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North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order is made under Section 55 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Its purpose is to amend the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The amendment order has the sole purpose of restoring the agreement between the two Governments into domestic law after it was lost when the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was repealed, consequent on the Assembly returning.

The order will give effect to an agreement between the British and Irish Governments on the continuing role of the Special EU Programmes Body. The SEUPB is one of the six north/south implementation bodies set up following the Belfast agreement in 1998 to promote cross-border community co-operation, understanding and action between people and organisations in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It manages the implementation of the EU social, economic, reconciliation and cultural programmes, worth £608 million.

The Special EU Programmes Body has fulfilled its role well throughout its existence. All the key EU regulatory and expenditure targets have been met, and evaluations show that the EU programmes it manages are meeting their objectives. Co-operation offers clear mutual benefits. We want the role of the special body to be completely clear to all.

The need for the order can be traced back to a change in the regulations governing the funding for EU programmes that occurred during the suspension of the Assembly. Funding for EU programmes and the regulations that govern them are agreed in seven-year cycles. The new EU regulations for the cycle that began this year contain some differences from regulations governing the previous funding period. These differences could have caused certain functions of the SEUPB to lapse, specifically those relating to the successor to the INTERREG III programme, which has been allocated €256 million over the next seven-year funding cycle.

The British and Irish Governments acted on 25 July 2006 to ensure that the Special EU Programmes Body could continue to operate in 2007 by reaching agreement on its continued role in an exchange of letters. That agreement was then incorporated into domestic law by designating the exchange of letters as a “relevant agreement” under paragraph 10(3) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000, the Act that provided for suspension. When the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was repealed following the recent restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the incorporation of the agreement into UK law ceased to have effect. We therefore need to restore the status quo ante—to reincorporate into domestic law the agreement between the two Governments on the role of the Special EU Programmes Body. The order seeks to do this and to ensure, beyond doubt, that the important work of the SEUPB can continue. I emphasise that the order is solely to clarify the role of the SEUPB and the shared understanding of the two Governments on the matter. It does not affect other north/south implementation bodies.

The order does not change any existing functions of the Special EU Programmes Body, nor does it add or remove existing functions. Its purpose is to ensure that the programmes body can continue to perform its role in the 2007-2013 EU funding cycle and thereafter.

The order will introduce into domestic law the clarity to ensure that the territorial co-operation objective, widely referred to as INTERREG IV, can carry on its work funding cross-border community projects that benefit the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

I repeat that this amendment order made under Section 55 of the Northern Ireland Act has as its sole purpose the restoration of the agreement between the two Governments into domestic law after it was lost when the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was repealed. We all applaud the repeal of that Act.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10 May be approved. 17th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

My Lords, I have a couple of queries arising directly from what the Minister said. He said that the purpose of the order is to restore something which has been lost because of the repeal of the Northern Ireland Act 2000. The repeal of that Act was clearly signalled and intended to take place on the restoration of the Assembly. Why was this not anticipated? Why was it not included, for example, in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill, which clearly contemplated restoration and the repeal of the 2000 Act? Why has this slip occurred?

My second question relates to an exchange of letters in July 2006. Before the exchange of those letters, was there any consultation with the Northern Ireland political parties and which Northern Ireland political parties were consulted?

My Lords, I am not sure whether that was a speech to which I am expected to reply later or an intervention to which I am expected to reply before anybody else speaks.

My Lords, my noble friend was a little premature.

I have little to say other than that I welcome this order. It is interesting that we have an order containing letters from two Governments to each other. I am extremely pleased that someone in the Northern Ireland Office picked up what we might have lost with the 2000 Bill and put it together fairly quickly. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, it is a pity that they did not save us the trouble and sort it out before we got to this stage. I support the order.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this order, which we certainly welcome. I take the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. His presence here tonight is above and beyond the call of duty and we are very grateful.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the Order in Council. A number of points occurred to me, as an innocent Back Bencher. Surely paragraph 4.5 of the Explanatory Memorandum should refer to paragraph 10(3) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000. Has the draftsperson been neglectful in not mentioning the schedule, or am I reading this thing incorrectly?

Regarding the definitions in the London/Dublin exchange of letters of 25 July 2006, were these not originally agreed on 18 June 1999? It would certainly appear to be that way to me, but I wait to hear what the Minister has to say.

Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, was the order really necessary? If the original Act had taken account not only of suspension but of devolution we would not be going to the trouble, expense and time here tonight of putting this order through.

Lastly, will the Minister confirm that the order is not retrospective? I know that the EU implementation body has been working away for the past month during devolution. Will the Minister confirm that there is nothing that the implementation body has done during that period that would be unlawful ?

My Lords, I am pleased to note the return of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. He has obviously had a return to robust health by the fact that he is here at the first available opportunity. I am sorry if I have missed his attendance previously, but I am pleased to see him back in his place after quite a long absence.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, for his remarks, although it is better left unsaid.

This is purely a technicality. If we could have planned for everything, we would have had everything done at the right time, but the situation was not like that with restoration. It was not done under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act, because it is purely a technicality, and it is the sort of thing that the power in Section 55 is intended for—so there is nothing abnormal about that. I fully agree that there were debates at the time. In fact, during the suspension Section 55 was not available because of the special arrangements under the 2000 Act, and there was a discussion between the two Governments at the time about how this would be done by an exchange of letters. So it was done to classify those letters as a relevant agreement, so they were covered by the legislation. That was purely for tidying-up purposes.

I have no doubt that there may be other issues lurking round, although I do not know because there is nothing in my brief about that. The fact of the matter is that there was a fairly long suspension of the Assembly, when we were trying to do business as usual for the people on the island of Ireland.

Section 55 of the 1998 Act provides us with an enabling power to deal with the implementation bodies. We are bringing this one forward as swiftly as possible following the restoration, but it is an appropriate use of the legislation.

The Special EU Programmes Body is operating on a statutory footing, on the basis of the unamended implementation bodies order. The amendment adds a reference to the latest supplementary agreement with the Irish, therefore making clear our mutual understanding about the remit of the body in relation to EU funding schemes. Nothing is changed in how the body is working, and to the best of my knowledge nothing is affected by the work that has gone on in the past month.

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, I do not think that the issue of retrospectivity comes into it because the relevant agreement in the letters was there anyway—it has simply moved from one piece of legislation to another. That is perfectly straightforward. No one has raised any questions, and there is nothing in terms of spending. As for the way in which the programmes are being done, the regulatory rules under the EU are all being fulfilled; as far as I am aware, they fulfil the remit of the programmes. So it is not even a lacuna in that sense. We are simply in the normal course of things bringing up to date the provisions for Northern Ireland.

My Lords, this is my second attempt at an intervention. I remind the Minister about my query over whether there was appropriate consultation with Northern Ireland political parties before the July 2006 exchange.

My Lords, I do not have an answer to that. It was an integral part of the Belfast agreement, but I am not sure whether there was consultation with the political parties. This was last year, so I cannot speak from personal experience about that, but if there is an answer to give the noble Lord about that I should be able to give it to him before the close of the debate. I am not sure whether it would have been appropriate to consult, if it was a government-to-government operation, but that I cannot say.

My Lords, I may be able to help the Minister as to the reason for the question. After suspension in 2002, further arrangements were made to provide for the care and maintenance of the north/south co-operation—and I think that that is the third agreement cited at the beginning of Mr Hain’s letter in July 2006. Associated with that exchange of letters were clear understandings, incorporated in correspondence, between the Government and the Northern Ireland parties whereby to ensure that the spirit of the agreement and legislation was fully honoured there were arrangements to consult those parties when any significant decision had to be taken under the care and maintenance arrangements. I know that in the previous Parliament the undertaking was fulfilled, but I am not sure that it was being fulfilled in 2005 and 2006, which is why I intervened.

My Lords, bearing in mind the background and the position that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, occupied at the time, I shall certainly get a definitive answer to that and write to noble Lords. I cannot answer his question tonight—I can confirm that. However, to the best of my knowledge in the period since the summer of 2006, when the exchange of letters took place, I have answered no parliamentary questions on this issue in this place—and they would have come across my desk. No one has raised the issue with me in correspondence about any lack of consultation. I am not saying that as an excuse, but it has not been the hottest issue in town. Nevertheless, if commitments were given about consultation, the noble Lord is entitled to an answer about what took place, and I give the assurance that I shall get the answer for him.

On Question, Motion agreed to.