House of Lords
Wednesday, 22 November 2006.
The House met at three of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Gulf War Illnesses
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further help they are considering for veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War with still medically unexplained illnesses and the dependants of those who have died since the conflict.
My Lords, the needs of Gulf veterans remain a priority for the Government. Possible causes of their illnesses have been thoroughly researched and we monitor relevant work in the United States. We shall investigate new proposals on causation where sensible. As recommended by the independent Medical Research Council, we are giving priority to research into rehabilitative therapies to improve the long-term health of Gulf veterans. Appropriate medical treatment is provided and pensions as appropriate.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend whose personal concern for the afflicted and bereaved is undoubted, but is it not disquieting that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal itself finds the MoD guilty not only of “highly regrettable” delay in responding to its decisions but of “redefining” and even “tampering” with them?
Moreover, is he aware that this week the Royal British Legion described a recent ministerial Statement to this House on vaccines used by the MoD as,
“yet another insult to Gulf Veterans who are still no clearer about their medically unexplained illnesses.”?
When can they now expect closure of a dispute that should have been settled years ago?
My Lords, I am sincerely grateful to my noble friend for continuing to raise the issues of concern to Gulf War veterans. It is absolutely central to the desire of the Ministry of Defence to achieve closure on this matter, and at a meeting that I attended with the Gulf veterans Minister in the summer I felt that we were close to doing so. However, the recent statements by the Royal British Legion indicate that we have some way to go.
My noble friend is right to highlight concerns about the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s point. We recognise that we need to do more on this issue, and I know that my honourable friend is willing to meet representatives of veterans. Frankly, the Ministry of Defence is not clear what issues would achieve closure with Gulf War veterans. We need to work harder to get that clarity and work to achieve that closure.
My Lords, I shall press the Minister a little further on that. Do the Government agree with the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s criticism of the Veterans Agency for refusing to accept the term “Gulf War syndrome” for 14 years, a term that the agency now accepts? In view of that, will the Government consider writing to the 1,370 Gulf War veterans who have had their claims rejected on the grounds that “Gulf War syndrome” was not the correct label to offer some compensation for the trouble and the distress they have been caused owing to the error of the Veterans Agency, or at least to apologise?
My Lords, they will be kept informed through a number of mechanisms. First, there is the publication of the results in peer review journals, which we bring to the attention of veterans through their representative organisations, through Members of this House who represent veterans, and through the Ministry of Defence website. We also need to go further, as I have said. We need to write to those veterans for whom this is most relevant. We need to do so when we are clear about the issues that will achieve final closure. I feel that we are close, but there is not sufficient clarity about what that closure would be based on. We need to do more, and we are prepared to do that.
My Lords, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group. I will press the Minister one step further. He will be aware that the legion and the veterans believe that the recent statement by his colleague, the Minister for Veterans has misrepresented the outcome of the recent research. Will he give an undertaking that as soon as possible he and his colleagues will meet the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group and the veterans to clear this matter up once and for all?
My Lords, I am absolutely happy to give an assurance that my colleague, the Minister for Veterans, will meet representatives of the Royal British Legion as soon as possible. I understand that there are dates in the diary to meet a number of representatives soon. I do not accept, however, that he has misrepresented the research; he has not. The research findings, through peer review, have been very clear in what they have determined. Having read it myself, I can say that what he said was an accurate representation of the research findings.
My Lords, the Minister has said that Her Majesty’s Government are following American research. Is there still a full-time Gulf Health Liaison Officer based in Washington? Is there still a British representative on the US Persian Gulf Veterans’ Co-ordinating Board research working group? If those two posts are still in place, will he explain why, in Written Answers to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, myself, and other noble Lords, Her Majesty’s Government seem to know nothing about the research that is going on in America into immune system damage, nervous system function and a lot of other things?
My Lords, my understanding is that we continue to have that representation. We do follow closely the research undertaken in the United States. In the Written Answers that we have given, we have reflected our level of understanding of where research is today in this very difficult and complex area for which, unfortunately, we do not have the answer to the causes of Gulf War illnesses today. We, as a Government, are diligent in looking for evidence. That evidence has not yet been found. We will continue to support research if that research will help us better to understand the causes of illness. Our focus now is on the understanding of what best can be done for rehabilitation, which we feel is the right priority at this time.
My Lords, on 8 June, the Minister told me that it would be inappropriate to write to each of the 53,000 Gulf War veterans to update them. What data has he had since on the success of his approach, which was to put the information on the web? How has he publicised the web information?
My Lords, the 53,000 figure that I gave earlier is correct for the total number of Gulf War veterans. I gave an answer earlier relating to the number of Gulf War veterans for whom the Gulf War illness issue is of most concern. Our understanding in the Ministry of Defence, through liaison with the representatives of those Gulf War veterans, is that it is approximately 1,300 people. We have made the commitment, and we are prepared to write to those people to give them further information. We need to have a better understanding of the issues relating to closure. In terms of the further publication of the results, we are doing everything that we can to make sure that people fully understand the conclusions that have been reached from research. If people have ideas about how the Ministry of Defence could go further, I would be happy to listen to those ideas and pass them on to my honourable friend.
Transport: Rail and Air
My Lords, The Future of Air Transport White Paper recognises the important role of rail services in providing an alternative to air travel. The Government have invested heavily in upgrading the rail network, improving the frequency of services and reducing journey times, thereby increasing its attractiveness compared to air.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while market forces are obviously crucial in a modern economy such as ours, they do not necessarily lead to the best outcome for the environment, especially as train fares to parts of this country may be three times as high as the comparable plane fares? Does he agree that the Government need to take further their policy of improving the west coast main line in particular, possibly with a high-speed link, given that otherwise—according to this morning’s news—there may not be the ability to carry all the passengers on that service in 10 years’ time?
My Lords, this morning’s news was an unvarnished tale of success in terms of the increase in the number of rail journeys. The pressures on the system are due to that increase, which reflects the fact that the comparative position between rail and air is changing because of the quality of the rail service. My noble friend is right on the broader issues regarding emissions and climate change. Of course we must consider measures other than just the market.
My Lords, am I right in thinking that pollution per passenger mile for a fully loaded train is more than that for a modern airliner, such as the Airbus A380? Its makers claim that it is less polluting per passenger mile than the most modern, energy-efficient car.
My Lords, that depends a great deal upon the distances being travelled. This Question is about travel within the United Kingdom. On the broader issues, the noble Lord is right in one obvious respect; namely, that modern aircraft are considerably less polluting than their predecessors and that is due to improvements in technology. We look towards such improvements with regard to aviation pollution, but that does not alter the fact that if processes continue at the present level, aviation pollution in the atmosphere will increase by a very substantial percentage over the next two decades. That is why we are addressing the question of aircraft emissions.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that in respect of the announcement on the west coast main line, he has not focused on the concerns expressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General? They were that, despite the £8.6 billion investment in that line, there is a danger of early obsolescence with the electronic signalling and that the industry does not believe that it will be able to deal with the potential uplift which, in the past year, has been encouraging, with a 20 per cent growth.
My Lords, it is right that we take into account the contribution by the National Audit Office that identifies potential bottlenecks two decades on, but that reflects a substantial increase in passenger traffic in recent years. The noble Lord is right: that we need to look at potential further investment in that line and that one of the constraints may be the quality of signalling available. But in other respects, as Virgin has indicated, some extra demand can be met by lengthening trains and by some increased frequency of service.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating British Airways, British Midland and easyJet on the provision of cheap air fares from Aberdeen, Inverness and the northern airports to London and other European destinations, so that ordinary, hard-working people and their families can travel to London? While recognising the admirable green qualities of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in his role as Deputy Chief Whip, have a kindly word with him and remind him that ordinary working-class families are what we on this side are all about?
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that all my words, both public and private, to my noble friend Lord Dubs are kindly, but I take on board the point that my noble friend emphasises. Cheap air travel has increased opportunities for people to travel within the United Kingdom, particularly on journeys from Scotland. Those journeys are and will remain lengthy by any other form of transport, and that is why air travel has a role to play. We should recognise that companies have succeeded in providing opportunities for people across the range.
My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that some parts of the United Kingdom will not have the luxury of competition between trains and aeroplanes from London until we get a tunnel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Does he realise that this week it cost me £380 to come here by British Midland and that today my son-in-law came from Northern Ireland for £50 with easyJet? There is a wide range of prices for travelling by air. Does the noble Lord agree that the Government should not get involved in manipulating and controlling the price of aeroplane tickets?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reinforcing the point that I sought to make in my opening reply, which is that the Government have no intent to interfere in the pricing policies of air or rail travel. I take on board his point that, although we congratulate ourselves—rightly—on improved rail services, that has limited significance to those who travel to this country from Northern Ireland.
Roads: Fatal Accidents
My Lords, in 2005, there were 465 road fatalities involving a driver aged 17 to 19, of whom 149 were drivers in that age range. These are dreadful figures, and this problem is a main focus of a review that we are conducting of our road safety strategy, which we aim to publish in the new year.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that many fatal accidents occur at night, when young newly qualified drivers are carrying passengers, does he agree that targeted advertising would serve to reduce that number of deaths? However, does he accept that the disproportion of fatal accidents affecting young drivers will never properly alter until a balanced package of restrictions and incentives is introduced, currently the subject of inquiry by the Transport Committee in another place?
My Lords, in our review, we will take into account both the conclusions of the Transport Committee in the other place and the representations that we have had from many Members in this House, of which the noble Earl is an excellent example, on how we could improve safety. We are very concerned about the road fatality rates for young drivers but there is no easy answer to this. Part of the problem is that we can introduce all the regulations, restraints and constraints in the world, but if a substantial proportion of these fatalities occurs among people who act lawlessly, such constraints will just be ignored.
My Lords, does my noble friend have any statistics which demonstrate what proportion of the fatalities involving young people also involve the intake of drink? Is not one of the solutions to reducing the number of deaths among 17 to 19 year-olds to reduce the legal blood-alcohol level so that it is equivalent to that which applies elsewhere in Europe?
My Lords, my noble friend has identified a contributory factor which the House would suppose to be germane to this issue. Twelve per cent of the accidents that resulted in fatalities were due to excessive consumption of alcohol or the taking of drugs. Of course, we recognise that that is a feature of some young drivers but, again, I make the point that reducing the level of the alcohol test would mean little to those who were bent on reckless behaviour, and our problem with these statistics lies largely in that area.
My Lords, there is also the sanction of taking away the ability to drive. Punishment is severe when fatalities have occurred, which is where the Question is directed. The issue is not about the level of deterrence in the courts; it relates more to the effective control of drivers who break the law, and society’s recognition of the necessity to bring home to young people who act recklessly in this regard the dreadful consequences that might be visited upon them and on complete strangers who are involved in such accidents.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned lawlessness, and we know that most of those fatalities are associated with youngsters who are uninsured, unlicensed, and may not even have passed their driving test. Surely one of the main problems is that there are far fewer traffic police because of the reliance on speed cameras, so there is no one to catch these young people. Does the Minister agree that if more traffic police were back on the road, some of these people might be apprehended and we would not have all those fatalities?
My Lords, I agree with that. We want traffic police to concentrate on reckless and dangerous driving, which has dramatic and disastrous effects on others, rather than just on speeding, but the noble Lord will recognise that speeding is a major contributory factor to such accidents. He will recognise, too, that the Road Safety Act, which we recently passed, freed up resources through the Highways Agency for more police to be engaged in traffic patrols. Of course I welcome that.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of, I think, eight successful presentations that have taken place in Thames Valley at which members of the emergency services—the practitioners who go to road accidents—seriously injured victims of such accidents and bereaved parents met thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds? Will he ensure that the knowledge of those forceful presentations becomes widespread, because I and other members of an audience of nearly a thousand were very struck by the effect that it had on the young people concerned?
My Lords, the noble Lord has identified a constructive development. There is no doubt that in the process of educating young drivers—indeed, all drivers—our ability to communicate the consequences of careless and reckless driving is extremely important. People who have offended against speed limits are invited to attend a seminar in which they are taught the consequences of excessive speed, and that also appears to be having a beneficial effect.
Children: Healthy Eating
My Lords, the Government welcome Ofcom’s announcement on its proposals to strengthen the rules on broadcast food promotion to children. We now look to Ofcom’s new rules to help prevent children being overexposed to broadcast advertising for less healthy food which—together with the Government’s record investment in promoting school sport and the work to improve school meals and nutrition at home—will support our drive to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010.
My Lords, I am sure that many will wish to join me in congratulating Ofcom on having clearly recognised the need to protect under-16s from the harmful effects of TV advertising in the promotion of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt and particularly on having based its restrictions on the nutrient-proofing model suggested by the Food Standards Agency. However, since Ofcom acknowledges that these proposals will protect children from only less than half of the HFSS adverts that they see—because so many adverts appear during early evening adult programmes which children watch—should not Ofcom now consider imposing a 9 pm watershed on all such kinds of advertising?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that Ofcom took into account strong representations that the restrictions should operate until the 9 pm watershed. Of course, such constraints have consequences for the industry and its advertising revenue. Ofcom has reached this position on the balance, which it is obliged under law to seek, between the wider health needs of the public and the strength of broadcasting and the multiplicity of its production in this country.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that people who look upon this less kindly than I do might say that it is just a bit of tokenism, since children can see all these goods on the shelves when they go shopping with their parents? There is a greater problem: overall on television, there is a huge proportion of food advertising; it is far greater than in most other countries. This, rather than the narrower scene, ought to be looked at.
My Lords, Ofcom is aware that the Government asked it to look at children’s health. I recognise what the noble Baroness says about the wider extent of food advertising, but adults can to a large extent look after themselves.
We are greatly concerned about growing obesity among younger people, and certainly need to address it. This is an important step in that direction, but we would want to see its impact and success before considering anything else.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that Ofcom estimated that £22 million would be lost in advertising revenue to the independent television companies if the current suggested Ofcom guidelines were followed, but that £200 million would be lost if the 9 pm watershed ban, advocated by all responsible consumer and public health organisations, were adopted. Is it not therefore pretty unlikely that Ofcom, which is apparently more concerned with the financial health of TV companies than the future health of the nation, will voluntarily move to an effective ban? Is it not about time for the Government to consider stepping in with regulations sooner rather than later, as they did with television many years ago?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his points. The Government intend to review the position some 18 months to two years from now, and will look at progress being made in the area. My noble friend suggests that Ofcom will somehow not fulfil its duty to the nation when it has regard to the broadcasting industry, but that is its role as defined by legislation. Of course it is wary—particularly in the present climate, when there are problems with certain aspects of television, such as return from advertising—of taking decisions that would cost the industry to the extent that my noble friend accurately identified in his question.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the health of the nation is a more important objective of the Government than the health of the commercial television sector and that if new steps are needed in this sector, they will be taken? With the best will in the world, there is a chance that this will not work, and the Minister must give us a backstop and say that, if it does not work, something will be done.
My Lords, I sought to identify that backstop; namely, the Government intend to look at this situation in the not-too-distant future to see the progress that is being made. The House will recognise that the health of the nation is one of the prime objectives for the Government, and all of us in our society, to promote. Equally clearly, the strength of our television broadcasters is an important feature of the values in our society.
Deputy Chairmen of Committees
Economic Affairs Committee
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I beg to move the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Deputy Chairmen of Committees
Moved, That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed as the panel of members to act as Deputy Chairmen of Committees for this Session:
V Allenby of Megiddo,
L Boston of Faversham,
L Brougham and Vaux,
L Cope of Berkeley,
B Gould of Potternewton,
B Thomas of Walliswood,
B Turner of Camden,
Economic Affairs Committee
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider economic affairs and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the committee:
L Lamont of Lerwick,
L Lawson of Blaby,
L Macdonald of Tradeston,
L MacLaurin of Knebworth,
L Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay,
L Turner of Ecchinswell,
L Vallance of Tummel,
L Wakeham (Chairman).
That the committee have power to appoint a sub-committee and to refer to it any of the matters within the committee’s terms of reference; that the committee have power to appoint the chairman of the sub-committee;
That the committee have power to co-opt any member to serve on the sub-committee;
That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place;
That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the evidence taken by the Economic Affairs Committee or any sub-committee in the last Session of Parliament be referred to the committee;
That the evidence taken by the committee shall, if the committee so wishes, be printed.
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to examine the constitutional implications of all public bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the committee:
L Holme of Cheltenham (Chairman),
L Lyell of Markyate,
L Morris of Aberavon,
L Smith of Clifton,
That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place;
That the committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the evidence taken by the Constitution Committee in the last Session of Parliament be referred to the committee;
That the evidence taken by the committee shall, if the committee so wishes, be printed.
Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to advise on the refreshment services provided for the House, within financial limits approved by the House Committee;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the committee:
B Darcy de Knayth,
L Davies of Oldham,
B Fookes (Chairman),
B Gould of Potternewton,
B Harris of Richmond,
V Montgomery of Alamein,
L Wade of Chorlton;
That the committee have leave to report from time to time.—(The Chairman of Committees.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Of the many Northern Ireland Bills to come before this House over the years, few have been as important as this. It is potentially the most significant for generations. It gives effect to the St Andrews agreement with its twin pillars of power-sharing on a fair and equitable basis and support for policing and the rule of law across the whole community. These twin pillars stand or fall together. This legislation means that the vision set out in the Good Friday agreement can at last be fully realised: a Northern Ireland of equals where political difference can be accommodated, cultural diversity celebrated, division healed and where young people can look forward to a safe, secure and peaceful future.
We are now at the point where we must complete this transition with the local political parties delivering on a stable and lasting political settlement. In Armagh last April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made it clear that 2006 is the year of decision for the political parties in Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it clear in another place that the political process cannot be allowed to become an end in itself and that politicians could not, and would not, continue to be paid without doing their jobs—as they have been for more than four years—as if there was no tomorrow. Northern Ireland’s public will not tolerate that. They deserve better. The time has come for action on restoring devolution, ending the democratic deficit and closing down direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for locally accountable, democratic government. This Bill delivers that goal. It is now up to the parties to deliver on their obligations too.
As has been the case throughout this process, little is ever easy or straightforward, and I can understand why the parties might wish to edge forward with caution. In Northern Ireland’s politics, it has always been easier to say no, and always harder to say yes. I know that there are issues on which all sides want reassurance. Where the Government can give reassurance, we will. Where the parties must give reassurance to each other, they should. However, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, there is nothing that cannot be resolved within the timeframe set out in the St Andrews agreement, given the will to do it. I believe that the will is there, and the St Andrews momentum must be maintained to achieve that end.
The timetable for devolution is clear. On 24 November—two days from now—the Assembly will convene, and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, as the two largest parties, will indicate who the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be come restoration on 26 March next year. This indication will trigger the transitional Assembly, which can then get down to the real work of preparing a programme for government.
In January next year we will have the 13th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission. Significantly, this will be the seventh report since the IRA declared it would end its illegal activity. On 7 March, there will be an election in which the people will speak and on 14 March, members of the Executive will be nominated by the party leaders. On Monday 26 March, power will be devolved and the d'Hondt process of choosing an Executive will run, with Ministers assuming office taking the pledge of office. That will indeed be “democracy day” for Northern Ireland. But the Government are under no illusions. There is still much work to be done. Nobody can be forced into government. The Government cannot force people into government. Neither this House nor the other place can force people into government.
If at any stage between now and 26 March we run out of track then devolution will become dissolution. The clock is stopped; the election scrapped; that is the reality. This is not a threat either from me or the Secretary of State. There would simply be no point in continuing. In that event direct rule and plan B, with even closer co-operation with the Irish Government, will stretch into the foreseeable future. So a choice is to be made by the parties and the people—not next week, not next month, not next year and not the year after that, but now. The imperative is to do it now.
The twin pillars of power sharing and the rule of law are enshrined in the pledge of office that all Ministers must take on 26 March. The pledge of office requires all Ministers to,
“promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future”,
to represent and work for not only those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate, but also for those who did not.
The pledge requires all Ministers to,
“participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council”.
If devolution is to deliver good government, all the institutions of government must function effectively. Any less than a full commitment to that will sell short everyone in Northern Ireland.
The pledge of office also requires Ministers to,
“observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister”.
These are fundamental tenets of power sharing, which go well beyond the symbolism—important though that is—of two different political traditions working together in equality without sacrificing either principle or integrity.
On support for the rule of law, the pledge of office could not be clearer. It states that all Ministers will,
“uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement”.
Let me remind the House what paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, and, indeed, Clause 7(2) of the Bill, says about support for law and order. It states:
“We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board”.
We recognise that the issue of policing has been contentious ever since Northern Ireland came into being, and still more so during the conflict of recent years. But we are in a very different and much better place now. There is no greater example of this than in the transformation that has taken place within the Police Service of Northern Ireland, so ably led by Sir Hugh Orde.
The St Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive. We expect all concerned to take that target seriously. Indeed, the Bill requires the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice powers.
I want to make clear that, once policing and justice is devolved, there is nothing in the pledge which would remove or unreasonably constrain any future Minister for policing and justice from making any legitimate criticism of the police. After all, proper accountability was central to the Good Friday agreement’s vision for new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and proper accountability was a core element of the Patten report's recommendations. Proper accountability, which can sometimes include constructive criticism, is essential in delivering the police service that Northern Ireland deserves. There is a world of difference between that and a failure to support Northern Ireland policing and justice institutions.
I remind the House that, this summer, Parliament legislated for devolution of policing and justice. We want to see it delivered so that the whole of Northern Ireland can have better ownership of the rule of law and policing. That is in the interests of everyone. Of course, much of policing has already been devolved and I pay tribute to the work of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman and the district policing partnerships for the role they play in making the Police Service of Northern Ireland more accountable than perhaps any force anywhere else in the world.
The future of devolution in Northern Ireland rests on those twin pillars. If either collapses, the whole edifice collapses. We must know that the parties want to move forward to 26 March on that basis. That is why 24 November, two days from now, is so important. When that deadline was set—well before St Andrews, of course—the Government said that we needed to know by then that a deal was on and that we were on track for a lasting political settlement: devolution. That remains the case.
Without knowing that, there cannot be a transitional Assembly. Without knowing that, there cannot be an election. Without knowing that, there cannot be devolution. The sequence set out in St Andrews will not be set aside. If the Assembly has to be dissolved because we cannot move forward, it will be, but of course we sincerely hope that it does not come to that.
We are conscious that there were a range of views on how the commitment at St Andrews to consult the people should be met. There is a powerful case for a referendum. It has the attraction of being a single-issue question. But if a referendum was held, an election to the Assembly would follow within a year of the new Executive getting down to work. We think that what the newly devolved institutions will need is a prolonged period of stability over their incoming four years. That will allow the MLAs to get on with the business of government on the wide range of challenges that will face them: on education, rates, rural planning, water charges and so on. That is what the people want to see their locally elected politicians taking charge of.
Between now and March—and well beyond, we have no doubt—there will be challenges that some will call a crisis. The media will try to strike divisions where they do not exist, but there will be challenges. Those can be overcome if everyone delivers on their commitments. Just last week, the cutting-edge travel guide, Lonely Planet, said that Northern Ireland was one of the must-see destinations for tourists. The guide said that Northern Ireland is,
“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.
There could be no greater incentive for the parties in Northern Ireland to be an active part of that. This is their opportunity: they can be. Indeed, the House trusts that they will be. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for setting out the context of the Bill in his usual clear and forthright style. I will be relatively brief at this the Second Reading stage of the Bill. However, we will go into more detail on one or two contentious issues in Committee. We are showing our support for the Bill by agreeing to set aside our usual objections to pushing through legislation of this kind in a single day in order to facilitate a process on which the Government are clearly embarked and which we support.
The title of the Bill makes it clear that the Bill’s purpose is to give effect to changes in the so-called St Andrews agreement, announced by the British and Irish Governments on 13 October, which will require legislation. I am not sure how much agreement there really was in that agreement, but we will find out in the next few days.
That agreement set out a timetable for the restoration of power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland, with in effect a new deadline of 26 March 2007. However, as the Minister pointed out, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein must indicate this Friday—the day after tomorrow—whom they would nominate for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That will be followed by an election on 7 March.
We support devolution. We want the institutions to be restored. We have had enough experience, not least in recent weeks, of the inadequacies with which Northern Ireland business is conducted at Westminster, by no fault of government, noble Lords or officials. No one disputes the fact that it would be infinitely better for Northern Ireland if devolved legislation was debated and passed at Stormont. However, if devolution is not to be, we must change the Westminster/Northern Ireland process. Let us all pray that we do not get to that point. However, there is more to it than that.
I believe that the economy would be better served by having a local Administration in Northern Ireland who would be better able to respond to the needs and concerns of local businesses. A local Administration would present a new, forward-looking and optimistic face of Northern Ireland to the outside world, helping it in the global battle to attract inward investment. A local Administration would be better able to tackle some of Northern Ireland’s deep-seated social problems, such as social exclusion and sectarianism, much more effectively than they could ever be tackled under direct rule. They would in many respects set the seal on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in the past 15 years. But—there is always a “but” in Northern Ireland—we in the Conservative Party are clear that stable and durable devolution can be restored only if all parties that aspire to join the Government of Northern Ireland play by and observe the same democratic rules. That means supporting the police, the courts and the rule of law unequivocally. We all know that currently only one party—Sinn Fein—refuses to do any of these things. This must change.
Support for the police, the courts and the rule of law is a basic requirement of any citizen, let alone of someone who aspires to be a Minister in any democracy. We cannot tolerate a lower standard of conduct in Northern Ireland than we would in any other part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, would be tolerated in the Republic of Ireland. Clause 7 amends the pledge of office to include a reference to upholding the rule of law and supporting policing. We welcome these changes, which closely resemble something that I sought to achieve when the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was before your Lordships’ House and which the Minister rejected. But although the pledge is undoubtedly important, actions on the ground are just as important, if not more so. After all, it was de Valera who, when entering the Dail, justified taking the oath of allegiance by dismissing it as an irrelevance. There must be no question of a repeat of history whereby Sinn Fein Ministers take this new pledge on 26 March and subsequently dismiss it as an irrelevance.
Support for the police has to mean encouraging people from republican communities to report crime. It has to mean giving evidence and co-operating with investigations. It has to mean encouraging young republicans to join the PSNI. After all, it is what increasing numbers of people in nationalist parts of Northern Ireland—places like west Belfast and south Armagh—are now demanding. They want real policing in their areas, something which I know the PSNI is delivering with increasing acceptance and success—for which all credit is due. It is about time Sinn Fein caught up.
It does not mean that there cannot be constructive criticism of the police force by Sinn Fein or by other parties for that matter. That is part of living in a free and democratic society in which the police are accountable to those whom they serve, but it does mean accepting that the authority exercised by the PSNI and the Northern Ireland courts is legitimate.
Unfortunately, support for the police and the timing of the Sinn Fein conference or ard fheis is the one element missing from the timetable set out in the St Andrews agreement. So if we are to move beyond this Friday to the elections on 7 March and the eventual devolution of power on 26 March, we need to see the Sinn Fein ard fheis take place soon, and take a clear decision in favour of the police. Without wishing to introduce yet another deadline or seeking to tie Her Majesty’s Government’s hands, I would have thought that progress has to be made by the time the Assembly is dissolved on 30 January and the election campaign begins. Given that Christmas comes in between, that is not very far ahead. I certainly cannot see any unionist going into an election on the basis of a Sinn Fein promise or as the prelude to a further round of negotiations. In fact, I cannot see Her Majesty’s Government agreeing with that either. If Sinn Fein does not deliver, it would be as well not to have an election at all. It is, after all, supposed to be an electoral endorsement, not an election for more process.
What is the delay? In 2004 in the draft comprehensive agreement, Sinn Fein signed up to an aspirational date for the devolution of policing and justice powers. The draft comprehensive agreement said that the Government anticipated Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board at the point at which legislation to pave the way for the devolution of policing and justice gained Royal Assent. That legislation, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, gained Royal Assent in July this year, and noble Lords will recall how insistent the Government were that they needed this legislation before the Summer Recess. Well, we are still waiting for Sinn Fein.
If republicans do what is required of them, I am in no doubt that, painful as it will be for many people who have suffered butchery at the hands of the IRA, the DUP would be doing the right thing in entering a power-sharing Government. From my conversations with the right honourable Member for North Antrim, Dr Paisley, and other members of the DUP, I believe that is what he and his party will do. But there has to be delivery from Sinn Fein: no more ambiguity, no more conditions and no more promises of action that does not happen.
We will give this Bill a fair passage as we understand the significance of it gaining Royal Assent tomorrow in preparation for what might happen on Friday. As we move into Committee there are, as I said earlier, a number of points which I and other noble Lords on these and the Cross Benches will wish to explore. But I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is left in no doubt of the seriousness with which we approach the policing issue. It must be resolved, and in the way that I have set out today.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. I must apologise to noble Lords in advance because if the Second Reading is not completed by 5.15 pm, I shall have to leave for medical tests that cannot be postponed. My noble friend Lady Harris will then lead from these Benches and deal with all the remaining stages of the Bill.
This flawed Bill accurately reflects the character of the politics of Northern Ireland. It is but a fig leaf to camouflage the almost irreconcilable elements at work. Whether it will provide a foundation for an operating, representative and democratic system of devolved government—as all people of good will would wish—is extremely doubtful. This wretched Bill comprises the wish list of DUP demands and a corresponding Sinn Fein wish list. Where the two conflict, it is either silent or offers a fudge. The idea that the Bill is based on robust principles which, taken together, facilitate the creation of a power-sharing Executive, as it should be, is far from the truth. Rather, it is a patchwork of cobbled-together partisan clamourings with a touch of half-baked Northern Ireland Office ingenuity.
Perhaps, given the nature of Northern Ireland politics, the Bill is all that can be achieved by way of implementing the 1998 Belfast agreement, which is a very sad comment on the situation. Even so, there can be no guarantee that Stormont and its devolutionary settlement can be restored by March 2007 as the Bill anticipates. I have frequently lauded the energy, imagination and persistence of both the UK and Irish Governments, but the Bill is a poor reward for their efforts.
While I have commended the Government’s previous efforts to bring about a restoration of devolution, their determination has flagged noticeably in recent weeks. I would remind your Lordships that 24 November was to have been a firm deadline, after which, if no cross-party agreement had been reached, the salaries and expenses of MLAs would cease. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were quite unequivocal about this. Now that deadline will pass and the parties have until March to make their minds up. As my honourable friend the Member for Montgomeryshire repeatedly stressed yesterday, allowing deadlines to continue to slip in this way severely undermines the Government’s credibility and their influence in negotiations.
Yesterday’s debate in another place, which passed all stages of the Bill, accurately reflected the widespread unease in most sections of the House which the Bill has aroused. It was accepted with much misgiving, as it will probably be in your Lordships’ House today.
The Bill has many problematic features. I shall confine my remarks to four by way of illustration. First, regarding the district policing partnerships, while it is essential, of course, to have Sinn Fein’s full political participation on them, this should not be at the expense of the existing independent members. DPPs will become totally politicised, and that is not good for the health of civic society.
Secondly, the 11-plus tests will now be abolished but with no provision for a common Northern Ireland set of protocols for selection by secondary schools. There is thus a great risk of schools adopting their own individual methods, which will make for chaos. The Bill should impose a duty on the Executive to devise a central system of selection to be mandatory on all schools.
Thirdly, the Bill should not require the Executive to foster either the Irish language or Ulster Scots. It is an issue which ought properly to be left to the Executive and the Assembly to determine. Westminster should resist legislating on this at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP and leave them to progress the matter in the Assembly.
Fourthly, it appears that if the move towards restoring devolution is further stalled, the Secretary of State can call an abrupt halt to the process and dissolve the Assembly. He will be able to do this by statutory instrument without having to seek affirmative parliamentary approval. This is a draconian constitutional power. If such an eventuality arises, will the Minister assure me that the Secretary of State will make a Statement in Parliament outlining his reasons in order that we may have a debate?
These Benches will be tabling amendments reflecting many of the Liberal Democrats’ misgivings. At this late stage, we can hope only that wiser counsels will prevail in the two larger parties in Northern Ireland—the DUP and Sinn Fein—so that devolution may be restored in spring 2007. No one should hold their breath. The portents are frankly not good, and it is a case of fingers crossed.
My Lords, I feel that I approach the Bill in much the same temper as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton; I have mixed views about it. It contains, as we shall see later in the day, some clauses and provisions that are plain bad. Others are there, I think, largely as window dressing to enable a certain party to try to cover its tracks as it executes a not-very-elegant U-turn. Some of them are quite unnecessary because most of the material in the Bill on ministerial accountability just reflects the practice that occurred under the first Assembly and the provisions of the revised ministerial code which, but for a little embarrassment that I was under at the time, would have been published long before the suspension of the Assembly. However, that is a matter to which I shall return.
While I have mixed feelings about the Bill, its substance is the Belfast agreement and its procedures try to implement that agreement. Consequently, I will adopt, so far as I can, a positive approach towards the Bill and will seek to amend but not oppose it.
The big question is whether it will work. Already some of the portents are not good. The original timetable has slipped; there was to be an absolute deadline at the end of this week, but that has melted away. We have other deadlines, explicit and inferential, in the Bill, but the fact that one has melted away will only encourage those who think that they can drive through the others as well. I suspect that some of the boisterousness—some of the cockiness, I should say—that we saw in the other place last night reflects the views of that party—I refer, of course, to the Democratic Unionist Party—that it has been successful in defeating one deadline and will be able to deal with another one again.
However, again and again in its contributions last night and in previous weeks and months, that party has declared its present commitment to power sharing, and to power sharing with republicans. It no longer has a principled objection to it; it is simply a matter of when republicans will do what everybody knows republicans must do—to move on the policing issue—and then the problem will be solved. This is light years away from the historic position of the Democratic Unionist Party, a position it took until not that long ago. In its movement in recent years, there are matters which will encourage us as well.
If I am concerned about the timetable, I am even more concerned about the fundamental mistake the Government are making. They are not putting, they are not seen to be putting, and I do not think they are privately putting, any significant pressure on republicans to move. They have been too indulgent of republicans over the past years. That is the reason we have had repeated crises; it is the fundamental reason why the Assembly collapsed just over four years ago; and it is why the prospects are not good now. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, drew attention to the need for republicans to move in supporting policing. It is essential not only that they move but that they do so wholeheartedly to indicate their full support for the existing policing arrangements.
We must bear in mind what has happened in Northern Ireland in recent years. Put simply, eight years ago a majority of unionists—a narrow one, admittedly, but a majority—decided to give republicans a chance. Fairly soon afterwards, they felt that their generous gesture was cast back in their face by the behaviour of republicans and their failure to honour their obligations under the agreement. This culminated not only in the events which led to the suspension of the Assembly, but also to those of December 2004, where we saw the clearest demonstration of republican involvement in criminality. And what was the Government’s response to that? They quite happily opened the door of 10 Downing Street a few weeks later to let in the robbers’ political leaders for a chat, and they repeatedly declared that the republicans were still an essential part of the process.
That failure by the Government to police and uphold the basic principles of the agreement has produced considerable revulsion among the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, and quite naturally so. They are not in any mood to see republicans back in the centre of things, especially moving towards taking some influence or control over policing. The only thing that will change their mood is if republicans now move on policing and do so in such a way as to completely change the atmosphere. The holding-back by republicans over recent weeks and months of what they know in their hearts is necessary only reinforces the suspicion among most unionists that republicans are not being genuine. They have to move and they have to move quickly. The Government have to do what is necessary to make them move. Their current approach will not work. It is commonplace for commentators to say that deadlines do not work and that republicans do not move under pressure, but the truth of the matter is that republicans move only under pressure. They would never have started decommissioning but for the pressure which we brought to bear on them. They would never have moved even to endorse the Assembly but for the pressure which the Government brought to bear on them back in 1998. I give the Government credit for the pressure that they then brought to bear on republicans, just as I am criticising them for having failed to do that in recent years. So it is essential that republicans move and move quickly. For that to happen, they will have to be put under pressure.
Mr Hain virtually said in another place yesterday that they would have to move by January. That has been echoed here today and amendments to which we shall come this evening would compel them to do so. I very much hope that the House is prepared to accept them.
Other matters in the Bill give us concern. Perhaps our greatest concern is about a last-minute change which was made to the legislation. It virtually ensures that, if something is not done, the election will be a disaster. I shall speak more about that change when we come to it, but, put simply, it will enable the DUP to go around Northern Ireland saying, “You must vote for us or you’ll get a Sinn Fein First Minister” and, at the same time, enable republicans to go around Northern Ireland and say to nationalists, “If you vote for us, you will get a republican First Minister”. The product of such a campaign can obviously be seen. It would not have happened but for a clause which slipped into the Bill at the last minute. I have no doubt that it slipped in because it suited both the DUP and Sinn Fein, and possibly because this was the only element of agreement that the Government could see between those two parties and so they grabbed it. However, they should have thought first before grabbing it because its consequences will be grim. As things stand at the moment, we face the prospect of a deadlocked Assembly.
My colleague, the Member for North Down, reminded the Government in another place last night that the Prime Minister made a promise to the people of Northern Ireland on 6 April: that, whatever else happened, there would not be another election to a deadlocked Assembly. Despite the fact that it was only in April that that Statement was jointly made by the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, that promise has been broken. The breach of that promise is in this Bill. We should look at that carefully in Committee.
One should get an agreement first and then proceed. That should have happened and it should happen now. The truth is that we do not have an agreement. The Minister concluded by saying that it is up to the parties to deliver on their commitments. He was echoing the words of Mr Hain in another place yesterday. What commitments? There was no agreement at St Andrews. There was an agreement between Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, but who else was party to it? As far as I can see, no one was. I am not aware of any commitment that has been made, certainly not publicly, by the DUP or Sinn Fein, so what commitments are there? I would be delighted if I could be shown to be wrong in this matter because it seems that rather than knowing that there are commitments—and the Minister referred to a need to know—the Government are proceeding on optimistic assumptions that are unlikely to be fulfilled in the event. So I am concerned about the next few weeks and months.
To end on a slightly more positive note, there are consolations in the present situation. Neither of the principal parties—Sinn Fein and the DUP—is seeking any other objectives. The DUP once wanted to smash the agreement and replace it by a new agreement; now it is just tinkering with procedures to give itself face savers but not pursuing any other objective. Republicans are not pursuing any other objective either, as they know that their ambitions, which they pursued by such violent means over the years, cannot be realised and that they have to make do with the political process. They are not going anywhere else. We now have parties which are moving along a road hesitantly—but both moving along the same road—which will lead to the implementation of the agreement. I am confident that sooner or later the process is going to work, although as this Bill is currently drafted it will be later rather than sooner.
My Lords, it is an enormous encouragement to hear in the last words of the noble Lord’s speech that he is confident that sooner or later—it may be in a matter of years or it may be less—this process is going to work. Nothing could bring greater solace to those who love Ireland and who want an end to the miseries that have characterised the history of Northern Ireland for so long.
I support most of this ingenious and intricate Bill. Although it is generally dangerous to take all stages in one day, I am sure that this House will agree that the case for that is made in the circumstances explained to us by the Secretary of State this afternoon.
In my time as Secretary of State, I came to realise that those with democratic political aspirations in Northern Ireland would ultimately rather share power with one another than go on being ruled from Westminster. I regarded that as the one real beacon of hope, because they were prepared, in principle at any rate, to merge their differences to resume democratic responsibilities for the province—and quite right too. There was a deep sense of shame that, alone in all the areas of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was unable to govern itself by acceptable standards.
For the constitutional parties it was clear that there had to be an acceptance of basic democratic principles. It was also very clear that while as a Government we could and should help with transition we certainly could not coerce—the very word ought to sound a knell in the history of Ireland. The real question was how our help should be fashioned. The art of the matter seemed to lie in proposals calling for political courage, but not such that leaders would be left by their rank and file to go it alone. Proposals also had to defer to the ingrained penchant for scepticism that one meets so readily in Ireland, north and south, but not so much that no one actually leads forward out of his trench at all. Satisfying both those tests is easier to aspire to than to fulfil. They hold good today as tests, and that is how this Bill should be judged.
The timetable is tight today, so I propose to deal very shortly with matters. Over the nine years since I finished as Secretary of State, I have watched with sympathy and paid tribute to the efforts of my rather numerous successors and to those of the political leaders in the province—and to none more than the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, to whom the people of the United Kingdom as a whole, not only those in Northern Ireland, have come to owe so much. In consequence, as we all recall, for some time Northern Ireland experienced the restoration of a large measure of devolved government. That has been shown to be capable of working. It has also been shown to be incapable of surviving without acceptance by all parties, as a fundamental ground rule, of the rule of law.
Paradoxically our experience is hopeful because, following elections, the leaders of the DUP and of Sinn Fein now face each other across contested ground from which, to a greater or lesser extent, other parties of their respective traditions have been cleared, to put it rather brutally, by the electorate. Of the DUP and Sinn Fein, each wishes to participate in government and knows it cannot do so alone. Each needs its supporters to believe it has kept faith with them, but I suspect each knows also that it has an opportunity that will not recur for a long time.
The temporary impasse we face contains promise and danger in equal measure. The Bill can enhance the promise and mitigate the danger because it prevents doors closing for the time being, while at the same time giving an earnest of the Government’s commitment to what every true democrat wants to see in Northern Ireland. All one’s experience shows how hard it is to reopen a door to negotiations once it has been allowed to close—far harder than it is to find ways, however subtle, that justify keeping it open despite earlier deadlines having passed. If negotiations ultimately come to fruition, no one will mind that they were extended by the use of smoke and mirrors to some extent. If they fail, it will have been worth a try, and direct rule will continue.
I find that the scheme in the present Bill is justified, but there is no scope for any qualification in the Government’s fundamental requirement that Sinn Fein accepts the validity and constitutionality of the PSNI, and that it takes up its responsibilities in relation to it. If that acceptance is ultimately secured, it will have been worth some extra time.
There is one matter on which I disagree strongly with the Bill: the provision to abolish by order selection in Northern Ireland secondary schools in default of agreement. That is wrong in principle and profoundly undemocratic in practice. We shall come to that in Committee. That said, I believe it is enough to say that the Bill deserves its Second Reading, and that I support it.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for explaining the Bill at Second Reading. I want to be brief, to be fair to everyone. What I would like to say has already been said, but it is worth underlining once again the points made by several noble Lords. The most important aspect over the next period is to ensure the unequivocal support for the police and justice by Sinn Fein, the one party that has not signed up to that course of action. The mood in Northern Ireland at the moment has an element of scepticism. Some would say, “If Sinn Fein/IRA wants so much to have policing and justice in Northern Ireland as a devolved power, we have to think carefully about whether we want that as a devolved power”. People tend to think like that in Northern Ireland.
I tend to agree with those noble Lords who have indicated that the timetable may be somewhat tight. In fact, the whole concept of timetables may be a waste of time. If we are to have an election in March, that is when people will, quite naturally, put in their manifestos pledges and undertakings, which may then be difficult to honour a few days later, once they have entered into an Executive. You could find that you have elected people to a deadlocked Assembly. I am not sure if that is what the Government want, but that may be one of the results. We need a period of time—whether it is called sanitisation or proving—to allow Sinn Fein/IRA to sign up and to be seen to have signed up and to prove its credentials. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We cannot once again go back to the situation that we had over four years ago when we kept going in and out of the Executive and of the Assembly because Sinn Fein was not doing what it was supposed to do.
I draw attention to a remark made by the Minister in opening this debate. He made the point that this Bill will lead to equality and total fairness in Northern Ireland. I have certain reservations about that. One of them is an area that was dealt with at St Andrews, although I accept that there was not agreement on it. However, according to the Secretary of State, all parties knew about the inclusion of an Irish language Bill. There are clauses in the Bill that we are discussing today about Irish language and Ulster-Scots language, history and culture. I am extremely concerned that one of the major tenets of the Belfast agreement, which talked about parity of esteem and total equality, has not been kept to in this Bill or in the suggested introduction of an Irish language Bill. There is nothing more likely to define areas in Northern Ireland than having some street signs put up in Irish and English and some just in English. That would be a kind of middle-class way of marking out your territory, which is currently done in working-class areas in Belfast by painting the kerbstones either red, white and blue, or green, white and gold. Do we really want to make middle class and other areas, including commercial areas of cities, cold areas for members of my community by putting signs up in Irish and not giving the same amount of respect to the culture to which people like me belong?
It seems to me that once again we have a situation where whatever Sinn Fein and the SDLP want, they seem to get. I remember a number of instances over recent years when I was seeking small sums of money for the culture from which I come to tidy up local areas, take down pictures of paramilitary people and put up pictures or paintings on walls of icons of Ulster-Scots history, such as David Crockett. That money was refused. We tried to do other things for small amounts of money, including the idea that was approved by most people, except by the Government of course, of producing a film about the Ulster-Scots culture, history and heritage in Irish, to explain our culture to our fellow countrymen and the residents on the island of Ireland. With the exception of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, no organ of the Government would give us any house room, any encouragement, or any funding for what was a very worthwhile project.
Yet here we are again, and the culture from which I come is being sidelined and marginalised. That will cause tremendous discontent back in Northern Ireland. It will be a topic, and a rock on which the boat of this Bill may at some time strike. I am very concerned about this. Will the Minister confirm that the Irish language Bill will be left to the Assembly and that it will not come through this Parliament? There has been some encouragement from the DUP Members of the Assembly, who assure me that it will not get through the Assembly and will not get cross-community support. Will the Minister also confirm that if for any reason there is no Assembly and the election does not take place, that Bill will never see the light of day again?
What is the position on on-the-runs? Was the on-the-run legislation, which was so quickly pulled off the stocks here in this House and in the other place in the earlier part of this year, discussed at St Andrews? If so, what was agreed? Why is the Secretary of State now telling people, particularly in America, that arrangements will be made to sort out on-the-runs?
My Lords, I am highly delighted, but the trouble is that we still seem to find instances of the Secretary of State informing people, particularly in America, that this question will be dealt with. I do not know how that can happen without legislation before this House. However, I thoroughly welcome the Minister’s intervention and thank him for it.
In terms of getting the atmosphere right, and bearing in mind some of our recent problems in Northern Ireland regarding the credibility of Ministers, particularly in respect of judicial reviews, I would like the Minister to spell out the purpose of the meeting between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and an all-party delegation from Northern Ireland on the workings of Northern Ireland’s finances over the next four years. A somewhat hyped-up spin was put on suggesting that there was extra money. I am not sure that we want extra money—as an Ulster-Scot, I want to pay my way in every possible way—although I should point out to this Chamber that in the late 19th century and for the most of the first half of the 20th century Northern Ireland was a net contributor to the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, due to its engineering works and other industries.
Having now fallen on hard times, we are entitled to be net takers from the Exchequer. That is fair. I am not putting on a poor-mouth; I want clarification on what was agreed, because it seems to me that all that was agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the next four years’ funding, which will obviously be an increase through inflation. That has already been made available not just to the Northern Ireland Office but to six other departments of state. It is not special treatment for Northern Ireland. The trouble is that this spin is put on and it is difficult for people in Northern Ireland to trust what the Government have been saying. Trust is the one thing that has always been lacking in Northern Ireland and neither we, the Government nor anyone else should do anything to diminish the trust of the ordinary voter, the man in the street.
In conclusion, I support the Bill on Second Reading.
My Lords, I shall have some hard words to say about some aspects of government policy. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will understand that that does not affect my respect for him personally. I only wish that the Secretary of State could answer to this House rather than the unfortunate noble Lord, Lord Rooker, being left to carry the can. It should not be thought that I do not applaud and support what has been achieved to end the bombings and shootings, even if not yet the beatings and robberies, in Northern Ireland.
I was fascinated to read in the Daily Telegraph that animal behaviourists have discovered that chickens are not as stupid as we thought. It seems that they are not fooled into believing that something has ceased to exist when it is hidden from them. They know that it is still there but simply hidden. That brings me back to the IRA and why I will not in future pay the Government the compliment of calling them bird-brained.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, reminded us of the amount of fudge that has had to go into persuading both the DUP and IRA/Sinn Fein that their wish lists have been granted, although they were completely and mutually exclusive. Back in the days when I had some experience of industrial relations at grass-roots level, it was always clear to me, when an agreement was drawn up that meant different things to the different parties, that it would be the basis for the next dispute. I fear that that has all too often happened in Northern Ireland.
Today, we are dealing with a Northern Ireland Bill, but our audience will spread well beyond that Province. We have to accept that this Bill is another stage in the relentless march of Sinn Fein/IRA into power in Northern Ireland—power which has been won by bombs and bullets because it could not be won by the ballot alone. As this may be—we hope that it will be—the last piece of Northern Ireland legislation in this House for a while, I hope that I will be forgiven for speaking for slightly longer than I normally do.
It is deplorable that this legislation should be required to complete all its stages in both Houses in about 36 hours chock to chock. I wonder whether we have forgotten that good old parliamentary adage, “Legislate in haste but repent at leisure”. It was only this morning that I saw the report of the proceedings in another place. I hope that most noble Lords have now had a look at those words. I shall not repeat the wise words of Mr Lembit Öpik speaking there yesterday. As the Secretary of State had no answer to the points that he raised, I shall not waste the House’s time by expecting answers here. He spoke out not just as a parliamentarian but as an Ulsterman, so I suppose it was no surprise that he got the brush-off.
When we read the Hansard report of debates on Northern Ireland in the other place, we forget that, as usual, although Sinn Fein/IRA hold seats in that House, its Members never turn up to participate in the enactment of legislation. I suspect that there is a fairly strong message in that for us all.
I know that some will be muttering to themselves that my views on Northern Ireland are distorted by what Sinn Fein/IRA did to my wife. I must say that that annoys me. My views were formed long before 1984. What happened then did not distort but merely informed those views, as did the murders of my friends Airey Neave, the Member for Abingdon, the Reverend Robert Bradford, the Member for Belfast South, Tony Berry, the Member for Southgate, Ian Gow, the Member for Eastbourne, and many others from outside the ranks of parliamentarians.
Those who commissioned, authorised, planned and financed those murders and not hundreds but thousands more are now sanitised—almost sanctified—and are about to be put into office to govern Her Majesty’s subjects in Northern Ireland. This morning the press is expressing its horror at the murder of a politician in Lebanon.
I said that what we say and do here will be heard outside Northern Ireland, and so it will. It will be heard by terrorists worldwide, and there is a lesson that they will learn: if you are dealing with the British Government, bomb and kill, then negotiate. If you do not get what you want, then bomb and kill some more. When you have it almost all, bargain the release of your bombers and killers for a ceasefire. Then threaten more bombing and killing if you do not get even more.
Unlike Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxons, Tony Blair’s new Labour pays Danegeld again and again and, as we have heard today, Sinn Fein/IRA is holding back still. Why is it holding back? If it is going to pledge that it will support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the forces of justice, why does it not do that now? Why did it not do it yesterday or last week? Why is it pushing the Government along to slide through one deadline after another? I fear that that is because it asked for something more, and I fear that it will get something more.
Today we face not so much IRA terrorism—one hopes that we will not face that again—but Islamic terrorism. We rightly ask that imams true to the teachings of Islam condemn the terrorists who invoke the name of Islam to justify bombings and murders. On 11 November—perhaps a well chosen day—a newspaper published a picture, which I have here, of Mr Martin McGuinness, who is soon to be a Minister in Northern Ireland if the Government’s plans go ahead, wearing his IRA gunman’s uniform at the funeral of an IRA bomber. It seems that he has graciously given consent to the publication of this picture now, from which we might draw the inference that he thinks his past is no longer a threat to his future.
I come back to the superior intelligence of chickens. Something at that funeral was hidden from the camera, but it was there all right. It was a Roman Catholic priest conducting the burial service for a terrorist being buried on consecrated ground, having been granted a Christian service and absolution. He should have been excommunicated.
I have no animus towards the Catholic Church or faith—would that our bishops defended their faith with such courage as the Catholic Church does—but how do we expect an imam to condemn Islamic terrorists when he sees how Christian priests in a Christian country have sheltered, excused and supported Sinn Fein/IRA terrorists? The Government have done precisely the same.
I was speaking recently to my old friend Robin Chichester-Clark, one time Member for Londonderry, and the last Ulster Unionist to hold office at Westminster, whom a number of noble Lords will have known in the other place. I had the privilege to serve as Robin’s PPS, which is how I became drawn into the politics of Northern Ireland well over 30 years ago. “May be”, opined Robin Chichester-Clark, speaking of Her Majesty’s Ministers, “they are cleverer than we think. The Labour Party has long been in favour of a united Ireland, but the majority in Northern Ireland would not give its consent. But if you can destroy the grammar schools without the consent of the people, if you can impose a catastrophically unfair system of property taxation on them, if you can impose on them a compulsory place in government for Sinn Fein/IRA murderers, perhaps even the staunchest Orangemen will look over the border to a more successful, lower-tax country, without gunmen in the Cabinet, and wonder what loyalty to the Crown has brought to Northern Ireland”. He might have added: if you can impose on them the sexual orientation orders by which it seems a Christian priest would be at risk if he read out 22:5 of Leviticus or 18:22 of the Book of Deuteronomy.
I have two specific questions about the Bill. First, why does it not put funding for the Northern Ireland parties on the same basis as for the political parties in the rest of the United Kingdom? Why is it so essential that money from dubious sources in North America should be allowed to be recycled through the Republic of Ireland into the politics of part of this kingdom? We do not allow it anywhere else. What is so different?
Secondly, how will the Secretary of State know whether the pledges to support the police and justice systems, which we expect may be made, are honest? We must have our doubts. I understand that Mr Adams objects to MI5 operating in Northern Ireland. Must he recant on those remarks? Is it a requirement, understood in the pledge which will have to be made, that references to the police include references to MI5, or will a part of Her Majesty’s kingdom be off limits to MI5? Will the Secretary of State require Sinn Fein/IRA not merely to make an airy pledge, but to remove the bar which they currently have in place on witnesses coming forward to help bring to justice the killers of Omagh and the McCartney killers? If they do not remove that barrier, which currently prevents the prosecution of those responsible, what will happen?
I know—as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, put it to me here the other day—that the people of Northern Ireland now enjoy something nearer to peace and normality than for the past 35 years and more. That is important and I know that, in some quarters, peace counts for more than principle. What is more, peace has brought jobs to Northern Ireland. If devolved government is established there, there will, most importantly, be jobs for politicians. If it is not, then the politicians in Northern Ireland—although happily not in Westminster—will lose their jobs.
Of course we are all in favour of peace, but at what price? Noble Lords in the Government and their right honourable friend the Prime Minister are in favour of peace in Iraq—which is why, I understand, we made war on that country. I have no doubt of their commitment to peace for the Iraqi people, even if they go about it in a funny sort of way. I accept that Ministers may think that the way in which Airey Neave, had he lived, would have gone about securing peace in Northern Ireland, and the way in which I would have gone about it if I had had responsibility, might be different from this Government’s approach. Of course, that would be right.
This Bill will underline the truth of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hope that I am proved wrong.
My Lords, most of the major points have of course already been brilliantly made by a number of speakers. Nevertheless, I shall refer to a very few.
First, I am concerned—as was the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—that Sinn Fein/IRA, should it take the great leap, will have an immense advantage because of the difference between the electoral funds available to it and those available to the republican SDLP. I hope there will be early legislation to end the advantage enjoyed by Sinn Fein/IRA—if possible, before the next election in Northern Ireland.
I wonder, too, whether we are likely to create a situation in which Sinn Fein/IRA agrees in principle this week to the St Andrews agreement—including, in principle, the pledge of office—but, when it comes to it, refuses on the day of investiture, perhaps basing that on the refusal of those elected to Westminster to take the oath in the House of Commons. They will know that no one will then be able to bring themselves to dismantle the whole Assembly for the sake of, as it will say, a few words. Have we a strategy for that? I contend that it must be required, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, to give some proofs.
Martin McGuinness has said that criminals should be judged by a jury of their peers. That is Sinn Fein/IRA speak, and it means nothing in practice. We need the Government to require an immediate commitment that no obstructions will be placed in the way of the trial for the McCartney murder, nearly two years ago, or the Omagh trial. In that case, although the Real IRA was acknowledged to be the culprit, the PIRA would not allow witnesses to come forward because, as Gerry Adams confirmed in my presence last year, it does not recognise British courts or British justice. A specific commitment on these issues today would make it much more likely that Sinn Fein/IRA would not be able to renege on its pledge of office. Otherwise, I do not believe in it for a moment.
Moreover, it cannot be right for the highest policeman in the land—acting, I am sure, in the cause of peace—to offer to speak about the police to the IRA. It will earn him nothing but contempt from it, and why should it need such a meeting at this stage in the years since the Belfast agreement?
I shall not speak further because we need to get on to the business of today. However, I wish to express my concern about paramilitaries continuing their practice of exiling and persecuting those who cross them and Sinn Fein/IRA’s refusal to allow back people exiled to the UK years ago on the ground that, as Mr McGuinness said, it would not be good for the community—a point of view that apparently in no way conflicts with the IRA’s campaign on behalf of the on-the-runs.
According to the IMC’s latest report, the so-called dissident republican groups continue to recruit, arm and train and remain dangerous and ruthless. The IRA would never tolerate dissidents, but finds it very useful to encourage the myth that those groups are independent. We cannot make any concessions that will weaken or remove the power of the state to contain and counter terror through the law. Incidentally, I hope that thought has been given to the final outcome of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and where decisions on any action it may call for will lie. It should be with HMG and should in no way be exposed to the possible wishes of Sinn Fein/IRA.
I add to what my noble friend Lord Tebbit said to remind the House that many IRA fighters trained with Hezbollah and Mr Gerry Adams made an interesting visit to Palestine about six weeks ago. It would be very interesting to know which friends he was visiting.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but I wish to mention two matters. First, as an ex-member of the Policing Board, I reiterate that Sinn Fein’s support for policing and law and order must not be a fudge and must be demonstrated in practical terms. Words are not good enough. People in Northern Ireland ask how, within this timetable, any reasonable person can be persuaded of Sinn Fein’s long-term commitment to policing and law and order. There is no time for it to do so in a practical sense. It can only talk about it between now and then. That is worrying many people in Northern Ireland.
I find it incredible that Clause 15, which is about language, should be in the Bill. I no longer speak for the Policing Board, but I remember, and from its perspective, I find the clause extraordinary. We are piling a lot of effort, legislation and money into two languages that have no bearing on intercommunity relations. In Northern Ireland, as in Great Britain, there are ethnic minorities: Chinese, Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles. In those communities, there are people who do not speak a word of English. Yet each person that this money and legislation is going towards speaks a perfectly normal, common language and they can communicate with each other. In Northern Ireland—it may surprise your Lordships—we have the fastest growing race/hate crime issue. We have large communities in small villages who speak only one language. They import priests so that they can understand church services. I am delighted about that. But what are we doing about funding and legislating for these people? Have we forgotten that there are more communities than the two that refuse to get on with each other for other reasons?
The Government should address that matter. I do not think that this is the place for that clause. Having said that, I support the principle of the Bill, which is to get our Assembly back into operation.
My Lords, I want briefly to follow the noble Viscount on the question of language. In Northern Ireland today the main language is English. The second largest language is Chinese—Mandarin; it is not Irish. More people listed on the census speak Mandarin than speak Irish. The noble Viscount is quite right: minority languages in Northern Ireland should be taken into account.
I totally support the spirit of the Bill. I look forward to the return of devolution at Stormont in Northern Ireland. The Bill is well intentioned. There are obviously many problems. I am quite concerned at the negative approach by many of those who took part in the debate in another place yesterday.
The IRA is fundamental to a solution. Sinn Fein/IRA must accept and support the policing and court systems in Northern Ireland. It must be remembered—and this is the bad news—that the IRA has not gone away. Gerry Adams, no less, has confirmed that. Its full structure is still there. It may have decommissioned some of its armaments but the IRA is still there, and that is a worry for the majority British community in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein/IRA leadership has been with ETA. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, it has been in Palestine in the past few weeks. Of course we know it was in Columbia. The International Monitoring Commission is not monitoring the IRA’s activities outside the island of Ireland. Will it investigate the presence of the IRA in the guise of NGOs in Iraq training terrorists how to let off bombs through mobile phones to attack the American forces?
My Lords, I am very grateful for noble Lords’ contributions. Notwithstanding the implied criticism, the searching questions and the doubts that exist, the general theme—I do not want to be misunderstood—has been to support the Bill as far as it goes. The Bill is important—we accept that. Some of the issues raised will be more appropriately dealt with in Committee. That is not a fudge. There are a couple of points I can deal with. Obviously amendments can still be tabled. I want to be as helpful as I can.
I will be very brief about language. There has been an implied comment that this provision has appeared from nowhere. The St Andrews agreement contained a commitment to introduce an Irish language Bill to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language and the Scots language, heritage and culture. So there should not be surprise about this. Work has begun on a consultation paper to be issued before Christmas this year. The consultation will be an open process and the paper is likely to contain a range of options and potential provisions which might be included in the Bill. There will be a period of 12 weeks for interested parties to submit their views. The Government expect to have a detailed policy proposal out by March 2007 and, if possible, preparation of a Bill will commence before the end of March. So there is a Bill round the corner, but a Bill was clearly forecast in the St Andrews agreement.
As ever, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was very kind and the House listened to him with respect. He said that he had two fundamental questions; I have to say that I counted three. The key one was probably: will the pledge of office apply to MI5? The pledge, as amended by the Bill—in referring to the pledge it is implicit that it is as amended by the Bill, which is a substantial amendment—refers to the support for policing in line with paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, which I read out and which refers to,
“actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions”.
We cannot be clearer than that in today's context.
My Lords, I think that it is implied in the legal definition of supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions. If I start to qualify that, one gets into a minefield. That is the clarity of it: referring to,
“supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions”.
We can then have a debate about which are the institutions. We recognise the elephant on the doorstep, but I recognise what are the institutions in terms of criminal justice and policing in this country—our country. That point can be raised in Committee.
My Lords, I do not know whether I gave a good answer or not, then. Obviously, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran.
We can have a detailed debate in Committee; we are not limited in that. I fully accept and confirm once again that, if all this collapses—if there comes a point when it is not worth continuing—that will be recognised and the plug will be pulled. The Secretary of State made that abundantly clear and if anyone wants confirmation of that, I invite them to read what he said in yesterday's Hansard from the other place at cols. 420-21. I do not need to repeat that. The point is that, if the plug gets pulled on the devolution process, our commitment remains that the parliamentary process for dealing with direct rule in respect of Northern Ireland must change. We fully accept that. It is quite unacceptable as it is. In the period up to March, we have no plans for further change but, if the plug is pulled, we will change the parliamentary process in line with the commitments that we have already given.
Of course it would be better for Sinn Fein—I say for Sinn Fein—sooner rather than later to make its position abundantly clear. It is in its interest. It is not for me to lecture to it. It is not helpful to put a date on that. We have set out dates in the Bill: two days’ time; 30 January for the dissolution to start the election process; 7 March for the election; 14 March for the appointment of Ministers; and 26 March for the return of devolution and the pledge of office.
I fully accept many of the points made by and certainly would not seek to argue with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, given his immense experience of being First Minister in Northern Ireland. The process will be watched, it is true. I do not want to get involved in differences between the parties. Many aspects of the Bill have been requested by political parties; that is why the Bill is here in this form. I shall not spell out which parties, but they have all had a finger in the pie. That was made abundantly clear to me by the Secretary of State and was made clear in the other place yesterday.
On the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, we have got to this stage and it is worth trying. This is the final lap. We have made it absolutely clear that if the dates are not met—the first is two days away and to get that far needs just the indication of a nomination—we will have to ask ourselves whether it is worth continuing.
I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I must repeatedly make it clear—because, to be honest, words that are said get out there into the media and positions are then changed—that this issue of on-the-runs is not returning. I cannot be clearer than that. We were absolutely clear about that when the legislation was withdrawn. I accept that the Bill was put forward; I am not arguing about that. The position has been made abundantly clear. I cannot get into what other people have said in other countries, because I do not know. I have not discussed this with them. I want to make this absolutely clear so that there is no doubt and no need for amendments on this in Committee; the on-the-runs Bill is not coming back to this Parliament.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way on this matter. I entirely accept his statement that that Bill is not coming back, and for good reasons. It would, however, be helpful if the Minister could allay the concern that arises largely from the letter that the Secretary of State sent to certain persons in North America, in which he said—I think I am quoting him correctly—that the Government were still committed to resolving this issue. He did not say how it would be resolved, but there was some commitment to do so. That is what is generating the concern. I do not know whether the Minister could allay that concern now, but it would be helpful if at some stage he could.
My Lords, I will be more than happy to attempt to do that at some stage, and I will try to do so this evening if I can. The central issue about the Bill itself will not return, but I will seek to allay those concerns if at all possible.
I shall be brief because I can cover some of the points made, particularly about funding, when we discuss the amendments—I believe that some amendments have been tabled that relate to funding. We can then go into some detail. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked how the Secretary of State will know whether the pledges are honest. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The pledges must be made. I suspect that they will not be followed by anyone saying that they have said these words but they are worthless. I do not think that anyone will be in that position, but, as I said, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The pledges must be made, and we will reach that point fairly soon if all the other processes are taken in the timetable that we have.
On the meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I will see if I can come back to that in Committee. As I understand it from a meeting that I attended on Monday with the noble Lord, Lord Laird, and the Secretary of State, and from some of the positions taken by the Chancellor in the context of Northern Ireland, the financial structure is quite different in Northern Ireland in terms of the flow of money and the budget arrangements. Certainly those issues were discussed. I am not responsible, and I cannot account for, what might have been reported. The noble Lord mentioned spin. The fact is that we must discuss the economics of Northern Ireland. The economy is very successful, but it is very top-heavy in terms of public expenditure. The balances are on the private sector, which gets snuffed out, and that is no good for the growth of the economy. These issues will certainly have to be addressed by a new Executive anyway, because they will be responsible for the budget and for many awkward, key decisions that must be taken.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, mentioned funds. I will come back to that issue. I cannot add anything to the Secretary of State’s response to her question about the report on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. I understood him to say that it would be at the end of next year. I was not the only one present, but that was what was said.
I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, about other minority languages in Northern Ireland. Anyone who has been there—I flitted in and out of Northern Ireland for 12 months as a direct rule Minister and visited factories and other areas—will be more than aware that the second language in Northern Ireland is certainly not Irish because of the make-up of the people who have come to Northern Ireland to work and support the economy. From that point of view, it is a sign of success.
This Bill delivers a timetable for the arrangements set out in the St Andrews agreement. We will have a transitional assembly, an election in which people can make their views known, the nomination of an Executive, and a stronger and much more comprehensive pledge of office than was the case hitherto, including support for policing and the rule of law as I have set out at some length. There is no doubt about that and I hope it is accepted. Moreover, we will have a restored Northern Ireland Assembly. In short, we will get an input of democracy into Northern Ireland above that which has lasted for 30 years in the area of local government. I pay tribute to the 582 councillors who have been the only vestige of local administration over all that time, notwithstanding the representation at Westminster. They have carried the burden of the democratic process way above and beyond the call of what their powers actually were. Now we want to get the governance of Northern Ireland at the Northern Ireland level by Northern Ireland politicians. That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve and frankly that is what this Bill will provide.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 6.10 pm. In moving this Motion, perhaps I may point out that amendments may be tabled until 5.30 pm.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
[The Sitting was suspended from 5.10 to 6.10 pm.]
Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill
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.
London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons. The declaration of the agent having been deposited in accordance with the resolution of 31 October, the Bill was read a first time. It was then deemed to have been read a second time, reported from the Select Committee and recommitted to an Unopposed Bill Committee.
House adjourned at 10.20 pm.