Consideration of Lords amendments
Reduction in size of Assembly to be reserved matter
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 is the first of a number of amendments made in another place at the Government’s behest following extensive discussions there. They follow changes we made to the draft Bill after discussions in this House’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I hope that it can therefore be said that we have listened to people during the passage of the Bill and that it has been improved as a consequence.
Lords amendment 1 limits any reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly to one Member for each constituency—from six to five. It also requires that any such reduction must have cross-community support in the Assembly. In the other place it was correctly pointed out that under the Bill’s previous provisions the larger parties in the Assembly could legislate to reduce its size by a substantial number. The House of Lords was of the view that there would be limited safeguards to prevent them so doing.
Many in Northern Ireland believe that, with 108 Members, the Assembly is too large, but it is not the Government’s intention that the Assembly should shrink dramatically. When it was established, the intention was that it should be a widely inclusive body, which is essential to the healthy functioning of the Northern Ireland settlement. The Government therefore tabled this amendment to ensure that the drafting of the Bill better reflects that policy. We hope that the Assembly will carefully reflect on the possibility of reducing its size at a time when spending in all parts of the public sector is under pressure.
We are, of course, leaving it to the Assembly to decide whether to reduce its size, and the amendment confines any reduction to one Member per constituency. If the Assembly decides to take that up, smaller parties and minority voices will still be well represented. I trust that the House will agree that these are welcome amendments.
My colleagues and I are comfortable with Lords amendments 1 to 3, which we think are sensible, so we will not oppose them. Any reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly should quite rightly be a decision for that Assembly. As an MP who no longer sits in the Assembly, like some of my Northern Ireland colleagues sitting behind me, I agree that any reduction in its size should be voted on by the Assembly, rather than imposed from here.
Although my party agrees that there is a case for reducing the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly at some stage, any discussion of that must take into account the sensitive local considerations. Such a move might be inadvisable at the current time. We firmly believe that any change to the Assembly’s composition must be guided by the principles that it should be representative, proportionate and reflective of both traditions in the wider community.
As Baroness O’Loan said in the other place, reducing the number of MLAs returned to each constituency could have serious consequences for representation in Northern Ireland. We must always be careful not to leave certain areas unbalanced or unrepresentative. We have a clear interest in retaining plurality of representation and must pay keen attention to factors that are specific to Northern Ireland when making these decisions.
We have also made it clear that we are concerned about the increasing concentration of power in the hands of two parties. We would be cautious about any measure that might exacerbate that situation. For that reason, we support the measure to ensure that the Secretary of State requires a cross-community vote in the Assembly before any legislation to reduce its size can be passed. That cross-community element is embedded in the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and the consequential Northern Ireland Act, which was passed in July that year. Embedded in that Act were the principles of proportionality, mutual respect and understanding. Given the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, and given that we do not wish to exacerbate the situation, we feel it would be better if those principles were embedded in the size of the Assembly. I am therefore happy, on behalf of my colleagues, to support the amendment.
Our party strongly supports reducing the size of government generally in Northern Ireland—and across the United Kingdom for that matter—including the number of Government Departments in Northern Ireland. We are also on record as wanting to see a reduction in the number of Assembly Members. We believe that Northern Ireland can function more efficiently and in a leaner and better way with fewer politicians for the size of its population.
In May there will be elections to new councils in Northern Ireland, the number of which will have been dramatically reduced from the present number, and the number of councillors will also be reduced. We are in favour of the general thrust to reduce the size of government, and we have already put proposals to the Assembly’s Assembly and Executive Review Committee on that issue.
When the Minister responds to the debate, will he comment on the consultation that took place with the Assembly parties on the amendment? Although, under the amendment, the decision to reduce the number of MLAs can be taken by the Assembly, it can reduce the number by only one for each constituency—from six to five. I would certainly be very interested to know to what extent the Government consulted on that provision with the Assembly parties, because it has been generally understood that the measures that would come before the House would have the broad consensus of parties in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps when he responds the Minister will say not only whether consultation was held, but with whom it was held and what information was given by the individual parties. That would allow us to see whether the results of the consultation are in line with what he proposes today.
I will correct this if I am wrong—it was before my time—but my understanding is that as a result of the consultation with the parties in the Assembly, which I believe took some time, the intention was to reduce the size of the Assembly by one Member per constituency. The problem with the Bill as drafted, until amended, is that it would allow the parties in the Assembly, if they so wished, to reduce the number by as many as they wished—perhaps down to one—because there is no limit. That is their lordships’ point, which we took on board in saying that the number would be determined by that which had been consulted on.
I thank the Minister for that clarification.
We certainly take on board the reasoning behind the amendment. What strikes me, though, is the Government’s concern about the Assembly passing legislation on a substantial reduction that could disproportionately affect the smaller parties. One of the things that was raised in the previous debate and is worth raising in this debate is that the Government did not express any corresponding concern when proposals were brought before this House on reducing the number of constituencies for the United Kingdom Parliament. We well remember the debates in this House, which ultimately came to nothing, about reducing the number of seats. Many of us from Northern Ireland constituencies pointed out that the net effect in Northern Ireland would be a reduction of two parliamentary seats. In fact, it would have provided for a rolling review whereby the number of seats in Northern Ireland—and indeed in other parts of the UK—could have been adjusted upwards and downwards virtually from election to election. That would have had not only a very destabilising effect on the political process generally, but a direct, knock-on, consequential effect on the number of Assembly constituencies and Members. The concerns expressed across the House—certainly by all the Northern Ireland parties—did not seem to have the same resonance with Government.
I accept the sincerity with which the Minister has brought this matter forward. We should bear it in mind, however, that the number of Assembly Members would have been directly affected as a result of the proposed changes that eventually came to nothing but were certainly intended by the Government. That would have had a major impact on the Assembly and its workings—on the stability and outworkings of the agreements, and so on. When we are discussing the size and powers of the Assembly, and all the rest of it, sometimes things are done that have, or could have, very direct impacts.
We have no particular number in mind for the size of the Assembly, but we do believe that it is time to get on with it. Now that we have this enabling power, assuming that the Bill is passed with the amendment in place, we hope that the parties that have been reluctant to reduce the size of government, and thereby the burden of government and the extent of the over-governance in Northern Ireland, will take seriously the views of the people out there. I hear that people on all sides believe there needs to be a reduction in the numbers in the Assembly and in Government Departments. There is an idea that interfering with or changing in any way anything to do with the institutions that were set up by the agreement would somehow undermine the process, but that is not sustainable or tenable. People are looking for more efficient government and for Government to save money in a time of austerity, and we should take their concerns on board. I hope that people will now take this enabling power and use it to reduce the size of the Assembly.
We once heard the then leader of the Social and Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), say that some of the ugly architecture of the agreement needed to be done away with. Some people still hold the view that nothing about the institutions can change at all. However, we are now in 2014, many years on from the Belfast agreement and a considerable way on from the St Andrews agreement, and it is time that politicians responded to people’s views and concerns and took a lead in reducing the burden of government on households and on taxpayers.
Not so much wiser, I think.
I vividly recall that we decided on the final number for the Assembly in the middle of the night on Maundy Thursday. There was an argument that the Assembly should be bigger than it turned out to be—some of the smaller parties thought it was essential that they should all be represented—but we came to what appeared to be something of a compromise with 108 Members. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). When the Government were dealing with the United Kingdom parliamentary boundary changes, they were challenged—I challenged them, as did the right hon. Gentleman and others—about the consequences of reducing the number of MPs in Northern Ireland for the Assembly, and therefore for the whole balance that had been agreed. That is now water under the bridge, so it is not an issue today, but it shows the mentality at the time.
In Wales, we have a population of 3 million compared with a population of 1.5 million in Northern Ireland, and an Assembly of 60 Members compared with an Assembly of 108 Members in Northern Ireland. That is obviously quite a difference. The Government recently appointed the Silk commission, which has recommended that the number of Members of the National Assembly for Wales should be increased because it has now achieved primary legislative powers and therefore has an insufficient number of Back Benchers to scrutinise legislation.
I very much take the point that there is no great merit in having a set figure if there is agreement to reduce it. My only mild criticism of the amendment is that it specifies a figure of five, and if, with agreement, the parties said that it should be four, the Bill would prevent them from implementing that. Nevertheless, a reduction from six to five is a start. Two important principles lay behind the number that was chosen: first, the need to make the Assembly in Northern Ireland as pluralist as possible so that as many points of view as possible are represented, which was a good approach; and, secondly and crucially, the need to ensure that changes are agreed with the political parties in Northern Ireland. I would be interested to hear what the Minister says about any consultations he or his predecessors had with Northern Ireland’s political parties to come up with the final figure and final recommendation that we are considering.
A few weeks ago, Northern Ireland was, in a sense, captured by a crisis about a so-called one-sided deal that may have occurred some years ago. I do not want to go into the details of that, but merely say that anything that is one-sided will eventually flounder. Everybody has to agree; otherwise, eventually, the deal will not last. This can be very difficult. For example, our agreeing on the release of prisoners in Northern Ireland—perhaps the most difficult part of the Good Friday agreement—was based on the agreement of the parties involved in the talks. Therefore, the key aspect of the amendment, which I wholly support, is the importance of getting general agreement.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a deal brokered and supported by one party for republican terrorists who are on the run from justice in Northern Ireland cannot be described as a “so-called” one-sided deal? It is a one-sided deal, and its secrecy makes it a dirty deal as well.
Mr Deputy Speaker will stop me if we go into the details of what we discussed some weeks ago, but I will simply say that the principle of all parties agreeing a policy is critical to its success. The issue, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, is one that involved not just political parties, but paramilitary organisations as well. The principle, however, has to be agreed: there must be agreement between the parties all the time, even if it takes weeks, months or even years to achieve it. Otherwise, it will be so fragile that it simply will not continue to have any validity at all.
I agree with the Lords amendments. I will also be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the consultation that was held on the details of the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I also rise to support the Lords amendments. It is worth noting that my party agrees with the Democratic Unionist party on this occasion, because that has been a rather rare occurrence in recent years. We wish to see significant reform of the Assembly structures and the burden they place on the population of Northern Ireland.
The principles of the Good Friday agreement—power-sharing, inclusion and proportionality—are very important. Whatever changes are made to the Assembly, they need still to reflect those principles. There are many ways in which those principles can be implemented in practice to allow Northern Ireland to have a leaner, more efficient Government. I believe that that would benefit all the people of Northern Ireland and that it is something the Assembly should wish to take forward. We should be open to reform that would make our Government more agile and that would allow our governance to move away from the structures that often impede its ability to deliver for the electorate. Obviously, we would like the Assembly reforms to go much further, but that is a matter for the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. However, I concur entirely with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that the time for talking about this has come to an end. We now need to see real progress and take the opportunity these amendments present to reduce the number of Members per constituency and then, as part of that process, reduce the number of Government Departments so that there is a correct balance between those in the Executive and those in Back-Bench positions holding them to account.
I appreciate the opportunity to do so, but I will not go too far, because Mr Deputy Speaker will be quick to reign me back in. In terms of what the AERC is looking at, we want a review of the question of an addition to the numbers of Members and Departments. We also want to move away from the Assembly’s designation system—which I believe copper-fastens sectarianism within our structures and manages division rather than addresses it—towards a weighted majority voting system. I believe that that would be much more fluid and that it would allow Government and, indeed, Assembly decisions to be taken much more quickly and easily than is currently the case with our mutual vetoes, which do not serve Northern Ireland well.
I would also like the Assembly to have opposition structures similar to those in this place, which has a properly financed and funded Opposition who can hold the Executive parties to account. It is a very difficult job. During my time in the Assembly I sat as part of the unofficial Opposition—we were not in the Executive—and although it was a very nice place to be and we could be critical of what was going on without having the responsibility of making the decisions, it was not properly funded or researched. Often it was done on a shoe string in comparison to the support received by the majority of Assembly Members, who were members of Government parties and had access to the relevant structures.
I think that anyone listening to this debate would be surprised to hear that, while there appears to be a willingness to see the changes mentioned by the hon. Lady, there has been absolutely no move towards making them. Indeed, a properly structured, effective Opposition could be easily obtained if those who talk about it were prepared to drop out of the Executive and take up opposition positions, but, of course, they do not.
That is interesting, because it suggests that it might be the DUP’s plan for after the next elections. It, too, has called for a properly structured and funded Opposition at the Assembly, but I do not see it walking away from the post of First Minister and all its other Executive posts. This is not about which is the biggest party in Northern Ireland, because government is founded and constructed on proportionality. Why would we as a party walk away from our proportional entitlement to govern when others do not? This is not about the Alliance party being in opposition—that is not a point of principle. We did our part in being constructive in opposition. This is about having an Opposition who could be formed of Members from bigger and smaller parties co-operating and collaborating together, as can happen in this place. It is rather facetious to suggest that one party leaving the Executive and essentially giving its ministerial responsibilities to other parties with which it fundamentally disagrees would be a way of structuring opposition.
I believe that the AERC reforms will come and I will certainly press for them, as, in fairness, will my colleagues in the Assembly. However, we need to convince those in Northern Ireland—we need to take cognisance of this—who have felt politically excluded over a long period of time that such reform is not designed to further exclude or diminish their role in the governance of Northern Ireland. The stability we enjoy today requires buy-in from all sections of the community, and we cannot squander that simply in order to have efficiency.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the general public in Northern Ireland wish to have an Opposition at Stormont or whether, in fact, they are in favour of power sharing between parties that, collectively do their very best for everyone in Northern Ireland?
I think there is evidence that the public would like to see an Opposition, and that evidence is their frustration with the amount that can be delivered under the Executive and the structures as they stand. The most common complaint about the Assembly is its lack of delivery, and I think that all Members would recognise that that is a challenge for all of us whose colleagues are representatives there. People feel frustrated that things take so long and that the process is far too cumbersome.
I think that an Opposition would help to speed up that process and that they would, therefore, be welcomed. I concede that people may not necessarily articulate the argument in favour of an Opposition so directly, but I believe that the implication is that most people would respond if we cut through some of the morass of slow and weighty governance and its burden on the Assembly and created more efficient governance.
I am happy to support the amendments. I believe that a reduction to five seats would maintain the principles of inclusion, proportionality and power-sharing. I also believe that they present the Assembly and the AERC with a renewed opportunity to get about the business of reducing the size of the Assembly, reducing the level of governance and, with the powers they have, starting to deliver real change for the people in Northern Ireland.
I also rise to support Lords amendments 1 to 3, particularly relating to the size of the Assembly.
We live in days when everything that is spent by elected representatives and their offices and by institutions, ministerial Departments and Government is scrutinised to the nth degree by the public and the press. That is right and proper and we should be above reproach in such matters. That also means that, just as we expect our constituents and businesses to deal efficiently with finances, we must do the same. Leaner does not mean meaner: it means that we can do things better and more efficiently.
For the record, I supported the partnership Government at the Assembly, because that was the way forward at the time and it still is. Although an Opposition will hopefully come at some time, the shape of Government in Northern Ireland enabled all the parties to sign up and be part of the decision-making process. Whether we reduce the number of seats to five or to four, the principle remains that efficiencies need to be made, which means a reduction in the number of Assembly Members.
Money must be spent wisely, and every effort should be made to ensure that the money that can be saved through efficiency measures is saved. We are not exempt from efficiency savings, and our party has long believed that there are too many seats in the Assembly. I fully support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has said. Although I fully understand the notion that there must be representation for all areas, to have 108 seats for a population of 1.8 million seems excessive. I therefore fully support the idea that a reduction makes sense. It would reduce the financial and administrative burdens, and savings would be substantial.
I support the fact that such a decision can and ought to be made in the Assembly with cross-community support—by all the parties together—and I therefore support the change to allow the Assembly to make such a determination. My right hon. Friend mentioned that we will have council elections in May. That has come about because the decision was made to realign councils and reduce the number of councillors. The prime mover of that was efficiency, but it was also to produce council administrations that can deliver.
In my area, North Down and Ards will come together. Those of us who live in the Ards area perhaps find an alliance with North Down very difficult to accommodate—[Interruption.]—but the two councils have to come together to cover areas between Bangor and Portaferry. It has to happen, so while people in Ards want to ensure that they retain their character as Ards people within North Down and Ards, the people of North Down will want to do the same.
It is awfully nice of the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, to give way. I wonder whether he would love to take this opportunity to put on the record his admiration for the people of North Down, just to make sure that nothing in his remarks a moment ago might be misconstrued. North Down is, in fact—[Interruption.]—yes, the jewel in the crown of constituencies in Northern Ireland.
We have got a team. The team has a lot to do, but we are doing our best.
We work alongside the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in this Chamber on many issues. We work together as MPs, and the councils will also work together. I was just making the important point that we want to retain the character of Ards.
I read with interest the views of Members in the other place who questioned the ability of the Assembly to handle an issue of such size and complexity. I firmly believe that the Assembly can function and do its job as long as there are no behind-the-scenes deals by the Government. One such deal was referred to by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). That matter rankles with us all, and it will do so until we can have a debate and sort out the whole matter. Such deals cause disruption and end up eradicating the trust that has been built up over the years.
I took part in a debate about the adult autism strategy this week. In it, I highlighted the way in which the Northern Ireland Assembly has, across the United Kingdom, led the legislative field in Europe with its Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. It is a comprehensive Act for autism that beats the legislation anywhere else in Europe. I therefore believe that allowing the size of the Assembly to be a reserved matter is only right and proper. I am sure that the Minister will respond very positively, but we now need action: the words are over; let us have action and let us have the deal done.
Inspired, as ever, by the wondrous words of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I can only say that I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister, were he present, would say that he not only loves the people of North Down, but adores the people of South Down—in fact, of all the Downs—and that he would almost certainly express his adoration and passion for the whole of northern Europe, nay the globe. For the record, may I say on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition that we have immense respect and affection for the people of North Down and, if you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, especially for their elected representative, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)?
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) is not in the Chamber. He is currently gliding smoothly into Dulles airport for what used to be the St Patrick’s day celebrations, but are now the St Patrick’s fortnight celebrations. He has assured me that he will watch this debate with keen interest. I have no doubt that when the party starts in the White House, he will demur from any invitations in order to watch it on catch-up.
Order. As much as I am enjoying the entertainment—I allow a little scope, but I am not sure how far that scope will take me to airports around the world—I think that the hon. Lady does not wish to intervene now, and I want to hear the hon. Gentleman get to at least some of the Lords amendments.
An unusual feeling of amity is spreading its warm embrace over the House today, in many ways because we have discussed this matter in some detail. Certainly those who were in their lordships’ House to hear their discussions will have been impressed, as I was, by the speeches of the noble Lord McAvoy, who made his case very powerfully, and of the noble Lord Alderdice, who in a very detailed refutation of the amendment moved by the noble Lord Empey, made the case for preserving the present size—108 Members—of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is in some ways unfortunate that the Dublin statement made in August 2012 by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—he called for a reduction in the size of the Assembly and of the Executive, and mentioned there being an Opposition—has slightly coloured today’s discussion. The then shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), said that that contribution was unhelpful, unwarranted and unnecessary.
One of the most important points made today was mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). She referred to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which is currently considering these very matters. It is appropriate for that process to continue, and we support the Lords amendments.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) asked whether, if there was agreement among the parties and even in that committee for a reduction to, say, four Members per constituency, anyone in this House would oppose it. I presume that Her Majesty’s faithful and loyal Opposition might go along with a widespread view expressed by Members of the Assembly and the parties.
The contribution made earlier by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was extraordinarily impressive in that it was the first time I have ever heard any politician on the Floor of the House seek a diminution of powers and a reduction in the number of elected Members. The leaner and, if not meaner, then certainly cleaner and greener Executive and Assembly, as was mentioned—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I withdraw the word “greener” in that context? That was entirely a slip of the tongue, and I will arrange for something better.
The point is that the Bill very carefully circumscribes the numbers—no fewer than five, not more than six—so the definition is fairly tight. Clearly, if something results from the AERC that it wishes to bring to the House, I am sure that the Secretary of State will look at it. Our opinion would be that it is a devolved or reserved matter that should be dealt with on that basis.
In relation to other discussions about the future formation of the Executive and the Assembly, I was interested to read on the official Conservative news website ConservativeHome, which I have to say I read out of a sense of duty, rather than delight—
I am afraid that I cannot be quite as entertaining as the hon. Gentleman, and I shall not try to be. ConservativeHome is not an official website. It is very interesting to read. I believe that it is called a blog, although I am a little out of date on such matters. People may put whatever they like on it. It is not an official website. However, we welcome support from all parties.
It was the word “Conservative” that fooled me, and the fact that the author of the article was a distinguished Conservative Member of the House and a former member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
We are considering the first group of their lordships’ amendments. Just as the Opposition said in the upper House, we are happy with the structure of the amendments and will not oppose them. All the contributions that we have heard today have been positive and forward-looking, and all have given us hope for the future.
If I may say so in closing, it was particularly impressive to hear the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who was so much a part of the process. He has worn well, as has the peace process. Long may both continue to flourish.
I will respond briefly to a couple of the points that have been made.
First, I hope that it will reassure the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) to hear that I, too, have argued endlessly for a reduction in the number of Members in this House, just as a turkey might wish for Christmas. I have always said that there are too many Members of the House of Commons. Personally, I would reduce the number to 500, although that is not my party’s current policy.
I welcome the views of the right hon. Member for Belfast East on progress—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I mean the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) is also sitting in the Chamber and I can see one or two differences between the two of them. The right hon. Member for Belfast North spoke about the need for change in the political structure in Northern Ireland. All the parties in Northern Ireland realise that there needs to be change.
I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast East about opposition. What is important is that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the Government in Northern Ireland held to account. We understand why the set-up came about in the Belfast agreement and we support that reason. However, I do not think that anyone believes that the current First Minister and Deputy First Minister structure will last for ever, because very few things do.
I was asked whether there was consultation with the Assembly parties. There was consultation with the parties before the Bill was amended. The clause was consulted on. The assumption in the consultation was that there would be a reduction of one Member in each constituency. That was inserted as a safeguard to ensure that a greater reduction was not steamrollered through. The smaller parties felt, rightly or wrongly, that they might be disadvantaged if there were a reduction of two Members per constituency. I think that this is a matter for the Assembly. However, the consultation was about a reduction of one Member per constituency and that was agreed to. That is why we brought forward Lords amendment 2.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North mentioned the reduction in the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom for the Westminster Parliament. I have put my cards on the table and said where I stand. I have been roundly pilloried for that from time to time by my constituents. However, because a different electoral system is employed for the Northern Ireland Assembly, such a reduction would not have the impact that he suggests. If there were a reduction in the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland, there would still be the same number of Assembly Members per constituency. There would be an overall reduction, but the same number of Members per constituency. The smaller parties would be protected because they would have the same number proportionally per constituency.
I am interested to hear what the Minister says. I am at a loss to understand how he can make that assertion, because he does not know, and nobody knows, what the Boundary Commission would come up with. We do not know where the two seats would be lost or what the configuration of the new 16-seat arrangement in Northern Ireland would be. Depending on where those seats were lost and where the boundaries were drawn, there could be a disproportionate effect on my party or on smaller parties, or there could be an impact on the nationalist-Unionist balance. He cannot assert what he has just said with any confidence because he does not know, and none of us knows, what the Boundary Commission recommendations would be in such a circumstance.
With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that applies to any boundary of any constituency. My point is that the proportional representation system would allow smaller parties to have their say. Of course, there might be some unhappy situations. If I were able to stray beyond the remit of this debate, I would point out that there is a disproportionate number of Labour seats in the House of Commons, given the number of votes. However, I would not dream of mentioning that at the moment.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) referred to what the reduction would be if two seats were lost. There would be a reduction of 10 Members of the Assembly. There would be a further reduction of 18 Members if the number of Members per constituency were reduced to five. That is a reduction of 28 Members. The Minister does not seem to grasp the fact that the situation in Northern Ireland is totally different from the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom. The very fine balance of cross-community support could be affected by doing that.
On the contrary, I do grasp that fact. I do understand that the situation is different. The right hon. Gentleman worked very hard on the Belfast agreement and afterwards as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He will know that the settlement is not perfect and that many people would disagree with the current boundaries. We believe that the Assembly should be enabled to determine the reduction in its size. That is what clause 6 does, with the safeguard of Lords amendment 2. It is only an enabling clause, because we have devolved the matter to the Assembly and are allowing it to sort it out. I am sure that it will do so.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 and 3 agreed to.
Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland
The amendments that were made in the other place to clauses 10 and 11 relate to the way in which responsibility for the civil service commissioners and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission might be devolved to Northern Ireland in future. The intention of the amendments is to ensure that there is sufficient opportunity to debate the arrangements before an order is brought before Parliament for devolution and to ensure that the important issues that need to be considered are highlighted before devolution takes place.
We had already undertaken, as a first step, that there would be a full public consultation on those issues. That commitment remains. Clause 10 would move the appointment of the civil service commissioners for Northern Ireland from the excepted category to the reserved category, making it possible for the civil service commissioners to be devolved using procedures that are laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those procedures require cross-community support in the Assembly and a vote in each House of Parliament.
Lords amendment 4 to clause 10 will require the Secretary of State to lay a report in Parliament at least three months before he lays any order under the 1998 Act on the devolution of responsibilities in respect of the civil service commissioners for Northern Ireland. In that report, the Secretary of State will be required to set out the effect that the order would have on the impartiality of the Northern Ireland civil service, the merit principle for appointments to it and the independence of the civil service commissioners.
The intention of the amendment is to allow sufficient time to consider the arrangements for the devolution of the commissioners, if that should happen. Although responsibility for the civil service in Northern Ireland is already devolved, the Government recognise that the House might want to take into account the overall arrangements governing the civil service before deciding whether to devolve the appointment, functions or procedures of the civil service commissioners, given the extremely important interests that the commissioners safeguard. We have agreed that we will facilitate a debate on those issues at that stage.
Currently, I understand, the civil service commissioners for Northern Ireland answer to the UK Government, but by devolving this issue, they will answer to the Northern Ireland Executive. I believe that to be the case, but just in case I am wrong—[Interruption.] Yes, the proceedings and functions are currently reserved, whereas the appointment is excepted. We intend to change that, so that appointment will also be reserved. I think that is a sensible way forward, and I thought it was supported.
Since the right hon. Gentleman was once Secretary of State for Wales, he might be better able to answer that than I am. I will write to him and let him know because I do not know the situation in Scotland and Wales.
Clause 11 proposes moving responsibility for appointments to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and its functions, from the excepted to the reserved category, making it possible for those responsibilities to be devolved in future. As with civil service commissioners, that raises questions about the commission’s independence, including its accountability should it be devolved in future.
Lords amendments to clause 11 set out a similar procedure to those to clause 10, and also require the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament at least three months prior to introducing any order on the devolution of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. In that report, the Secretary of State is required to set out her view about the effects that such an order would have on the commission’s independence, the application of internationally accepted principles relating to human rights institutions, and the relationship between the commission and the Assembly. We recognise that these issues are of real concern to those concerned with the effective operation of the commission.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has done an enormous amount of good in Northern Ireland, although that is not generally or widely recognised. Will he explain whether the commission is pleased and content with the changes that will be implemented by the proposed legislation?
The point about the Lords amendments is that there will be no change to the current status of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We initially intended it to be devolved to the Assembly and the Executive, but any change will take place after further consultation. I am afraid the answer to the hon. Lady’s question will come during further consultation rather than now.
Devolution of the responsibilities of civil service commissioners and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will, of course, be subject to consultation, and the Lords amendments intend to ensure that devolution is approached with proper consideration and scrutiny. I hope that the House will agree that that is the right approach.
Lords amendments 7 and 8 are technical amendments concerning the commencement of clause 24. Members will be aware that clause 24 amends an order-making power already passed in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, to allow us to take forward, by order, the changes to the new biometric framework in the reserved and excepted fields. The Northern Ireland Department of Justice could not legislate for that because the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 received Royal Assent too late, on 25 April 2013. The amendments will allow us to bring the position of Northern Ireland regarding the retention, use and destruction of biometric data in the interests of national security, or for the purposes of terrorist investigation, into line with that of Great Britain.
As the Bill is currently drafted, clause 24 would come into force on the day the legislation is passed. However, the order-making power in paragraph 8 of schedule 1 to the Protection of Freedoms Act is not yet in force. The amendment to commencement is intended to avoid a situation where the amendment to the order-making power in clause 24 comes into force before the power itself. That would have no practical effect and is technically undesirable. The change is entirely technical and has not been prompted by any debate or concerns in the other place. I hope that the House will agree to it.
Again, I would be interested to know the extent and outcome of consultation with the Executive parties about the issues covered by the amendments, other than the technical points relating to clause 24, which are of no particular concern and accepted by virtually everyone. Lords amendments 4, 5 and 6 deal with civil service commissioners and human rights commissioners. These are enabling powers that would transfer civil service commissioners to the reserved category. As the Minister said, the functions and proceedings of civil service commissioners are currently reserved.
The issue of reporting to Parliament was debated in the other place. I have no difficulty with as much parliamentary debate, scrutiny and accountability as there can be on these matters, or with bringing forward a report, as proposed by the amendments. I have no concerns about that and would certainly not oppose it. However, the purpose of the report to Parliament is, first, about the effect that the transfer would have on the independence of the commissioners, secondly about the principle that appointments should be based on merit after fair and open competition, and finally about the impartiality of the Northern Ireland civil service. One concern was that as things stood, without the Lords amendments, if Parliament wanted to pass responsibility for that matter to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it would do so by Order in Council, since such matters are reserved. That would not allow for amendments, and would be simply accepted or rejected in its entirety.
It would, of course, allow for any concerns about the independence of commissioners, appointments on merit, or issues of impartiality to be debated, but if there were concerns about those matters then no doubt Members of this House and of the other place would vote accordingly. If there are concerns about any of those things, I presume that the Government would not have an Order in Council. One wonders what the purpose of the measure really is.
There will be a debate and a report. Presumably everyone will say, “Well, we’re all content and happy,” and we will proceed to the Order in Council. However, if people say that they are not happy, or if the report states that things are not good, the Order in Council will not be introduced. To me, the whole thing seems effectively like window dressing, and I wonder about its purpose, other than to allow an extra debate, which I am perfectly content to have.
The amendment—[Interruption.] I think the Cheltenham festival is on, which is of great interest to the Irish—and to me, as it happens.
The amendment takes account of the concerns that were expressed in the other House. I believe the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the clause rather than the amendment. The amendment is designed to provide further time before anything is devolved.
With respect, I am addressing the amendment, which seeks to introduce a new requirement. It means that, at least three months prior to seeking parliamentary approval for an order, the Secretary of State must report to Parliament on the three issues I have described. The simple point I am making is this: if there is any concern or debate, or the slightest suggestion that there would be a detrimental effect on the independence of the commissioners, or on the impartiality of the Northern Ireland civil service, or that appointments would not be made on merit, the Government would not bring forward an Order in Council. A response would be given to a request from the Northern Ireland Assembly saying, “I am sorry, but this is the reason.”
I am not opposing the measure, but asking about its real effect. Presumably, the report will not be subject to any vote, because the only legislative instrument is the Order in Council. The measure does not seem to have much effect in reality other than to provide for another debate, which I am not opposed to. I am very happy to give the issues the greatest possible scrutiny and debate.
I agree wholeheartedly with the valid points the right hon. Gentleman makes. Even if we do not press the amendment to a Division, I urge him to include me—he is well capable of doing this on behalf of Democratic Unionist party Members—as someone who also seeks a clarification on this from the Minister. If the impartiality of the Northern Ireland civil service is called into question, the Secretary of State should not proceed with any such report.
I join the hon. Lady in that, and the Minister has heard it. It is entirely sensible. None of us in the House or, I dare say, in the Assembly would want to undermine in any way the independence of the civil service commissioners or allow anything to interfere with the principle of appointments based on merit after fair and open competition. We would not want anything to disadvantage the Northern Ireland civil service by casting a taint on its impartiality. My experience in government—I have been in the Northern Ireland Executive—has left me with the highest regard for the Northern Ireland civil service, which has done an immensely good job by and large, in many difficult situations in the governance of the Province.
I raise those points not to oppose the provisions, but to query them. Sometimes, we ask why legislation is necessary. The provision strikes me as being somewhat superfluous in terms of parliamentary process. We are legislating to say, “Let’s have a debate at some point in future.” I do not see why we need to do so, unless somebody does not trust someone who might be in power in future—they might believe that that someone might not act in the best interests of the civil service of Northern Ireland.
The same comments apply to Lords amendments 6 and 7, which propose making a prior report in respect of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, like the one that is produced on the civil service commissioners for Northern Ireland. I will not rehearse the separate arguments in that regard.
Amendment 6 obliges the Secretary of State to look at
“the application of internationally accepted principles relating to national human rights institutions”
as they may apply to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I draw the House’s attention to the word “national”. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a regional human rights institution, not a national one. How can the Secretary of State comply with that statutory obligation?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady will seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, but she makes a good point. I look forward to the Minister responding to it. As she says, the amendment mentions “internationally accepted principles” and their application vis-à-vis national human rights bodies. Her point is valid. The amendment says that not only the independence of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a matter for the report, but the relationship between the commission and the Assembly.
Given that the clause is a small provision—it simply provides an enabling power, which the Order in Council will implement—on what basis will the report be compiled? Will there be an investigation? Will there be an Assembly inquiry, with evidence being taken on how the measures operate? If it were devolved, it would be a matter for the Assembly, so what would be the purpose of reassuring ourselves in this House and in the other place about all these matters three months prior to a debate?
I support the amendments and I understand the points that have been raised by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on their reasoning and the rationale behind them. In relation to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the civil service commissioners, the amendments are sensible. It is right that before any discussion of the future devolution of these elements, proper consideration is given to the impact on the impartiality of the civil service.
I well recall the considerable discussions in 1988 and 1989 in this House and the other place on the advances to be made on ensuring there is respect for people in workplaces and on fair employment. References were made then to the need to respect the merit principle in private sector organisations above a certain level of employee. Comments were also made about the Northern Ireland civil service and the need for impartiality, fairness and due participation across the community if we were to build a society that was reflective of and proportionate to the wider Northern Ireland. I see the amendments in that context.
It is important that any report on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission pays regard to the importance of its independence in conforming to internationally recognised standards and maintaining a balanced relationship with the Assembly. In that respect, I regret that the Government have not seen fit to introduce a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. There has been considerable discussion and indeed, some months ago, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) sponsored the visit of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium to discuss the need for such a Bill—and the impetus within the wider community for it—that would enshrine the rights of all in legislation. Such a Bill is still urgently needed. It cannot be covered by a UK Bill of Rights. There are rights that are peculiar to Northern Ireland, which has a particular political situation that needs to be recognised. I regret the fact that the Government did not see fit to introduce a Bill of Rights that could have run concurrently with the Bill through both Houses. I ask the Minister to reflect on that issue when he sums up, to talk to his colleagues in government, and to ensure that such legislation is introduced.
I know what the Minister’s response will be. He will say that such a Bill would need the support of all parties in Northern Ireland, but I can tell him that the idea has received considerable support among the wider community in Northern Ireland, with considerable impetus behind a Good Friday agreement based on the principle of consensus and agreement. I think he would also find such support here. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the need for a Bill of Rights.
This is our last opportunity to discuss a Bill which, although short, is important to Northern Ireland. I have only one regret. During the Bill’s earlier stages, we were concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the issue of an increase in the Assembly’s mandate from four to five years. On Second Reading I described the issue as a mystery, because it was never resolved. I would not like to think that that was part of a secret deal between two principal parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government. Yet again, I ask the Minister to clarify that issue.
Other issues relating to Haass have been raised during the Bill’s passage. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised the issue of the Historical Enquiries Team, and asked how there could be more coherence in inquiries so that patterns and trends that emerged could be dealt with. In that connection, a book called “Lethal Allies”, about the Glenanne gang, was published recently. A pattern emerged in the type of activity involved in murders of that kind. We felt that those issues could have been reflected in the Bill.
All of us who represent Northern Ireland constituencies and take our seats here want a just and lasting settlement for everyone which is based on our moving on. It is interesting to note that Richard Haass, who spent six months in Northern Ireland drawing up proposals on reconciliation, on the past, and on flags and emblems, said today in a United States congressional committee that he wanted Northern Ireland to move on. He has expressed his fear that it could slip back into the violence of its troubled past if we, as politicians, do not grasp the opportunity to deal with divisive issues. I believe that that opportunity exists now, and that we should move forward.
I believe that there should be no more secret deals, no more on-the-run letters, and no more get-out-of jail passes, as I think they were termed by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We must move forward on the basis of transparency, openness, fairness, equality and proportionality for all. The amendments will take us a step further towards fair representation, and a consensual approach to politics and to dealing with issues that still need to be addressed in Northern Ireland.
I want to make a couple of brief comments about the civil service commissioners and the Human Rights Commission.
Northern Ireland has had its own civil service since the 1920s, and, as others have said, it has done admirably over the years. The Northern Ireland civil service itself is and always has been a devolved matter, but in 1998 it was decided not to devolve the civil service commissioners at least for the time being. Like their Whitehall counterparts, they are responsible for ensuring that appointments to the civil service are made on merit, and on the basis of fair and open competition. I believe that the amendment will ensure that by requiring the Secretary of State to present a full report to the House, so that all will be open and transparent before any devolution takes place, and I therefore support it.
In the light of what was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister told us on the basis of what evidence the Secretary of State would prepare the report? The only reason for debating the report would be contention about its content. There would be a reason for debating it if, for example, the Secretary of State said that there was no issue relating to fairness and transparency, but other Members disagreed. The substance on which the report was based would be important in informing any such debate.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) did beforehand. The Minister has heard it made very forcefully, therefore, and I will touch upon it now as well. We do seek that clarification. I am sure the Minister has received lots of scribblings from his civil servants in the corner to enable him to respond and we look forward to hearing what he has to say.
This amendment safeguards the transfer of the power to ensure that political pressure from any angle cannot be applied. We have some concerns about that, so we seek clarification on the point. After the revelations of this month we must have openness and transparency—oft-used terminology, but it is still very important—from all parts of Government to restore trust. We need to be convinced as elected representatives that proposals are being made for the right reasons and with the right focus and attention.
There will be ample time for the House to debate and influence any decision before ratification. Some have asked why we need to do that, and I am sure the Minister will respond on that. This is a sensitive issue that must be handled appropriately. All Members who believe in the importance of due process and order will agree on that.
A debate must be held in this place to ensure that the appointment of human rights commissioners is devolved for the correct reasons and not due to pressure from, or, God forbid, appeasement of, any section or organisation. The amendment ensures openness and transparency and that proper process will be followed. I like the idea of the Northern Ireland Assembly having a say in human rights, too.
The hon. Members for Belfast East and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North have commented on this issue. We now look for a full response from the Minister. It is more important than ever that we rebuild the trust that has been somewhat desiccated of late.
Two points really need to be made. First, this is some of the most important business we have discussed on the Floor of the House. It is a matter of some shame that the Government did not introduce this group of amendments on Report in the other place, as that would have allowed a more informative and in-depth discussion. We could have spoken to it at greater length.
I wish to place on record at the outset a reiteration of the comments my noble Friend Lord McAvoy made in the other place: the Opposition do not oppose these amendments; in fact, we support them. However, I feel it is essential that we place on record one crucial and important factor. When we are talking about the institutions in Northern Ireland, we must not see them through the prism of Great Britain. Lord Alderdice referred in the other place to the size of the Assembly and said specifically that comparisons with Wales and Scotland were otiose, as there are functions and duties that fall to the Assembly in the Northern Ireland that are entirely different, and in many cases involve far harder work than would be found in Scotland or Wales. The obvious example is the land border with another country.
As all Members know, there are also huge key differences between the Northern Ireland civil service and the Westminster civil service. People who spend some time in Northern Ireland swiftly realise that civil servants in Northern Ireland have an entirely different role. They have a much higher profile partly because when there have been occasions such as the suspension of the Assembly or different governance arrangements, civil servants have taken decisions that are very often taken by Ministers. They are known far more widely; they have a higher profile. They engage with the public and they promote policies. The difference is not just practical; it is also cultural. That makes the report all the more significant.
I feel, however, that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has put his finger on an important point. There is a lacuna in the amendment regarding the nature, format, structure, content, aim, intention and extent of the report. We need to have an idea of the precise intention behind it. Will it be a tour d’horizon of the whole issue relating to the civil service commissioners? Will it cover just a specific point? Will it be an update? We need to have some idea, because this is an extremely important subject. I cannot imagine that anyone in the House will object to the issue of impartiality and the merit principle.
I said that I would be brief and, for once, I shall keep my word. These are important matters, and they perhaps need to be ventilated at length on another occasion, but for the moment we support the amendments. We seek further clarification on the nature of the report, and we underline yet again a fact that must never be forgotten— that we are talking about an entirely different sort of civil service. We must bear that in mind in making any decision on these matters. We support the amendments.
I am glad that everyone supports the amendments, although it was not entirely clear to me that that was the case as I listened to the debate. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) has just pointed out something that I should have known—I suspect that the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) already knew it—which is that there is only one home civil service, which has one set of civil service commissioners. The Northern Ireland civil service is separate, which is why it has separate civil service commissioners. The answer to the right hon. Member for Torfaen’s earlier question is that there are no similar relationships in Scotland or Wales. This is not something I have come across before, actually.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) asked why we have the amendments. The reason is that, in the second Chamber of this Parliament, concerns were expressed—by, among others, Lord McAvoy—that insufficient safeguards and transparency had been built in. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has suggested more than once, there were concerns about trust and transparency. In response to those concerns, the Government tabled amendments in the other place that will allow further consultation if anyone is concerned. I understand that their lordships wish to have a debate on the matter in their House; whether they do so or not is another matter.
There is nothing in the Bill to suggest that the Secretary of State will be compelled to lay an Order in Council. They would therefore do so only if they were convinced that all was in order. On what basis, therefore, would the report be produced? Any report that we would debate in this House would be a positive one, and we would need to see the evidence base for that. It would be interesting to know precisely where that would come from.
The hon. Lady has put the cart firmly before the horse. I know that this is very old fashioned, but I believe that the purpose of consultation is to consult and to listen to what people have to say. If, for instance, everyone were agin the devolution of these powers, there might not be a report. The purpose of the amendments is to say that we will not bring one forward until there has been consultation. I am astonished to find people criticising the Government for trying to be consensual.
Far be it from me to tell the Minister what his own legislation says, but it does not actually say that at all. It does not say that there will be consultation followed by a report. It says that a report will be produced, and that a debate on that report will be held three months before an Order in Council. That time scale suggests that the Secretary of State will already be intending to have an Order in Council, and will already have decided that the issues are not a problem. It is the basis on which such a decision will be made that we are trying to discover today.
I assure the hon. Lady that the reason for the amendment is to allow further consultation so that the report can be issued. If she wishes to be a consultee, I am sure that that would be fine. We have not laid down every step and turn that will be taken, but we are trying to proceed with the support of the parties. We have had the support of all parties for the amendments, so I am not entirely clear what the concerns are. Transparency and trust have been discussed, but that is what we are trying to allow—transparency, so that everyone trusts the process.
The Minister seems to be getting a little tetchy, if I may say so. Members of the House are carrying out their parliamentary duty to scrutinise the Bill. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, amendments were introduced on Third Reading in the other place, not on Report, so this is the first chance we have had to debate them. It is perfectly proper to examine the amendments, even though we will not divide the House on them. This is the first opportunity we have had to debate these matters.
May I pick the Minister up on his reference to Members in the other place raising the issues, to ensure that there will be a debate? Is the Minister saying that there will also be a debate in this House on the report?
Hold on. The reason the amendments were introduced on Third Reading is the perceived unhappiness in the other place about the existing clause. The amendment allows for further consultation, and the amendments have been welcomed. They are not designed to harm the parliamentary process in any way; quite the opposite, they are designed to allow further consultation.
I am grateful for the fact that the Minister has now placed on me the responsibility and burden for initiating debates, Government business and so on. I hope that he will involve me more often. I am surprised, but I welcome it and will follow him up on it—I am happy to discuss it with him in more detail. He is simply saying that we may have a debate and all the rest of it, but what is the purpose of a report being drawn up, and it being of such importance, if it is not to be debated? Why will the Minister not give a firm commitment that we will have a debate on the report?
I thank the Minister for giving way again. Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), where in clauses 4, 5 or 6 is it specified that there will be consultation? Reference has been made by the Minister to consultation, but the Bill does not actually say that.
The reason for our discussion now is the amendments to the clauses. We are having a debate on the Floor of the House of Commons to discuss those matters. I am telling the hon. Lady that there will be consultation, whatever it says in the piece of paper in front of her. The point of the report is to inform parliamentarians of the Secretary of State’s view about the effect of devolution after consultation. She will not come to that view without having consultation. If there is agreement, there is not necessarily a requirement for debate; if there is some disagreement, there would be a requirement to debate—but we are aiming for consensus. The point made by the hon. Lady about what is actually written down in the amendment is somewhat spurious.
I have to say, and my colleagues across the parties in Northern Ireland who sit here would agree, that the legislation would normally state whether there was to be consultation, so that that consultation could actually take place. No one was trying to say one thing, but to do the other.
I say quite categorically that the purpose is to allow the Secretary of State to consider the issues transparently, engendering trust, which has been mentioned. There will be consultation—I can assure the hon. Lady of that.
Let me deal with something else the hon. Lady mentioned. I was surprised she said that human rights in Northern Ireland were different from human rights elsewhere, as I seem to recall that human rights are usually referred to as being universal. Although there are sad and particular conditions in Northern Ireland, I do not think that the human rights of an individual there are any different, and nor should they be treated differently, from those of somebody elsewhere. We have the Human Rights Act 1998 in place, and if all parties in Northern Ireland wish to propose some special legislation at the Westminster Parliament, we would of course consider it, but I see no need for such a thing, and I have never heard anybody suggest there was a need before.
May I suggest to the Minister that a Bill of Rights is required in Northern Ireland to deal with the special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland? There may not necessarily be cross-party consensus, but there is a need for that Bill of Rights to deal not only with issues of the past, but those that have an impact on the present and the future.
I would indeed like to speak on this group of amendments, so thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to do so.
I am very surprised, and exceedingly disappointed, that the Minister seems not to have read the Belfast agreement. If he had done so, he would understand that it contains an entire page and chapter dedicated to human rights. In fact, the agreement creates the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and gives it, among other things, the statutory obligation to bring forward and advise the British Government on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which contains rights particular to Northern Ireland. That obligation is in the Good Friday agreement or Belfast agreement—whatever one chooses to call it, it is still the same thing. So I was disappointed that he put it on the record this afternoon that he does not understand that the agreement contains a specific obligation about a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. Whether or not we all wish to have one is a completely different matter, but the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) has made a very valid point.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). When pushed strongly by various interventions, the Minister gave a categorical assurance that there would be consultation before a report was brought to this Chamber or indeed the other House. I ask him to give the same categorical assurance, and reassurance, that any report brought forward by the Secretary of State would be discussed not only in another House, but in this Chamber.
When I came to the Chamber to debate this Bill for the final time, the atmosphere was cordial. I apologised for being a little late, but the atmosphere was cordial at that stage. It grieves me to have to say that the Minister has unnecessarily churned up a lot of disagreement and annoyance, because there is now confusion about what these amendments mean. It would have been helpful to the House if better clarification had been given in his wind-up and if he had not wound up so very quickly that other hon. Members to whose points he was responding did not have an opportunity to have their views aired properly in this House. I am disappointed to be saying that on the record.
I welcome the Minister’s appointment to the Northern Ireland Office. He had not been particularly well, having had an operation on his leg, and we are delighted to see him back in this House. However, may I just urge him to spend a little time, before he next speaks in a Northern Ireland debate, reading the Belfast agreement, which is supported by thousands and thousands of people? I will give him this opportunity to correct the record by allowing him to intervene on me to show this House that he has read it in depth and that somehow the provisions on the Bill of Rights escaped his attention.
I would urge a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office please to refresh his memory about the Belfast agreement. It is really embarrassing for a Minister who took up his job last autumn to make an admission to the House that he has not read it since it was signed in 1998.
Moving swiftly on; it is important when considering this amendment for the Minister to have clarified the point about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission being measured by the Secretary of State who has to report to this House and to the other House on
“the application of internationally accepted principles relating to national human rights institutions”.
With the greatest respect, the word “national” is included there. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, of which I am a supporter—I am not always a fan of everything it does, but I am a supporter—is a regional human rights commission. Therefore, how on earth could the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland bring forward a report measuring the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission by “national” international standards rather than regional ones? I made that point in an intervention, albeit on the right hon. Member for Belfast North, but I did hope that the Minister would respond to it. As we will not seek to divide the House, clarification on that point is essential. I do not want to burden the Secretary of State even more than she is already burdened in Northern Ireland, but she has been asked to do an almost impossible task. If the Minister would like to intervene on me again, with the assistance of the hard-working civil servants who have brought forward these amendments—I praise the Northern Ireland civil service for its work, impartiality and high standards—I would be thrilled and delighted for him to do so.
I am sorry if the hon. Lady thinks that I have been in any way obtuse, because that was not my intention. The point about the report is that it will inevitably be discussed because the devolution order would have to be approved by the House. That is what the amendment does. It puts off the order of devolution.
With regard to the word “national”, I understand that the amendment refers to “internationally” and the Human Rights Act to which this country has signed up, and I understand that that is how it is effected. I understand that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is separate, but as I explained, the human rights are universal. We have signed up to the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that intervention, which does not really clarify matters, but I give recognition to the Minister for having responded with such good temper after my criticism of him. This is a hugely important and significant piece of legislation for Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is hugely important, as are the Northern Ireland civil service commissioners and the civil service. I just say again—I apologise to the Minister for my tone—that I was profoundly disappointed with the Minister’s response to the sensible interventions made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North, and the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and other colleagues who have spoken. It would be wise, after 16 years—I say “wise” in a better tone of voice—for the Minister, before coming back to speak on an important piece of Northern Ireland legislation, to read the Good Friday agreement, the Belfast agreement, in detail.
Lords amendment 4 agreed to.
Lords amendments 5 to 8 agreed to.