot continue indefinitely. Although the Bill reforms other parts of political life in Northern Ireland, that fundamental part is left untouched. I believe that it will have to be addressed at a later date.
I acknowledge, as did both Front Benchers, the tremendous boost that the G8 leaders brought to Northern Ireland, County Fermanagh and the beautiful countryside of Lough Erne and the Fermanagh lakes, which is next to my constituency of South Antrim. We should again show our appreciation to the Prime Minister for bringing the most powerful leaders in the world to Northern Ireland. I trust that we will build on that. The Prime Minister’s promise that he will return to Northern Ireland for an investment conference later in the year is to be welcomed.
We must build jobs and rebalance the economy, as Members have said, but we can only do that with further growth in the economy. I would like prosperity to be enjoyed by all. I looked today at the unemployment statistics and claimant figures for the United Kingdom. I was delighted to see that my constituency again has the highest employment in the Province and has seen a decrease in claimants. That should be welcomed by all Members, because those figures refer to individual people and we should be glad that they are in a job in these difficult days.
I welcome the tone that has been used by the majority of Members. I will not go in depth into what I believe was a slur on my colleagues and me by the leader of the SDLP, but I believe that his remark says more about him than about us. I suggest to him quietly and respectfully that it would be better for his constituents and his party if he took the battle to Sinn Fein, rather than to the Unionists who turn up to this House. I trust he will reflect on that, because it is an honourable thing to apologise when a person makes a mistake.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State power to make transparent the declaration of donations and non-commercial loans to political parties in Northern Ireland from September 2014. The Democratic Unionist party supports transparency in principle, but it must be acknowledged that there were good reasons for Northern Ireland being afforded a special status in this matter. This House must never forget the bravery displayed by many individuals and businesses in stepping forward in dangerous and perilous times to make donations to political parties that stood up for justice and democracy against the forces of intimidation and terror. Many did so at great personal and corporate risk, and their sacrifice and courage must not be forgotten. The DUP is doing its part to move Northern Ireland forward to a more normalised society. We acknowledge that the normalisation of political donations must be tackled, and that the Bill takes a step in that direction. Transparency should be a part of such a process, but I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister who will reply to the debate to reflect on the timetable.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I take cognisance of what he says about the difficult situation and the reasons for anonymity. His party has said that very few of its donations exceed the £7,500 threshold requiring the names of donors to be published, so what tangible difference would it make if only a small number of donations had the potential to be affected by transparency rules?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I have to acknowledge that I am an hon. Member, not a right hon. Member, of this House.
Putting the life of any individual at risk is very serious. There is a level of donation at which a name would have to be given, and that could put people, and the profitability of the businesses they represent, at risk. We have acknowledged that the measure is right in principle. The Bill will take things forward in a careful manner, but I question the current timetable of 2014.
The spirit of the proposals is not to scare off people who wish to contribute to a political party, but the fact is that a great many people in Northern Ireland will feel under pressure because of their political allegiance. That is a key issue for individuals, families and businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Any change must be made in conjunction with an appropriate security assessment by the PSNI. There still exists—the Secretary of State acknowledged this in her opening remarks—a significant threat in Northern Ireland, and we have to be careful because we are dealing with people’s lives. I know the dangers that people face day by day in the constituency in which I live in the west of the Province. We need to move at a proper pace that takes into account the uncertainty involved for businesses that make public donations. Moving too quickly to a fully open and transparent system could be detrimental to the democratic process and political stability.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) acknowledged, one aspect of the Bill needs greater consideration and reflection. Individuals and bodies in the Irish Republic can donate to parties in Northern Ireland, in contravention of the law in that country. Indeed, it is much worse than that, because individuals and bodies in the Republic of Ireland could be used as a front for donations from other foreign countries. The Government must address this matter in the Bill to ensure the integrity of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) reflects on this, she will understand that it is a greater danger to the coffers of political parties than anything else that the Secretary of State has been asked to do in this House.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
Many Members highlighted the major issue of dual mandates, and it is a hot political potato. I can speak with some experience, as I entered public life 40 years ago last month when, after a local government reorganisation in 1973, I was elected to the district council for the area in which I live. I represented my area on the council for thirty-seven-and-a-half years. In 1982, I was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and in 1983—30 years ago last month—I was elected to this Parliament. I have 40 years’ experience of elected office right across the spectrum—district council, first and second Assemblies, the forum in between, and Westminster. I noticed what the hon. Member for Belfast East said earlier about “what the public want”. What did the public want? The people decided that I would be elected: they decided; they made the choice. In Assembly elections they had six possibilities, but they chose me as number one. When it came to district council elections there were five other candidates and I was elected first, top of the poll. When it came to Westminster elections, I was elected top of the poll. People talk about what the public want and we have to be careful about that, but I speak with all those years of experience in public life.
We must remember that during those years Northern Ireland was plunged into one of the most bloody and terrifying IRA campaigns. Many of my friends and constituents were butchered by the provisionals. Some of those who carried out or engineered those acts are now strutting around the corridors of power. At that time, the law-abiding people wanted a voice against terror to be heard, but not their voice—they were too afraid. People were very reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. They did not want to come forward to stand for election for fear of the risk—the very real risk— to their own personal security and that of their families.
When I held dual mandates, that risk was very real. Putting my head above the parapet meant receiving a real bomb on my 40th birthday from the Provisional IRA. Coming to this House and speaking up for the people I represent meant that 50 bullets riddled my house when my family—my wife and my children—were just going into the house. Every window in our house was a bullet-proof window. For 25 years, I had to drive around in a police car for protection. That is what it cost to be an elected representative in this House, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the district council. Why was I doing it? It was because others put their trust in me and asked me to do it. They were too afraid. They had to have a voice, however, and they were looking for one, and I was honoured and privileged to be it. Thankfully, we have moved on, and in fact after 37 years, although it was a wrench, I voluntarily stood down from the council. I did not need legislation to tell me I had to stand down from the council if I was to be in the House, and I did not need it to tell me to stand down from the Assembly. I voluntarily stood down from the Assembly, too, and others are now taking my place.
It is right that we bring others to this House or the other Chambers to be the voice of the people, but never let us forget that those who had those mandates before held them at great personal risk to their lives and their families. When fathers left in the morning, their families did not know whether they would be back again in the evening, so let us be careful when we talk about those dual mandates. In 1973, when I joined the council, what we got financially did not cover the stamps, so we certainly were not in it for the money. I can assure hon. Members that there were not many others offering to take our places, and what we got certainly did not cover the petrol. We did it because we loved our country, we loved our people, and we wanted to be their voice. It is without apology, therefore, that I look back over those years and I thank God that I had the privilege and that I am still standing here, at the will of the people, to be the voice of my constituents. I trust that I will have the opportunity for some years yet.
I am sure the whole House agrees with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. His bravery and that of many other people who stood for elected office in Northern Ireland was reflected by their families, who must have gone through hell and been worried sick. The bravery of those wives, husbands and children should be put on the record, too.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that. I certainly pay tribute to the wives, husbands and children of those elected representatives who put their heads above the parapet and were willing to stand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North was visiting his child in hospital when they tried to murder him. That is what families endured.
If dual mandates are wrong, this policy of ending them must be implemented evenly throughout the United Kingdom. It would be anomalous to afford the people of Wales and Scotland the right to dual mandates, but deny the people of Northern Ireland the same. We are saying that there must be common ground across the United Kingdom. Not only should Wales follow this lead, but Scotland should put its money where its mouth is and stand behind this proposal, if people believe that it is the right thing to do.
Non-representation also needs to be ended. I lost my seat in 1997. I had been in for fourteen-and-a- half years, but a boundary change—I believe it was gerrymandering, but that is for another day—sliced the constituency of Mid Ulster in two, creating the constituencies of Mid Ulster and West Tyrone. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness became Member of Parliament for Mid Ulster, so from 1997 until a few months ago, when he stepped down, that constituency had no voice in the House, where decisions were being taken on behalf of his constituents. Despite not coming to represent their people in the House, however, Sinn Fein Members are happy to take the expenses and office costs.
It is time, then, for people elected to the House of Commons from Northern Ireland to make a decision. If they want their expenses and office costs, they need to demonstrate that they are doing the work, and that means taking their seats. MPs are perfectly at liberty not to take their seats, if they so wish, but the situation where people do not take their seats but are allowed to claim expenses must end. In many ways, non-representation in the Commons is a much greater affront to democracy than dual mandates, and the House must shortly take a decision on this issue. I am happy to welcome many of the provisions in the Bill, but this remains a work in progress.
Like others, I am glad of the opportunity to address several matters relating to Northern Ireland. As other hon. Members have said, the many positive recent developments have confirmed the benign trajectory on which Northern Ireland is headed, thanks to the peace process and a well-embedded agreement that gives us a broadly settled process. It has made the difference because it allows us all to give allegiance to shared institutions for the first time, to work through our differences and, I hope, increasingly to work through common challenges and to do so more productively and ambitiously than in the past.
This is a tapas Bill: there are slivers of meat in it, but there is not very much of it. Some of it might be to some people’s taste, but less so to others, and perhaps we are not quite sure exactly what some of it is and must accept other people’s assurances and technical descriptions of it. On the broad issue of political donations, like others I recognise that historically there have been serious difficulties and challenges for people engaged in politics, whether by virtue of donating, canvassing or being a party member. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) rightly pointed to the many risks that people have taken in elected politics, and I pay tribute to all of them, particularly those who were threatened and victimised in very real and vicious ways.
I extend that tribute, however, to the many people in political parties more generally who faced such threats, challenges and various levels of intimidation, whether in their neighbourhood or in their working lives. A forthcoming book on the Glenanne gang will point out that some of its targets were picked precisely because of their membership of, or association with, the Social Democratic and Labour party. Of course, that was a loyalist gang, but members of my party were also targeted by republican paramilitaries for their own twisted reasons. I know that many other people in many other parties have suffered the same.
All that was true, but things are changing, including the public’s expectations and understanding. When I was leader of my party, I said that the then extension of the anonymity arrangements should be the last one and that we could not keep kicking that can down the road, but we now appear to be granting another extension and leaving the way open to another one after that. Hon. Members are right that the anonymity promises on donations made in recent years should be kept, unless people expressly say that they want their donation declared, and I agree that there should be no retrospective revelations to which people have not agreed. But if the public are to accept that sort of protection for historical donations, they will want to know that there will be a definite end to anonymity for future donations. The one should go with the other, on a fair’s fair, everything square basis.
The question of donations also gives rise to a situation in which people might think that parties have more to hide than they actually have. When I was leader of my party, I said that the change should happen because there was nothing for us to hide. In a small place such as Northern Ireland, people sometimes get suspicious about donations, not only to individual parties but to several parties. They can create suspicion in the mind of the public that decisions are being influenced at various levels and in various policy areas. If the threshold for publication were significantly lowered, some people might worry that complications could arise because they had given to a number of parties on different occasions, or even at the same time. Those issues are going to have to be addressed by the people and the parties concerned, however, and people cannot be protected against that potential for embarrassment under the guise of security sensitivities.
In respect of sensitivity about donations, I know that my party colleague Alex Attwood who is currently the Minister of the Environment in Northern Ireland, imposed a rule on himself and his Department that if a planning application came in from anyone whom he was aware of being a donor to our political party, he would declare that fact to his officials. His officials said, “There is no official need to do that. No one has ever thought of doing it before.” But he has made a point of saying that it should be done because, in some people’s eyes, the donation could be a material consideration that may influence him and he must therefore inform his officials. The officials can then bear the information in mind when carrying out their work on the planning application.
There is an issue beyond the provisions in the Bill on donations and political life in Northern Ireland. Many significant public appointments are made by Ministers in Northern Ireland and perhaps we need to address whether such people who are known donors to parties should be duly registered at departmental level and open to scrutiny. These things should be looked at beyond the level of electoral donations.
On the question of donations from people based in the Irish Republic, I believe that the current provision is right and equal. We have parties in Northern Ireland that have a Unionist outlook, and those with a nationalist outlook. We also have parties that do not frame themselves specifically in relation to Unionism or nationalism. Within that broad base, if people are able to collect donations and win the support and approval of the members of the body politic throughout the United Kingdom who regard themselves as British, I do not see why those who regard themselves as Irish should not be able to collect donations from the democratic body politic to which they see themselves as belonging—that is, people living on the island of Ireland.
I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman, but a more significant issue are the donations that come into Northern Ireland through the Republic of Ireland from international sources—that is, donations that would not be able to come in through the UK but can come in through the Republic. Such donations probably benefit only one party, and it is not here to debate the issue.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point, but I do not believe that the answer is to have a general ban on donations from people living in the Irish Republic. If we were to say that anyone living there who wanted to make a donation had to be registered on the list of electors there, that would go some way towards strengthening the provisions. If there are loopholes that allow moneys that would otherwise be unacceptable to arrive in the north, and if those loopholes are being used to “wash through” money, mechanisms will have to be put in place to stop that happening. Declarations would have to be made in relation to any such money. I would have no problem with a requirement for such declarations, not only from those giving the money to say that it was truly coming from them and not from someone else, but from those receiving it. That would fix minds quite clearly. That is where the responsibility should rest, and that is where the law should be targeted.
I represent a border constituency. Many of the people who make significant investments in businesses there and make a significant contribution to the economy, not only in Foyle but in the whole of the north-west, live in the south. Some live just a few miles across the border, others live further away. Many of them originate in Derry. There are many families in Derry whose cousinage is in Donegal and in many other parts of the south—
Including Mayo, as the shadow Minister says. I was also glad to hear earlier from the Liberal spokesperson, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd). Perhaps we have a gathering of the Mayo association here today. I speak as a grandson of Mayo myself, rather than a son.
The point needs to be recognised that there are many people in the south whose roots are in the north. Many of them have business and professional links with the north, and many of them undertake public appointments there. Thankfully, they are appointed not only by nationalist Ministers. Those people from the south can have a legitimate input into the democratic governance and well-being of the north, and I see no reason to preclude them from doing that through duly registered political donations if they wish to do so.
We have heard the arguments for and against the dual mandate. I made my own decision on that a number of years ago when I took the personal step of saying that if I was elected as an MP again, I would give up my seat in the Assembly. I did not believe that the dual mandate could be sustained any longer. On that basis, I also resigned the leadership of my party, because I did not think that anyone could seriously try to lead a political party in Northern Ireland without being in the devolved Assembly.
I took that step after we had been frustrated in our attempts to change the rules. During various negotiations and initiatives, some of us had made the point that we needed to draw a line under the dual mandate. We said that the parties needed to agree on a date or a point in the electoral cycle when dual mandates would stop, but it was impossible to reach agreement on that. I recall debates in the Assembly in which the Democratic Unionist party voted against any such move against dual mandates. It praised them, saying that they were the best thing since sliced bread and that they were saving us money. Then, in the wake of the pressures resulting from the expenses scandal, the DUP suddenly started playing leapfrog over the rest of us. It suddenly wanted to get rid of dual mandates, too. In many ways it hid behind the Kelly recommendations, saying that if an outlying date of 2015 were set, that would be the target date towards which it would work.
Historically, the dual mandate could be justified by the uncertain circumstances that existed in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is arguable that many people were able to do great work carrying dual mandates, not least John Hume and Ian Paisley when they were in this House and in the European Parliament. Along with their Ulster Unionist colleague, they were able to do productive and effective work in Europe and to bring home significant benefits. As with the question of openness over donations, however, public expectations have moved on. People can see that circumstances and standards have changed. Change changes things. That is probably the most underestimated fact in politics and democratic life. We need to move on.
If a limit is, rightly, set on dual mandates in this House, the Bill should also make provision for that in respect of any possible membership of Dail Eireann. Any such provision should apply not only to MPs but to Teachtai Dala. It would be right to extend that to Members of the House of Lords and to Members of Seanad Eireann as well. If the rule specifies membership of one legislative chamber and one only, it should apply regardless. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) that that should apply whether or not the proposed abolition of Seanad Eireann goes ahead. I hope it does not; I would much prefer to see reform of that good constitutional tool. The fact is that people should be members of one legislative chamber and one only.
As to the size of the Assembly, I made the point in an intervention that the position on which parties were negotiating at the stage when we negotiated the agreement was broadly based on a 90-member Assembly, with five Members for each of the parliamentary constituencies. It was not the case that it was a matter of principle that we wanted the Assembly elected from the existing parliamentary constituencies. The point was that if we were going to get an Assembly established on the back of an agreement, it had to be on the basis of some existing constituencies, and the parliamentary constituencies were obviously the available and relevant ones.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 creates five-year parliamentary boundary reviews, but I think that will cause problems, not just in respect of the potential impact of boundary reviews in parliamentary terms, but in Assembly terms, too. What might appear to be a small change in a constituency in parliamentary terms could be very significant for Assembly members. Somebody’s well-established Assembly bailiwick could be directly split in a way that might appear marginal to the parliamentary constituency, so I think there are difficulties there. I know that there has been some discussion in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee about whether the Assembly still needs to rely on or stick to absolute coterminocity of Assembly and parliamentary constituencies for the long term. If we end up having a difficult experience from five-year boundary reviews—I hope this will be revised in the future so that we can move to something more sensible than having reviews for every single Parliament—the Assembly might well be advised to consider something different.
The position on the number of Members was, as I said, five for each constituency. If, under the boundary reviews, the number of constituencies is reduced, that will obviously reduce the number of Members in the Assembly in turn. In the context of previous negotiations, including those in Leeds castle and elsewhere where there were reviews and half reviews of the agreement, the SDLP put forward its views, but there were no takers for the changes, just as when we offered proposals to improve the transparency of the Assembly and to make it a bit more robust as a chamber of accountability.
Some of those who talk most about transparency and accountability resisted. I remember Peter Robinson saying at Leeds castle, “Well, we do not want that much accountability.” The proposals did not even go as far as saying that there should be a formal opposition in the Assembly, but sought to ensure that there were ways of holding Ministers to account to the Assembly. One way of doing that was that after budgets, all Ministers would make statements on what they were planning to do with the moneys allocated to them rather than hide behind one statement by the Minister of Finance.
As other hon. Members have said, the question of opposition is important. When we negotiated the agreement, just as we were clear that the Government would be inclusive for those parties that wished to exercise the right to take their mandate into ministerial office, so, too, the scrutiny and accountability role of the Assembly had to be inclusive. Some of us, perhaps naively, envisaged that members of the Ministers’ own parties would challenge them and put questions to them; unfortunately, that is not what we have. Anyone looking at the Parliament channel, for example, is likely to see question time and debates, and there are more plants than at a garden centre! It is not what we wanted—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentions vegetables in particular, and I am sure his party colleagues will be delighted by that proud reference and strong endorsement.
The discussion that many people are having is important. What it reflects is not necessarily the absolute need for an opposition that some have seized on; it is more a feeling that there is not enough challenge, scrutiny or debate. Some people think that real debate ends up falling to “The Nolan Show” or other talk-back radio programmes, but questioning and challenging decisions should be taking place in the committees of the Assembly and on its floor. We should have other types of committee —more cross-cutting committees, for example, with the sort of teeth that the Public Accounts Committee has. They might be rated more highly not just by Ministers but by civil servants than they are under the current committee model. As other hon. Members have said, there are a number of things that we can look at.
On the appointment of the Justice Minister, we recognise that there are a number of anomalies. The proposed changes seem neatly to answer the problem of the d’Hondt excess enjoyed by one party, which goes against the proportionality provisions and the inclusion promise of the agreement. I fear that in resolving the anomaly in the proposed way, however, we will end up creating a predicament for the system and potentially for a party that could find itself typecast, particularly through the role of the Justice Minister, in ways that might well prove frustrating in the future. Other parties might find that frustrating or might abuse their sense of frustration. We need to be careful that in fixing one problem, we do not create another problem for the long term or build a permanent abnormality that imposes an obligation or a limitation on any particular party.
As my party provides the Justice Minister in the current arrangements, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The arrangements being put in place here would apply equally to any party, and the anomaly would apply regardless of which party provided the Justice Minister. The fix, as it were, would apply regardless, too. I do not think that anybody is typecast in that sense. I would also take issue with him about what counts as normal. I happen not to think that using d’Hondt to appoint Ministers is normal; it is actually a mechanism to deal with division, which is abnormal. I would not want to move in that direction; I would prefer the other Ministry to move towards cross-community support.
I note the hon. Lady’s point of view, but it is not the one from which I come to this debate. I was involved in the negotiation and drafting of parts of the agreement, not least in respect of strand 1. I would certainly defend the understanding and agreement that we secured then, but I would never pretend that we are stuck with it or that we can never adjust or change it. I certainly recognise that when it comes to the institutions and the fundamental architecture we have to see differences between fixtures and fittings. That is why review mechanisms were built into the agreement and why my own party has proposed changes and developments in a number of reviews—and we would certainly envisage more in the future. They should all be based, however, on the firm and clear foundations of inclusion that are guaranteed in the agreement.
On the issue of the Justice Ministry, I was not saying that it is a given and that it will always go to the Alliance party; I was simply stating a caution, in case things end up being that way. We know all the reasons why the Ministry ended up with an Alliance party member on the first and second occasions. What I am saying is simply a point of caution in that regard.
When it comes to electing other Ministers by cross-community support, I am disappointed that the Bill does not take the opportunity to restore something that was in the Good Friday agreement—that the First and Deputy First Minister should be elected jointly by cross-community support. That was in the Good Friday agreement, and it was important that the administration of the Executive would be headed and chaired by people who had a mandate from the Assembly and were accountable to it. Instead, what we have is a system whereby those two positions are simply appointed from their respective parties by a letter, which goes to the Speaker. That is not the right and proper way to do this.
The change in how the First and Deputy First Minister were appointed—no longer elected by the Assembly but simply appointed by their own parties—was a result of a so-called comprehensive agreement in December 2004 between Sinn Fein, the DUP and the British and Irish Governments to create a new rule whereby parties could only appoint Ministers if those parties voted for the First and Deputy First Minister. The agreement was published, but because there were not photographs in relation to decommissioning, and people were using language about sackcloth and ashes, it did not stick. However, it remained the desired outcome of Sinn Fein, the DUP and the British and Irish Governments until the very day of the St Andrews talks that parties could only be included in government if they voted for the First and Deputy First Minister. That was a complete violation of the basic principle in the Good Friday agreement—the promise of democratic inclusion. The DUP was able to appoint Ministers without having voted for Seamus Mallon or David Trimble; they were able to vote against David Trimble and me, but it did not preclude their holding ministerial office, and rightly so, because that was the promise in the agreement. Similarly, Sinn Fein was able to abstain on the election of the First and Deputy First Minister and still hold ministerial office. The DUP and Sinn Fein, however, were prepared to say that the SDLP, the UUP and, if it qualified, the Alliance party, could only take Ministries if we voted for the First and Deputy First Minister. We would have to submit our mandate to them; we would not even be allowed the right of abstention.
The first people who would be excluded from office under the agreement, under a Labour Government, were those in the SDLP, not for having committed any crimes or transgression, whether in office, in terms of standards in public life or breaching commitments to peace and non-violence, but simply because we were prepared to exercise our democratic right to abstain on the election of those from other parties. Only because the DUP got the message from us clearly in a meeting upstairs in a Committee Room, on the morning we were all flying to St Andrews, that we would not be voting for them, and we understood that the UUP would not be voting for them, so the DUP would be in the Lobby voting on their own with Sinn Fein—the very thing they wanted to prevent—to elect Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, and only because we stuck to our threat did the DUP scramble to get a different basis whereby people would be appointed to ministerial office by a letter to the Speaker.
Why are we not returning to the agreement in the Bill? Things seem to be bedded down quite well now between Sinn Fein and the DUP—they seem quite happy to go through the Lobby together on lots of things, whether it is to force through future local government boundaries that suit them, or anything else. If they can use their muscle or mandate together in those respects, why should they not be able to do it in relation to electing the First and Deputy First Minister as originally provided for in the agreement?
In relation to local government boundaries, Sinn Fein and the DUP put through a Bill a couple of years ago for the appointment of a boundary commissioner, but the Bill actually fixed the boundaries, and all the boundary commissioner could do was pick the names of the councils and make recommendations around some of the wards. The Bill contains other welcome measures, on the face of it, to transfer further powers in relation to electoral matters, to change their reserved status, and to give more latitude, potentially, to the Assembly, but we need to register some caution. Decisions that can be taken at Assembly level can essentially be taken by Sinn Fein and the DUP themselves, so we need to be careful about a significant reduction in the size of the Assembly that would mean fewer than five Members per constituency, which will affect proportionality, democratic opportunity and fairness, and about other changes in relation to electoral matters.
Northern Ireland began with a Parliament set up after partition, and there was proportional representation. One of the first decisions taken was to remove proportional representation in local government, and then to remove proportional representation for the Parliament itself. The rot set in, and the difficulties came from there. If we get to a situation where everybody else’s democratic opportunity is dependent on the decisions of Sinn Fein and the DUP, to borrow from the late, great Paddy O’Hanlon, that is a bit like asking Attila the Hun to mind your horse. We are asking for trouble if we just say, “It will be up to them.” We ought perhaps to consider ensuring that the Electoral Commission has a bigger, stronger and more defined role in relation to such matters, rather than leaving them to the Executive level and to some parties in particular.
There are other aspects of the Bill, including in relation to court and other matters. Will the Minister clarify the intention in paragraph 5 of the schedule on court rules, in relation to inquests, and the reference to the
“relevant authority must allow or disallow rules submitted to it”?
Is the phrase “relevant authority” intended to allow for both the devolved and the Westminster authority in respect of different issues? In the past, we have seen attempts in the House to change the rules on inquest to provide for secret inquests, and to provide for inquests in which coroners could be sacked and others appointed, the implications of which are very sensitive in Northern Ireland, not least in relation to many cases, even some of the outstanding inquest cases, from the troubles, or some cases in which new inquests are being requested.
Other Members have raised the issue about the National Crime Agency, which I do not want to leave unaddressed. My party colleagues have been working with others to get as many of the issues resolved as possible. Our concerns are genuine and do not relate to trying to prevent asset recovery or other powers being fully exercised in Northern Ireland. Nobody has demanded and defended strong powers of asset recovery and wanted them robustly used more than the SDLP, which is why our initial concerns were about the establishment of SOCA potentially undoing the good work of the Assets Recovery Agency. However, we do have concerns, with which hon. Members should be familiar, in relation to the primacy of the Patten policing model and the primacy of the Chief Constable accountable to the Policing Board.
First, we are concerned that that was significantly breached in relation to the St Andrews agreement by the rerouting in relation to national security so that even MI5 liaising with the PSNI would be beyond the purview of the Policing Board or the Police Ombudsman, and we do not want the National Crime Agency compounding that. The Secretary of State is aware, as I have informed her, of our concerns about how SOCA’s pursuit of some people is being abused by MI5 putting those same people under untoward pressure to work for it, putting them in a position of real and likely threat. We want those issues resolved. I cannot look in the eye those people who come to me with genuine concerns and stress and say, “Yes, I believe in your concerns. I am trying to give representation to them,” and then blandly go along with other changes without getting the necessary safeguards. The problems are real, but I believe we can come up with real answers to them. I commend those in my party and others who have been working to get those answers.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the principles of a Bill that will have a significant impact on the way in which our relatively immature democracy in Northern Ireland may develop in the years ahead. I fully acknowledge that we have travelled a considerable distance, and—as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—in a very positive direction, but much work remains to be done.
We want to work with the Government to bring about the economic renewal of our local economy, and for that purpose we must consider a number of ways of rebalancing the economy. We are also concerned about the unfairness of many of the welfare reform proposals. We do not oppose the principle of welfare reform, but we do oppose a number of its probable consequences. Many people who are already disadvantaged will become even more disadvantaged, and many who are currently in work will find themselves out of work and, possibly, in a grave financial position.
Those are the challenges that face any Administration or Executive, and they also face the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. We want to work with the Government to meet those challenges. We also want to work with the Government, and with the Irish Government—they being the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—on proposals for a comprehensive reconciliation process, because that is one of the aspects of a divided society that has not yet been fully addressed.
I recall that several years ago, when I was a Minister in the Department for Social Development, there were proposals for shared housing and shared neighbourhoods. Some of us had already done a great deal of work on that—work that began a considerable time ago, not just a few weeks ago—when others had not bought into the process. I am glad to say that they have done so now, and I hope that our aims will be fulfilled. However, there is still much to be done to help victims, to produce a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and to ensure that everyone fully embraces the concepts of equality and human rights.
There are undoubtedly some good things in the Bill. Progress has been made towards greater transparency in relation to political donations, and most of the political double-jobbing is to be terminated. The Bill also covers issues connected with electoral registration. I was glad to hear from the Minister that he intended to ensure that there would be a door-to-door canvass, and that money had been provided for the purpose. All of us, including the Government, should take a proactive approach to ensure that everyone has proper access to a franchise, and should encourage people—irrespective of the party for which they vote—to exercise their franchise. That is the only way of enabling them to have a say in the shaping of their local democracy and the democratic process.
There is one great mystery at the heart of the Bill, and I should like to get to the bottom of it. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide the answer to my question—in conjunction, obviously, with the Secretary of State. I refer to the proposal to extend the term of the Northern Ireland Assembly by a further year and to hold elections not in May 2015, the date presented to our electorate, but in May 2016. The Government appear to have performed a U-turn. Why the change? It is fundamental that such action should not be taken without the permission of the people, who gave the parties a mandate to govern for four years rather than five. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s consultation paper acknowledged that
“There are serious constitutional implications in extending the term of any elected body after it has been elected”,
and since then the Government have generally poured cold water on the extension proposition.
We have heard arguments about the need to bring Northern Ireland into line with the other devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, but they do not stack up. The Secretary of State’s consultation paper states:
“The Government does not believe that there needs to be uniformity across the…UK”.
More important is the fact that electors in Scotland and Wales knew before they voted that they would be electing Governments for an extended five-year term. In Northern Ireland, this is being imposed on people. The “conformity with Scotland and Wales” argument does not solve our mystery.
The hon. Lady is elaborating on the fact that the term of the Assembly is being extended by a year, and that that is being done without asking people for their permission. Is she suggesting that there should be a referendum to ask people if they want to vote again before they have decided that they want to vote again? In what way should people be asked other than through their representatives here in Parliament?
I thank the hon. Member for East Derry for his intervention. [Interruption.] He knows perfectly well that we had a mandate, and that those of us who were elected to the Assembly—some of us are no longer there—had a contract with the population of Northern Ireland for four years, and not five years. I believe that we should not delude the public, but should conform to what was in our contract with them.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady has suggested that we should conform to the wishes of the general public. My hon. Friend was elected to a constituency in the House of Commons which is termed East Londonderry. Has any Member a right to change the name of my hon. Friend’s constituency? Is it in order?
That is not a point of order, but is a point for debate in the Chamber. Members are responsible for what they say in the Chamber. It is not a matter for the Chair unless it constitutes disorderly conduct, and it is not disorderly at the moment.
With respect, the names of constituencies are set by legislation, not by what any one Member may say in the House. I repeat what I said a moment ago. This is a matter for debate, because it does not change the name of the constituency as laid down by Parliament.
I accept the essence of the point of order. I acknowledge that the constituency is probably classified as Londonderry East, but my shorthand for it happens to be “East Derry”. I do not think that there is any particular difference of opinion. [Interruption.] May I continue?
There was the equally weak explanation that although doing so would save money, it would be unmanageable to hold two or three different elections on the same day. Wrong again! The Secretary of State’s consultation paper acknowledged that, if it was required—I quote for the purpose of accuracy and veracity—
“both the Chief Electoral Officer and Electoral Commission are confident that three polls can be delivered”.
So “administrative difficulty” does not solve the mystery.
Could it be that, while the Government’s consultation paper questioned the idea of extending the term of the Assembly, citing grounds of democratic legitimacy as well as questioning any practical need at all, the Government changed their mind as a result of the responses that they had received during the consultation exercise? Was the Secretary of State overwhelmed by consultees pressing for the extension of the life of the current Northern Ireland Assembly? No; that is not the answer either. Several political parties, including my own—the SDLP—and the Ulster Unionists, as well as the Green party, Conservatives and others, were emphatically against this anti-democratic proposal. The DUP and the Alliance were in favour of it, and Sinn Fein did not participate in the formal consultation exercise. Overall, of those consultees who responded directly on this question, 85% were against extending the Assembly term.
At this point the Secretary of State might say that a combination of the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance can command a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which represents broad support for the extension, but the Secretary of State has already acknowledged that she had a letter from those parties as far back as June 2012, some three months before she embarked on her consultation; she knew then that the leaders of those three parties all wanted to extend the life of the Assembly. Indeed, elsewhere in this Bill there are provisions aimed at correcting the anti-democratic nature of the Minister of Justice’s current position, which has already been referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle. The Secretary of State already knew the views of these parties when she set the height of the bar that had to be cleared if the proposal to extend the term of the Assembly was to go anywhere.
In full knowledge of the views of the parties of the OFMDFM—the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—the Secretary of State summarised the issue in February this year by saying:
“The Government has consistently made clear that any move to extend the length of the current term could only be made if there was a clearly demonstrable public benefit, and a very large measure of agreement in Northern Ireland.”
The Secretary of State further concluded that the responses to the consultation
“tend to suggest that there does not exist, as yet, significant agreement to this proposal.”
I am sure the Secretary of State would not disagree with what she said then.
That does not help us much with the solving of our mystery, however. The Secretary of State set a clear test of a
“very large measure of agreement”
and concluded that the agreement demonstrated so far had not been “significant”. So in February of this year, in full knowledge of the various political parties’ views on extension, the Secretary of State was against it. What changed?
The Secretary of State also set the test of a “demonstrable public benefit”, but there clearly is not one. OFMDFM Ministers can argue that five years might give the Executive more time to demonstrate its worth, but in fact the opposite is the case. The Secretary of State’s paper of February of this year commented on the “opinion frequently voiced” about
“the perceived inertia of the Assembly”
and concluded that
“extending the term would only add to this.”
In addition, the CBI expressed concern in its consultation response that, at the end of a four-year programme for government, an additional year could just be a year of unproductive drift. Indeed, the proposal to extend the term takes little account of the very significant public disbenefits of moving to 2016, such as having the election so close to the 100th anniversary of the Easter rising, when certain political extremists will try to raise, and then exploit, community tensions on the nationalist side. There are also sinister elements in loyalism that will try to do the same around the important world war one centenaries. That is not a great time to have an election for a fixed five-year term in a fragile democracy.
So, with no “large measure” of agreement and no “public benefit”, what could have made the Secretary of State change her mind? Could it have been the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? After all, the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life were given considerable weight in the Bill’s provisions on double-jobbing. No, however, it is not the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, because, as its Chairman, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), said earlier, it did not support the proposal to extend the term either. Indeed, when the Secretary of State met the Committee in March this year, she stated:
“But it is quite an unusual thing to do, and we would have to be clear about the benefits it would bring, the additional achievements that could be made by the Executive in that extra year, and also have a very clear case made publicly to that effect by the Northern Ireland political establishment.”
So even as late as March this year, the Secretary of State seemed to have no appetite for extending the term of the Northern Ireland Assembly, yet by 9 May, when this Bill was published with the explanatory document, all that had changed. All the consultation responses and the Secretary of State’s own decision criteria had been cast aside in just a few short weeks. What changed the mind of the Secretary of State remains a mystery, and it is a mystery that she must unlock; indeed, the Minister must unlock it here tonight, and it will need to be explored further in Committee.
I believe the decision to extend the Assembly term is an atrocious anti-democratic, and potentially dangerous, development, and flies in the face of most of what the Secretary of State has ever said on the issue. I can find no rational explanation for the change of heart in the Command Paper that was a response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report. The Government do not provide much enlightenment in unlocking the mystery, except that they wish to be consistent with Scotland and Wales in extending the terms of the existing mandates. The Government and Secretary of State have ignored a vital point, however: that the people of Wales and Scotland were aware of the change to the fixed-term mandate before casting their votes in May 2011. The position in Northern Ireland was totally different. The people of Northern Ireland were not involved in this, and they voted for a four-year mandate. The only person who could do something to overrule the Secretary of State is the Prime Minister himself. Is a prime ministerial intervention the answer to our mystery?
So I put it to the Minister, who will be responding to the debate: how often, and when, did he and the Secretary of State discuss this matter with the Prime Minister? Did the Prime Minister direct the Secretary of State to concede the Assembly’s term extension to those who lobbied him for it? And we know who lobbied him for it: the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party. If he did, what explanation did he give? Can the Secretary of State, or the Minister of State, as it will be in this instance, tell me what impact this sordid U-turn had on the credibility of the Northern Ireland Office and will have on any future NIO consultations? What faith will the people of Northern Ireland have in such consultations? The NIO and the Secretary of State must never forget that she and her equivalent in the Irish Government are the custodians of the Good Friday agreement. [Interruption.] This is no laughing matter, because when we went to vote in the Assembly elections in 2011 we voted for a four-year mandate, so the people will feel duped. Given the weight of evidence against the extension of the Assembly’s term, surely there is some way in which the Government will be prepared to reconsider this fundamentally anti-democratic measure. Obviously we look forward to discussing the issue further in Committee—or perhaps we should start lobbying the Prime Minister.
I wish to make a little more progress and then I would be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he can provide the answer to this mystery, as it is important that we find a solution to it. We need to work closely together, in partnership, and we need to ensure that we are able to sustain and maintain our democratic integrity. That is done in the best interests of the wider population of Northern Ireland: not only do the people demand it, but they deserve it, because for many years we lived and worked in that divided society, which in many ways still exists. We were living in the cauldron of violence and terrorism, and that was wrong. I am glad to say that that is largely diminished and we must now move forward into a new scenario.
I thank the hon. Lady for Down South for giving way. She has discussed great concerns about the issue relating to the Assembly elections, but had she the same concerns about the change of time scale for the council elections? Did her party express concern when the time scale was changed?
I have not finished this point and I wish to do so, if the right hon. Gentleman will let me. Obviously, there would be concerns, but I also know that it was the DUP and Sinn Fein that insisted that these arrangements for new councils be pushed ahead with—I know that from my colleague the Minister of the Environment.
Of course, this is not without precedent because the Northern Ireland Assembly was elected in 1998 on a four-year mandate by the people but that was extended to 2003 with the full support and connivance of the very party that now protests against the very thing that it and the UUP supported back in 1998 to 2003. So it may be that the answer to the mystery is a bit closer to home.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think that there have been some memory losses here. [Hon. Members: “Oh no.”] Oh yes, because I can well recall, as can my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and for Foyle—the latter was Minister for Finance and Personnel and subsequently Deputy First Minister—the considerable periods of suspension, when the people of Northern Ireland suffered dreadfully as the DUP sat outside the Executive and did not participate.
Order. The entire Chamber is debating this Bill, not just the hecklers in one corner of the Chamber. I would appreciate it if we could listen to each speaker courteously. Perhaps we will be able to stop the heckling now and continue with the point being made, bearing in mind that another debate is also scheduled for this evening.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am mindful of your advice on this matter, so I will move towards a conclusion. We have had an interesting debate this evening on the issue.
Although I would like to see that mystery unlocked this evening, there is also a need for a wider conversation that addresses the next phase of devolution. There is a need to devolve telecommunications and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to Northern Ireland, and we must also consider the character of constitutional discussion and the requirements to secure and advance policing. I will never forget that the SDLP, along with the Ulster Unionists, brought about that change in policing. My party, many times, single-handedly worked to bring about that new dispensation in policing.
Justice must be discussed, as well as the rights and equality achievements of recent years, and we need a deeper recognition from London of the nature of the Northern Ireland economy. We require further debate about those issues—not reserved to certain individuals, but in this Chamber and with these Ministers—and about our welfare profile and the impact of welfare changes on the economy of Northern Ireland and on the general health and well-being of our local population, the potential for the bedroom tax and the geopolitical considerations of housing and social housing location in Northern Ireland. Above all, the unfinished work of reconciliation and healing must take place within the north, on the island and between Britain and Ireland, and we must consider how London can move away and move with the Irish Government to help us to address issues to do with the past.
It is important that we discuss all those issues within the emerging politics that are Northern Ireland and that are the island of Ireland. We all look forward to such a participative democracy on these issues and to getting answers about how the decisions were made about moving from four to five year mandates. The people did not elect Members to the Assembly for five years, but for four. As that is the kernel of the Bill, I feel that the people I represent deserve an answer.
I am warming to this idea of using shorthand for parliamentary constituencies. Perhaps in future I will refer to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) as the Member for a river in Londonderry, and perhaps the SDLP will think again—
It might be longer, but, considering the length of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—[Interruption.] Length seems to be very important indeed.
I want to deal with the issue raised by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about extending the term of the Assembly. This year is the year of culture in Londonderry and I think the SDLP should consider entering some of the competitions, particularly storytelling. The hon. Lady would tell a very good mystery story indeed.
Let us deal with political history and reality. The principle that the hon. Lady seeks to express is that when the public vote for an elected body for a fixed term, if we seek to alter that term we should go back to the people before we do so. In the stakes of political U-turns, political changes of mind and the irony of taking up a position one day and then advocating the opposite, the SDLP must take first prize.
The Assembly elected in 1998, after the Belfast agreement, was elected for a four-year term. I accept that there were periods when the Executive did not function, but Assembly Members continued to be paid and to hold office throughout that period. There was no election until November 2003, I believe. Mathematics was not my strongest subject at school, but I know enough to say that November 2003 back to May or June 1998 is a lot more than four years. Did we hear the SDLP— the largest nationalist party at that time—say, “This is dreadful! We must go back to the people. We must have an election”?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I, as leader of the SDLP at the time, advocated that the election, if it was to take place, should take place at the due time, on the due date. The British Government of the day said, “No. We have negotiations going on with the Ulster Unionist party and Sinn Fein. They need the summer to work at this and to move things on. They need more time.” I opposed moving the election day, and I imagine that John Reid, who was misquoted earlier, could confirm that that was the position I stated to him as Secretary of State.
Just as, no doubt, the SDLP opposed the extension of local government terms that occurred in Northern Ireland. Let us not hear this drivel about how it is somehow undemocratic in principle to move the date of an election. When it suited the SDLP’s political purposes to have the term of the Assembly extended, the term of the Assembly was extended by fiat of the Northern Ireland Office—not even by coming to this House.
Given that these points were made so strongly by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), it is right that we get the facts right. As for local government, this is not ancient history. Only in the last mandate, the term of local government was extended from elections in 2009 to elections in 2011, so that instead of serving four years, councillors had six years. The SDLP did not object—[Interruption.] It did not object. In fact, it supported the move.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making precisely the point that I have been making: when it is politically advantageous for members of the SDLP to do something, principle does not come into it, but when they consider themselves potentially disadvantaged—I am not sure why they feel they in particular would be disadvantaged by this provision of the Bill—all of a sudden, they find a principle on which to take a stand. Well, we are not into revisionism. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you study the psychology of Northern Ireland, you will find that there are two different approaches to history: there is the revisionist approach, where you rewrite the facts to suit your argument, depending on where you are standing at the time; and then there is the approach that says that what is fact is fact, and it should be recorded as fact. On this issue—
I think I have given way enough. The SDLP is backpedalling furiously on this issue. SDLP Members know the reality: they have decided to make a point on the Bill tonight, but it is a bogus point—one on which their own record, when it is subjected to scrutiny, does not stand up for a moment.
Today, we have heard from the leader of the SDLP about the need to make progress towards reconciliation. On this point, we are agreed: we do need to make progress towards reconciliation; we do need to address the issues of the past. I too was struck by the comments made by young Hannah Nelson last week at the Waterfront hall. She said, yes, we have a past and we most certainly cannot forget what happened in the past. We must acknowledge the hurt and the pain suffered during those dark, dark years of the troubles, and the victims need to be acknowledged and recognised. But we also want to help to move Northern Ireland forward. I really do not think it is helpful when during efforts to move Northern Ireland forward and to get a discourse, a dialogue, going about how to deal with those matters, people resort to old insults such as, “All you lot are bigots.” That really does not engender the sort of political climate we need to make progress on reconciliation. What must the young people of south Belfast be thinking this evening, when their Member of Parliament stands up in the House and describes the leading party of one side of the community in Northern Ireland as a bunch of bigots? Is that conducive to the kind of reconciliation that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) claims he wants to achieve?
What does not help reconciliation is having political parties that posture as being the moderate voice and, at the same time, take actions that can have only one effect, which is to cause hurt and pain on the other side of the political divide in Northern Ireland. That is why I challenged the hon. Gentleman on the point about reconciliation. It does not help when, in Newry and Mourne district council, councillors from his party support the renaming of a children’s play park in Newry after a dead IRA terrorist—and not just any dead IRA terrorist but a terrorist who was convicted of a number of offences, including possession of a weapon, which was used in the murder of 10 Protestants in Kingsmill in south Armagh.
One might think that a progressive party that claims to be a moderating voice and which wants to promote reconciliation might reflect for a moment on the fact that supporting the naming of a children’s play park after someone with such a record might be offensive to a section of our community, and might cause hurt to the families of those killed in the Kingsmill massacre. It might be a retrograde step for our wish to move Northern Ireland beyond the dark days that we witnessed in the past.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly speaks passionately about the feelings in this instance of the relatives of those who were murdered in such a vicious, sectarian way at Kingsmill. I have been on the record, as have party colleagues, both publicly and privately, saying that we thought what our councillors did at that time was a mistake. I have subsequently been advised by those councillors that this was not the first naming of the park—it was named 10 years ago, and the vote was simply to confirm the original decision. When the decision was first made, no objections were made by any Unionist councillor present, and the vote that my party colleagues supported was also a vote for a procedure that would ensure that it could not happen in future—nothing could be named in such a way again. I fully accept his criticism, but I urge him to look at the wider facts, and in saying so, I do not detract in any way from the important point that he has made in relation to the relatives of the Kingsmill massacre.
Order. We have gone a little wide of the Bill in the exchanges that have just occurred, but I think that this matter has been well aired on the Floor of the House. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman returned to the specific provisions in the Bill.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We welcome most of the Bill’s provisions. However, we will want to table a number of amendments in Committee. The past few years have been difficult and challenging. As the Secretary of State said—and she was echoed by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—the Bill, and the manner of the Bill, represents a mark of progress. We are beginning to deal with issues that one might describe as reasonably normal. Nevertheless, there is a legacy that we still need to address. I am not sure that the Bill is the right vehicle for taking the initiative, but there is a need to address elements of the legacy.
Like many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have not always regarded elements of the peace process as something we could fully embrace. It has been difficult—I accept that it has been difficult for both sides in Northern Ireland—and challenging. Elements of the peace process have caused people a lot of pain and hurt, not least the early release of prisoners, and so on.
However, there is one aspect that goes to the heart of the sense of injustice felt by many victims in Northern Ireland on both sides of the community. I am disappointed that the Bill has not yet provided us with an opportunity to address this and I think it ought to do so. That relates to the definition of a victim. In Northern Ireland at present—this is hard to believe, but it is true—a victim of the conflict, if I may use that term, is defined as anyone, no matter who or what they were, who lost their life in the course of the troubles.
Let us consider that for a moment. It includes, in effect, the people who pulled the trigger, who wore the balaclavas, who were members of illegal organisations, who planted the bombs and who skulked in the shadows if they lost their lives, sometimes through their own actions—killed by their own bomb, as in the case, for example, of Thomas Begley in the Shankill bombing in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Thomas Begley blew himself up with his own bomb and murdered nine—I think it was—innocent people that day on the Shankill. Thomas Begley, under the definition of a victim, is as much a victim as the innocent men, women and children whom he killed that day on the Shankill road.
Equally, the definition covers the attack that occurred in Loughinisland in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down, where six people were killed in a public bar while watching a World cup football game. They were killed by loyalist paramilitaries. The irony is that every one of those six victims is equated with the people who committed the murders. If, for example, one of the loyalist group that killed those six men subsequently lost his or her life, they would be regarded as a victim.
I cannot come to terms with that. I cannot believe that in dealing with the past—and we must address the legacy issues—we can continue to go forward with a definition that says, “If you were a child walking down the street or going into a fish shop on the Shankill road with your mother on a Saturday afternoon and your life was cruelly cut down, you are the same as the person who, that morning, planned the attack, primed and transported the bomb to the scene and then detonated the bomb.” I cannot accept ever that it is right to equate the bomber with the innocent civilian, no matter who or what side the victims came from.
The current definition of a victim is a very sensitive issue and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is something that we need to discuss, but I take issue with what he suggests. The definition of a victim ensures that the needs of everyone who is a victim—for example, the mother of the bomber, who may have suffered real pain and grief, in the same way as the husband of an innocent person who was blown up—are addressed in the same way. What it does not do and what it should not do is create moral equivalence between the two people. We have to be careful how we treat individuals who have suffered, but accept that the definition does not create a moral equivalence, because it should not and it does not.
The problem is that it creates a legal equivalence. That is the difficulty we have. When it comes to administering victims services—I was the victims Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive for a time—it creates a problem. When I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly I introduced a private Member’s Bill to change the definition of a victim, and I hear the point that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) is making but, for me, the person who was engaged in a terrorist act when he or she lost their life ought not to be legally equated, even if in our minds they are not morally equated, with their innocent victims. I believe that is a matter for Parliament to address, which is why in considering the Bill we will want to explore it further with the Government. I am not convinced that there will be the circumstances in which we can get a political consensus in Northern Ireland on the definition of a victim, simply because of the nature of the parties we are dealing with.
The hon. Member for Belfast East talked about moral equivalence. I believe that Parliament has a moral responsibility to examine this issue, for the victims back home in Northern Ireland and indeed the victims here. I have talked with victims of bombings in Belfast and met victims’ groups here in London. I have met people who lost loved ones or were badly injured, for example in the Canary Wharf bomb, and they feel the same way. They do not believe that there should be this legal equivalence.
In conclusion, although we welcome many elements of the Bill, we believe that there are things that need to be addressed, and we look forward to raising those further in the course of our consideration of the Bill.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) sat down to plan how best to celebrate her birthday, which is today, she probably had in mind some clubbing in Coatbridge, rather than sitting here for the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. However, I like to think that the evening she has spent in our company has been rewarding. I have no doubt that the whole House will join me in wishing her the happiest of birthdays and hope that this occasion has been something of a present for her.
I think that those who gently denigrated the Bill as some sort of sweeping-up Bill, portmanteau Bill or bits-and-pieces Bill missed the fact that crucially important business has been discussed here tonight. As we heard in the last speech, some of the most important issues we ever discuss in the House have been heard on the Floor tonight. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the calm, sensible, serious and, above all, positive way in which she introduced the debate, and she was optimistic where optimism could be justified. I think that it was a first-class presentation that set the tone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), whom we must now call the senior shadow Secretary of State, as we have new categories, spoke marvellously. Listening to him speak about his adventures, and from the number of times he appears in Northern Ireland, one might wonder whether there are not dozens of doppelgangers, or Coaker clones, because how else could he be in so many places at the same time? I think that we are simply fortunate that there is just one of him, but one with an enormous amount of energy. His comments about the Theatre of Witness production of “From the Rubble” at St Ethelburga’s church were extremely well made, and we should all listen to that and perhaps see it ourselves. He also mentioned the National Crime Agency, as a number of Members did later, which I think is one of the many aspects that will be discussed in Committee, for there is much business to be done there.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, showing his usual great respect for the House by flying in from Belfast, and probably missing his lunch, rightly paid credit to the role of the Committee—[Interruption.] He is nodding rather painfully, which implies that he did miss his lunch, so I hope that he has a decent supper tonight. Certainly, his work on pre-legislative scrutiny has been greatly appreciated.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) used an expression that we kept returning to in different forms. He talked about the stability that we take for granted. I will add that we must never take it for granted. He also introduced the role of Tony Blair. I was as delighted as the next person to hear the great former leader of our nation mentioned on the Floor of the House—[Interruption.] No, we need to hear about him more often. John Major was also mentioned, and for all I know Martin Mansergh and Albert Reynolds might have been mentioned, but I must have missed them. It was, as ever, a wise, serious and sagacious contribution from the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) tested the tolerance of the House. He claims to have spent many a year scoffing Ulster fries. The evidence before us—this slim youth in a well cut, well fitting suit and hardly a spare microgram of avoir-du-poids about his person—rather indicates that the closest he has ever come to an Ulster fry has been through the window of a café. However, he has time to make up for his past transgressions.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), I am glad to say, referred to a comment made by the shadow Secretary of State in our previous debate—that devolution does not mean disengagement. That is one of the most crucial statements we have heard and we must never, ever forget it.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) took us on a marvellous, magnificent tour d’horizon through the rolling mists of history. I knew that as soon as Lough Erne was mentioned, the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh” would come in somewhere; it had to happen. The hon. Gentleman spoke with that mixture of erudition, elegance and grace for which he is so well known.
On the subject of erudition and grace, I turn to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who again showed that, when it comes to understanding the basis of what we are talking about and cutting through the persiflage, very few can match her. She drew the House’s attention to the fact that this is only the second uninterrupted full term of the Assembly. We must never forget that; we are that close to how things used to be.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) referred to his grandfather from County Mayo and his experience on the Somme; I think the hon. Gentleman was immediately signed up to the Mayo Association on the basis of that. It was a good contribution that reminded us of how close the links are between our islands and how the bloodlines flow in both directions.
Rather worryingly, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) started to go into a cost-benefit analysis of representatives. A few Members looked a little anxious as he went down the various costs, values and benefits. When he then whipped from his pocket a series of multiple passports, we wondered whether he was supplementing his income with a bit of printing on the side. However, we all know that the hon. Gentleman is above that sort of thing. If, however, he happens to have a spare passport, I am sure that he will let us know.
I do not think I have ever heard the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) speak more movingly than he did tonight. We have heard some superb speeches from the hon. Gentleman and tonight’s was absolutely magnificent. He talked about moving at a proper pace, which is very important. We must realise that we cannot achieve everything overnight. He also talked about the increase in employment, particularly high-skilled employment, in his constituency. He then mentioned his proud history of topping the poll over 40 years in multi-Member constituencies. I am a great admirer of the hon. Gentleman’s music, of which I have quite a collection. One of my favourites of his songs is entitled “Still Blessed”. May I say that his constituents are still blessed?
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) once again revealed to us the sophisticated, cosmopolitan ambiance of Derry in referring to the “tapas Bill”. I have sat in Sandinos wondering what on earth “tapas” were—I thought they were something water came out of. [Interruption.] The Minister of State wants to know what “tapas” are; if somebody does know, perhaps they will tell him. The hon. Member for Foyle made the point that the “tapas Bill” had only slim strips of meat in it. I would say that there is a lot of meat and that even more will be discovered in Committee. It is very important that we pick up on these points.
Extremely important points were raised about donations from the Republic of Ireland. We cannot forget or stop talking about this issue. There are people who feel strongly where their homeland is and cannot accept talk of not receiving donations from somewhere just over the border.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about the positive direction of travel. She also rather went off on an Agatha Christie track about the mysteries of South Down. Personally, I prefer Colin Bateman to Agatha Christie. If Colin Bateman were to venture a little south of Belfast, perhaps South Down, there is a mystery there for him to work on.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), with his marvellous analysis of revisionism, proved yet again that in certain parts of these islands only the future is certain and the past is always changing. He finished on an extremely serious point when he talked about the legacy, which is an issue that we cannot forget.
After all the speakers we have heard today, I have but one regret. There was one voice missing. I am a great admirer of the crystalline clarity—the pellucid prose—of the Strangford Seannachie. Sadly, that proud voice was silent tonight, but I suspect that we will hear it again, and again, and again.
Very important business has been discussed on the Floor of the House and will be discussed in Committee. There are clearly huge issues regarding representation, donations, transparency and the role of the Justice Minister that have not gone away and still need to be considered. We have had a good Second Reading debate; I do not think anyone can deny that. On occasion we have ranged rather further and wider than many of us thought we would, but it has been to a good end. We now have a basis for a proper discussion in Committee.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and close with my initial comment: the Secretary of State spoke very wisely, sensibly and warmly when she introduced the Bill, and I thank and pay credit to her for that.
It is a privilege and an honour to wind up this debate, which so many people have taken part in. I think that I counted 16 hon. Members who participated, and that will now include me, with some 20 interventions, so there has been a lot of generosity.
At the outset, let me reiterate the points made about the G8 and say how proud I was as Minister of State to be at Aldergrove with the Lord Lieutenant for the arrival of the Heads of State and Prime Ministers and to be the greeter on the tarmac. It was an honour and a privilege to be able to welcome the eight biggest leaders of the world to Northern Ireland, and then to receive the sort of comments that I have been getting back, particularly in the past couple of days from the Japanese, who were here early, stayed in the centre of Belfast, and were simply thrilled. Many people had concerns before they came—I think that is understandable—but Northern Ireland has shown them the way forward.
I pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland police force and the other agencies, particularly the 3,800-plus police from Great Britain who volunteered to come over to be part of the G8 and make it such a safe event. We now look ahead to the world police and fire games and the marching season. Perhaps I am being slightly naive, but I am very positive and believe that even though we may have some difficulties throughout the summer, Northern Ireland wants to go forward, as we have been saying.
I was a little concerned when the drafting of the Bill took place. Putting the word “miscellaneous” in the title of a Bill means that we will have a very wide-ranging debate on lots of different things. We can have that wide-ranging debate in Committee, which will be on the Floor of the House for clauses 1 to 9. It is right and proper that the debate has the time that it needs not only here, but up on the Committee Corridor.
I will not go through every hon. Member who has spoken, which the shadow Minister did brilliantly. I thank him for his kind comments about the Secretary of State. Hopefully he will say nice things about me in the future, but I very much doubt it. We have had a wide-ranging debate, as is right. Many hon. Members do not agree with each other on certain issues to do with the Bill and with how Northern Ireland is progressing, but this is where such issues should be debated and thrashed out.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that this Bill might not be the right place to talk about victims. I tend to agree with him on that. We need to find a way in which that debate can take place, but this miscellaneous Bill might not be the right place. However, I will consider the amendments that are tabled.
The Government considered carefully what could be in the Bill as normalisation progresses. I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that we need to be careful. We do not want to lose what we have got by going too fast, but we do not want the situation to stagnate.
I am sorry if the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) feels that there has been some kind of conspiracy. I will not go as far as the shadow Minister. I assure her that not just the Secretary of State but the Government have looked carefully at extending the term. Having said that, I have had no conversations with the Prime Minister about it and I do not think that the Secretary of State has either, and she has sat through nearly the whole debate. The decision was made by us in the Northern Ireland Office and by the Government. I believe that extending the term to 2016 is right and proper. I hope and expect that the other devolved Assemblies will take that forward. A consultation did take place, but one large party did not take part in it. However, it did give its views to me and the Secretary of State.
I will not give way, because I have to sit down in the next few minutes, but there will be plenty of time to debate that matter in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading.
The Government are adamant that we want to move towards openness about donations to political parties. I think that everybody agrees that it would be wrong to bring that in retrospectively. We will not expose people who have already given donations in good faith to that.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that there is no longer such a risk. I hope that I am summarising her comments correctly. All I can say is that every day, I consider appeals against refusals for close protection weapons and home protection, where the system has ruled that somebody does not need those things.
No, I will not give way.
I have to consider such decisions every day because the situation is not normalised. If one person is put at risk, that is not right. We consider such cases individually and the security agencies and the police are there to help us with that.
It is wrong in a democracy to say that if a person is not willing to put themselves at risk, they should not be able to donate. In a democracy, we want people to participate. We want people to stand for office. We have heard about the bravery of people who have stood for office, whether in a council, at the Assembly or in Parliament, over many years. However, there are other ways to be brave in the democratic process. There are people and families who want to support politicians and participate in local democracy. It is important that people and companies want to put their hard-earned money into a political party. It helps the party and it helps to promote democracy within their society. We will look closely at that matter.
There is nothing personal in stopping dual mandates. I assure the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) of that. We are just following the trend of the political parties in Northern Ireland and putting into statute what was started many years ago.
There are matters that we can discuss at length in Committee and there will be amendments that we can consider. However, we must realise what the Bill is about. It is about process and the normalisation of Northern Ireland. It is about ensuring that Northern Ireland can get as close as possible to the democracy and institutions that the rest of the United Kingdom has, which is what we all want. I have not had time to go through every comment and detail. We will address some of them in correspondence before the Committee stage, so that hon. Members know the Government’s view. This has been the sort of good and wide-ranging debate that the House is renowned for, and is exactly the sort of debate that we should be having. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
northern ireland (miscellaneous provisions) bill (programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill:
(1) Clauses 1 to 9 shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
(2) The remainder of the Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Committee
(3) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(4) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 18 July 2013.
(5) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
(6) When the provisions of the Bill considered, respectively, by the Committee of the whole House and by the Public Bill Committee have been reported to the House, the Bill shall be proceeded with as if it had been reported as a whole to the House from the Public Bill Committee.
Consideration and Third Reading
(7) 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.
(8) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(9) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House or proceedings on Consideration or Third Reading.
(10) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Mike Penning.)
Question agreed to.