Clause 3 [Timing of canvass]:
Page 2, line 26, leave out from “2010” to end of line 28.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 to 6.
The amendment concerns the annual canvass of the Northern Ireland electorate for the purposes of the electoral register. The Bill proposes a canvass every 10 years. We think that is too long a period and our amendments are designed to reduce the intervals to every five years. We referred to this issue in Grand Committee and I have nothing further to add to what I said there. It is a question of where you draw the line. We think that 10 years is much too long. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Clifton. As the noble Lord has already said, we had a long debate in Committee and we also believe that 10 years is far too long. I also agree with the Government that one year is far too short because it is expensive and impractical. If I remember right, we felt at the Committee stage that some form of compromise between one year and 10 years would be the right way to go. The amendments seem to cover the right number of election periods and would allow the electoral officer time to get his or her feet under the table and to get a grip of the electorate and the register. Because of the considerable movement of the electorate in Northern Ireland—with students growing up and going abroad, people coming in, families moving and so on, it is a very mobile electorate—we feel that 10 years is much too long and five years is probably an appropriate compromise.
My Lords, as I will probably say quite a few times today, as I said in Grand Committee where these amendments were also tabled, under the new arrangements, the Chief Election Officer’s enhanced data sharing powers will replace the canvass as the central means by which he will ensure the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the Northern Ireland register.
The provision to hold the canvass every tenth year is the backstop to underpin confidence and provide a safeguard for these new arrangements. It will no longer, however, provide the substantive means of refreshing the register, which will be done on an ongoing basis under the new arrangements set out under Clause 7. So it is not, as one might think from the brief speeches, that we are simply abolishing registration and doing nothing about it because the new arrangements are set out quite clearly under Clause 7. Therefore no advantage would be gained from the canvass being held on a more regular basis, only an unnecessary expenditure of resources. In addition, the clause makes provision for a canvass to be held in any year if the Chief Elections Officer makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State by 15 April that year and the Secretary of State is satisfied that the public interest requires the canvass.
Clause 3 also makes clear that the Government’s intention is that there will be a canvass in 2010, by which point we hope that the new arrangements will be fully embedded and everyone will be able to see that. However, should the elections officer feel that a canvass is not necessary at that time in order for him to meet the relevant registration objectives—perhaps on the basis that he feels the register is comprehensive and accurate and would not be improved significantly by the canvass—he would be able to recommend to the Secretary of State that a canvass should not take place in 2010. In the case of such a recommendation—and only in that case—the Secretary of State will be able to make an order to remove the requirement for a canvass in 2010. That decision of the Secretary of State will be subject to approval by each House of Parliament here at Westminster.
Canvasses are resource intensive, both in labour and money, and it is only right that the Chief Elections Officer should be able to decide how his resources would be best deployed in determining whether or not a canvass is necessary in 2010—which, of course, is only four years after the final annual canvass as planned under the legislation. In addition, Clause 3 also makes it clear that if there is no canvass in 2010 and one has not been held before the end of 2015, one must be held in 2016, which would of course be 10 years after the final annual canvass proposed under the legislation presently before your Lordships’ House.
We think that all the mechanisms in place and the access to information set out in the Bill, but not subject to these amendments, which were debated at some length in Grand Committee, are such that we are confident that the Chief Elections Officer can carry out a comprehensive canvass and keep it up to date using all the means at his or her disposal. This would include checking on the movements of people—the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said it is a moving population—which have to be recorded for all kinds of purposes. Whether it is rents for landlords, local authority services and other such matters, the elections officer will have access to that information for that purpose. Of course, he will not have access to medical records and other such matters, but he or she will have access to information to create an accurate register in Northern Ireland and then have the means to keep it up to date. Therefore we do not think these amendments are required.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating very much what he said in Grand Committee. There has clearly been no shift in the Government’s opinion in this regard. This will put a very great responsibility on the electoral registration officer and we must have faith in him or her that they will be as diligent as they need to be. We would prefer a formal review and canvass every five years. However, in view of what the Minister has said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 2 to 6 not moved.]
Clause 12 [Extension of categories of permissible donors]:
Page 10, leave out lines 18 to 35.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are not in principle against the extension of the categories listed in the provision, but we are very worried about how it will work in practice. If the Government cannot give us any specific assurance about the channels of communication set up between the Electoral Commission here and agencies in the Republic or about the conditions which Irish citizens will have to fulfil before they can donate to a Northern Ireland party, we will have to reserve our position.
At this stage, this is a probing amendment. We want to hear from the Minister how the proposal will operate in practice. I would be grateful if he could expand on this more than he did in Grand Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 8 in my name, I shall also speak to the Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 7. This is an important issue. At the end of the Committee stage, I certainly did not feel that the Government had any idea how they were going to manage this. The Minister was very keen to assure us that the laws were sufficient safeguards and that our regulations would remain consistent with those of the Republic of Ireland. My information, in private discussions with Irish Government Members, does not encourage me to think that way at all—rather the reverse.
A number of serious offences can be committed by a party in this area, including submitting an inaccurate form and facilitating donations from impermissible donors. People unconnected with the party can also commit offences. That is all fairly familiar to us. It is an offence to withhold information from a party about a possible illegal donation.
Can the Minister explain exactly who will have responsibility for investigating all these possibilities in Northern Ireland and abroad and when many of them will take place? Can he explain exactly who will be making sure that political funds come from legitimate sources, not bank robberies, illegal donations or extortion money? Is the Electoral Commission to be given wide-ranging new powers to travel abroad to ensure that the people involved are who they claim to be, or will that role be delegated to the Irish authorities or the authorities of the country in which the donor is resident?
The recent controversy over party fundraising merely serves to highlight how important it is to maintain complete transparency about where parties get their money from. Little more needs to be said. I do not believe that the Government have a grip on this or that they understand how they will manage this. I would like to hear it from the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Lord has just raised a point that he did not raise in Committee. It is not a feature of the current controversy over donations to political parties. He actually spoke about where the donor gets the money from. That is a new issue; it has not been raised before. I cannot see how that can legitimately be put on the agenda. Where the parties get their money from is one thing, but asking where the donor got the money from is a different kettle of fish altogether. I regret that I do not have a lot more to say than I said in Grand Committee.
Amendment No. 8 requires the Secretary of State to report on the operation of the provisions set out in Chapter 6, but the operation of these provisions is a matter for the Electoral Commission. The commission is an independent body, set up by Parliament, and it would not be appropriate to require the Secretary of State to report in this way to the House on the commission’s work. There are plenty of opportunities for the commission to be accountable for its responsibilities. Parliament has set up the commission to do a job; it is not for the Secretary of State to report on it or second-guess it.
I appreciate the thrust of both amendments and all those relating to donations in Northern Ireland, which we debated at some length in Grand Committee. We have considered the argument since 22 June when we debated these issues. We think that we are right to resist the amendments for the reasons I outlined then, which I will briefly reiterate.
I would welcome noble Lords accepting that the Bill is a big step towards ending the current situation with regard to political donations in Northern Ireland. The present situation is untenable, unfair, undemocratic and hidden. The Bill is a massive step towards changing that process. As usual, when you give the Opposition a yard, they ask for a mile. That is what we used to do in our 18 years in opposition, of course but it would be nice if people accepted that the Bill is a big step forward.
As was mentioned in Committee, the ending of the disapplication period is, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, eagerly anticipated. Under these provisions, the end is in sight. Following the end of disapplication, Northern Ireland political parties and regulated donees will continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies which can currently donate to Irish parties in the Republic. That is the Government’s policy; it represents a considerable narrowing of the regime as it exists, while ensuring that the special place of Ireland in the political life of Northern Ireland will continue to be respected.
We would like to stress that the precise conditions setting out the eligibility criteria for donating to Northern Ireland parties will be specified in legislation made in this Parliament. That is one of the reasons why I do not have the details with me today; we will be debating them at some time in the future.
It is worth repeating that legislation is not the end of the matter. This House will have the opportunity to debate the proposals in considerable detail. The new Chapter 6 inserted in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 by Clause 12 makes it clear that the prescribed conditions which additional categories of donors will have to meet can be prescribed only by the Secretary of State following consultation with the Electoral Commission. Such an order would have to be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament here at Westminster. The conditions that these additional categories of donors will have to comply with will therefore be fully and publicly debated in both Houses at the time they are made. That is a big step forward from the current position—donations may come from anywhere and anyone in the world, and there is no obligation on parties to disclose them.
It is scandalous that Northern Ireland has been allowed this period of time, compared with Great Britain. We have to regulate the situation. As Northern Ireland moves towards a normal civic society, it must start to work within normal civic rules, and one of those is that donations to political parties are upfront and transparent. Like in Great Britain, they cannot come from anybody, anywhere in the world. However, no one is expecting the arrangements to be made overnight.
Under the new arrangements, donations to Northern Ireland parties, including those from Irish donors, will be subject to regulation and verification by the Electoral Commission until the end of the transitional period, which we hope will be in 2010. Any impermissible donations will be required to be returned to the donor, or forfeited.
My Lords, I apologise, but I do not have the precise answer at the moment. I should like to deal with a couple of other points that I missed.
I was asked about setting out the conditions for eligibility in the Bill as to how this will work in practice. I do not have the details yet; they willcome to the House in the form of secondary legislation. We need to consult the Electoral Commission and the Irish Government further. We have been consulting them to get as far as we have with this legislation, but we do not have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. We have to consult further to determine the conditions for eligibility, which need to be fair, effective and enforceable. It is no good having something that looks okay; that would be a sop. The Electoral Commission must be able to enforce the situation and the political parties must understand how these arrangements will operate on the ground. I do not know the details because I was not involved in this when I was a direct rule Minister. It was not part of my day job. I know that discussions have taken place and that we need further discussions. There have been ongoing discussions between government officials and officials from the Government of the Irish Republic. To the best of my knowledge, Ministers have not been involved. Things may have been discussed at the highest level, but those ongoing discussions between officials have been to try to arrive at a solution which will then be put to the Ministers of both Administrations for approval before they come to Parliament.
My Lords, I am grateful for that further elucidation from the Minister, but what we are considering today is premature. We would have liked to have had the “i”s dotted and the “t”s crossed so that we could debate the detail now in the context of this Bill. That is what makes this unsatisfactory.
My Lords, that is unreasonable. The noble Lord has not acknowledged that the legislation is a big step forward. It is in the style of enabling legislation. We need to get this on to the statute book to get to the detail. We could not put that kind of detail into the legislation. We need to come forward with proposals that will be introduced to Parliament. The parties concerned will need to be consulted on them and there will need to be some agreement between the two Governments in any event. There will be an opportunity to debate the detail when we have it ready. In other words, if we pass this legislation today, nothing can happen about donations to political parties until we have the other legislation in place.
It is not as though the House is being asked to approve this legislation which then sets up a brand new system of transparency, fairness, enforceability and a tightening of the rules. We need the other legislation. There will be another opportunity—probably more than one—for the House to debate these matters in detail. It would be fair to treat this as enabling legislation to take us forward. Implicit in this legislation is a large degree of narrowing of the sources of funds that can come to the political parties in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord that the present system of donations for political parties in Northern Ireland—external and foreign donations—is scandalous and requires tightening up. However, we need clarification. Are we talking simply about Irish people donating to political parties in Northern Ireland? If that is so, it is discriminatory, because in practice funds will go only to the SDLP and Sinn Fein—the minority, Irish parties in Northern Ireland—not to the majority parties in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.
Secondly, if this facility continues to be extended to Irish people to donate funds to Northern Ireland parties, will the same facility exist for Commonwealth citizens to do so? Only then will there be equality so that the unionist parties will benefit equally, because this provision seems to give funds only to the Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland.
Also, why are the Government discussing electoral affairs in the United Kingdom with a foreign Government?
My Lords, I understand that, under the rules governing Report, I am not required to answer those questions. However, I want to co-operate, so I will try to answer them. If the noble Lord is concerned about discussions between the United Kingdom Government and the Government of the Republic over this matter, he will be more worried after 24 November if the Assembly does not return, because discussions will deepen. Economic forces are at work that are causing more co-operation between north and south than ever before, leaving aside the political considerations.
The rules are that Irish citizens anywhere in the world can donate to Irish political parties; therefore, donations can come from abroad. Company legislation is much more constrained. You cannot put a brass plate on the Dublin office of a foreign company and use that as a basis for making donations. You have to have a significant commercial enterprise in the Republic to be able to donate. The noble Lord has no grounds for asserting which political parties the money will go to. We are regulating individuals and they are entitled to send their money to whichever political party they want. It is their choice whether it is a unionist or nationalist party.
My Lords, that argument is facile. This is not an economic matter; it is about electoral law in the United Kingdom. The Government are negotiating with a foreign country about what electoral law in the United Kingdom should be. I accept that in theory it means that money can go to any political party in Northern Ireland, but coming from Northern Ireland, I know that Irish funding for political parties will go only to the SDLP and Sinn Fein/IRA; it will not go to the unionist parties.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation. We have just had an illustration of how fraught the politics of Northern Ireland are. Although I welcome the thrust of this Bill and the point that it is making—I said that at the beginning—we want to know more about the technical details. The Minister said that this was an enabling provision and that we would have an opportunity to discuss the details through secondary legislation. The Minister knows full well my view that recourse to secondary legislation on the scale to which Northern Ireland has been subjected raises serious concerns. With secondary legislation, we have to take it or leave it, which is a real problem. However, reluctantly in the light of what the Minister has said, I will not press this amendment and I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]
Leave out Clause 12.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am afraid that I am going a stage further than the previous debate in proposing to leave out Clauses 12 and 13. Our Government have failed to explain how these proposals will be seriously implemented and managed. What the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said is relevant, because I understand that even the Irish Government have grave concerns about the feasibility of accepting political donations from the vast pool of people worldwide who hold Irish citizenship. It is far too wide. However, it is not only the practical implementation of allowing foreign donations that I object to, but the continuing attitude—and in fairness the Minister made this point—that Northern Ireland is inherently unable ever to move on from its unfortunate past and develop a political system that accepts all the restraints and obligations of those that operate elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Northern Irish politics should not be subjected to abnormalities, exceptions and fudges any longer than it has to.
There is no doubt that what is proposed is better than the current situation, but that does not mean that it is an acceptable end point. These proposals are another sign of the Government’s continuing failure to raise their expectations of what the Northern Irish people have the right to expect. Nowhere in the Belfast agreement was the idea that political funding should be allowed to remain a grey area, pandering to Sinn Fein’s refusal to behave within the constraints expected of normal democratic political parties. It is in principle wrong that non-nationals should be able to fund ideologies and actions of which they will never have to suffer the consequences. Northern Ireland politics should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland and the Minister and everyone else in your Lordships’ House have said that again and again. The principle of self-determination was stated repeatedly in the Belfast agreement, and that is what this Government should be working towards. Instead, these proposals drive a coach and horses through that principle, with scant regard for the long-term effect on the long and sometimes painful road that Northern Ireland must go down towards political normalisation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to underline that I consider this a most discriminatory measure, and Her Majesty's Government should hang their head in shame, because it favours Irish nationalismin practice and discriminates against the British majority in Northern Ireland. Extending these facilities to Irish citizens and people who claim Irish nationality across the world means that, in practice, it will support only those parties that wish to subvert Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom. We are preparing a measure that supports the financing of parties that wish to destroy the United Kingdom.
I am very keen that Commonwealth citizens should have the same facilities, but why do they not have the same possibilities as Irish people across the world? Is it because Spain has successfully applied to the European Court of Justice to ban the right of1 million Commonwealth citizens in the United Kingdom to vote in European elections?
My Lords, I shall try to give a bit more explanation, although we debated this in Grand Committee. That is not an excuse for not discussing this matter, as noble Lords have every right to bring it back on Report.
I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that, as I said in my original response, the Bill takes account of the special factors on the island of Ireland. We are not denying that; it is not being slipped in by the back door. It is open to anybody in the United Kingdom—England, Scotland and Wales—if they are on the electoral register, to donate to the political parties in Northern Ireland. The unionists in Northern Ireland are not limited to raising funds in Northern Ireland. Anyone would think that they were being treated differently from everybody else in the UK, but they are not; people are free to give to political parties in the United Kingdom, if they are on the electoral register. It is up to them who they give to; it is not a closed area. It is not as though unionists are prevented from seeking funds outside Northern Ireland. There is the rest of the United Kingdom, for a start.
The debate which we have just had on Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 goes to the reasoning behind these clauses, and I shall have to repeat some of those points. This is a big step forward. At present, notwithstanding the complaints of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, anybody in the world can get money into the Northern Ireland political parties secretly, without anything being published or known about it. This Bill stops that. It does not go all the way, but it is a big step forward.
When the disapplication period is over, by 2010, Northern Ireland parties and the donees will continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies who are legally able to donate to Irish parties—that being the Republic. This is a narrowing of the regime. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, about the inability to amend secondary legislation that comes before this House, but I re-emphasise that it does not come out of the blue. It will come following consultation.
I have got something completely wrong here—if this is the case, I do not think it is fair. You have to be on the Northern Ireland electoral register to donate to Northern Ireland parties, but that cannot be the case if you can donate from abroad. If you are eligible to donate in the Republic, you are eligible to donate in the north. That is the difference. There is a restriction, but it applies equally to nationalist and unionist, because it is up to people where they give their money.
My Lords, the Minister is quite right. This is a vast improvement compared with what applies in England, Scotland and Wales. People throughout the world can send donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, but the very bad news for Northern Ireland is that Her Majesty's Government in restricting this facility are now limiting it to Irish citizens and companies and so on to send funds to political parties in Northern Ireland. I am saying, bluntly, that that is totally discriminatory. You are helping to finance Irish nationalist movements within Northern Ireland at the expense of the majority British unionist community. They should havethe same facility to get funding from British Commonwealth citizens, and you are denying them that right. It is total discrimination.
My Lords, I accept the narrowing. However, I do not have a note on this, because specified classification of Commonwealth citizens did not come up in Grand Committee. I cannot answer the point today, but there will be another opportunity at Third Reading, so we can have a look at this next week. I do not know about the Commonwealth situation, which I regret, but there is that narrowing. At present, anything goes, which must be wrong—and not only that, anything goes and it is kept secret. That must be completely wrong, too.
I realise that this is like a red rag to a bull, but there are restrictions in the Republic, which is why we in the UK must discuss this with the Government of the Republic to ensure that we get the rules right and that they are fair, transparent and enforceable. We must ensure that brass-plate companies cannot be used as a means of feeding money into Northern Ireland political parties of whatever ilk, because there would be ways round it. That is why we must have discussions. I suspect that the Irish Republic Government would probably take the same view, and that they would rather brass-plate companies could not be used to get money to political parties.
The point is that the conditions will be in separate legislation. As I was about to say before I had to dig myself out of a hole, the legislation will come to this House not out of the blue but after consultation with the Electoral Commission and all the political parties—it is not as though this is done simply with the technocrats in the Electoral Commission. All the political parties in Northern Ireland, of which there are quite a few, will have the opportunity for consultation on this issue before the order gets near the House. It is not as though this is the end of the matter. It is a significant step forward under the current arrangements. As I said, it takes account of the special historical—but what the noble Lord would consider unacceptable—relations between the parties in Northern Ireland. That is the state of play. It is the Government’s policy following the arrangements that we have made and the discussions that we have had. If I can keep going for about another 30 seconds I shall be given an important note, which I hope will set the context even further.
This Bill is not the end of the matter; it is enabling. The Electoral Commission is the guardian of the rules on funding. We must make sure that back-door routes are not made available. The political parties in Northern Ireland have to run candidates to be funded. They cannot be brass-plate political parties as well as brass-plate companies. Locks must be built in to ensure that that money cannot filter across the Irish Sea to political parties in Great Britain.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. If I can buy him a few more minutes, I am not sure that it will be helpful because, although I sympathise with him, his briefing on this amendment is below the normal quality we expect from him. While we are not allowed to blame officials, they appear to be at sixes and sevens. That does not inspire great confidence that we should trust the Government to do the right thing. Therefore, if the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, presses the amendment, we shall support him.
My Lords, it is a good job that the Lords procedure allows us to debate amendments on Third Reading. I shall not be able to answer the points that have been made. I am now told that the second note I received was wrong. I am not sure whether that means I have to withdraw my apology. It is all too complicated. I know that it is Thursday, and we have Third Reading listed for next week, but I shall have to write to noble Lords before next week on the issue of permissible donors in the UK. There is an issue here: Northern Ireland citizens are members of the United Kingdom. I shall have to get clarification on the matter. I leave aside the Commonwealth argument, which is a separate one on which I shall seek further advice.
As I said, we need to make sure that the changes do not constitute a back door route through which funds can be made available to political parties in Great Britain. That was a central issue that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised. Under the legislation, Irish citizens will be able to donate only to parties running candidates for election in Northern Ireland. Those parties will not be able to make donations to parties, regulated donees or candidates in Great Britain, so the measure cannot be used as a back door method of funding political parties in Great Britain. I gladly give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I hope that I can help the Minister, who might even get some respectable advice on this matter if I speak for a moment or two. Could a UKIP candidate, or the Northern Ireland branch of UKIP, be funded by citizens in the Republic of Ireland? If so, that appears to me extraordinary, particularly as the money could then be siphoned, at least in part, from UKIP Northern Ireland to UKIP Great Britain.
My Lords, that is a very good question. I am advised to include it in my reply. The noble Lord hits on an issue. It is the case at present, so far as I am aware—I stand to be corrected—that no party that is registered with the Electoral Commission to fight elections in Great Britain fights elections in Northern Ireland. That is the issue. In Northern Ireland, there are members of the main parties represented in this House, but they do not fight elections. The noble Lord referred to UKIP, which is a United Kingdom party, as indeed, are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Those parties do not fight elections under their banners in Northern Ireland. If they have branches in—
My Lords, let me just finish this bit or I shall get it wrong as well. If those parties fight elections in Northern Ireland with candidates, they would be eligible—they must be eligible, as much as the unionists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP—to receive donations from Irish citizens. But there must be a mechanism to make sure that that money is not used as a back door route to fund GB political parties. That would be disastrous as it would undermine the very restrictions that we are trying to place on elections in Great Britain.
The noble Lord has raised the issue, but it should not be allowed to happen, which is why it is so complicated that I will have to write to write to him.
My Lords, I wanted to make the point that there is one national party in the United Kingdom, the Conservative and Unionist Party, which does have candidates in Northern Ireland, as well as England, Scotland and Wales. It fights on a national basis. That must be taken into account.
My Lords, I do not know what is registered with the Electoral Commission, and I have not received advice on that. The funding position in Northern Ireland is quite different, and the Bill narrows that. In other words, at present, anyone from anywhere in the world can donate in secret to Northern Ireland political parties. We think that that is wrong and this Bill restricts that. It is not restricted to the level that operates in Great Britain. I do not know whether the political party that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, referred to is registered with the Electoral Commission—and he did not say that it was. These days you cannot go around standing for election willy-nilly, because the commission was designed to police the system. I shall make sure that this point is covered in the notes, because the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked a legitimate question that needs to be answered.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, because this is as full of holes as an Edam cheese—I think that Edam has holes in it, doesn’t it? No, not Edam—it is Gruyère. It is unlikely but not inconceivable that one or other of the Ulster unionist parties could resume the relationship that the Ulster Unionists had with the Conservative Party before 1970. That may be unlikely, but legislation should provide for what is possible and not just what is likely.
My Lords, before the Minister replies to the imaginative suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, relating to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I point out that in my lifetime one of the predecessors of our party, the Liberal Party, contested seats in Northern Ireland. Who knows what might come in the future? This is a lacuna that clearly needs to be looked at.
My Lords, I agree. I have to say that to the best of my knowledge at no time was this issue covered in any of the briefings on the Bill that I have read or in any of the debates in the other place—noble Lords should not forget that the Bill came to this House having been thoroughly debated in the other place. I looked at some of the Standing Committee debates. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is quite right: there was a time when the Conservative and Unionist parties were linked and fought on a UK-wide basis. At no time in any of the briefings on this legislation has that situation been envisaged for the future. I shall rest my case on that, having dug myself halfway out of the hole and I shall make sure that I write to noble Lords well before Third Reading.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his good-humoured responses. I am now even more convinced that the solution to the noble Lord’s problems lies in my amendment, which, I hope, brings Northern Ireland pretty much into line with the United Kingdom on these matters and will tidy up all sorts of things.
Certainly, my grandfather was a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party, was Chief Whip in the other place and was a Minister of agriculture. Our parties have been together. The Conservatives now have one councillor in a local authority and we are very much involved in Northern Ireland politics. I beg to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 13 [Section 12: supplementary]:
Leave out Clause 13.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
After Clause 17, insert the following new clause-
“EXCLUSION OF MINISTER FROM OFFICE
(1) Section 30 of the 1998 Act (exclusion of Ministers from office) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1)(b) insert-
“(c) because he is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland,”.(3) After subsection (2)(b) insert-
“(c) because it is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland,”.(4) After subsection (7)(d) insert-
“(da) whether he or it is committed now and in the future to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment would ensure that there will be appropriate consequences for a Northern Ireland Minister who publicly refuses to support the role of the police and to accept the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. In Committee, I dropped a previous amendment concerning Ministers taking an oath to support the judiciary and the police. I believe that this amendment will serve very well. Those who understand the operation of Northern Ireland governance will know that the measure would have to be enacted in the Assembly by a cross-community vote.
The Minister will be pleased to hear that I have carefully considered what he had to say about the difficulty of changing the pledge of office without active agreement from all the parties in Northern Ireland. Although I remain hopeful that the appropriate action will be taken, should it become necessary, I am prepared to leave it to the Northern Ireland Assembly to take those steps.
However, the amendment that I have retabled is very necessary and is appropriate to be put intothis legislation. The criteria for exclusion were first established in primary legislation passed through this House in 1998. Now that the political climate has developed enough for police and justice functions to be devolved, it is our responsibility to see that the legislation that will safeguard those functions is updated. The 1998 Act established that a Minister or junior Minister should be excluded on the ground of promoting violence or non-peaceful and non-democratic means, and so on, but there is no reference to a failure on the part of a Minister to uphold the rule of law. I know that the Minister has said many times that someone who does not support the police and uphold the rule of law is the opposite of those things—a robber or a cowboy or whatever.
In Committee, the Minister tried to reassure me that there was no chance of a Minister coming to power who did not fully support the police and justice systems. He quoted the leadership of the republican movement as accepting the need to engage in policing and being committed to following a peaceful path. That is quite clearly not enough; the police rely on the active support and help of the community, including the encouragement of Ministers. Imagine a Minister for justice in Northern Ireland who did not support the criminal justice system. Until Sinn Fein and the IRA accept that they must co-operate fully with the police in all matters and encourage their supporters to do the same, they should not be considered ready to take up positions in government.
Unfortunately, that is far from the case. As the Minister said in Committee, Sinn Fein is considering the policing issue. A consideration can go two ways, and if Sinn Fein decides that it will not start co-operating with the police, it is not fit to serve in government and should not be allowed to remain in a position of power. This amendment would ensure that it would be removed and the police would not be further undermined. I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment empowers the Secretary of State to require the Presiding Officer to move a motion in the Assembly excluding people from office if they or their parties do not support the police and uphold the rule of law. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, pointed out, it is unacceptable for a Minister in government, who is running the functions of state, not to support the state—in other words, the police, who help to ensure that the state is run properly. We certainly hope that that will never happen, but these Benches support the amendment.
My Lords, the arguments on this amendment were rehearsed in Grand Committee and in another place. As I said before, I have much sympathy with what the amendment is trying to achieve, but I must disagree with the way in which the noble Lords are seeking to do it. There is no argument with the principle. Indeed, the Government have consistently said that we want all the parties, including Sinn Fein, to support the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland. Likewise, we cannot call into question the underlying aim of the amendment, which is that support for what we know as “the rule of law” be embedded into the political life of Northern Ireland. But we do not believe that this amendment helps us to achieve that aim.
It is important that we give due recognition to the arrangements that are already in place in the existing pledge of office under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That pledge of office, which all Ministers must affirm before taking up their posts, already requires a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, pointed out in Grand Committee, the wording of the pledge is taken directly from the text agreed in the Good Friday agreement. It has therefore been agreed by the parties and is not to be amended lightly. I should add that amendments to the 1998 Act made in 2003 have shored up and strengthened the requirements set out in the existing pledge of office by allowing consideration of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s recommendations and by providing safeguards where Ministers and parties fail to observe the pledge.
The pledge is not the only requirement to which Northern Ireland Ministers are subject. Throughout the debate, I have repeatedly stated my concern that, while we all understand what is meant by “the rule of law”, it is not easily defined in legal terms and is therefore quite unhelpful when put forward in the amendment. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the heart of what we term “the rule of law” is respect for the independence of the judiciary. This issue was not mentioned in Grand Committee, but we must not overlook the fact that all Northern Ireland Ministers are already subject to a strict statutoryduty, under Section 4 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. It is evident that the rule of law is already protected and therefore we do not needthe further provision afforded by the amendment. Section 4 of the 2005 Act is subtitled:
“Guarantee of continued judicial independence: Northern Ireland”.
Section 1 begins:
“The following persons must uphold the continued independence of the judiciary-
(a) the First Minister,
(b) the deputy First Minister,
(c) Northern Ireland Ministers, and
(d) all with responsibility for matters relating to the judiciary or otherwise to the administration of justice, where that responsibility is to be discharged only in or as regards Northern Ireland”.
Other subsections follow that talk about Ministers not being able to interfere with judicial decisions through any special access to the judiciary. That is on top of the pledge that I have referred to from the Belfast agreement.
As I said at the outset, the underlying aim of embedding support for the rule of law into the political life of Northern Ireland is unquestionable: it is not questioned by me or by anyone in the Government. For the reasons that I have outlined, however, the Government are of the view that the existing arrangements under the 1998 Act and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 are sufficient. We have made it clear, both here and in the other place, that if the parties want to make changes to the pledge of office, and if they can agree on a form of words in the context of a package on the other strand 1 issues, we stand ready to take such changes forward in legislation. I ask noble Lords not to push the amendment, for the reasons that I have given today and in Grand Committee.
My Lords, what worries some of us is that we have seen in the papers recently that Sinn Fein activists have sought to justify the murder of a very decent and brave lady in Northern Ireland on the basis that she was an informer. Informers have been treated by Sinn Fein as lowly creatures but, surely, if justice is to be established, we have to have informers. If we had had more of them, perhaps there would have been fewer murders.
My Lords, I do not want to go into the detail of that case, which I am aware of from the media, but the fact remains that we need more co-operation with the forces of law and order and the rule of law in order to create in Northern Ireland a normal civic society, which it is not at present.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has said. I do not believe that on this occasion my amendment would interfere at all with the pledge of office—I had dropped that amendment. This amendment is purely to make obvious failure to support of the rule of law, the judicial processes and the PSNI a reason for the removal of a Minister.
I felt that the Minister had some sympathy with that. His explanation of Section 4 of the 2005 Act was something that I had not heard before and need to brush up on; in fairness to him and other noble Lords, I should research it a little more. I think that the Government know what we are after here. However, there may be a way in which we can between now and Third Reading bring some provisions of Section 4 to the fore and strengthen the Bill.
As I said in my opening remarks, this is something that could be enacted only by the Assembly and which would require cross-community agreement because of the way in which voting takes place in the Assembly. So I shall do some research and probably bring back the amendment at Third Reading, but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
After Clause 20, insert the following new clause-
“CONTINUED SUSPENSION OF ASSEMBLY: PARLIAMENTARY CONTROL OF ORDERS IN COUNCIL
(1) This section shall come into force on 25th November 2006 unless a restoration order under section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (c. 1) has been made before that date (in which case this section shall cease to have effect).
(2) Paragraph 2 of the Schedule to that Act is amended as follows.
(3) In sub-paragraph (1)(a), for “by resolution of each House of Parliament” substitute “in accordance with sub-paragraphs (1A) to (1E)”.
(4) After sub-paragraph (1) insert-
“(1A) A draft of every Order in Council must be laid before each House of Parliament for approval before it may be made.
(1B) If either House of Parliament passes a resolution that the draft Order be approved with a specified amendment or amendments, the Secretary of State shall withdraw the draft Order in Council.
(1C) If no amendment or amendments are specified under sub-paragraph (1B), the Order shall be approved unamended.
(1D) If the draft Order in Council is withdrawn under sub-paragraph (1B), the Secretary of State may re-lay the draft Order in Council before each House of Parliament-
(a) with the amendment or amendments specified under sub-paragraph (1B) incorporated into the draft Order in Council, or (b) with notice in writing to each House of Parliament of the Secretary of State's refusal to incorporate the amendment or amendments specified under sub-paragraph (1B) and the reasons for that refusal. (1E) If the draft Order in Council is re-laid under sub-paragraph (1D) without the amendments incorporated, the Order shall be made having been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.””
The noble Lord said: This is on a very different subject. I thank the Minister for inviting me to discuss this measure—I believe that he had similar discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. To use the vernacular, I suppose that it is about anticipating a plan B. In tabling the amendment, we are trying to set up a democratic process that is both transparent and efficient and allows both Houses of this Parliament to operate cohesively. The current procedure is more akin to how the Colonial Office used to rule far-flung territories of the British Empire than it is to an acceptable method of government for an integral part of the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, once referred to Ulster as an internal colony. Reliance on direct rule for the foreseeable future is unfortunately a very real possibility. The deadline set for November this year would be meaningless if it were not. Of course, the preferred option is that the Stormont Assembly will take over the handling of devolved matters, but we cannot gamble the future of democracy in Northern Ireland on that hope. It is now more than eight years since the Belfast agreement. If it is not possible to form a stable Government in that time, we must stop burying our heads in the sand and come up with an acceptable way to govern Northern Ireland from Westminster.
As the debate in Committee showed, we all appreciate the flaws in the current procedure. Current scrutiny of Northern Ireland Orders in Council is cursory, especially in another place. The closest thing to democratic accountability that the procedure allows is outright rejection by Parliament, with no possibility of amendment or improvement.
We have been challenged to come up with an alternative. I venture to think that the amendment will provide the basis for a workable procedure that will provide much greater scrutiny and accountability than what has gone before. Our previous amendment was challenged because of the potential for an irreconcilable clash between this House and another place. We have therefore returned with a new and improved version. The amendment allows both Houses to vote on suggested amendments to a draft Order in Council, which the Secretary of State would then consider and incorporate—or not, as he sees fit. The amendment would allow Northern Ireland Orders in Council to be subject to more effective and constructive scrutiny than before, without unduly wasting parliamentary time or establishing dangerous parliamentary precedents.
I was going to wind up my remarks at this point, but I think that it is worth saying this. The Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his team are very anxious that no plan B should be considered feasible at this stage, but this proposal is not so important that it will affect parties’ decisions whether to accept the opportunity to devolve government and work together. I simply do not believe that having this process on the statute book, which will allow us to handle Northern Ireland legislation democratically and efficiently, will affect the decision-making process of any of the parties negotiating the future of devolution, and I strongly support a number of the Government’s policies, which may not be popular in the Assembly, and their wish to improve the economic structure in Northern Ireland, to improve and modernise the process of government in Northern Ireland, and to modernise local authorities and so on. With all that on option, I simply do not believe that a little administrative order or issue such as this will change the minds of Ian Paisley, Mark Durkan, Gerry Adams and Sir Reg Empey. I beg to move.
My Lords, a small number of Members of your Lordships’ House who follow Northern Ireland activities will know that, for two or three years now, I have been pressing for a change in the character of the executive order of much Northern Ireland business. That is not to say that there is no case for secondary legislation, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, the take-it-or-leave-it character of orders and statutory instruments is extremely frustrating and frankly does scant justice to the Northern Ireland business that comes before Parliament.
I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of humankind—although after today it may be beyond the wit of the Northern Ireland Office, judging by what we have heard from it—to contrive to have a protocol that is susceptible to amendment. I say to the officials who continually brief Ministers that nothing can be done, and who come out with all this rigmarole about the conflict between two Houses, that those are British constitution A-level essay-type things. Frankly, they must get it into their heads that constitutional protocols are for humankind and that humankind is not for constitutional protocols. They must get their priorities right.
Much has been said in Grand Committee and by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and I shall not delay your Lordships by repeating the arguments for determining Northern Ireland business more democratically. After all, this is not new. In the debates on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, there are signs that the Government have accepted that it would be wrong to push through primary legislation that would implement Law Commission recommendations by means of statutory instrument. I believe that Ministers from the Department for Constitutional Affairs are exploring, with opposition spokespeople, the best way in which to ensure that uncontroversial proposals are expedited with proper scrutiny. In Committee on that Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, said:
“It is right to try to find a solution that would enable uncontroversial reports to find their way through a parliamentary process. The elements of such a process that I plan to explore would be: ensuring that the reports were genuinely uncontroversial; that they commanded support in principle, therefore, from across your Lordships' House and another place; that the choice for such a procedure would be endorsed by Parliament; that a suitable process of scrutiny could be found; and that both Houses of Parliament would have the opportunity to debate them with the possibility of amendment”.—[Official Report, 10/6/06; col. 574.]
If it is possible for another government department to consider a new parliamentary procedure to satisfy such criteria, why is it not possible for the Northern Ireland Office to consider a similar procedure for dealing with Northern Ireland orders? This is very important.
Speaking in support of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I would add that it is extremely unlikely that having this measure as a safety net would somehow negatively influence the parties in Northern Ireland that are discussing whether or not to reconvene the Executive. This ought to urge the parties to get on with it and to re-establish the Executive at Stormont. While it helps as a prod to those discussions, it also gives us a fail-safe if, unfortunately, 24 November comes and goes with no restoration. We cannot then suddenly start considering what needs to be done. We need at this point to prepare for that eventuality. We should hope for the best, but we need to prepare for the worst.
My Lords, it is refreshing to hear the words of the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord Glentoran. There has to be a plan B. Of course, Her Majesty’s Government have already announced such a plan because when the Prime Ministers of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom met in Armagh City in May, they said that, failing the creation of an Executive on 24 November, the Dublin Government and Her Majesty’s Government would work more closely together in the administration of Northern Ireland. At the time, we saw what was in my opinion substantial decommissioning by one of the terrorist groups, the IRA. The other two main paramilitaries, the UVF and the UDA, were also moving towards decommissioning. But what happened? Following the announcement by the two Prime Ministers that Dublin was going to become involved in the administration of Northern Ireland should the Executive not be created on 24 November, the two loyalist paramilitary groups immediately announced that they were not proceeding with decommissioning.
Alarm bells started ringing right across Northern Ireland. It was seen as a compromise by Her Majesty’s Government that the Republic of Ireland would become involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. Noble Lords may think that this is not important, but to the people who live in Northern Ireland it is very serious indeed. It is time that notice was taken of the danger of that statement. Whether you disagree with it or not, it was a plan B. The great news is that both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are thinking of alternative plan Bs, but it is very important to recognise what is happening in Northern Ireland today. I do not believe that we will have a settlement by 24 November—I shall not go into the reasons why.
Yesterday we had our national holiday, and there is a holiday today as well. What was significant in Northern Ireland yesterday was that the Union flag was not flown as much as usual. Across Northern Ireland, the Ulster flag—the Northern Ireland flag—began to emerge as the main flag flown by the majority community. That is a warning to Her Majesty’s Government and to Parliament in London: things are beginning to move in Northern Ireland in a very dangerous way. I do not want to exaggerate the situation, but I believe that the British majority in Northern Ireland is preparing for a major conflict. It is time that the Government addressed this problem before it overtakes them.
My Lords, I realise the seriousness attached to the issue in the amendment and I hope that I have made it clear that the Secretary of State, along with the whole Northern Ireland team, shares those concerns. The current Order in Council process is not adequate in the long term, but while I do not want to revisit old battles, one has to admit that it has served Northern Ireland since, I think, 1972. I cannot believe that that was not looked at during the long years of Conservative government to try to find a better system for more scrutiny in both Houses. Obviously, a solution was not found. We do not have one either at the moment though I suspect that every Member could find a way of doing it.
We take the concern seriously, but we may not be believed until we have put our solution on the table. At the moment the Government are not prepared to put a solution on the table. I am not saying that these issues are not thought about. We genuinely do not want plan B or plan C to interfere with plan A; we want the Assembly back. It is the duty of Northern Ireland politicians to get elected and to serve their people. Direct rule and inadequate scrutiny of Orders in Council have to be second best in any democratic process. If restoration of the Assembly is not possible, we would want to engage with Members of both Houses to find a way of making the system work better. We have had discussions in the past 12 months on that but we have not come up with a Northern Ireland-proof solution, specifically for it—though I accept that the amendment is—that does not spill over into the management of the business of secondary legislation across the Houses. The Secretary of State has asked and charged the Minister of State, David Hanson, to take this matter forward with the parties in due course if that situation arrives. However, we do not want to plan for failure.
For some, the present situation is very comfortable—direct rule, part-time commuting Ministers; it’s great for them. They love it because they do not have to grow up and take decisions themselves. They coalesce only in attacking the Government; it’s the one thing that unifies them. They don’t have to stand up and say what they would do, how they would fix the budget. They have no responsibility whatever. We want them to grow up and take adult decisions on behalf of those they seek to represent. But some people are comfortable with the status quo. I genuinely think that the amendment, though it may offer the seeds of a possible solution, could get in the way and help the prize slip from our grasp. We have some distance between now and24 November. I realise that there will be a Recess, but I think that the situation will hot up considerably towards the end of the September/October period. I do not want to say anything now that will cause problems in that period.
I want to put a couple of points to noble Lords. One of my colleagues in the other place, devaluing the argument somewhat, said to me, “I don’t understand what the Conservatives are complaining about. They are a party of government; they have been in government and aspire to be a Government, and the Lib Dems haven’t been there for 100 years or near enough, yet they come up with these solutions because they think it’s easy”. Well, it isn’t easy. If it was, we would have found a solution by now. In fact, we would have found a solution under the direct rule of the Conservative Administration.
My Lords, perhaps I can just make this point. Then I will give way to the noble Lord, obviously.
We have looked at the amendment, and I have had brief discussions during the week. If it were carried, we could not, for a start, use the Grand Committee process. We could not use the Grand Committee process in this House to discuss the draft of an amendment because it is rigidly organised to allow debate only on non-controversial matters and does not allow for changes or amendments. That does not apply to every order; many orders could be considered there. However, those orders could not go to a Grand Committee. They would have to be considered on the Floor of the House. We have to find ways of dealing with this—ways that have not been found in all the years since the Stormont Parliament was first set aside.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, talked about a fail-safe. I say with due respect that, because we are serious about the date of 24 November, a fail-safe will have to be seriously and urgently considered after that date. We do not want to do so beforehand, for the reasons I have explained.
I shall briefly address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney; it is not the first time that he has made it, and I made sure that those responsible for the issues were made fully aware of his point when he first made it. The tune changed slightly. It is not envisaged—it was never part of the plan—that the Government of the Republic of Ireland will in any way, shape or form be involved in the administration of Northern Ireland. We have no mandate as a Government for that and do not seek it, but I and colleagues have pointed out that the cross-border issues do not go away, given all the pressures of the economy and the position of the island of Ireland within both Europe and the world economy. For example, we have had questions in the House recently about a common corporation tax on the island of Ireland, specific to businesses both north and south. They can make a case that it ought to be different from Great Britain. That pressure comes not because of political forces, but because of the economic changes in the world. I am not saying that it will happen, but there will be areas of co-operation. Part of the Bill creates a wholesale electricity market; that is part of those pressures.
I was going to mention the subject of yesterday earlier, and have just been reminded of it; I was obviously not there. Yesterday was the most peaceful 12 July for 30 years. In fact, it was the first time in30 years that the Army was not deployed on 12 July. That is absolutely fantastic. I am still doing duty weekends in Northern Ireland, and I have seen the collection of the bonfires ready and all the paraphernalia that goes on which people want to celebrate. I know what has happened in the past as a result of that, whether it is hotheads or others just out to cause trouble. The atmosphere that we have at the moment, when 2006 is the first time in 30 years that the Army is not out on the street on the major holiday, has to be of major significance.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, made a point about flags; I cannot respond to it in detail. I look on it as maybe positive that other flags were used rather than the flags of the past, although I take the serious point—the implication of what he said—that the loyalist paramilitaries are keeping their arms ready to fight British soldiers. That threat is the implication of not disarming; he agrees. It is outrageous. We want them disarmed like the others. There is no excuse for the paramilitaries to keep their weapons. There is no selling out, to use the terms that people have used in the past. The Government of the Republic will not be involved in the administration and governance of Northern Ireland, but there will be north-south co-operation as there are areas of co-operation east-west, such as the health service. Citizens of the Republic can go into hospitals in Northern Ireland, particularly the north-west, where the hospitals are closer to them than those in the south. I am sure that such good areas of co-operation will continue.
That does not mean to say that the Government of the Republic will be involved in the administration of Northern Ireland. That is not a plan B. However, it is a natural consequence that if there is not a Northern Ireland Assembly, we as the UK Government will not mind the shop. We will push forward areas of reform—of public administration and of other areas in Northern Ireland—and, where it suits us both, particularly in economic co-operation, it makes sense to have those arrangements. However, that can in no way be construed as the Government of the south having a role as a threat over the non-Assembly. If the Assembly were up and running, I suspect that the same thing would happen, because the economic forces would drive north and south to do such things on a joint basis.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s peroration is part of his rhetorical repertoire to keep the momentum going, but I am afraid that I have to bring us back to a couple of his points. He said that the Conservatives did nothing about secondary legislation during their time of direct rule because, like the Labour Party, they are a party of government, but that the Liberal Democrats have not been in government for a long time. That reveals a mindset about executive government that erodes the role of the legislature and is all part and parcel of the modern cast of mind of government. I do not find it a very convincing argument.
Secondly, the noble Lord, as he does, showed very real sympathy. As I said in Grand Committee, I remember that in a previous incarnation the noble Lord was in the forefront of radical constitutional reform, and it is good to see the residues still there, although they are becoming less and less, I fear. We must look at this from the point of view of democratic accountability. The argument that it is not convenient at this stage to consider a plan B means that there is the danger that the parties in Northern Ireland will think that24 November is a moveable feast.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords around the House—and I look at those to whom it applies on my left and right—that interventions when the Minister is speaking on Report are for points of elucidation, not for continuing and expanding on the debate.
My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s chastisement.
I do not want to speak on the basis that executive Government know all; I am not saying that. I am with noble Lords on this; so is the Northern Ireland team—Peter Hain and the rest of them. The present arrangements for degrees of scrutiny under direct rule are unsatisfactory, and we must find another solution. However, we are not in an isolated area; we are a few months away—and the House has passed the legislation—from trying to get up and running an Assembly that would carry out that legislation,. It is not a question of simply saying that we are in a period where nothing is going to happen. We want to focus on getting the Assembly up, not by threats or blackmail but, if you like, by a bit of cajoling and some encouragement, and not too much slagging them off; they do not like that. Northern Ireland people deserve better from Northern Ireland politicians than what they have been getting, and they know that.
The money for the Assembly Members is a token, but the Assembly will disappear on the 25th; the Assembly will be gone. The status quo will not simply carry on. There is the Review of Public Administration, and the changes to local government do affect central government in Northern Ireland; they are bound to. The idea is to move powers from the Government of Northern Ireland in Belfast to local councils. That means that we will be looking at the ministries and the way in which they are structured. If anyone is thinking, “Oh, in a few months’ time we will pop back and all the d’Hondt ministries will still be there”—as one noble Lord said to me earlier in the week—they may not be there.
We are pushing forward changes in the health service and in local government. We have said that we will push the reform programme forward, and we are not going to ease off on that. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that he will speed it up if the Assembly is not there. That is our position, and that is why we concentrate and focus exclusively on getting plan A, which is the best option, of a devolved Administration back in Northern Ireland, and at the same time admitting that we are mindful of the deficiencies of the present system and admitting that if the Assembly is not back we cannot carry on as we have been for the past eight—or indeed the past 30-odd—years in direct rule.
My Lords, I have a point of elucidation. We did have, let’s face it, a plan B following the meeting in Armagh city of the two Prime Ministers. I do not believe that Her Majesty’s Government recognise how badly that message went down across Northern Ireland. If the Government do have a plan B that was announced in Armagh, why are they not prepared to consider an alternative plan B, which would be a greater democratic system for the administration and government of Northern Ireland?
My Lords, for the reasons that I explained. If we did that in great detail now, there are too many people who would say, “Thanks very much; there is direct rule and there is a plan B; we do not need an Assembly. Why bother?”. We believe the best option is an Assembly in Northern Ireland with Northern Ireland politicians.
I repeat, finally, that whatever may have been said about it, the Prime Minister did not have a plan B on that day and there is no plan B today. We have got plan A, and that is what we are concentrating on.
My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has said. I accept that there is no plan B and I accept that the Government do not want a plan B. But, as I said in my opening remarks, I do not see this amendment as providing a plan B. I support the Government totally in their wish to see Stormont back in being and back at work. I see the amendment as using this miscellaneous provisions Bill—an opportunity which is often difficult to find for major legislation for Northern Ireland—as a means of ensuring that I do not have to come back here at the end of October, or whenever we get back after conferences and so on, with clearly no agreement in sight and having to go back to the old grind. Soon we will have the Northern Ireland budget coming up for the next year. I do not want to go through that; I do not want to see all of that again. I want a more efficient, more democratic, more open process of governing Northern Ireland. I beg leave to take the opinion of the House.
[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to say something about the amendment not being moved. I said at the start ofthe last debate that I had considerable sympathy with the views expressed about the current Order in Council process. We have obviously listened to the words and the votes of your Lordships’ House expressed today and on previous occasions and the Government will reflect carefully and urgently on them. We have said that we do not want to focus on a plan B and that will continue to be the case. However, I am advised that the amendment needs some more work, which we will urgently look at. In other words, we shall have to come back at Third Reading with another amendment. I will not hide behind the fact that the amendment is technically deficient and would not work; I am not saying that, but in order to give sense and purpose to what is accepted, some work will have to be done in the next few days.