My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Boston of Faversham) in the Chair.]
Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.
Clause 3 [Next Northern Ireland Assembly election to be in March 2007 etc]:
moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 3, line 4, at end insert—
(4) The final disapplication period for the purposes of sections 50 to 69 of, and Schedule 6 to, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41), as amended by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 (c. 33), shall end on 31 January 2007.
(5) Section 71B of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as amended by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, is hereby repealed.”
The noble Lord said: I shall be reasonably brief in speaking to Amendment No. 1. It would add two new subsections to the clause relating to the conduct of elections, particularly with regard to the financing of political parties, and refers to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which was enacted earlier this year.
Section 11 of that Act provides for the disapplication period to end on 31 October 2007. At that time the disapplication of certain rules on donations to political parties which applied to the rest of the United Kingdom but not to Northern Ireland was to end. Certain requirements for declaration and publication did not apply to Northern Ireland for obvious reasons, and the 2006 Act provided that the disapplication of those provisions would end in October next year.
That date was chosen largely because, when the 2006 Act was enacted, it was expected that the next Northern Ireland Assembly election would be in 2008, so Parliament’s intention was to allow these requirements to continue for a while but to end the disapplication before the next Assembly election. Under this Bill, the Northern Ireland Assembly election is moved forward to 7 March 2007, and proposed new subsection (4) in the amendment would move forward the end of the disapplication period so that the election on 7 March would be fought subject to the same requirements as for the 2008 election anticipated by Parliament. I hope that this aspect of the amendment will be quite uncontroversial. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the 2006 Act and it is right that this should be done.
Proposed new subsection (5) is slightly different. It seeks to attack a provision in the 2006 Act whereby new Section 71B was inserted into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. This concerned the extension of categories of permissible donors in relation to Northern Ireland recipients to include, among others, Irish citizens. This destroys any form of regulation. The concept of Irish citizenship is such that it embraces not only all persons who are currently citizens of the Irish Republic but a large slice of the Irish diaspora worldwide. There are thousands, if not millions, of people in the United States who, under the Irish law, are Irish citizens and could therefore contribute. It would not be difficult for Sinn Fein fundraisers to find in the United States persons who would be exempt Irish citizens for the purposes of contribution.
The enactment acknowledged that there was a loophole but effectively it has not been closed. This definition of Irish citizenship means that in practical terms we are allowing foreign donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, which is banned for any other part of the United Kingdom.
I hope that these two aspects of the amendment will commend themselves to the Minister. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. I have spoken from this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions about the handling of political party funds for Northern Ireland and the fact that the position is not similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is vital that the flow of funds directly from the United States, the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere to Sinn Fein should be stopped. It is also vital, now that we are supposed to be in a peaceful situation, that the declaration is totally clear and that everybody knows exactly where the funds for political parties have come from, how much they are and how they are spent.
When we passed the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, we did not know that there would be an election before the end of the disapplication period provided for, as the emergency legislation that we had already passed contained an election date of May 2008. We therefore agree with the amendment to end the disapplication period earlier than provided in the 2006 Act. We support the amendment.
I support the amendment because the financing of political parties in Northern Ireland is different from that which applies in the rest of the United Kingdom. There was a further example only two weeks ago when the leader of Sinn Fein/IRA—and the IRA still exists, according to Gerry Adams—went to America, a country which is supposedly against terrorism but continues to provide funds for terrorist organisations, and came back last week with $300,000.
I, too, take the view that it is improper for any separate arrangement to be made for the funding of political parties in one part of this kingdom from that which applies to the remainder. That is on principle. In practice, of course, it is even worse, because it is one party which is being funded, and I am not sure that all the funds are necessarily devoted to purely political aspects of activity.
Having listened to the voices, I accept that I am on a hiding to nothing. I fully understand and accept why the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has revisited this issue. I do not think there is any disagreement between us on the point of principle about all political parties in the United Kingdom being subject to the same rules about funding. It will come down to timing.
While I was listening to the contributions, I thought back to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is true that when we passed it we did not know about St Andrews or about this Bill, but I do not think that the issue was linked to the fact that we had delayed the election date from 2007 to 2008. There were good reasons for doing that, but I do not think there was a direct connection with the change to the funding arrangements, so I was more than pleased to receive a note from the Box pointing that out. I will set out why I am asking the House not to approve the amendment; I want to explain the case so that there is no misunderstanding.
The Northern Ireland political parties, as Members of this Committee know better than me, have been exempt from the requirements of Part 4 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which regulates donations to political parties. They have been exempt because of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland as regards both the possibility of donor intimidation and the desirability of allowing Irish citizens to donate to Northern Ireland parties, which is consistent with the principles of the Good Friday agreement.
As we made clear during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, and as has been said elsewhere, it is our strong view that Northern Ireland political parties should eventually be subject to the same level of transparency in donations as exists in the rest of the UK. On that principle there is no difference of opinion between anybody who has spoken this evening and the Government.
A number of political parties have expressed concern to the Government that the risk of intimidation of donors in Northern Ireland is ongoing and remains real. We cannot ignore those concerns in the current circumstances. We decided, therefore, that the Northern Ireland exemptions, which were extended by a disapplication order due to expire in February 2007, should be extended until October 2007, at which point Northern Ireland political parties will be required to provide information to the Electoral Commission in line with parties in Great Britain. They will do so initially on a confidential basis; that was made clear at the time.
The extension of the disapplication period from February to October 2007 is necessary to allow us, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, to determine the detail of how the arrangements will work. A connection has wrongly been made between the change in that date and the change in the date of the proposed election in the original Bill, from 2007 to 2008, which we are now reversing.
The extension was made to allow us to work out with the commission how those arrangements should work and the conditions which Irish donors will have to meet to be able to donate to Northern Ireland parties. The details must be prescribed by an order, which will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. I fully accept that this will be after the proposed elections next March. However, the proposal to put Northern Ireland parties on the same footing as Great Britain parties will come to both Houses of Parliament for debate.
Following the end of the final disapplication period, the Northern Ireland parties and the regulated donees will continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies which can currently donate to parties in the Republic of Ireland, as well as from those who can donate in the UK. In the United Kingdom, donations can fly all over the place, between and to parties. I made clear during the debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act that this is in line with our policy that the special place of the Republic of Ireland in the political life of Northern Ireland must continue to be respected. Concerns were expressed at that time about the detail of how the permissible donors clause would operate in practice, particularly in relation to the conditions which Irish citizens and bodies which can donate in Ireland would have to meet to be able to donate to Northern Ireland parties, and how those donations would be checked and verified by the Electoral Commission. We recognised those concerns and sought to address them when they were raised here and in another place. The detail of how the permissible donors clauses will work will be set out in UK secondary legislation, following consultation with the Electoral Commission. This detail will include the criteria which Irish donors will have to meet to be able to donate. How the donations will be checked will then be specified in an order, which will have to be approved by each House of Parliament.
There will be a full opportunity when the order is made—I accept that it will be after the election next March—to debate these issues publicly. All 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 and believe will be in 2010. Impermissible donations will be required to be returned or forfeited. I think that I made it clear previously that there cannot be what we might call brass-nameplate companies as bodies for donations in the Republic. Part of the primary activity of the body has to take place in the Republic of Ireland, so this is not a way in for floods of money from those or other such bodies.
The one point of disappointment that I fully accept—I repeat it—is that the change cannot be made before the election proposed. However, making the change from February to October was never connected to the change in the date of the election. The reasons for that change still arise—to make arrangements with the Electoral Commission to do the job properly. It is true, unfortunately, that it will not be done before the proposed election in March, which I hope will come about, but it will be done for future elections.
I listened to the Minister’s explanation. I take issue with the basic premise that he stated: that the proposal on Irish donors was in some way justified through the Belfast agreement and its recognition of the special place of Ireland, et cetera. There was recognition of the special relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—that was done through the creation of the North/South Ministerial Council and the provision for cross-border co-operation—but at no point in the Belfast agreement was there any warrant for amalgamating two different political systems; quite the contrary. It is hugely important that people remember that, in the Belfast agreement, nationalist parties and the Irish Government explicitly recognised that Northern Ireland was properly and legitimately part of the United Kingdom. Yes, it made special provision for whether people viewed themselves as Irish or British, but it recognised that there were different countries and consequently different political systems. The proposal that the Minister is talking about blurs that in a way that is fundamentally misconceived.
As to the question of the ending of the disapplication period, I am happy to say that the greater part of the parliamentary proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill took place when I was resting from parliamentary activities, so I am not familiar with what happened at that stage. I caught only the tail-end of the legislation, so I cannot quarrel with what the Minister said. However, the effect of the Act, at the time of its enactment, was that the next Northern Ireland Assembly election would take place with the same reporting rules. That principle should continue to adhere, and we propose to haul forward from October to January the ending of the disapplication period. I would still like that to happen and, if I have the language right, this is a matter on which I would like to test the opinion of the Committee.
On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?
Earlier this year when we were debating the Northern Ireland Act 2006, the Government persuaded Parliament that if the Assembly was to be up and running again on 24 November, the next set of elections to the Assembly due in May 2007 should be postponed to May 2008. At the time, the Secretary of State said:
“If restoration is achieved, we have provided that the Assembly’s life should be prolonged for a year beyond May 2007, when an election was due. That is not the sort of step to be taken lightly, but it makes no sense, having laboured for years to restore an Executive, for its members then immediately to have to focus on pre-election positioning and campaigning, instead of focusing on the difficult process of self-government. It is going to be hard enough to build the trust and experience necessary to make the new arrangements work without electoral politics intervening”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/4/06; col. 611.]
The Government have yet again changed their mind. They are now not only reversing their position on postponing elections but they are bringing them forward to March 2007, before the Executive have been formed. A lot is being asked to be taken on faith. What adequate proof do the Government have that the parties in Northern Ireland are willing and able to share power, if they have not gone into an Executive before elections are called? What reassurances are there that parties with strengthened mandates from a March election will not seek further concessions or clarifications, prolonging the process even further? Will the Minister explain why it was decided to bring elections forward to March? Why was the decision taken to hold the elections before the parties had committed themselves to sharing power by electing an Executive? How will the DUP and Sinn Fein be able to ask voters to turn out when it is not for a clear purpose?
Although we agree that the current mandates of the political parties in Northern Ireland need to be restored in the near future, we are nevertheless deeply concerned at the continuous meddling that there has been in the normal democratic process by the Government. Elections, as we all know, are the bedrock of democracy. A very bad precedent was set in 2003, when the process of electoral interference by this Government began.
The Question whether Clause 17 shall stand part also relates to the Government’s interference in the normal electoral process. We understand why this clause has been included in the Bill. However, there is already in legislation a perfectly proper process to deal with the current situation. Under the 1998 Act, the Secretary of State was able to prescribe by order what would happen if there was a vacancy in the Assembly. The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 places a duty on the presiding officer to inform the chief electoral officer that a vacancy has arisen. The chief electoral officer must then contact the first person in the list of substitutes to ask whether he or she is willing to be returned as a Member of the Assembly. If not, the chief electoral officer must repeat that procedure until he has contacted all those on the substitute list. If no one is willing to fill the vacancy, the chief electoral officer must set a date for a by-election to fill the vacancy. The procedure is there, and it is clear. By introducing this clause, the Government are yet again interfering in the normal democratic process.
I will speak to Amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 28. Actually, on second thoughts, I will speak to Amendment No. 28 alone and not to the other two, because it is the crucial amendment in my mind with regard to this Bill and to the Government’s proposals for the future. The amendment would add some words to Clause 27 on page 20, subsection (2) of which reads:
“section 3(1) shall come into force on 26 January 2007”.
Clause 3(1) provides for the Assembly election to be held on 7 March. My amendment proposes that the crucial part of the Clause 27 would state that,
“section 3(1) shall come into force on 26 January 2007 if all the parties that would be entitled to nominate ministers under section 18 of the 1998 Act, if it were to be applied on that date, have publicly indicated an intention to comply forthwith with all aspects of section 7(2)”.
Clause 7(2) contains paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, which was read to us by the Minister during his introductory speech, requiring people to endorse the essential elements of support for law that were set out in the agreement.
I do not want to get into an argument about the effectiveness of that paragraph, because it encapsulates the issue. One might quarrel here and there with the use of words, but that is not important; the crucial matter is that the paragraph in Clause 7(2) involves a pledge of support for policing and the institutions. My amendment, if it were carried, would ensure that that pledge would have to be given or that the parties would have to indicate publicly that they would comply forthwith with all aspects of that by 26 January.
That is not very different from what Mr Secretary Hain said yesterday—that, as regards the timetable, if there is no movement by republicans on this issue in January, the wheels will come off the wagon. It may be that in such a situation, the Secretary of State would use his discretionary power to stop the process. But doing so would be a huge act and there would be great pressure on the Secretary of State not to make an order to abort the process. I am quite sure that the tendency in that situation would be for republicans to make some encouraging noises and for the Government to grasp at straws to avoid doing something deeply controversial. I have seen it happen previously; we all have.
It would be much better for the legislation clearly to state that a declaration of intention to support the police would have to be made in January so that things could move smoothly. I would be delighted at that. There would be a much better chance of that happening if my amendment was included. Experience shows that if you want the republicans to move, you must make it absolutely clear to them that they have to move. If they do not have to move and if they think that they have internal problems, they will favour their own problems, rather than the public interest. They have done that again and again.
We need to set a clear framework; this amendment would do that. I mean what I said at the outset: it is crucial to the success of the Government’s plans. I hope that they will have the good sense to adopt the amendment. I am not sure of the correct procedure at this stage, but it would be my intention to test the opinion of the Committee if the opportunity arose. I say that in the hope that the Minister accepts the amendment.
I support the principle of the noble Lord’s amendment and I think that the Government are nearly there already, given what was said last night and on other occasions. As I understand it—although I may have got it all wrong, considering our rush—the principle is that the deal should be settled before an election is declared by the Secretary of State on 30 January. I thought that the Government stated last night that it would be wrong to call an election on 30 January until they were confident that everyone was signed up to the deal and was committed, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has asked.
I will address Amendment No. 28 in some detail, but will first speak to the points made by the noble Baroness regarding Clause 3 and the date. It is true that the position was, when we were considering the other Bill in the summer, to have the Assembly up and running on Friday of this week. It did not make sense to do that and then hold the election in 2007. That is why there was a delay. We wanted a gap. We wanted people to be able to get the Assembly up and running and start governing Northern Ireland without, in this case, facing an election in a few months. Therefore, we put off the date until 2008.
This timetable is slightly different but the objectives are the same. Obviously we have had St Andrews in the mean time, so the timetable is configured slightly differently. We end up with a fresh election to a new Assembly and with a fresh mandate for the parties based on whatever they put forward in their manifestos. It then makes sense to let that Assembly run its full course for four years so that the Members are not starting next year and then having to fight an election within a year.
That is why Clause 3 is there. It is not, as the noble Baroness said—I thought a bit unkindly—a case of the Government interfering with the electoral process. We have just taken a practical view of how politicians would operate if they got back and were faced with an early election. They would have to work with each other and then go out and fight each other almost straight away, which would not make much sense. That is why Clause 3 provides for the date for the next election to be 7 March. Obviously, for that to take place, the Assembly that was elected on 26 November 2003 needs to be dissolved on 30 January.
Clause 3(2) and (3) disapply Article 7 of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001, which requires the chief electoral officer to call a by-election to fill a vacant seat in the Assembly. This disapplication is in respect of any vacancy which exists between the passing of this Bill and the date of the Assembly election, whether the vacancy arose before or after the passing of the Act. I think that that is quite practical within the time span that we are dealing with.
Clause 17, which was also spoken to by the noble Baroness, allows the Assembly and, by virtue of paragraph 9(6) of Schedule 1 to the Bill, the transitional Assembly to make standing orders to make provision in respect of the right to vote in the Assembly in cases where a seat has been vacated but not filled. That is the purpose of those two clauses.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 27, which I shall deal with on their own before I come to Amendment No. 28, would remove the urgency procedure for orders made by the Secretary of State relating to consequential provisions under Clause 23. Clause 23 allows the Secretary of State to make orders in relation to matters arising as a result of things done under the Bill. It is intended that it will be used to sweep up any consequential or unforeseen matters relating to, in particular, the repeal of the 2000 Act, the postponement of the elections and the dissolution of the Assembly. In short, we are referring to a technical supplemental provision. The power is not wide enough to permit substantial policy changes to take place. I hope that noble Lords will be reassured on that point.
As the power is designed to sweep up any consequential or, indeed, unforeseen matters, it would be prudent to allow for the urgency procedure to be put in place where exceptional circumstances require it. I agree that it is better for the orders to be fully debated in Parliament before they become law and, in ordinary circumstances, they would be, but I reiterate that the provisions in subsections (4) and (5) are to cover exceptional circumstances in the same way as is already provided for in the 1990 Act. Therefore, I hope that those amendments will not be pressed.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has already given notice that he will probably wish to test the view of the House on Amendment No. 28, unless I can accept it. I do not think that I can but I shall seek to explain why in some detail. It is an important issue to the parties and it was the subject of some debate in the other place yesterday. As the noble Lord said, the amendment would place a requirement on the political parties to indicate their support for paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, which will be inserted at the end of the pledge of office set out in Schedule 4 to the 1998 Act by virtue of Clause 7(2) of this Bill.
Paragraph 6 of the agreement, which I read out, makes it clear that support for law and order includes endorsing the policing and criminal justice institutions and actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the police in tackling crime. Paragraph 6 is therefore a key aspect of the St Andrews agreement and one that all parties must sign up to before the institutions can be restored.
All Ministers must affirm the pledge of office before taking up office, and the amendment to the pledge, provided for in Clause 7 includes support for policing and the courts, as set out in paragraph 6 of the agreement.
Amendment No. 28 would make the March election conditional on all parties “publicly indicating” their intention to comply with paragraph 6. While I agree with the noble Lord that it would be desirable for all parties to subscribe unconditionally to the principles laid down in paragraph 6 as early as possible, we do not believe that specifying this explicitly in the Bill as a condition for an election will help in achieving that. I reiterate that the Government would like all parties to endorse paragraph 6 of the agreement as early as possible. While we would not wish to be advising other parties on electoral strategy—that is the last thing I am in a position to have them do—it would be an odd situation if a party such as Sinn Fein had not indicated its position to the electorate on such a crucial matter as policing before the election itself.
In the other place yesterday, the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland put it succinctly when he said that,
“it seems that if the transitional Assembly is to be dissolved on 30 January, and if parties are then to go to the electorate and ask people to vote for their candidates, there must, by then, be certainty about Sinn Fein endorsing policing. In practice, it will be very difficult to persuade voters to support at the ballot box a package based on St. Andrews in the absence of such a commitment”.
He went on to say that,
“to seek election on the basis of a ‘perhaps’ or a conditional promise is asking a lot. The electoral process will start to impose its own pressures on the timetable”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/11/06; col. 429.]
I hope it will satisfy the noble Lord that events themselves will force Sinn Fein to indicate its position on policing, and that he will agree that there is no need to press the amendment. If the noble Lord is concerned that some parties may simply be seeking to force an election without being serious about forming an Executive—that is the implication, and I fully accept that possibility—I point him to Clause 2(1) of the Bill, which provides for the Secretary of State to postpone elections indefinitely and dissolve the Assembly if at any time he considers that the parties will not form an Executive. The Secretary of State has made it abundantly clear that he does not want to do that, but he will do it. If we do not get devolution, we will get dissolution. It is as simple as that.
Also, Clause 2(4) provides for dissolution and the postponement of elections automatically if Ministers do not take office on 26 March. To that extent, I fully accept that the original legislation was about taking office and getting the Assembly by midnight this week. The same procedure will apply on 26 March. It will be automatic that we will not proceed, and there will be dissolution and postponement of elections.
We hope that all parties will endorse paragraph 6 of the agreement as soon as possible—the sooner, the better; that goes without saying. They will have to do it in the end. If they want the Assembly back, we all know what has to be done. On the other hand, we must let them do it in their own way. They know the timetable. I hope Parliament will pass this legislation, but the parties have to endorse the agreement if they want the Assembly back. That is quite clear; there can be no fudge. It will not help if the amendment is pressed today. The noble Lord is free to do so, but I ask him not to do it.
I am well aware that I have to be on my diplomatic best tonight and stick to the line because other discussions are taking place. Discussions about the procedures on Friday are taking place.
It is incredibly sensitive. We are going to pass legislation in the knowledge of what we hope will happen. I have said that neither Parliament nor the Government can force people into government. We are even having discussions about the timetable and choreography of Friday, so I cannot possibly speculate about 30 January. The date is there and clear, the powers of the Secretary of State are clear and, at the end of the day, it must be done—otherwise there is no devolution. What the noble Lord is asking for in the amendment must take place; there is no fudge on that.
It is nevertheless our responsibility in this House to ensure that all the areas on which noble Lords feel uncomfortable and unhappy are properly and thoroughly aired. Having said that, I indicate to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that we will support him if he presses his amendment at the proper time.
I thank the Minister for responding to my opposition to Clauses 3 and 17 standing part of the Bill. I understand the Government’s stance and their eagerness to get all things started together. Nevertheless, the elections have not been properly moved. They should still be postponed until May 2008. While I understand what the Minister is trying to do, I cannot agree with it, and he must understand that.
The Minister’s argument on Clause 17, on vacancies, seemed rather weak. As I understand it, this situation has arisen following the death in September of a Sinn Fein MLA from west Belfast. Three of his substitutes are already MLAs and the other three said that they did not want to be Assembly Members. In that case there should have been an election. Instead, the Government are holding the vacancy open for the Assembly elections in May.
The Government have interfered unnecessarily. We have a clear procedure: let us try to stick to it and, in future, do so sensibly and not keep changing our minds.
I shall exercise my option in favour of saying a few words now. If I wait until later, I might forget the points I was going to make. I shall unburden myself of them now.
In commenting on my amendment, the Minister quoted with approval the shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland in another place, David Lidington, who said that it must be clear by the end of January. Has the Minister stopped to think about what the situation will be if it is not clear? I shall assume for the sake of argument that the Democratic Unionist Party will go into the election honourably trying to build support for the St Andrews agreement, as it appears to be doing at the moment. If republicans have not committed themselves during that election to supporting the police, a substantial number of the unionist electorate will assume that the whole issue is about to be fudged and the republicans are going to get away in a smokescreen with the connivance of the Government. They will either stay at home or vote for other candidates in order to express their scepticism and disapproval of the situation. The election will be a shambles, and it will damage the political process in Northern Ireland. The Government will have to abort at a later stage anyway.
In that situation, it is much better to put pressure on to get the right result at the right time. If a difficult decision has to be taken, do not shirk it or look as though you are shirking it. There is the unfortunate impression that what was a firm deadline for Friday has been fudged. That is the view that the man in the street will take. People will listen to what the Minister said and suspect that another fudge is coming. That is why I believe that this is crucial for the success of the Government’s proposals, which I want to see. The amendment does not seek to make life difficult; it seeks to get the Government to hold people’s feet to the fire instead of giving them a free ball. Those are my comments on this matter. At a later stage, I shall not move my amendment or make any further comment.
Clause 3 agreed to.
Clause 4 agreed to.
Clause 5 [The Executive Committee and the Ministerial Code]:
moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 5, leave out lines 12 to 15
The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 29. Clause 5 provides for a ministerial code, among other things. I am in favour of a ministerial code, and we were in favour of putting it on a statutory basis. The Northern Ireland Executive drew up a ministerial code and revised it in the light of experience. If people are taking the former ministerial code as a starting point for a future ministerial code, it is important that they operate with regard to the revised ministerial code. It was never formally approved by the Executive as a whole. It would have been, but my party colleagues and I were not prepared to sign off on it. We had no objections to any of the provisions; our reluctance was due to the fact that I was in breach of the revised code and intended to continue to be in breach of it with regard to nominations to North-South Ministerial Council meetings. I thought it would be inconsistent for me to take a revised ministerial code to the Executive and say, “Let’s approve this,” and then say, “By the way, I’ve got to continue being in breach of it”. We held it back in order to avoid that hypocritical action, but we did not disagree with any of its substantive provisions. It is important that it is that ministerial code because it contains a lot of additional material on accountability issues. We were developing questions of accountability. That is the background to Amendment No. 29.
Amendment No. 2 removes subsection (10) of new Section 28A. It is important from a practical point of view. New Section 28A(10) states that,
“a … Minister has no Ministerial authority to take any decision in contravention of a provision of the Ministerial Code”.
and, in the event of a ministerial decision being successfully challenged as having been taken in breach of the ministerial code, it would make that decision void ab initio. It states that there is no power to take that ministerial decision, and if he purports to take it—wrongly—it was not a decision.
There may be an interval between a decision being made and it being challenged. If it is successfully challenged, everything that happened in between falls. What if the decision was to award a major contract to build a road, or something of that nature, and some months or longer later it turns out that the decision was void and the money improperly spent? The contract is then frustrated. This is an impossible situation to have. It is an impossible situation to put businessmen into because businessmen about to enter into a contract based on a ministerial decision would, if a significant sum of money was involved, have to inquire whether the decision was properly made. This is not practical.
Taking out subsection (10) would make ministerial decisions voidable—in other words, if successfully challenged they would be void just from the moment of that decision, not from the date of the decision. That is an important and practical distinction. It also reflects on the character of the ministerial code. I will not say more than that. I just wanted to draw the Minister’s attention to what the effect of subsection (10) appears to me to be—to make the decision void ab initio—and to point out that this will have huge practical consequences and is not advisable. It would be better simply for the decision to be voidable. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the subject. I beg to move.
I have two questions on Clause 5 for clarification. I gave the Minister prior notice of these. First, on the operation of Section 20(3) and (4), can the noble Lord confirm that once a matter is brought to the Executive, it is for the Executive, rather than the Minister who brought the matter to the Executive, to determine the way forward on it? Secondly, can the Minister confirm that if a decision is taken in contravention of new Section 28A, it would not be legitimate and would be open to legal challenge?
I hope I will be able to deal with the points raised. I shall deal first with Amendments Nos. 2 and 29. I am happy to deal with the generality of Clause 5 as well. Amendments Nos. 2 and 29 relate, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, to the ministerial code under Clause 5 and the draft ministerial code provided for under paragraph 4 of Schedule 1.
Amendment No. 2 seeks to remove subsection (10) of new Section 28A of the 1998 Act, which is inserted by Clause 5. Subsection (10) provides that a Minister or junior Minister does not have ministerial authority,
“to take any decision in contravention of a provision of the Ministerial Code made under subsection (5)”—
that is, where the ministerial decision in question relates to a matter which should fall to the Executive Committee for consideration and agreement by virtue of Section 20(3) and (4) of the 1998 Act.
Clause 5 makes provision for a statutory ministerial code to be in place to safeguard appropriate ministerial accountability to the Executive. New Section 28A(10) makes it very clear that a Minister has no authority to flout the duty he or she is under to refer matters which are for the Executive Committee. Of course, in some cases, where the duty is breached, the Executive Committee might, nevertheless, choose retrospectively to ratify a decision or to retake it. But that would be a matter for the Executive Committee. We are satisfied that subsection (10) is appropriate and does not in any way hamper ministerial autonomy when exercised in a proper fashion.
I turn to Amendment No. 29. As drafted, paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 places a duty on the Secretary of State to impose a draft ministerial code in the event that the transitional Assembly is unable to approve a draft code before 24 March 2007. The Bill provides that the basis for the Secretary of State’s code must, as far as practicable, be in the form of any parts of the draft ministerial code that have been approved by the transitional Assembly before 24 March 2007; or otherwise in the form of the former ministerial code approved by the Executive and that applied to members of the Executive prior to the most recent suspension.
Noble Lords will be aware that, as we have been informed by the noble Lord, prior to the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly, the former ministerial code was undergoing a review process and a revised version had been drafted by officials, although not agreed by the Executive. Amendment No. 29, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, would amend the definition of a former ministerial code on which the Secretary of State must base his code to mean a revised draft code drafted prior to suspension, but which had not been considered or agreed by the Executive, and had not therefore applied to members of the Executive—
The noble Lord was the First Minister and we now have an interesting period. As I am informed, the ministerial code was undergoing a review process prior to suspension and a revised version had been drafted by officials, although not agreed by the Executive. I do not think that the noble Lord contradicted that. He may have said that the Executive were operating it, but they had not agreed to it.
Formally, it was not agreed; it was being drafted. Officials were certainly taking a role in the drafting but a significant role was also being taken by the various political advisers who helped to service the Executive. In fact, they would be miffed at anyone thinking that they did not have the lead in the revision of the ministerial code. Formally, it was not signed off but—I think I am right in saying—there was consensus among the parties and it was being operated in practice.
I fully accept that and I am grateful for the elucidation because I do not think that there is a conflict between us. In spirit, there was a revised draft—clearly, the noble Lord was there and he and his colleagues were operating it. It had not been formally approved. Thank heavens I am not a lawyer, but I suppose that because it had not been approved, if there were any judicial review or anything like that, that may have been a problem.
Before I say anything further, because I do not think that there is a conflict between us, it is the sincere hope of the Government and the Secretary of State that the duty to impose a draft code will never be triggered anyway. We want the transitional Assembly. Parties have engaged in much valuable work over the summer, by the way. It is not as though they have not been talking to each other. They have been involved in the Preparation for Government Committee.
I hope that noble Lords share my hope that that engagement will continue in the transitional Assembly from Friday this week and that it will agree its own code before 24 March, negating the need for the Secretary of State to impose the code. But if it comes to that, notwithstanding what the noble Lord has just said, the only code that the Secretary of State should reasonably use as a model on which to base his code is the one agreed, applied and in legal being before suspension—although versions of that were applied in spirit, if not formally agreed.
I take on board what the noble Lord said. The Executive were doing their best to operate a new system under a new code, but it had not been legally promulgated. The Secretary of State could probably find himself in trouble if he went for a code that had not gone through that process. That is what we are seeking to cover, so that we are not in the courts. I understand that judicial review is frequently used in Northern Ireland. That is why I ask the Committee not to accept the amendment, although I fully accept the spirit of it and what the noble Lord said, which was important.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, on his maiden speech this week. I am sorry that I was not present. I sincerely hope that he will make good use of this place. He asked about the status of the ministerial decision. First, a decision taken in contravention of the code, and therefore without ministerial authority under new Section 28A, would expose that Minister to existing procedures under the 1998 Act. Secondly, the noble Lord is right that any ministerial decision taken without ministerial authority is open to legal challenge. That is the formal legal position.
There will be a duty on the transitional Assembly—we sincerely hope there will be an Assembly after Thursday—to prepare and approve its own draft code before 24 March, as I said. It is our wish that it does so. It would be open to the Assembly to prepare and agree a code in the form of the code that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said was operated by the Executive although not formally agreed by them. That is completely within the gift of the transitional Assembly. We do not seek to impose one on it. That is the whole point of this. We want these decisions to be taken by locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland. They should come forward with their code, and if that code is based on the shadow code that has been formally operated, that is entirely up to the transitional Assembly. That is its choice. It must do so, however, before the said date: 24 March.
My apologies. My mind was on the next lot of amendments. I have listened to the Minister. I still have a few niggles in my mind about the matter, but I do not want to press the amendment to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 agreed to.
Clause 6 agreed to.
Clause 7 [Pledge of office]:
[Amendment No. 2A not moved.]
Clause 7 agreed to.
Clause 8 [First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers]:
moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 7, line 8, leave out “shall” and insert “may”
The noble Lord said: For the sake of expediting our procedures, I shall focus on Amendments Nos. 6 to 8 in my name. The amendments cover quite diverse issues. Amendment No. 6 would omit subsection (6) from the new Section 16C, which Clause 8 will insert into the 1998 Act. In order to explain this and my reason for focusing on it, it is important to set out the background. It concerns the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Under the agreement, they were to be jointly elected by a special majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Then in the negotiations that led to the abortive proposals which the Government published in December, there were suggestions for a different form of election of those Ministers. These were developed further into clauses that were circulated by the Government and that provided for a mechanism for nominating the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and ending the joint election. That is now embodied in new Section 16A, also inserted by Clause 8.
The procedure in new Section 16A is that the nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation is to nominate the First Minister and the nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation would nominate the Deputy First Minister. If, as is likely, the elections produce a majority of unionists, the leader of the largest unionist party will nominate the First Minister and then the leader of the largest nationalist party will nominate the Deputy First Minister. There would not then be a joint election. Those were the proposals we expected to see in this legislation until the very last minute. But at the very last minute in came new Section 16C(6), which I propose should be deleted. Subsection (6) would reverse the arrangements. It states:
“If at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party”,
the nomination is to be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party.
What that would mean in effect is that if we had the Assembly election and a majority of the Assembly Members returned were unionists, but the unionist vote was spread over several parties with the result that one nationalist party had more Assembly Members than any one of the unionist parties, that nationalist party would nominate the First Minister. So, having set out a process in new Section 16A whereby the First Minister will come from the largest designation—the largest group as between unionists and nationalists—it is now suddenly turned on its head if, in the vagaries of the election, one nationalist party gets more Assembly Members than any one of the unionist parties. To put it crudely, and I am sorry to have to do so, it seems that this is a simple fix. It was probably done at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP, the result of which will enable the DUP to go around Northern Ireland saying “Vote for us or else you’ll get Martin McGuinness as First Minister”, and will enable Sinn Fein to go around the country saying “If all nationalists vote for us there’s a chance we’ll get Martin McGuinness as First Minister”. It is a crude device which people will say is the result of the law, and it will be used to polarise the electorate. You can imagine the effect that that is going to have on politics.
It is quite inappropriate. The original proposals were better. Indeed, best of all were the provisions in the Belfast agreement which provided for a joint election of the First and Deputy First Ministers. That meant that there had to be agreement between the relevant unionist and nationalist parties on who would be elected. As a consequence, it meant that we would have had a say. It was my intention, bearing in mind the options it offered, that if we had a situation where Sinn Fein got more seats than the SDLP so that the Deputy First Minister would come from Sinn Fein, I would have used the influence given by the joint nomination to ensure that the individual who was nominated by Sinn Fein was someone likely to command respect across the community as a whole and thus able to carry out his functions effectively. That was the advantage of the original provisions.
Having said that, the original proposals the Government were first going to go with—those set out in Section 16A(4) and (5), where the nomination would be made by the largest political party of the largest political designation—had some advantages, but worst of all is the position we may end up with if circumstances trigger Section 16C(6). That is why I have tabled Amendment No. 6 to take it out.
Amendment No. 7 relates to a very important issue and I beg the indulgence of the Committee because it needs some explanation. When I was drafting the amendment we considered in the previous group of amendments which sought to delete the provision that a Minister has no ministerial authority to take any decision in contravention of a provision of the ministerial code, I was reminded of the question: who does take decisions in Northern Ireland?
The law in Northern Ireland with regard to statutory functions and Ministers is radically different from the law in the rest of the United Kingdom and the practice that has developed from the experience of this House and elsewhere. Here, statutory functions are vested in Ministers; in Northern Ireland, statutory functions are vested in departments—it is not the Minister who decides. The Minister may meet his permanent secretary and say “I think we should do X”, and the permanent secretary may say, “Very good, Minister, we will do X”. But the person who legally takes the decision is the permanent secretary because he has the power; the Minister does not.
The only power the Minister has by virtue of being a Minister is to direct the department. We have had experience of that; it produces some classic “Yes Minister” situations. If the permanent secretary does not like what is being proposed, he will gently and respectfully suggest so. But it has on occasion reached a situation where the permanent secretary has said to the Minister, “You are acting against the advice of the department and we will not do this unless you issue a formal direction”.
My close colleague, Reg Empey, had experience of this; when he was a Minister he had to issue a direction to the department. He told me that they made a tremendous paraphernalia about it. Teeth were sucked, tongues were clucked, everybody gathered together very solemnly, and so on, and a document was drawn up whereby my colleague had to formally direct his department to do something that the department thought should not happen. The issue concerned—I find this most amusing—was a proposal to build a north-south gas pipeline, which the department said should not be done and which a unionist Minister insisted be done. Indeed, he had negotiated a very good arrangement with his Irish counterpart, which resulted in his Irish counterpart investing money and financing the pipeline within Northern Ireland. We have benefited from that and everyone will benefit from the assurance of supply that exists through having that network. The issue is not important. It is just ironic in the context that this was the issue on which my colleague had to issue a direction because the power was not in him; he had only the power to direct.
A further illustration occurred when, in 2001, because of the failure of the republicans to decommission, I was arranging for our Ministers to resign as a means of putting pressure on them. This, incidentally, worked because they started to decommission within a week or two of the final step of a process I had been operating over some months to bring pressure on them. In the discussions about the resignations—it involved not only my resignation, about which the officials were quite relaxed, but also the resignation of other Ministers who had statutory functions to discharge—there was a point where a senior official said, “We do not want the public finding out that we can take decisions without Ministers”. That is the position in Northern Ireland.
It is most anomalous. No one knows quite where it comes from. It does not come from any plot that Governments have thought of over the past 20 years; it comes from the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The draftsman of that Act—a gentleman who rejoices in the name of Quekett—was the one who did it, but no one knows why. It is thought it has something to do with the practices and procedures in the local government board in Dublin, but I do not know what they are. I do not know why no one noticed this as the Act went through Parliament in 1920, although I have to confess I have not gone to the point of researching the parliamentary debates on the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to see whether the matter was ever raised. Perhaps a little legal essay could be written on that aspect of the matter. But it is anomalous. It is a matter that I raised within the process in Northern Ireland, as First Minister, on a number of occasions.
If you link what I have said with the previous clause about the decisions of Ministers, there will be a little gap legally because, strictly speaking, the decision is not taken by the Minister. But the situation would be better than it was: it would improve accountability as well as improving the self-respect, power and authority of Ministers if the statutory functions were vested in them. I think that Amendment No. 7 is important and hope that the Minister will find the opportunity to reflect seriously on it.
The origins of Amendment No. 8 lie in the fact that the Bill will repeal the Northern Ireland Act 2000 under which the Government took the power to suspend. The history is hugely important: it arose out of discussions we were having with the Government and with other parties in 1999. In order to achieve devolution and see the agreement implemented—there were a whole lot of things in it that I considered would be hugely beneficial for the community and the party—we had to get devolution working. While we very much wanted IRA decommissioning to take place before taking office, it was clear that we were not going to achieve that. It was also clear that there was the possibility that we could achieve it very soon after taking office. Indeed, republicans went out of their way to encourage that belief. But before moving on that, I decided we had to have a safety net. That was negotiated with the Government and became the Northern Ireland Act 2000, under which the Government had the power to suspend, which they exercised a couple of months later when republicans failed to deliver. That was hugely important to us; we would not have moved without it. We regarded the existence of the suspension pact as our fallback guarantee throughout the time of devolution because it gave us leverage over republicans.
The repeal of the Act leaves things somewhat, although not entirely, up in the air. In the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Act 2003, which provided for the Independent Monitoring Commission, provision was made for the exclusion of Ministers by the Secretary of State in the event of the commission recommending that that be done. That remains a significant safeguard which should not be underestimated. The range of sanctions is limited but there is the major sanction of exclusion, which the monitoring commission can recommend, and that is hugely important.
When the legislation was going through, the Liberal Democrats pointed to the need to have a power that could be exercised in exceptional circumstances. The Government accepted a Liberal Democrat amendment which appears in Section 8 of the 2003 Act; it gives a limited emergency power but can operate only in very narrowly drawn circumstances. Contemplating the repeal of the 2000 Act and the limited range of powers under the 2003 Act, I thought that a gap needed to be filled to deal with emergencies. I regard this as something that would be used only where there was an emergency. The difficulty was how to draft it. I ended up throwing several drafts into the wastepaper bin. When you cannot quite envisage the circumstances that might trigger this need, you have problems drafting legislation.
I have ended up taking my cue from the old saying that the British constitution lies in procedure rather than formal structures. I decided to create a procedural route which, by its nature, would be used only in extreme circumstances. That is why I have suggested that Her Majesty could exclude a Minister on the advice of the Prime Minister. That will not be done except in very extreme circumstances. I cannot define what the circumstances might be; if I could I would have included them in the amendment. But I feel that there is a need to have emergency rations that can be used if we have unforeseen circumstances. Given the nature of what we are dealing with in Northern Ireland, nobody can put their hand on their heart and say that everything is guaranteed to run smoothly.
There is a need for a safety net. This is a very limited safety net which it is desirable to have. I commend all three amendments to the Committee. I beg to move.
I support Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. When speaking to Amendment No. 7, he brought to our attention an extraordinary state of affairs. The Committee should thank him most sincerely for having managed to winkle out what has been going on in Northern Ireland all these years. The fact that Ministers can only give a direction to permanent secretaries, and permanent secretaries have a power to do almost anything they want, is quite extraordinary. The Minister should look carefully at this situation and tell us how it can be sorted out. We would be enormously grateful to him were he to do so. Who takes the decisions in Northern Ireland needs to be made absolutely clear.
I shall speak to Amendments No. 5 and the Question whether Clause 8 should stand part of the Bill, which are in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. Before doing so, I give notice that I intend to reserve my right to test the opinion of the House on the Question whether Clause 8 should stand part of the Bill, but I will listen to the remarks of the Minister before I decide.
Clause 8 removes the need for a cross-community vote of the Assembly to confirm the nominations of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Before the St Andrews talks began, it was proposed that this requirement would be replaced by a vote to confirm the whole of the Executive. We even received a draft clause from officials to put this in place. Our Amendment No. 5 would insert the relevant parts of that clause into this Bill. We have amended slightly the definition of cross-community consent, which we shall discuss later this evening, to ensure that the votes of all Members of the Assembly have equal weight. Even this proposal has now disappeared and no vote will be required to confirm any of the Ministers in their positions in the Executive. This is very bad for the effective government of Northern Ireland.
Under the 1998 Act, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are required to act jointly on a number of specific occasions. They should act jointly. This is surely the whole point of what we are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland; namely, a Government where local politicians act together for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland. When the Assembly exercised devolved power in the few years in which it was operational before suspension, there was very little—in fact, no—collective responsibility in the Executive. Ministers acted individually; power-sharing was already weak under the Good Friday agreement. This was evidenced by the poor relationship between the UUP and the SDLP. While some minor improvements have been made, these are not sufficient to take into account the increased political polarisation and the ascendancy of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
How do the Government expect this situation to improve when there is to be no indication that the Assembly confidently expects the Executive, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, to work together? The removal of the need for any vote, for either the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister or for the Executive as a whole, is a major flaw. The need for government parties formally to recognise each other’s mandates and legitimacy in having a share of power and responsibility has been undermined. There is a danger that the only way in which the DUP or Sinn Fein could operate or coexist within the same Government is through creating more and more separation. At present, the DUP and Sinn Fein do not appear to be talking to one another. It is a big leap to see them effectively running a regional Government in partnership in four months, hopeful though we might be of it. Northern Ireland could end up with government by memorandum, with civil servants acting as messengers between various Ministers who are not prepared to talk to one another and are not required to do so by the system.
Furthermore, the Government have missed an opportunity to bind all the parties into a firm commitment to build a shared future, in order to counter the tendencies towards separation. That is why I ask the Government either to remove Clause 8, which would allow us to revert to the original position of a cross-community vote to confirm the First and Deputy First Minister, or to accept Amendment No. 5, which would provide for the Executive as a whole to be confirmed by a cross-community vote.
I put my name to Amendment No. 6 and wish to speak briefly in support of it. I find it staggering that we are in this situation and hard to understand how new Section 16C(6) comes to be there, particularly having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, about the past. It seems extraordinary that we find ourselves in a situation where the smallest grouping should be in a position, through a quirk of election numbers, to be able to appoint the First Minister. There must be a serious fault in there that should be corrected. It was not there in the past; the system has been proven in the past for appointing or electing a First and Deputy First Minister, so why are we messing about with it? If I am treading in the middle of strife and politics among the Northern Ireland parties, I have no intention of doing so but, from a purely pragmatic point of view, sitting where I do on this side of the House, I believe that the Government need to make a change.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, went out of his way to say that he would concentrate on Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8 and did not touch Amendments Nos. 3, 4, and 5. The noble Baroness did Amendment No. 5. Amendment No. 3 was moved, but if no one has spoken to Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 I could save the Committee a bit of time by not dealing with them, although I am happy to. I shall kick off with Amendment No. 5 and go through Amendments Nos. 6, 7, and 8, because those are the ones that we have actually debated.
Amendment No. 5 is in many ways similar to the model envisaged by the UK and Republic Governments in the proposals for a comprehensive agreement, which were published in December 2004. Those proposals were, as the Committee will be aware, the Governments' best call at that time of arrangements that would be likely to command sufficient support among the parties to enable there to be an agreement to go back into devolved government. Since then, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have been engaged, along with colleagues from the Irish Government, in a series of discussions with the parties about the best way to move forward. The arrangement set out in paragraph 9 of annexe A to the St Andrews agreement, and provided for in Clause 8, represents our assessment in the light of those discussions about the best model to introduce.
I acknowledge that this does not provide an opportunity for Assembly Members to endorse the Executive's composition. However, it will in effect already have been endorsed by the electorate, since it is the people of Northern Ireland who determine through their voting the party strengths in the Assembly and therefore entitlement to sit on the Executive. That is of course an issue that the Bill envisages the Assembly, through the committee to be established under Clause 11, taking a closer look at in the years ahead. Our minds are not closed to the prospect of change; I want to make that absolutely clear. It is just that we do not feel that it is possible to go further now.
There is one change to the proposals made in annexe A of the St Andrews agreement which Amendment No. 6 seeks to nullify. The reason for the change is that, without it, on the current demographics, it would be impossible for there ever to be a nationalist First Minister. That is why the new Section 16C(6) provides that in circumstances in which the largest party in the largest designation is not in fact the largest party in the Assembly it should be the overall largest party that nominates to the office of First Minister. Without that we would signal that on the basis of current demographics we could never see a nationalist First Minister. I do not believe that that is what the Belfast agreement envisaged—far from it. I do not believe that it is what any right-thinking person would envisage either—that the system has that automatic check. It would deny the community the hope of ever having the opportunity to nominate a First Minister. It is very hard to defend a situation in which the largest party in the Assembly is prevented from doing so by a quirk of the arrangements.
This should not be portrayed as allowing a minority to dominate a majority or to receive preferential treatment. The offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers are equal offices, jointly held. Like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I do not want to go down the road of what parties will say at the election; that is for the parties in Northern Ireland, which are best placed to make their arguments and present their manifesto at election time. We believe that Clause 8 is an appropriate means of delivering the commitment made in the St Andrews agreement and we cannot support the amendment.
I shall deal with Amendment No. 8 before discussing Amendment No. 7. It deals with a related issue of how Ministers, once approved, may be removed from office. The amendments in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Glentoran, would amend the 1998 Act to provide a discretionary power for the Crown to exclude a Minister or a junior Minister from office if the Prime Minister were to advise that it was in the national interest. I am aware of the concerns that noble Lords might have. Should there be adequate mechanisms to exclude Ministers from office where appropriate? Those concerns were voiced eloquently and at length yesterday, when the Bill was debated in the other place.
We recognise that noble Lords remain apprehensive about what provisions may be made in relation to, among other things, a potential return to violence by the Provisional IRA. Those are heart-felt fears and we respect them, but we believe wholeheartedly that Northern Ireland has undergone a complete transformation. We remain convinced that the amendment is unnecessary and that it goes too far. Ultimately, it is procedurally beyond the scope of the Bill and outwith the gift of this House.
I hope that noble Lords will allow me to offer some reassurance on the safety mechanisms already in place on ministerial conduct, because that goes to the heart of the amendment’s concerns. The pledge of office that all Ministers must make before taking up office requires a number of commitments that are clearly intended to protect the national interest and that of the Assembly and the electorate, including a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and non-violent means.
This Bill strengthens the pledge, adding four further commitments which Ministers are obliged to make, including the commitment to uphold the rule of law based on the principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts. While the pledge of office sets out the standards for ministerial conduct, Sections 30, 30A and 30B of the 1998 Act ensure that wide-ranging powers are already available for the Assembly or the Secretary of State to exclude Ministers from office when those standards set out in the pledge have been breached.
Comprehensive mechanisms already exist to exclude a Minister from office where appropriate, so the amendment is unnecessary. However, there is a quirky, technical issue that the noble Lord may not have been aware of when he drafted the amendment. The conventions and process that must be followed when the Queen’s consent is sought are that the Palace should naturally be given as much time as possible for consideration, and the guidance states that that should never be fewer than 14 days. So procedurally it would not be appropriate for such a measure to be brought forward by emergency legislation and the amendment is therefore beyond the scope of the Bill. That is a hell of a good argument. I could have used it to start with, but I wanted to save it, because the Committee deserved and needed the other explanation. It was no good my trying to kill it with a technical issue because we are not here to debate technicalities; there are important political issues behind the amendment. The amendment would make provisions superfluous to the needs of the smooth functioning of the Assembly.
I turn to Amendment No. 7. In Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord has said, although the position is not quite as he explained it, most statutory functions are vested in departments rather than in their Ministers. That arrangement dates back to the establishment of Northern Ireland itself, which was not put together in the last few years. Originally there were six departments, which for devolution were divided up into 11. They were created as corporate bodies in law, on which statutory functions were conferred. However, that does not subordinate ministerial authority in any way. The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 makes it clear that the functions of a department shall at all times be exercised under the direction and control of the Minister. The departments are not acting independently of the Minister. Consequently the noble Lord’s amendment is unnecessary, as it would not have any practical effect.
The situation has been different with direct rule over the past 30-odd years, with Ministers coming and going, and sharing three or, as in my case, four departments. We are described as the commuting, part-time direct rule Ministers. It is not the same as Whitehall. You leave an awful lot of the day-to-day work to others, but you, as the Minister, are responsible.
The issue that the noble Lord raised about Northern Ireland departments possibly refusing to follow a Minister’s direction is not unique to Northern Ireland. In the United Kingdom civil servants operate under the Civil Service code, and if they believe they have been asked to act improperly they can seek a direction from the Minister. At that point such a direction can be given, and that is normally the case. It is set out in writing; copies are sent to the Treasury, and I believe they are also sent to the Public Accounts Committee, so the direction is placed clearly on the record. The difference in Northern Ireland is that the departments were created as corporate bodies back in 1922, but there is no surprise about that.
The example given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was anything but out of the ordinary. It was a straightforward indication that, while he was First Minister, one of his departmental heads had wanted something to be done and his civil servants effectively tried to bar him.
I cannot comment on the example, but on a matter of mere policy the Minister would have to have his way because he is in charge of the overall direction of the department. If it were another issue, maybe relating to the financial arrangements, where advice was given—as it would be given in a Whitehall department, by the way, if there were a financial arrangement—the accounting officer function would come into play. That is a normal process. The Ministers are not the accounting officers; the civil servants, chief executive or permanent secretary would be the accounting officer, and they would rightly take an accounting officer’s view—although I am not saying that was the case in the example. The difference is that, on a policy issue, the department operates under the direction and control of the Minister, so it is not acting independently.
The noble Baroness also spoke to the Question whether Clause 8 should stand part. I can say a few words on that, and I hope to carry the House with me. Clause 8 puts in place a new arrangement for appointing a new First and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, in line with paragraph 9. It inserts three new sections into the Northern Ireland Act in place of the existing Section 16, and is in effect to provide, as required by the St Andrews agreement, that the offices should be filled by nominations, rather than by election as at present. Normally the office of First Minister is filled by the largest party within the largest political designation, and the office of Deputy First Minister is to be filled by nomination from the largest party within the next largest designation. Based on the current party strengths in the Assembly, there would be a DUP First Minister and a Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister.
The proposed new Section 16A makes clear that this nomination process, together with the subsequent running of d’Hondt, would normally take place within seven days of the first meeting of the Assembly. As we have discussed, however, if the Assembly is restored in March next year, the process needs to be completed in a single day. I mention that because it is important that Members are clear that we are focusing here on the normal arrangements that would apply under these new provisions in the 1998 Act.
Proposed new Section 16B deals with the arrangements for filling vacancies in either of the two offices. As at present, if one part of the pair resigns or otherwise ceases to hold office, the other technically does so, though they may continue to carry out the functions of the office until the positions are filled again in accordance with the St Andrews agreement process. Proposed new Section 16C is intended to help clarify how to measure party size and designation size. It also deals with the arrangements that should apply where one of the parties that are entitled to nominate has had its members excluded from holding ministerial office. In effect, their nominating rights would pass to the next largest party within the same designation. This clause is clearly necessary to give full effect to the St Andrews agreement. I hope that the clause will stand part of the Bill in due course.
Is Amendment No. 3 withdrawn?
moved Amendment No. 6:
Page 9, leave out lines 35 to 42
The noble Lord said: I apologise that I am not familiar enough with the proceedings here. I was a bit confused. I take it that I can speak only to Amendment No. 6, and I cannot reply on Amendments Nos. 7 and 8.
You need to move your amendment if you wish to speak to it. If it would help you and the Committee, you can speak to the subsequent amendments in reply to the Minister. That should speed everything up. But first you need to move Amendment No. 6.
I will say a few words about Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 also. I am not impressed by the procedural point that the Minister made about 14 days. We do not have 14 days because the Minister has not allowed that period for the debate on this Bill. The point that he is relying on is not one that he should be proud of. I take the points that he made about the other safeguards. It has to be said that the other safeguards have their limitations, and it is because of those limitations that we have had crises in the past. I hope that we do not have them in the future. There is a certain element of risk that ought to have been provided for. I suggested a way of providing for it, but it has not found favour with the Minister, so I will not press Amendment No. 8.
On Amendment No. 7, there is an analogy with the situation here, and permanent secretaries are accounting officers in Northern Ireland as well. I referred to the department’s order under which the Minister can direct and control the department; but there is a significant difference. The power of decision does not rest with the Minister and the information that comes from him is different. Admittedly, when the power is vested in the Minister, in practice he delegates a lot of that power to officials; but it is delegated, which means that he remains in control. When the power is invested in the department, the Minister’s position is different and a lot of information does not flow up, because there is no need for that. There has been no delegation and the function is elsewhere.
Under direct rule, officials have expanded their power considerably. Devolution may result in a bit of claw-back, but once practices are established it becomes extremely difficult to change them. The Minister, or at least other Ministers, may want to reflect on that as people who are politically accountable, because that is a weakness of the position of existing Northern Ireland Ministers. The Minister wants to say something. I beg to move.
I was seeking to intervene, not to stop the noble Lord. In some ways, what he referred to has become custom and practice. There were examples in the year that I was a direct rule Minister when the Secretary of State, myself and other Ministers were told by officials, although I will not go into the issues, “We have decided that this is what is to happen”. We reminded them that we were the Ministers and that we made the decisions because ultimately we were accountable. That was not a criticism, but it was a culture that had grown. When, as is the case under direct rule, you do not have day-to-day hands-on Ministers in departments, you rely on civil servants to get on with the job. The business of government has to carry on so that citizens are not disadvantaged. That is why we want direct rule to finish and to have a team of local Ministers in charge of those departments. That is the reality and that is what this is about.
We want that to happen on a sound legal basis. I know the difficulties that the Minister sometimes has in coming to Northern Ireland, but he comes from a culture here where there is no doubt about his power in his department. He has famously asserted himself on certain issues about which direct rule Ministers were not always invited to take decisions. Indeed, devolved Ministers were not invited to take decisions during devolution. However, he did so because he comes from this political culture, which is accustomed to the power of Ministers.
The devolved Ministers that we had and those that it is hoped we will have have grown up within the culture that has been developed under direct rule. They very much look to their officials for advice and guidance about what they do and how they do it, and that perpetuates this not terribly healthy culture. I therefore think that a change in the legal basis would also help to change the culture in a healthy way. That is why I said to the Minister that he and his ministerial colleagues might like to reflect on this point, thinking as politicians and elected representatives rather than from an official point of view. However, this is not a matter that I wish to press at this stage.
On the other hand, I should like to press Amendment No. 6, which would leave out lines 35 to 42 on page 9. I was most unimpressed by the Minister’s explanation that the provision has been introduced because the demographics mean that there will never be a nationalist majority and a nationalist First Minister. That has been the position for centuries and it will certainly exist for a long time. Suddenly feeling a need to introduce the provision now begs questions and, with all due respect to the Minister, I prefer my explanation for the reasons for its introduction. It is a matter that I should like to press. Before doing so, I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning the fact that the Minister talked about the First Minister and Deputy First Minister being joint and equal and so on. I have always regarded the First Minister as first—I have no doubt about that. However, we feel strongly about Amendment No. 6 and I should like to test the opinion of the Committee.
[Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.]
Clauses 9 and 10 agreed to.
Clause 11 [Committee to review functioning of Assembly and Executive Committee]:
moved Amendment No. 9:
Page 12, line 4, at end insert—
29C Review of community designations
(1) Standing orders shall require the committee established by virtue of section 29A to consider—
(a) the operation of community designations; and
(b) in particular, whether to recommend that the Secretary of State should make an order amending this Act and any other enactment so far as may be necessary to ensure that community designations shall cease to have effect.
(2) If, by no later than 1 February 2011—
(a) the committee established by virtue of section 29A makes the recommendation set out in section 29C(1)(b), and
(b) the committee’s recommendation is approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly with cross-community support (within the meaning of that Act),
the Secretary of State must by order made by statutory instrument amend that Act and any other enactment so far as may be necessary to ensure that community designations shall cease to have effect.
(3) An order under this section may contain supplementary, incidental, consequential, transitional or saving provision.
(4) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.””
The noble Baroness said: I will be speaking to Amendments Nos. 9 and 11 in the group. Amendment No. 9 places a statutory duty on the review committee to look at community designations.
Liberal Democrats have always been opposed to the use of designations within the Assembly. It has been clear from the beginning that there are problems with this system. It institutionalises sectarian divisions, there is inequality of votes between MLAs, it is unable to adjust to changing demographic and political circumstances, and it enables minorities to hold the process to ransom.
Problems with designation and the voting system were brought into clear focus by the attempt to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister on Friday 2 November 2001, when 70.6 per cent of the 102 who voted supported the election of David Trimble, as he then was, and the honourable Member for Foyle to the top two posts. This comprised 38 designated nationalists—100 per cent; 29 designated unionists— 49.2 per cent; and five designated others. On the following Tuesday, 6 November, 70.7 per cent of the 99 who voted supported the election of David Trimble and Mark Durkan to the top two posts. This comprised 38 designated nationalists—100 per cent; 31 designated unionists—51.7 per cent; and one designated other. The only substantive difference between the votes on 2 November and 6 November was that three Alliance MLAs temporarily—and tactically—changed their designation in line with the rules from centre—treated as “others”—to unionist. In virtually every other legislative body in the world, a 70 per cent vote would be more than sufficient to elect a prime minister or form a Government; but not in Northern Ireland. There is something seriously wrong with a system whereby MLAs cannot elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, even though more than 70 per cent of Assembly Members supported them.
The difficulty is more fundamental than that and extends to the heart of the designation system, which requires Assembly Members to designate themselves as unionists, nationalists or other. Although this was proposed as a way to ensure cross-community consent, it actually contributes to reinforcing sectarian divisions. Right from the top down, the message is given that Northern Ireland society is rigidly divided into two separate communities and that people can be neatly pigeonholed into separate categories. Designations imply that that society is for ever to be two separate communities, requiring continual skilful conflict management, rather than becoming a united—although diverse—community with common goals and shared interests.
That “two communities” or “both communities” language fails to acknowledge that a significant number of people cannot be labelled as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. Some people come from mixed marriages, are part of ethnic minorities or choose not to be described in such terms, preferring more multicultural and pluralist identification. That also ignores the reality that many Protestants and Catholics and unionists and nationalists have more in common with people across the perceived divide than they do with each other.
Similarly, the insistence on a two-communities language and approach presumes that the ideal state of Northern Ireland society is of two separate but equal elements, each working to its own interests, rather than that of one united, multicultural community working towards common goals and interests. The current system discriminates against those Assembly Members who do not choose to designate as either unionist or nationalist, and the voters who put them there.
Under the present system, on key cross-community votes in the Assembly, the votes of those representing cross-community parties designated as “others” either do not count or carry less weight. All MLAs have one vote, but some votes, it would appear, are more equal than others. Votes from the centre can count only negatively in the system of 50:50:50—parallel consent. At first glance, it would seem that they count in the 60:40:40 method, as they are counted in the 60 per cent overall, but the votes of designated unionists and designated nationalists are counted twice, as they are considered for the respective 40 per cent threshold, as well as the 60 per cent threshold overall.
It is in the interest of a stable future in Northern Ireland to move away from such a divisive system. Amendment No. 9 requires the review committee to consider the issue of community designation, but does not ask the committee to take any particular view. New Clause 1 is, perhaps, a more radical approach, but a better long-term solution to the problem, because it changes the definition of cross-community support to a simple two-thirds of Assembly Members present and voting. Given the strength of the unionist and nationalist designations in the previous Assembly, and in the current one, it is entirely reasonable to expect that a vote passed by two-thirds of the Members would have a cross-community element.
We believe that to be a fairer way to proceed with votes on key issues than the current, rather divisive, arrangements. I beg to move.
I just want to unburden myself of a few thoughts. This is an issue that has existed since the agreement. I can well understand how certain parties, especially the Alliance Party, feel seriously disadvantaged by this arrangement. As a matter of principle, I must agree that it is undesirable and that dividing or, at least, entrenching communal divisions, is not the way to overcome them. I understand that.
However, the point is that effectively, as a matter of practical politics, it was necessary to do that to get an agreement. Had we not done that, there would not have been an agreement. Having an agreement between nationalism and unionism has been hugely important and has had a huge effect. Despite all the difficulties that there have been since 1998, it is quite clear that the politics of society and politics generally have been transformed. As evidence of that, you have only to look at the distance that certain parties have moved from where they were before the talks in 1997 to where they are now. It is not just one party that has moved; several parties have moved. My close colleagues and I therefore recognised that we would have to have this arrangement if it was not possible to gain agreement on comfortable terms. But I appreciate that it is undesirable in principle, which is why it is important to say that my view, and my hope, is that in the not-too-distant future when, through the experience of operating devolution over time and seeing that there are more than enough safeguards, through the close balance of parties and through the provision for the European convention to be entrenched, it might become possible for parties that wanted this safeguard in 1998 to see that it was no longer necessary and that we could move beyond this situation. I hope that that will happen. It will happen when there is sufficient confidence in the political parties for it to happen.
I must say to the noble Baroness that moving to a two-thirds figure will be more difficult in practice because of the cross-community requirement. It can be, and was, met on occasions with votes that were not much more than simple majorities. Always aiming for two-thirds would create considerable difficulty. That would be the practical consequence. I do, however, understand the point of principle. I know how it bears hard on the Alliance Party, although I have to mention parenthetically a small party that I hope is unlikely to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is behaving very eccentrically. I am talking about the Conservative Party, whose leaders in Northern Ireland have declared that they would not designate themselves unionists if they were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is incredible that a party that was formerly the Conservative and Unionist Party officially announces that it refuses to be identified as unionist. I hope that those who represent that party here will find some way of reflecting to their members in Northern Ireland that they should try to pay some regard to the basic principles, their heritage and what is really at the very heart of conservatism. I am greatly encouraged by the response that I have just had to that in the Chamber.
I say at the outset, in response to the noble Baroness’s principal point, that we all share her hope that one day we might be able to move away from the labels that we have in Northern Ireland to a less segregated society. It is, however, a bit of a step down the road yet. We have a way to go, which is why I cannot recommend that we support the amendments.
Clause 11 requires the Assembly to establish a committee, which I understand is sometimes referred to as an institutional review committee, to review the operation of the Assembly and the Executive Committee. This committee may consider any matter to do with the way in which the two key institutions operate. It is specifically charged with making a report by May 2015 on the operation of the provision of Parts 3 and 4 of the 1998 Act. Parts 3 and 4 deal with the mechanics of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, particularly the Executive and the Assembly. This is all provided for in new Section 29A, which Clause 11(1) inserts into the 1998 Act. That new provision does not commit the Secretary of State or the Assembly or Executive to any future action as a result of receiving the report. Much of Parts 3 and 4 represent excepted matters that can be changed only through primary legislation here in the Westminster Parliament. Any proposal that departed from the fundamentals of the Belfast agreement, on which much of the 1998 Act was based, would require the very careful consideration of all the parties to the agreement, including, as appropriate, the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
Amendment No. 9 seeks to place a duty on the committee established by Clause 11 to consider and make recommendations on whether to retain the system of designation, which facilitates the calculation of cross-community support. The issue of cross-community voting may well be one of those that the committee to be established under new Section 29A would want to consider. Clause 11 allows the Assembly free rein in setting the scope of the committee’s terms of reference through standing orders. If it made recommendations for an alternative model, I have no doubt that we, in consultation with the other stakeholders in the Belfast agreement, of which this is a key tenet, would take that recommendation seriously. But we do not believe that this matter merits separate provision of this kind in the Bill. It is different in character from the arrangements for appointing the First and Deputy First Ministers where we are presenting the Assembly with two possible models, each blessed by Parliament, and asking it to choose whether to stick with the new arrangements set out in new Sections 16A, 16B and 16C which we discussed earlier or to revert to the original Section 16 arrangement.
Amendment No. 9 would not present that kind of binary choice between two workable models, but rather just presents a choice between sticking with the current arrangements or ditching them—and without being clear on what would replace them. Given the importance of cross-community support to the Belfast agreement and the various stakeholders, we do not think that a negative resolution statutory instrument, one which the Secretary of State would have no discretion over whether to bring forward, is the appropriate vehicle for making any changes. Frankly, it is too important an issue to be dealt with in that manner.
It is right that this is something the Assembly parties may, if they so choose, want to look at, and it would be open to the committee to be established by Clause 11 to include consideration of the voting mechanisms within the list of things it wishes to look at. Cross-community voting in the Assembly is dependent on the process of community designation of its MLAs. Clause 13 amends Section 4 of the 1998 Act to require Assembly standing orders to make provision in relation to the community designation of Members of the Assembly. This was an important measure included in Annexe A to the St Andrews agreement and would effectively prevent an MLA changing his or her community designation—nationalist, unionist or other—between elections except in cases where their political party affiliation has changed. Amendment No. 10 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, would remove this requirement and replace it with a discretionary power that the Assembly “may” include such a provision in its standing orders.
It is important that we recognise the vital role played under the current arrangements and in the current circumstances by community designations in safeguarding the interests of the whole community as represented in the Assembly. The current draft of Clause 13 is not about securing political fixes or tampering with the balance of power in the Assembly, rather we believe it affords greater certainty and stability within the Assembly in relation to community designations.
Similar arguments apply in relation to Amendment No. 11 and it is right that I should repeat that this is something the parties may choose to look at. It would be open to the committee established by Clause 11 to include consideration of the voting mechanisms within the list of things it wishes to look at. If it were recommending a change to the definition of cross-community support, that would require a change in the primary legislation and would therefore fall to the two Governments to review in consultation with the parties before we would consider bringing such legislation to Parliament.
I appreciate—the noble Baroness has given examples—the level at which Amendment No. 11 sets the bar would mean in practice, and based on the current Assembly arithmetic, that in effect you could still secure cross-community acceptance even without the labels. But the reality is that we cannot assume that the balance between the different sections of the community will always be the same. We could set a threshold that works for the current arithmetic but which does not work for the figures following the next election or the ones after that. It is difficult, and probably inappropriate, to legislate in the general for a particular set of circumstances that may not continue to apply. However, in no way is that a criticism because the noble Baroness is trying to find a solution to what is perceived to be a problem. However, I think that it would be a problem if it was put into this legislation. The scope is there for change in the future and that change—I say this without being derogatory—could come from the bottom up; that is, from the Assembly itself and the Executive discussing these issues. But if the changes gained support among the stakeholders of the Belfast agreement, they would come back to this House because they would require primary legislation.
I am grateful to the Minister for that thoughtful and comprehensive response to my amendments. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for recognising the problems that Alliance had with designations in the past and no doubt will have also in the future. I have spoken at length on these amendments, I shall speak no further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 11 agreed to.
Clause 12 agreed to.
Clause 13 [Community designation]:
[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]
Clause 13 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]
Clause 14 agreed to.
Clause 15 [Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots language etc]:
[Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 not moved.]
On Question, Whether Clause 15 shall stand part of the Bill?
Why are some issues of public policy listed in the Bill but not others? Why does the Bill require any new Executive to address some policy issues but not others? What is the basis for requiring specific action on poverty and language issues but not, for example, on a shared future, equality or victims matters? What was the rationale for these selections? Why are the Government putting such statutory duties on the Executive at all? Should it not be up to the Executive to decide whether their priorities are promoting minority languages, promoting equality, dealing with poverty or promoting the Shared Future agenda? Those are my comments on whether Clause 15 should stand part of the Bill.
I move now to Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 16, standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton, who is unable to be with us tonight. Under Amendment No. 15 we are attempting to ensure that there is a duty on the Executive to do more on single equality issues. Amendment No. 16 places a duty on the Executive to further develop the present policies and practices for promoting the Shared Future agenda. We spoke earlier about the dangers of institutionalising division in the Assembly and so it is important to tackle the underlying divisions in Northern Ireland. Only by doing this will we achieve a long-lasting settlement.
In March 2005 the Government published their policy paper, A Shared Future, which set out the strategic framework for promoting good community relations in Northern Ireland, which has been and remains, sadly, a deeply divided society. But, rather than these divisions being addressed and overcome, they have been more institutionalised. In the public sector, housing has become much more segregated. In the vast majority of housing estates less than 10 per cent of residents are regarded as coming from a perceived different section of the community. In education, only 5 per cent of children attend schools that are integrated in ethos. The Alliance Party has estimated that £1 billion is wasted every year on duplicate services in Northern Ireland. This cannot go on, as we have said on many occasions. Surely it should be the first priority of the Executive to ensure that policies are promoted which encourage sharing over separation. We must all work for an open and free society where all citizens are equal and where we celebrate diversity and cherish individuality.
Amendment No. 16 would place a duty on the Executive to adopt a standard set of procedures for pupils transferring from primary schools to secondary schools. There is a very real concern in Northern Ireland that if this issue is not resolved quickly a vacuum will be created whereby ad hoc arrangements will be introduced by individual schools and there will not be any consistency in the arrangements. The specifics of such arrangements will be worked out by the Assembly. We place no requirements whatever on the Executive as to what direction they should take. The only duty the amendment would place on the Executive is to adopt a standard practice and procedure.
The designations voting system reinforces divisions rather than assisting parties to reach an accommodation as a straightforward weighted majority would do. There is a real danger that if unionists and nationalists dig in on supporting or opposing selection, children in Northern Ireland will suffer.
I should like to deal first with the noble Baroness’s general point about Clause 15 stand part. The clause places a duty on the incoming Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to adopt a strategy relating to the enhancement and protection of the development of the Irish language and to the enhancement and development of the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture. The clause also provides for the review, revision and adoption of new strategies. The noble Baroness asked where all this has come from. I said earlier that there was a reference in the St Andrews agreement containing a commitment to introduce the Bill.
The noble Baroness may be interested to know, being a good European, as Lib Dems are, that in its draft report to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the Committee of Experts—COMEX—and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages recommended that the UK Government develop a comprehensive Irish language policy and strengthen the efforts to improve the position of Scots and Ulster Scots. The strategies referred to in the Bill will enable the Government to respond to that committee’s recommendations. The COMEX report will be available early in the new year. The antecedents of this strategy come from elsewhere, with suggestions that the Government take action. It is then mentioned in the St Andrews agreement, hence the reference in the Bill. It is on the record and there is no ulterior motive. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness on Clause 15.
We very much welcome the thrust of Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 on strategies on equality and a shared future and the recognition of their importance. We appreciate the purpose and intention of the amendments. However, it is our view that Section 75(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 already provides the basis for a standard approach to equality across all departments in Northern Ireland and that the amendments are unnecessary. I do not want to share all my experiences with the Committee; nevertheless, I can say without qualification that Section 75 is taken extremely seriously by all departments and members of society in Northern Ireland, the Government and the Civil Service. It is fundamental and appears in every policy paper.
We recognise the importance of A Shared Future. The amended pledge of office will underscore that by committing Ministers to promoting the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future. The title and language are in the pledge. That is important because the ideas behind A Shared Future are fundamental. We are after a shared future, not communities living in parallel lines and segregated.
The existing policy already provides for annual progress reports to the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly on the implementation of the triennial action plan. In presenting such progress reports, the Executive would be able to review or bring forward a new strategy or approach to the implementation.
The new clause introduced by Amendment No. 16 would place a new requirement on the Executive Committee which would duplicate the regulations and statutory guidance already provided for in the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 which this House approved in July. It is our clear view that these amendments should not be accepted and I hope that the noble Baroness will not press them.
The noble Baroness asked about clarity in school admissions. We are sure that the Northern Ireland parties do not want an unregulated system of admissions criteria. This would lead to even greater uncertainty and anxiety for parents and pupils, which is frankly in nobody’s interests. The Northern Ireland political parties demanded responsibility for decisions on academic selection and new admission arrangements. The Bill provides for that. They need to work together to devise new arrangements that will command the support of the Assembly and the Executive. Those will be in the best interests of children and the economy. The Northern Ireland politicians have a duty and responsibility to their electorate to ensure that the new arrangements are devised in the time available. We want to end ambiguity and uncertainty.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response to the amendments. I am grateful for the Government’s recognition that the amendments are important, even though they do not feel that they are necessary.
Clause 15 agreed to.
Clause 16 agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 14 to 16 not moved.]
Clause 17 agreed to.
Clause 18 [Report on progress towards devolution of policing and justice matters]:
On Question, Whether Clause 18 shall stand part of the Bill?
We wish to oppose the Question whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill, because I want to make it clear that we view it with considerable trepidation. The devolution of justice and policing matters has to be treated very sensitively. I remember many years ago Seamus Mallon, who was then Deputy First Minister, saying in another place that this could be contemplated only when it could be shown that the Assembly and its Executive were stable and robust. Parachuting in this issue when the Assembly is not stable and robust would be a recipe for disaster. It is a matter which we in our discussions with government and other parties over the years treated with considerable caution. We were careful to avoid making commitments of the kind which Clause 18 imposes and which flow from the St Andrews agreement, presumably reflecting the discussions which took place between the parties there.
I have heard a number of members of the DUP in recent days and weeks make it clear that those individuals do not envisage an early devolution of policing and justice matters, but, none the less, this clause comes out of the negotiation in which they were engaged and for which the Government believe they expressed broad support. They now have the opportunity to clarify that matter. I am concerned that they have already moved to the stage of discussions on devolution of policing and justice, which the St Andrews agreement states have progressed. They are moving towards agreeing a date and creating a process, whereas I had always taken great care not to commit to any date or process. In paragraph 7 of the St Andrews agreement, which is embodied in Clause 18, the Government state that,
“implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary”.
That implementation flows just down to March this year. Are the Government putting on record their view that, once the St Andrews timetable is implemented—immediately after 27 March—that is sufficient to build the necessary community confidence? If so, that is a huge shift in their position and one of grave disadvantage to the unionist position.
The matter should be raised, and for that reason I indicated an intention to oppose stand part. However, in view of the hour and the fact that some people have voted in favour of their stomachs, if not yet their sleep, I shall not press this beyond making those comments.
I shall touch briefly on Amendment No. 17, which is in my name. We have discussed the issue many times here and in another place over the years, and have put on record our firm and unaltered opposition to discrimination in employment. It has always amazed me that this Government, who have embodied the European convention in domestic law and are proud of their commitment to human rights, turn out to have no real commitment to rights as such, because the first time that it becomes convenient to ditch rights they do so. They are constantly hinting at doing so in other fields as well. It amazes me that a Government who sometimes talk about commitments to human rights turn out to have merely a skin-deep commitment to them.
We have always opposed the procedure. Over the years, we have managed to achieve a position in which it was said—only said, of course—that the next renewal was envisaged as the last, and that it would not be continued after that. My colleague the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, said when we discussed this earlier that it was always envisaged in Patten—the provision flowed from Patten—that it would operate until such point as the percentage of Roman Catholics in the police force had got to 22 per cent.
It astonishes me that the Democratic Unionist Party, which in the past was opposed to discrimination, now trumpets as one of its achievements that it has abandoned opposition to discriminatory employment, and that it supports its continuation until the percentage of Catholics in the police force reaches 30 per cent, which may run beyond the period for which it is envisaged that the provision will go. The DUP has actually agreed to an extension beyond the point originally envisaged. That is presented as a great thing, but I fear not.
The noble Lord has a memory lapse. It is interesting that he cites the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, someone whom I know very well and someone whom I live about half a mile from. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, introduced the discrimination; it was his brainchild. I find it difficult to understand how the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, can say what he says here tonight. I want to refute it clearly, and to make it clear where the Democratic Unionist Party stands in relation to that issue.
Policing is very important. If anybody for a single second—for a single solitary moment—believes that in the lifetime of anyone who is presently engaged in politics in Northern Ireland Sinn Fein would be entrusted with the policing of Northern Ireland, I respectfully say to them that they are under a delusion. As far as the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned, Sinn Fein will not be in such a position, because Sinn Fein would not have the confidence of the unionist community—and at the moment the Democratic Unionists speak for the unionist community in Northern Ireland. I cannot make it any clearer than that, and nor can my party—and it is on the record in another place. It has been clearly said that that will not happen. I must make that point.
Clearly we are in a different environment. I understand why the noble Lord wanted to intervene and what he said is interesting. I simply reflect on the fact that he pronounced proudly that the Democratic Unionist Party speaks for the unionists. I would observe only that its speaking for unionists at St Andrews helped to produce this—and there is a disjunction there. Either it did not speak or spoke ineffectively; either way, it is a rather uncomfortable conclusion to draw.
The comments that the noble Lord made about my noble friend Lord Maginnis of Drumglass were misconceived and inaccurate. What was in Patten is something quite different from the ideas that my noble friend explored as different ways in which to achieve the objective. Indeed, looking back, there was a lot to be said in preference for his proposal—and my noble friend knows that I did not support it at the time. In retrospect, his proposal was a darned sight better than what happened under Patten, but the two things are quite different.
This is old ground. We—and I—have been absolutely clear right from the outset what our position is and, unlike the DUP, we have not changed. The reality is that on this issue the DUP has, which is a shame. It weakens the overall unionist position, which is unfortunate. I am referring to discriminatory recruitment. It would be desirable if the DUP, instead of going around saying what a great thing it is that we are going to continue discriminatory employment for several more years, returned to a position which all unionists have hitherto held.
Those are the only comments that I wish to make on those amendments. I do not wish to move Amendments Nos. 30, 34 and 36 in my name. I told the Public Bill Office that I wanted to oppose Clause 18 stand part but, in view of the hour and the circumstances, I shall not. When the appropriate time comes, I shall not move my amendments.
I have a number of amendments in this grouping—Amendments Nos. 31, 32, 33, 35 and 37, about which I shall speak briefly. Those are about district policing partnerships—DPPs— which have the job of holding the police to account on local issues. They are composed of a majority of political members drawn from Northern Ireland’s councils as well as a minority of independent members.
Schedule 8 rightly provides that when Sinn Fein is entitled to political membership of a DPP, all political members of the DPP are automatically stood down so that space can be made for Sinn Fein councillors to join DPPs. However, it also provides that independent members of DPPs will be automatically fired and will have to reapply if they wish to serve again. Independent members are just that—independent. They should not be fired just because Sinn Fein is joining the board. They were appointed for a four-year term, and it is wrong to sack them after just one and a half years, especially when one considers that many of them have been intimidated by Sinn Fein and attacked by republican dissidents. It may be difficult for some of them to re-apply, dealing a lasting blow to the DPPs. Nothing in the St Andrews agreement requires that.
These amendments safeguard the position of independent Members. Under our amendments, the only circumstance in which the independent Members will lose their position is if, upon Sinn Fein joining the board, there is an overall imbalance in the composition of the DPP.
I have one amendment in this group, Amendment No. 18, which also refers to DPPs. Having argued against the setting up of DPPs a few years ago, it is fair to say that I was largely wrong and that they have proved to be very successful in the Province. To a large extent, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has been saying, but my amendment looks forward to the reorganisation of local government, and all the policing alterations and so on that will take place there. I believe that a complete review is needed if we expect people to travel the distances involved in a DPP and be in contact with a whole area that might encompass, for example, Tyrone and Fermanagh. I have not yet studied the boundaries, but they are quite considerable.
I strongly support local authorities, as the Minister knows. I believe that their size will require a rethink of the structure of DPPs and how they work with the police. My amendment aims to initiate a review of the number of boundaries and district policing partnerships outside Belfast. I believe this is a positive and necessary amendment. I would like to feel that it was part and parcel of this Bill, which is attempting to tidy up a lot of things.
I support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. It is worth while looking at the numbers and the background of the DPPs, especially the independents. I was on the committee of the Policing Board. I would not say that we worked it out, but we were in charge of appointing DPPs. The make-up of the independents was decided after the numbers of party political representatives nominated to the DPP were known. So where Sinn Fein opted out, the balance erred towards those who took part, being a few from the SDLP and other pro-unionist parties. If, therefore, you take an instance of a community where the numbers of representatives in the local council were roughly equal between nationalist and unionist, it would be weighted the other way because Sinn Fein did not take part and had not used up its places. At that stage, we would then appoint the independents, in order to level the playing field and reflect the composition of the community within whose area that DPP was.
If the whole system were to be re-operated and Sinn Fein took up its places, certain independents—who would probably be on the nationalist side because they were balancing the lack of Sinn Fein on the political side—might lose their places. So that could be done, but we are betraying the people who took part. We are not actually talking about the reduction in the number of so-called unionist people, who were vulnerable enough by being on the DPPs. We are actually hitting the pro-nationalist independents, who have risked an awful lot by taking part.
We have had very large numbers—sorry, I am no longer on the Policing Board—it has had very large numbers of people who have been intimidated and who have been firebombed and for whom we have had to add, through the various measures that are in operation in the NIO, additional protection and so on. Those people, to be honest, have put their lives on the line. You only have to look at what happened to Denis Bradley in Derry. They have put their lives on the line, and because Sinn Fein which, to be quite frank, is perhaps—or at least has been—at the root of the intimidation that those people suffered, we are now going to say to them, “Thank you very much—you’re off”.
This is a tremendous betrayal of what has amounted to people’s conviction and honesty about the future of Northern Ireland from the nationalist side. This is a tremendous betrayal of them. If Sinn Fein takes part, it should either be additional, or the independents should not be disrupted for it. The whole part that the Policing Board and the DPPs play is entirely based on the voluntary side of the independents. The real heroes of that are those who come from the nationalist side of the population and who have played their part in the future.
At the outset, given the points that the noble Viscount has just made, I make it clear that draft legislation provides that the decision to reconstitute a district policing partnership is a matter for the Policing Board. The issue must be done at that level. I fully accept what has been said—
With all due respect, and the Minister may have something that says entirely different, at any time the Policing Board only operated within the directions of the Government and within the legislation that was laid down. It was never within our power, as far as I am concerned, to alter the formation or the constitution. We chose the members, and we were directed entirely to produce as close a reflection of the local population as possible; and we would have been challenged on anything else. Should the Government follow through with this action, the Policing Board will be challenged on that issue.
I will take advice on this; there will be time because I have only just stood up. The Policing Board has issued a press release. My response to it is:
“The draft legislation”—
that is this Bill—
“provides that the decision to reconstitute a district policing partnership is a matter for the Policing Board”.
I will get more chapter and verse on that as I am going through. If not, I will certainly write to noble Lords. It is a sensitive issue, for the reasons explained. I fully understand that. I am in no way diminishing what has gone on with people who have wanted to help their community by supporting the police and by being part of the district policing partnerships. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, they have been a success, having not initially been fully in favour.
I will take the broad brush of Clause 18. I hope that I can allay the obvious fears of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. The clause places an obligation on the Assembly to provide a report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on its consideration of policing and justice. The report is to address the preparations that the Assembly has made and intends to make for the devolution of such matters, which matters the Assembly is likely to seek to have devolved, and whether a request is likely to be made before 1 May 2008 that responsibility for such matters should be devolved.
The clause also amends Section 4(2A) and (6) and Section 21A(8) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, all inserted by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006. All three subsections refer to a
“devolved policing and justice matter”.
However, while these are matters that the Government are committed to devolving when circumstances are right, they are currently reserved. The clause removes the adjective “devolved” in this context in order to clarify the position.
The clause does not affect any of the safeguards on the transfer of responsibility. It remains the case that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, must table a Motion for a resolution of the Assembly that policing and justice matters be devolved; the Assembly must resolve that issue with cross-community support; the Secretary of State must concur and lay a draft order before Parliament; and both Houses of Parliament must approve that order. That is a quadruple lock on the devolution of policing and justice matters. None of that is affected in any way, shape or form by Clause 18.
Turning to the specific amendments that were spoken to, Amendment No. 18 relates to the temporary provisions for police recruitment. I know that noble Lords who have spoken and many others harbour principled misgivings about this measure, and that has been raised in the House in recent times. But the misgivings were there when the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, led by Chris Patten, now the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made its report. It reflected the agreed principle of the Belfast agreement that the police service should be representative of the society that it polices.
The report highlighted the imbalance between the number of Catholics and Protestants as “the most striking problem” in the composition of the police, above issues of gender and ethnic minority representation, which the commission acknowledged were important. The report recommended recruitment of Protestants and Catholics on an equal basis as an exceptional measure, because no one knew what would happen, to try to provide a more representative police service within a reasonable timeframe.
An astonishing 70,000 applications have been received from across the whole community since those provisions were introduced, clearly from a new generation of young men and women who are determined to devote their lives to policing. In only five years, because of the 50:50 temporary provisions, Catholic composition among regular officers has risen from 8.3 per cent to 20.79 per cent. In the same time frame, female composition has also risen from 13 per cent to 20.8 per cent. This is undoubtedly a success story by any stretch of the imagination, in terms of both Catholic and female representation in the police service, and it is one of the most significant reasons why public confidence in policing is increasing across most of the community.
I had personal experience of that when I went out with my drivers, if I may call them that, because they were more than that, as colleagues will know. When I have visited certain locations to have a chat with the police on the beat, more often than not I have happened to deal with female officers. That may be a coincidence, but nevertheless, there is a large number of them.
We believe that temporary measures are justified to correct an acute historical imbalance in the composition of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I emphasise “temporary measures”. We have also said, both in this House and another place, that they will not stay in place a day longer than is necessary and that is reinforced in annex B of the St Andrews agreement. Government policy is firmly committed to achieving a progressive increase in Catholic representation in the police service. Our objective is and has always been to reach 30 per cent representation of Catholics as regular police officers by 2010-11.
These temporary provisions are subject to a triennial review and will expire unless specifically renewed by an order, subject to the draft affirmative procedure. The temporary provisions are currently due to expire on 28 March 2007 and the basis for a further review is currently the subject of consultation. The Government intend to introduce a further renewal order to commence with effect from 29 March 2007. This order will be subject to detailed debate in both this House and another place. Therefore, we want to continue with this until we hit the 30 per cent target. If we can do so within the time-frame, that will be excellent. At that point, it will stop because the objective will have been achieved.
I reiterate that these are purely temporary measures. They do not tear up fair jobs and equality agreements. They are designed for a specific purpose out of a specific commission report and, what is more, they are working: the numbers are changing dramatically, as I have explained to the Committee.
The Government do not support the inclusion of the new clause proposed in Amendment No. 18. A key element of the Patten recommendations was the importance of accountability and, in particular, local accountability. This vital link has been forged by putting structures in place whereby the district policing partnerships are in line with both the PSNI's district command units and district councils. The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 gives effect to these structures, requiring the district policing partnerships to have the same boundaries as the PSNI's district command units and district councils. However, the implementation of the Review of Public Administration will have an impact on policing structures. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently developing these new structures and the Policing Board is still considering the post-RPA structures for DPPs. That—if I can say it in English—takes account of the decision of direct rule Ministers, which the Assembly will get a grip on, to reduce the number of district councils from 26 to seven. The police agree with that: they want to change their boundaries as well.
We want to ensure that any changes to the current district policing partnerships structures as a result of the implementation of the Review of Public Administration do not weaken local accountability and links to local communities. We want those to continue. We will carry on working with the Policing Board in the development of the post-RPA structures for DPPs to ensure that their proposals reflect Patten’s vision of both strong local accountability and links to the local community.
The Government do not support Amendment No. 30, as it would prolong the period of the review of each district policing partnership. The Government seek to have the Northern Ireland Policing Board undertake the review of each DPP as quickly as possible, as this is the first step in the process of reconstituting affected DPPs. Furthermore, we do not support Amendments Nos. 31, 32 and 35, which are consequential to it.
Perhaps either I did not hear clearly or I do not fully understand. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and I were saying that, should the Assembly go ahead in the mean time—and it will be well ahead of the reform of the RPA, which will of course mean a total reorganisation of areas, DPP areas and so on, which we accept—the Policing Board will be under an obligation to reform the DPPs as they presently stand. The noble Lord has answered a different question—namely, would we object to reforming the DPPs post the RPA? We know that. The police have been working on the policing areas since I was on the Policing Board. I completely understand that. But we are asking an entirely different question. The timescales for the two things are not, and will not be, identical.
I could ask the noble Lord when the RPA will come into effect but I am absolutely sure that it will not be in March next year. I am sure that it will be some way ahead. Therefore, our question to the Minister is: should Sinn Fein be able to take up its position on the DPPs after the resurrection of the Assembly, will or will not the Policing Board be obliged to reform them in the mean time and therefore ditch the loyalty of, in particular, nationalist members of the DPPs?
I hear what the noble Viscount says. I realised that there were two questions, and I have answered two questions. I shall give more detail to point to the relevant part of the draft legislation. I appreciate that there are two distinct issues: one is the reconstitution of the partnerships following the change in the boundaries of local government, and the other is the membership relating to the independence if the political composition changes. I may not be giving the answers that are required, as it were, but I appreciate that there are two distinct issues to address.
Before going on to Amendment No. 35, I shall go back to the decision to reconstitute the district policing partnerships. The Policing Board is required to consider the political indications and whether or not they are met in relation to each district policing partnership. That is a judgment for the board. If it is not set, it is the board’s judgment that the DPPs must be reconstituted in accordance with the requirement that the membership taken together is representative of the community in the district—political plus independence.
I draw the noble Viscount’s attention to paragraph 2(6) of Schedule 8, on page 37 of the Bill, which states:
“For the purposes of this paragraph the political condition is met in relation to a DPP if the political members of the DPP reflect, so far as practicable, the balance of parties prevailing among the member of the council on the commencement date”.
The restoration of the Assembly will not affect the district policing partnerships—only the board. The commencement for the draft in Schedule 8 will be a matter for the Secretary of State, but it could happen before the implementation of the RPA. I understand that the RPA implementation is 2009. There are many changes, which I fully accept, simply because direct rule Ministers have been left to push forward a reform programme. We said that if we were there we would push it faster. That was the incentive for the Assembly to get a grip on it. Many changes are taking place in local government in Northern Ireland in terms of rates, water, education and other things. I appreciate that the coming together of some of these means that some dates and actions could happen inconveniently to people. I fully accept that, and would be happy to put this in a letter if it needs further explanation. But that is where the responsibility lies.
I shall deal briefly with Amendments Nos. 35, 31 and 32. Amendment No. 35 would seek an additional condition for the Northern Ireland Policing Board in reviewing each district policing partnership. The Government would have to have the Northern Ireland Policing Board undertake a review of each DPP using the most objective information available. They believe that the examination of the political membership of the DPP provides that.
Amendment No. 33 requires the board to publish a list of DPPs which do not meet the representative condition set out in Amendment No. 35. We are mindful of the effect that the reconstitution of the DPPs will have on all current independent partnership members. Obviously we pay tribute to the crucial work that all DPPs have been doing since their establishment, and for the sheer courage and determination of people who, in wanting to do their public duty, have faced threats of intimidation. In recognition of the role that existing independent members have played, the Secretary of State will make the necessary amendments to the current code of practice on the appointment of independent members not just to reflect the changes brought about by this draft legislation but to put in place arrangements to facilitate as far as possible currently serving independent DPP members seeking reappointment.
As the Government would seek to ensure that the DPP’s political membership reflects the latest political representation in that district—not just Sinn Fein inclusion but possible changes in other political parties—we do not propose to support Amendment No. 34 either. We wish to maintain the position for those councillors who do not currently hold a party political affiliation. They are currently treated as a party in respect of the appointment of political members of the DPP. It is in line with the current arrangements set out in Schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, and ensures that an independent member of the council shall be treated as a party for the purposes of the Bill. Therefore, we do not support Amendment No. 36 either. I hope what I have said is sufficient for the House to approve Clause 18, which is what this is all about.
I thank the Minister for his earlier comments—that is a formal statement. In the light of that, I drop my opposition to the Question whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill.
Clause 18 agreed to.
Clauses 19 and 20 agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 not moved.]
Clause 21 [Amendment of Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 etc]:
[Amendment No. 19 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 18, line 9, leave out “In”
The noble Lord said: I am sorry that the amendment has come at this time of the evening. I would have liked to have had a big Division and won it. This is one of the worst parts of the Bill. It is quite unnecessary. Apart from rates, which we debated under a statutory instrument a week or two ago, if ever there was a decision that should be taken by the Assembly, it is academic selection. It is clearly a major part of the education system.
The Government tell us that the Assembly will be sitting in a few weeks, but they do not have the trust or belief in themselves to wait three months before making a decision on academic selection. It is a dogma of part of the new Labour Party to do away with academic selection. The Conservative Party strongly believe in it. We accept that the 11-plus has gone, and are not particularly perturbed about that. Academic selection needs reviewing and rehashing, but some form of academic selection is vital. Without it, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, pointed out in his Second Reading speech, there will almost inevitably be chaos in the schools, and the process of various children getting into their parents’ choice of school; or maybe there will be no choice at all. Without any form of selection of this type, the net result will be a pretty disastrous situation in our education process.
My amendment was different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, which was rather stronger. He wanted the complete removal of academic selection from the Bill. My suggestion was based largely on democratic grounds, as well as the political and human grounds I have mentioned, because I do not believe in thrusting things down people’s throats, rightly or wrongly. My amendment was designed to delay the decision until 2010, by which time two good things should have happened: the Assembly should be up and running, and the Tory Party should be governing the country. Having said that, I beg to move.
The noble Lord was commendably brief, and I hope to be equally brief. I realise that he would have liked a full House, a big vote and a big shout about this, but we had the full House in July. Nothing has changed since then. By a substantial majority, this House was willing to approve the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. That is the reality.
Grammar schools are not being abolished. They will continue to provide their distinctive curriculum. The basis on which pupils will transfer from primary to secondary education will be a matter for the restored Assembly, if it is there. The Assembly will decide whether this should include academic selection and, if so, what the arrangements should be. We agreed all that in July. Tonight we are simply altering the timetable for restoration. The Government have their own view of what would be the most suitable outcome for Northern Ireland, but we have not imposed it. The Northern Ireland parties will decide, if devolution is restored. That applies equally to many other policies of reform, as we have repeatedly made clear. If devolution is not restored, there is a duty on the Government to act to remove the uncertainty in a way that reflects the outcome of the major reviews that have taken place over four to six years. In contrast, some of the amendments merely delay the decision, which is in nobody’s interest. I hope that the noble Lord does not press his amendment. I have been briefer than he was.
I thank the Minister for his brief response. I know that we have been over this ground. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 21 to 25 not moved.]
Clause 21 agreed to.
Clauses 22 and 23 agreed to.
Clause 24 [Parliamentary procedure for orders under section 23]:
[Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 not moved.]
Clause 24 agreed to.
Clauses 25 and 26 agreed to.
Clause 27 [Commencement]:
[Amendment No. 28 not moved.]
Clause 27 agreed to.
Clause 28 agreed to.
Schedule 1 [The Transitional Assembly]:
[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Schedules 2 to 7 agreed to.
Schedule 8 [Reconstitution of district policing partnerships]:
[Amendment Nos. 30 to 37 not moved.]
Schedule 8 agreed to.
Schedule 9 agreed to.
House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.
Bill read a third time, and passed.