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Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1998

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 2 July 1998

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7.30 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order will extend the temporary provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 under which the government of Northern Ireland is continued by means of direct rule. These arrangements, which have existed for the last quarter of a century, are far from ideal in a democracy. But the good news is that the positive outcome of the referendum and of the elections for the Assembly has demonstrated that there is now sufficient consensus in Northern Ireland for the restoration of a system of government there founded on greater local responsibility.

Against that background, we sincerely hope that this will be the last occasion on which a government shall need to come before the House for the renewal of the direct rule provisions.

The 1974 Act which introduced direct rule will be repealed with the enactment of the Northern Ireland Bill 1998, which gives effect to the Belfast Agreement. As a consequence of the Bill, Northern Ireland will once again become self-governing.

Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly condemn last night's disgraceful sectarian attacks on 10 Roman Catholic churches in Northern Ireland. It is appalling that evil people have returned to this sort of activity at a time when enormous political progress is being made in Northern Ireland. Those who perpetrated these attacks must be brought to justice as quickly as possible.

The Government will not be deflected by the acts of such extremists. Noble Lords may be aware that today the Prime Minister visited one of the churches that was attacked last night, the church of St. James, in Crumlin, County Antrim. He said that the Government were determined to give Northern Ireland a future, leaving barbarism behind.

The Northern Ireland people have made it clear that they want the next generation to grow up in a peaceful, stable and secure society, live normal lives and look forward to brighter prospects. The outcome of the referendum held in Northern Ireland on 22nd May was an outstanding result; 71 per cent. of those who voted supported the Good Friday Agreement, and in the election to the new Northern Ireland Assembly held on 25th June the people of Northern Ireland once again showed their determination to make the agreement work by voting for pro-agreement parties to fill 80 of the seats in the 108-Member Assembly.

Yesterday, the new Northern Ireland Assembly had its inaugural meeting attended by the leaders of unionism, nationalism, loyalism and republicanism—a truly historic day for Northern Ireland and one which its people so rightly deserved. It was a day of new beginnings, providing an opportunity to move away from the divisions of the past three decades and to continue the process of building trust and reconciliation across the community. As one of its first acts of cross-community partnership the new Assembly elected the right honourable Member for Upper Bann and the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh as its First Minister and Deputy First Minister designate. I am sure your Lordships will join with me in sending congratulations to both men and wish them every success. Your Lordships will also wish to send congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on his appointment as the Assembly's initial Presiding Officer.

The new Assembly will now begin to prepare for devolution and the transfer of powers. That will not be an easy task, but the people of Northern Ireland have made plain their views. It is clear that the agreement will be implemented and it is the Government's duty to see that that is done as speedily and effectively as possible.

Major benefits will flow to the Northern Ireland people from the establishment of the new assembly, which will be vested with considerable powers. As noble Lords will already be aware of much of the content of the agreement, I shall not burden them with too much detail. But the main advantages for Northern Ireland are as follows.

The new political structures will be more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland and more responsive to their needs. The people of Northern Ireland will benefit from devolution, just as the people of Scotland and Wales will benefit. Bringing power back to the Northern Ireland people is also likely to play a vital role in healing divisions in Northern Ireland society as people there work together in a co-operative spirit for the greater good. The new North/South Ministerial Council will enable those with ministerial powers to come together to consult, co-operate and take action. The British/Irish Council will allow for representatives from all the different administrations to co-operate and endeavour to reach agreement on a range of issues such as transport links, the environment, health and European Union matters.

Benefits flowing from the Good Friday Agreement will not be confined to political development. In the economic sphere, greater inward investment is likely against the backdrop of peace and more settled and durable political structures.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement proposes the establishment of a human rights commission with an extended and enhanced role beyond that currently exercised by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The new human rights commission, and the proposed equality commission, will be established by Westminster legislation.

Finally, the agreement should enable us to adjust security measures as the level of threat is reduced. That does not mean disbanding the RUC, as some of our critics have argued. No one appreciates more than the Government the sacrifices that the RUC has made over the years. Rather, our aim is simple: to provide the best possible police service for the people of Northern Ireland.

To that end, the agreement provides for an independent commission to make recommendations for future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland. The commission's job will be to find ways of achieving that in a way that reflects Northern Ireland's different conditions and cultures.

To sum up, it is the Government's job to put in place all the elements of the agreement endorsed by the people. There are concerns on all sides about different parts of the agreement, but the Government are committed to ensuring that the benefits I have outlined for the people of Northern Ireland stemming from the agreement are achieved.

In the meantime, it is necessary for me to seek your Lordships' approval to renew the statutory provisions underpinning direct rule. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [ 36th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Lord Dubs.)

7.37 p.m.

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for long. Northern Ireland has required more than its fair share of time in your Lordships' House recently. As the token Northern Ireland resident who is present for the debate this evening, there are a few points that I wish to make.

First, I read with considerable emotion the account in Hansard of Monday's debate. I greatly regret that I was unable to be in this House to hear the delivery of some truly moving and great speeches from all parts of the Chamber.

Secondly, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, is sorry that he is unable to be present. However, he is otherwise occupied across the water. He and I had a brief discussion this morning about the order; hence I make mention of the noble Lord.

Like the Minister, I hope that today will prove to be truly historic, inasmuch as it will be the last time that this Act will need to be extended in its present form. I understand that at this stage it is usual to debate the pros and cons of direct rule, the performance of the various departments under direct rule etc. I do not intend to go down that road tonight, except to say that democracy in Northern Ireland has been sadly missed. It is high time that it was reinstated.

I hope, and am cautiously optimistic despite Drumcree and last night's terrible escapades, on which I agree with the Minister. One chapel was next-door to the home of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and my own office, in a quiet country village. The happenings are disgraceful. Those concerned should be brought to law as soon as possible. However, I am still optimistic that the Assembly will succeed, and that the formation of the Assembly will prove to be the first truly successful step on the road back to democracy.

However, I do not wish to leave the subject of direct rule in the past without paying tribute to all those Ministers, both from this House and another place, who have committed themselves, and at times their families, to Northern Ireland. Over the past 25 years, under extremely difficult circumstances, we in Northern Ireland have been well served by our Ministers. We owe them a considerable debt of gratitude.

I am a little concerned, however, for the future on a number of issues. The first is the Government's legislative programme to bring about the necessary seamless changeover from direct rule to government by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Will the noble Lord later inform us of how that will take place? Within what timescale and by when can we expect it to have taken place? I gather it is relevant to the length of the renewal tonight. What safeguards will there be in case—I hate to say it—the Assembly just does not work?

Secondly, I should like to mention the effect on the economy that the peace agreement may have. There will undoubtedly be a serious loss of cashflow in the Province from the maintenance of 12,000 soldiers. What that number will come down to we do not know, but I do not imagine that 12,000 soldiers will continue to be there, be maintained there and, indeed, spend money there.

There is the unemployment which will be created by the reduction of civilian employment by the military and the reduction in the amount of security services required generally by industry, airports, transport and so on. I do not know what percentage of the employment there at the lower level is in some form or another security, but it is considerable. The wages are high and the money is spent in the Province. I sincerely hope that Her Majesty's Treasury is not looking for a bonanza as a result of the peace agreement.

Still on the economy today, we are in the situation where three new parliaments in the three provinces, principalities—or whatever the collective noun is for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—are being set up. There are hundreds of would-be politicians honing their skills and raising the expectations of their electorates. I wonder how many of the promises being promoted can be funded from the central government subvention funds. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will give or have given some thought as to how the various provincial parliaments might come together to share experiences and to learn from one another the art of the possible, especially where it concerns their economies. I hope that there will be some mechanism for keeping all three economies broadly in line.

I finish by wishing the Assembly and all its participants good luck, every success and a fair wind, while hoping that this will be the last extension needed for the 1974 Act. I support the order.

7.43 p.m.

My Lords, I would be grateful if I could speak briefly in the gap. I was not intending to do so until I heard the Minister refer to the human rights commission and the equality commission, both of which I enthusiastically support.

The point I wish to make is that the benefit of the reforms being made in Northern Ireland needs to be matched by similar reforms for Britain. I remember in the 1970s when the fair employment legislation was introduced for Northern Ireland. It was introduced into this House rather than another place while the Sex Discrimination Bill and the Race Relations Bill were introduced in another place, in order to keep the two apart during the legislative process. That was so that MPs would not make the connection between the two.

The result is that we have a fractured equality code with different enforcement mechanisms in Northern Ireland. Now, in legislation soon to be published, we are to have an equality commission and a human rights commission in Northern Ireland. We shall not have the same co-ordinated attack on discrimination in Britain unless we have a similar equality commission. We shall not have a human rights commission in this part of the United Kingdom unless the Government change their views. I realise that the Minister is not responsible for anything other than policy in Northern Ireland. I realise that we are looking at this today in blinkers. But I very much hope that he and his colleagues will aim towards a comprehensive equality code and a comprehensive policy for dealing with human rights on both sides of the Irish sea.

For good measure, perhaps I may add that I also hope that the Government will persuade the Irish Government that they should incorporate the Convention on Human Rights into Irish domestic law so that in all four parts of both islands we have common standards and a common system of enforcement. I am grateful to have been heard on those points.

7.45 p.m.

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend spoke in the gap. His very long commitment not only to human rights in general but also to human rights in Northern Ireland and his familiarity with the Republic of Ireland make his last point well worth considering by the Government. I wonder whether the new council of the islands might take on board the great desirability, probably through the European Convention, of creating a common culture of rights throughout the British isles, including the Republic of Ireland.

I apologise to the Minister for my discourtesy in not being in the Chamber to hear him present the reasons for the renewal of the order. I am afraid London traffic is not as aware of the necessity for promptness as Members of your Lordships' House. I doubt whether, on this occasion, he would have said much to surprise anyone in the Chamber in that this is the 25th time that the order has been renewed. It is now part of the ritual. It is like so many features of British life, what is done initially as a temporary measure—like the Official Secrets Act 1911—rapidly becomes permanent. So we go from year to year being interim and temporary.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and this year we hope that what is interim really is interim and that we are about to see the Good Friday Agreement ready to emerge as the better way of governing Northern Ireland.

Those of us, like the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Dubs, who grapple with Northern Ireland issues regularly in this House must be aware that there is a better way of doing things than the way we do them: trying to impose direct rule from Whitehall, Westminster and Stormont on the Province. That was brought home to me when I received, as I did the other day, a statutory instrument from the Northern Ireland road service. It detailed how a particular road in the Province is to be redirected, with a little map enclosed showing the current road, the planned new road and a few dotted lines showing what appeared to be absolutely minute differences between the two. It is one of the hopes we all have for the Good Friday Agreement that it will not only produce political reconciliation, but also allow people from Northern Ireland to grapple with decisions that affect them closely instead of us here purporting to do it on their behalf, often, it has to be said, as with the issue I have just mentioned, from the standpoint of considerable ignorance.

If this is to be interim, it will be because we have passed legislation for a better way of governing Northern Ireland. Would the Minister care to outline when we should expect to see the remaining parts of the legislation and the form they will take to make good the Good Friday Agreement in terms of your Lordships' House?

Before I sit down, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was right to remind us of this point. If we achieve the peace we all hope for in Northern Ireland, if we see the running down of the military presence and no longer have the vast expense of rebuilding where there has been bombing, reconstructing the depredations of the war that has gone on with the terrorists for so long, if we do not have to support expenditure on military and security forces, I hope that the Treasury will not simply pocket the sum as the peace dividend. If there is a peace dividend, it should not be for the Treasury; it should be reinvested in Northern Ireland. It will not be easy to turn Northern Ireland from a culture which is truly state dependent into one of greater economic and commercial independence. It will take time and will need a lot of patience from the Treasury over that period.

Perhaps I can briefly raise the question of the traditional march from the church at Drumcree, which is due to take place within a few days. There is a great temptation to try and second guess whether or not the march should go ahead, where it should take place and on what terms. But it is no longer for this House to make those decisions. As a House we delegated that decision to the Parades Commission when we voted to put the parades Bill on to the statute book a few months ago.

The Parades Commission has had a difficult role. It faced resignations and reconstituted itself. It has a controversial and difficult job. It has an excellent chairman in Alistair Graham. It reached a decision on the march this year and decided that it should be diverted away from the Garvaghy Road. Whatever we think of that decision, it is incumbent upon us to ask the people of Northern Ireland and the political leaders of Northern Ireland and this country to respect that decision and, if necessary, to enforce it.

I use the word "enforce", but we all realise that that may result in a bad outcome. There is still time for compromise on the details of the march and on how the decision is finally turned into action. We must remember that the Parades Commission leaves a lot of latitude for compromise on the ground. I urge all those involved not merely to show restraint—that is required from both republicans and loyalists—in fuelling the flames of sectarian edginess, but also, more constructively, for the unionist and the nationalist leaders—we all admired the handshake between David Trimble and Seamus Mallon—to work together. They must bend all efforts to try to reach the sort of compromise on the ground that will save the honour of all those involved and thus secure the future.

I hope that the Government, in the remaining hours and days before the march, recognise that the decision must be adhered to; that the rule of law must be respected; and that there is room for statesmanlike compromise on the ground.

7.52 p.m.

My Lords, I support and endorse the Minister's condemnation of the attacks on churches last night. It is invidious to pick out one adjacent to the house of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and the office of my noble friend Lord Glentoran. However, that demonstrates the way in which attacks of that kind come home personally to individuals in Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that the RUC will be able to bring those responsible to justice as soon as possible. I also echo the call for compromise on the ground at Drumcree, mentioned a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham.

It is a sad commentary on the affairs of Northern Ireland that direct rule, introduced for one year in 1974, should have lasted for nearly a quarter of a century. I thank my noble friend Lord Glentoran for his thanks to those of us who have had the privilege to serve in the Northern Ireland Office under direct rule. People sometimes ask me which of the various offices I was privileged to hold over the 15 years I was in government I enjoyed the most. They are rather surprised when I say that it was my time in the Northern Ireland Office. I felt that the job was real and worthwhile. It also flowed a little from the fact that one's powers under direct rule were a good deal more direct than the sort of influence that one was able to exert in committees in other Whitehall departments when struggling to tackle other problems.

Direct rule—a form of benign dictatorship—under governments of both parties provided good government and government generally acceptable to the people. It has considerable achievements to its credit over the years, though today is perhaps not the time to list them.

I believe also, as I have expressed in your Lordships' House before, that direct rule has been exercised in the Province for much longer than is good for democracy. I share the hope expressed by the Minister and others that it will soon be substantially replaced by the powers of the new assembly under the Northern Ireland Bill which we are promised relatively shortly. No doubt the Minister will respond to the request to tell us how soon we and another place can expect the Bill to arrive.

I am not urging haste on the Government over that Bill. It is an extremely important Bill which should be prepared with great care. I am sure that both Houses will respond to it in a manner which will enable it to pass through Parliament properly. However, it needs great care. It should not be rushed through, though it may be difficult to fit it into the parliamentary timetable at the moment.

We all wish the new assembly well, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—our parliamentary colleague—who is to take the chair and will no doubt at times have a difficult job. However, I am sure that he will carry it out with his usual skill and ability. Also, I send best wishes to David Trimble and Seamus Mallon as they take up their new duties. They will have a difficult time and I am sure that the assembly will encounter all sorts of problems. No doubt we shall have cause to criticise it from time to time in the decisions it makes and in the way it acts. But both Members of this House and the people of Northern Ireland have a deep desire that the assembly should succeed. We hope therefore that this interim period extension order for one year is the last that we have to pass in this House. It is necessary to pass it and I commend it to the House.

7.57 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate for their positive, helpful and supportive comments. I appreciate the tributes paid by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to Northern Ireland Ministers. It is an enormous privilege to serve as a Minister in Northern Ireland—a view shared by all those who have had that opportunity. It is a rewarding job. The people are warm, responsive, affectionate, friendly and welcoming. If we achieve our main task, which is to bring permanent peace to Northern Ireland, that will be a further reward.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the legislative programme for the future, as did the noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord Cope. I cannot say when further legislation will be introduced. I am tempted to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, "shortly". It is clearly understood that the Government intend to introduce an important Bill—the Northern Ireland Bill—which will deal with all other aspects of the agreement that need to be put into statutory form, apart from sentencing. The Bill dealing with that has already had its Second Reading here. The Northern Ireland Bill will not be a large Bill. We hope to introduce it shortly and that it will be passed by both Houses of Parliament by the end of this Session. It will be quite a task for us to deal with what will be a large, complicated and complex measure.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also asked about safeguards. If there are to be any safeguards—and we are hopeful that we need not talk too much about safeguards—they will be contained in the Bill enabling the assembly to function in full form as opposed to the shadow form under which it is now operating. If the noble Lord wishes to add further safeguards, no doubt he will put down amendments in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was rather pessimistic about the economic prospects of Northern Ireland. His argument was that, with the prospect of a proper peaceful basis for society there, there will be a need for fewer security forces. That will mean less spending in Northern Ireland, which would have a damaging effect on the economy.

There is a counter-argument. The Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Northern Ireland recently and announced a very important package of several hundred million pounds to help with the infrastructure of the Northern Ireland economy. Extra sums of money have come to the farmers of Northern Ireland. They will say it is not enough, but there are certainly sums of money there. Above all, when peace comes we shall be able to attract a much greater level of inward investment. That in turn will lead to more jobs and greater wealth for all the people of Northern Ireland.

The Government are working to encourage more inward investment from all over the world, including North America, in order that we can provide a sounder commercial and industrial base for Northern Ireland and create more jobs and more wealth. Our ability to attract more inward investment will be the most significant economic fact, in addition to tourism, in Northern Ireland. It will make up for any decline in spending on security matters.

That decline in spending on security matters will only happen as and when the security situation permits. I am much more optimistic about the prospects for the Northern Ireland economy than the noble Lord suggested. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, spoke about the peace dividend. That is something of which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is well aware. I have already referred to his recent package. He will be sensitive to the points made by the noble Lord as to what is to happen when security expenditure falls.

My Lords, the problem is that one can agree with the Minister's long-term analysis of peace over a period attracting inward investment and tourism improving. I believe that may happen. At the same time, we must recognise that that will take some years and there may well be a major transitional problem. It would not require the Northern Ireland economy to go cold turkey on the prospect of future growth, but the management of the transitional period will be extremely important.

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. There may well be a transitional period which we will have to manage carefully. I hope that the European Union will be sensitive to that situation as well. The European Union has been very helpful in contributing sums of money under various headings—peace and reconciliation, and so on—which have been of enormous benefit to Northern Ireland. The noble Lord's point is well taken.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I wish to make the point that I hope that neither the Chancellor nor anyone else will think security expenditure will go down that steeply. I believe that there will be a considerable security problem remaining, both from the breakaway groups and the rackets. Any attempt to drive down the security expenditure too quickly could be extremely dangerous. At the same time, I share the view that there will be great encouragement to the economy from peace, if it flows forward, and that over a period of time that will help take over from the decreased security expenditure.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. The Government's priority is to maintain the level of security forces necessary to ensure the safety of the people of Northern Ireland, to ensure that the law is kept and to reduce to an absolute minimum the activities of those small groups that are not party to the ceasefire. That consideration must come first. I did say that we would reduce the level of the security forces and the provision of security generally only if and when the circumstances on the ground allow it. Not before. That is very important. We are at one on that. I thank the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to emphasise the point.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, was being slightly mischievous—he conceded that he was—in making a point which he knows very well is not for the Northern Ireland Minister. His point is of interest. It is possible that the British-Irish Council, one of the structures which will be set up under the agreement, to which the noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred in his speech, might well be an interesting context for debate and discussion about human rights and equality matters between Northern Ireland, the republic, England, the UK Government and Wales and Scotland. There may well be a chance to share experiences there of different approaches to dealing with human rights and equality.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord thought I might be being mischievous. What I was trying to say is that when we are engaged in constitutional reform, what we do in one part of the United Kingdom should be on good speaking terms with the rest. We are talking about common, basic human rights. It is very important that our rights should not differ in their content or enforcement according to whether we happen to be in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England—or for that matter, on basic questions, in the republic. That is not mischievous but in the public interest. A good constitution is one that ensures that our rights are safeguarded by equal protection throughout both islands. I would be surprised if that was controversial as a matter of principle. I am troubled that we are looking at it in blinkers when we look at a particular piece of legislation for one part of the country.

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. When I said "mischievous", I meant in addressing the point to me. The point is not mischievous but asking a Northern Ireland Minister to deal with it had a touch of mischief to it.

I understand what the noble Lord is saying. He will recognise that the Government for the United Kingdom as a whole have made important progress as regards human rights. I know of the noble Lord's long-standing attachment and commitment to that cause.

The Government have moved forward in the whole of the United Kingdom. If the way we are moving forward in Northern Ireland is different, it is intended to reflect the particular circumstances there, as perceived more recently by the parties to the agreement who clearly incorporated some of these ideas within the agreement on Good Friday. I was merely suggesting that the British-Irish Council might well be a positive context in which such different experiences might be exchanged, with a view to seeing lessons from one member of the British-Irish Council being applied elsewhere. I do not wish to say any more otherwise I will be falling into the trap that has perhaps been set for me. There will be an important framework and the British-Irish Council will have an important part to play. The noble Lord has already developed some of the agenda for future meetings.

The noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord Cope, made some positive points about Drumcree and the difficulties that may be faced this weekend. I am grateful for the comments that have been made. It is clear that the Parades Commission has come to its view. I share the wish that all those involved will show restraint and compromise on the ground and that the decision by the Parades Commission will be respected and adhered to. However, as the noble Lord said, there is still time for compromise and for some sort of agreement on the ground. If that were to happen it would be a better way forward than simply the Parades Commission saying, "This is the route that the parade will follow". The Prime Minister, who has been in Northern Ireland today, stands ready to do whatever he can to help address the consequences of the ruling not to allow the Orange Order march down the Garvaghy Road. The Prime Minister supports the commission's stance. He was aware that there would have been consequences whatever decision the Parades Commission had arrived at. We are aware of that from previous years. What is important is that people on the ground have it within their hands to deal with this better than the Parades Commission.

In the debates we had earlier in the Session on the legislation leading to the setting up of the Parades Commission on a statutory basis, much emphasis was placed by many noble Lords on the need for compromises and local agreements as the best way forward. However, the Parades Commission had to pronounce and had to make a determination. It could not leave it much later than it did. So that was the news we had earlier this week. But there is still time and I know that people are working on the ground to try to achieve a compromise. We all hope that they will be successful in that endeavour.

I think I have dealt with all the points that were made. Despite the short-term difficulties ahead of us, I feel optimistic about the future for Northern Ireland, both political and economic. I am grateful to all noble Lords for the supportive contributions they have made in the debate. It is a good moment because this is the last time, we hope, that such an order will ever be put before Parliament.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[ The Sitting was suspended from 8.11 to 8.30 p.m.]