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Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [HL]

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2010


My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 1 : Salaries and allowances

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “may” and insert “must”

My Lords, the purpose of this group of amendments is to force the Assembly to set up an independent body to decide on its remuneration packages, including pensions. I understand that it is in agreement with that. I am concerned that we jolly well get it done not in five years’ time but in five weeks’ time. On that basis, we hope that the first group of amendments can be welcomed by all parties.

We support the Bill as far as it goes, but believe that it ought to go further and be firmer on what it is trying to achieve—the establishment of an independent body to determine the remuneration of Members of the Legislative Assembly. Amendments 1 and 2 remove the option for the Assembly to retain its powers to set salaries and expenses and, under Amendments 5 and 8, direct that the Assembly must pass an Act to establish an independent body. Amendment 7 does the same with regard to pensions.

The amendments also mean that the Assembly cannot simply make a resolution conferring the functions on the Assembly Commission, which consists of the Speaker and five other Assembly Members. An Act of the Assembly is required. The Assembly will retain discretion on what kind of body it sets up, but the implication of the amendments is that the Assembly must act to address this issue. It is clear that all parties favour this. The letter from the Speaker of the Assembly, Mr Hay, to the right honourable Paul Goggins MP on 16 November showed that there is a willingness to set up an independent statutory board. Our amendments are designed to show how crucial this is. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said at Second Reading, the Northern Ireland Assembly remains the odd man out among the United Kingdom legislatures, as it currently cannot delegate its powers to set salaries.

It is clear that giving the task of setting salaries, expenses and pensions of the legislatures to independent bodies is the unstoppable trend. Parliament has been left chastened by revelations about the remunerations of Members and Northern Ireland was not immune. The Assembly in Stormont has been the subject of criticism since its creation—or, perhaps more accurately, since its first suspension—about the level of pay awarded to MLAs. As we have seen in Westminster, the criticism, whether justified or not, that politicians are in it for the money is incredibly damaging to the standing not just of individual politicians but to the very institutions of state. The delegation of powers to set levels of pay to a body which is seen to be separate from the political fray has come to be seen as one way to help restore trust in politics.

Clearly, there is a recognition from parties in Northern Ireland and from the Government of these facts, as that is the very reason we have this Bill. However, it seems to us that if we knew then what we know now, in all likelihood the 1998 Act which set up the Northern Ireland Assembly would not contain provisions merely giving the Assembly power to establish an independent body, but rather would have made provision going ahead and setting up such a body in tandem with the other organs of devolved Government. Our amendments seek to take that route. We have all agreed that an independent body is a good idea, but we do not want to have to wait for years for it to come about. We simply wish to see it established without delay. We hope therefore that noble Lords will wish to support this first group of amendments. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am sorry that we cannot wholeheartedly support this set of amendments. We have not put our name to them because, as the noble Lord said, Amendments 1 and 2 would remove the ability of the Assembly to determine the Members’ salaries and allowances, and we feel that the Bill is adequate in that regard. Amendment 5 is very similar. The noble Lord does not want the Assembly to be able to deal with its own matters but we feel that it would be retrograde to have Westminster do that.

Amendments 7 and 8 deal with Assembly Members’ pension arrangements. Like the noble Lord, we very much hope that the Assembly will set up an independent body and would support that. In fact, we have had an indication that that will be so and that it will determine Members’ salaries and allowances. It is up to that body, not us, to decide how those arrangements are made; we believe that it is inappropriate for Westminster to do this.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I think that she slightly misunderstood what I am attempting to do. Under my amendment, the Assembly would still have the power to set up the independent body. Therefore, it would have the power to make its own arrangements, but we are asking it to do that quicker than I think would otherwise be the case. It will have to be done by law but it will be done by the Assembly, not Westminster.

My Lords, the Bill currently gives the Assembly discretion as to whether it should introduce independent control of salaries and allowances. This group of amendments would remove the Assembly’s discretion and force it to introduce independent control.

Noble Lords will no doubt wish to note that the Speaker of the Assembly has informed the Government that the political parties in the Assembly are unanimously in favour of moving to independent control, as the noble Lord himself said. We are, of course, bringing this Bill forward at the request of the Assembly, so I see no reason to doubt that the Assembly will make the decision to introduce independent control. The Speaker has arranged a meeting of Assembly party leaders for 18 January to advance discussions on the make-up and establishment of the body. Therefore, I believe that we will have even more tangible information before the Report stage of the Bill.

Therefore, while in practice it may seem attractive for us at Westminster to impose independent control, there is an important issue of principle at stake here. At present, decisions on the level of salaries and allowances are taken in the Assembly, not here at Westminster. The function of decision-making on salaries and allowances is already devolved to Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is right that the decision on whether those salaries and allowances are set by the Assembly or by an independent body should also be a matter for the Assembly.

It is, in the Government’s view, correct that devolved legislatures should retain responsibility for managing salaries and allowances for their elected representatives. These amendments would claw back some of that responsibility to Westminster by imposing independent control. The representatives in Northern Ireland are accountable to the electorate there, and it is appropriate that they should have the discretion as to whether they introduce independent control.

It is important to note that independent control has not been imposed by Westminster on either the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. I believe it is more appropriate for this legislation to enable the Assembly to make the decision about independent control. Taking the decision out of its hands would, in the Government’s view, be a retrograde step, and therefore I cannot support this group of amendments.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that response, which was as I expected. We are in the Moses Room and cannot divide in Grand Committee. With your Lordships’ agreement, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment but I shall certainly consider it and almost certainly bring it back on Report, depending on what we learn from the meeting on 18 January.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

“( ) For subsection (4) substitute—

“(4) Provision under subsection (2A) must ensure that if a salary or allowances are payable to a member of the Assembly as a member of Parliament or as a member of the European Parliament, he shall not be eligible to receive such salary or allowances as a member of the Assembly until such time as he ceases to be a member of Parliament or a member of the European Parliament.””

My Lords, the three amendments in this group make good the Conservative pledge to do away with the practice in Northern Ireland known as double-jobbing. Amendment 3, on which Amendment 4 is consequential, refers to salaries and expenses. Amendment 9 refers to Members’ pensions.

The issue of Members of the Assembly in Belfast also being Members of Parliament is a peculiarly Northern Irish problem and one which all parties, I believe, including all those that represent Northern Irish constituencies in Westminster, have said they wish to end. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has committed his party’s support to a measure which would get rid of double-jobbing, and indeed the noble Lord has put his name to the opposition amendments. At Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, reaffirmed the Government’s intention to do something about it, although she was unable to specify what or how. These amendments will afford noble Lords the opportunity to debate the matter and, we hope, act decisively.

The amendments are not designed to prevent a person being elected to more than one legislature but they would in practice act as a very strong deterrent. They would prevent an Assembly Member drawing a salary, expenses, or pension for their membership of the Stormont Assembly if, at the same time, they were a Member of the House of Commons or the European Parliament. The latter institution is included to reflect the drafting of Section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for a proportionate reduction in salary if there is a double mandate. The amendments would not prevent somebody standing for—and, if the electorate were to endorse them, winning—a seat in two legislatures, but I think that noble Lords will recognise that we have tried to express strong disapproval of such a course of action by withholding any remuneration in the Assembly. The amendments stick to the narrow scope of this Bill but give realisation to the aspirations of both my party and our partners in the Ulster Unionist Party to end dual mandates as soon as possible.

As all parties are signed up in theory to the idea that double-jobbing must come to an end, we cannot see that these amendments will be controversial. The Kelly report made it a key recommendation for improving standards in politics in Northern Ireland, and the Government have committed themselves to implementing that report. The Democratic Unionist Party has agreed that the practice should end, although it would prefer to stretch out the deadline for five more years. We do not see why we should wait that long. We do not feel that constituents are served well by representatives who must be at both Stormont and Westminster but of course cannot be in two places at once. At Second Reading, the Minister suggested that,

“to be an elected representative in Westminster or the Northern Ireland Assembly is a full-time job in itself”.—[Official Report, 1/12/09; col. 731.]

On a very basic, practical level, it is impossible to justify being a Member of both. To get from one to the other requires a trip to, from and through two airports and a flight in between; it is not a matter of hopping in the car or train for a short journey. The somewhat inflexible parliamentary and Assembly business schedules and the need for a physical presence in both places mean that it may not be possible to conduct as much business by telephone or electronically as in other occupations. My personal experience covering no less than three portfolios here tells me that, with popping backwards and forwards and so on, I certainly could not do any more in Stormont. It is not a runner to do two jobs in two places; one cannot do them properly.

On a level where public perceptions are involved, meanwhile, it cannot have passed anyone’s notice—we touched on this area in debating the last group of amendments—that a special type of fury is reserved in the public mind for politicians who are seen to be “on the make”. I am sure that most, if not all, of the 16 MPs who are also MLAs work extremely hard for their constituents. However, the past year has shown us that simply carrying on as before is not good enough.

The Kelly report is designed to bring a shift in the way that politics is conducted, by the good apples as well as the bad. One recommendation of Sir Christopher’s report is to end double-jobbing. The issue is almost entirely exclusive to Northern Ireland; we have in front of us a Bill exclusively about the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that the Government grasp the opportunity that we have given them and support these amendments. As is customary in Grand Committee, we will not put this matter to a Division. However, it is clear that the appetite for the change that we are proposing exists, and we will certainly return to the topic on Report if the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is unable to give me what I am asking for.

My Lords, we support two of these amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said—and for the very reasons that he has articulated. Events of the last week have brought into particular focus and poignancy the problems associated with double-jobbing, and it can be in no one’s interest for that practice to continue. We must give a strong signal to the Assembly and to the parties in Northern Ireland that this sort of activity must stop. That is why we support them, and we hope very much that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will accept these amendments.

My Lords, I support these amendments from an additional point of view, which is that in Northern Ireland we have had a great deal of trouble, perhaps over the last 30 years, with encouraging new blood into the political system. Even today, it is very difficult in certain respects to see where that new blood and those new people are going to come from. We have far too many people double-jobbing and excluding new blood from coming in. This is a really practical problem for the development of political progress, and for developing a future away from terrorism and some form of intimidation. We have far too many people who, if they have not been far too long in a single job, have also been holding people out of other jobs while not doing those jobs as fully as they should, so I support these amendments.

My Lords, I, too, support the amendments in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton. There are two profound reasons why we have to consider these amendments very seriously. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has already said, since Second Reading on 1 December these issues have intensified. The issue of double-jobbing is not the essence of the current deepened crisis in the Assembly, but it is part of it. There is no doubt at all that there is a heightened public sensitivity in Northern Ireland about that issue, and it is right that this House should respond to that. There is now a crisis in the Assembly that has got considerably worse, and even a dangerous possibility that there will not be an Assembly drawing salaries of any sort in the near future unless some kind of negotiated breakthrough occurs in the next few days.

There is a second reason, which goes along with the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, about bringing new talent in to the politics of Northern Ireland, which is so difficult to do. It is that during the Parliament that is now coming to an end, we have never had a time in which Northern Ireland Members in the House of Commons have contributed less to the wider issues of debate that affect the United Kingdom as a whole. This is not in any sense a personal condemnation; it is a legacy of a long and complicated peace process. There are very good reasons why that double-jobbing situation developed, going well beyond the aspirations of particular politicians. There is a political context to do with the Troubles that explains it and, to a considerable degree, as far as the recent past is concerned, excuses it.

Recently, the Assembly has been up and running. In that context, it is impossible for people to hold important positions or ministerial appointments in that Assembly, and appear in the House of Commons and contribute meaningfully to its work. The consequence has been that, in the past two years particularly, Northern Irish voices are not heard on wider issues of UK policy in this place. It is very important that we face up to the implications of that fact. That is why I support the amendment. It is not just a matter of the questions—now of public concern—about payments to politicians. There is also a more fundamental democratic question about the quality of the representation of Northern Ireland within the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

I first apologise to the Committee for the unintentional interruption from my mobile phone a few moments ago.

I support the amendment, in so far as I have experienced the stresses of double-jobbing. It was necessary for me to be a member of the Northern Ireland Forum during the negotiations to establish an Assembly. At the same time, I was a Member of this House. It was a hideous time and I hope it can be noted—not as an example but as a practicality—that I did not find it possible to become a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly when it was established. I knew exactly where my responsibilities lay. That has been the position of my party for some considerable time.

It is absolutely wrong that we should create virtually millionaires out of the political process. We know that we are here to serve the people who elect us. It is wrong—though I can understand that it has happened—that some politicians in Northern Ireland almost become the leaders of the very organisations that we have opposed. Those organisations have been involved in intimidation and power-brokering in Northern Ireland. That is not what the political arena is about. Hence, it is our obligation to the new and tender plant that is the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure, first, that people who are elected are able to do the job properly and without distraction and, secondly, that there is an opportunity for the ordinary people who serve the public—we have many of them in Northern Ireland who are not and have never been elected—to contribute, if there is an opening or way through this powerful and tight cabal. I am not opposed to the party system but this cabal is currently part of the party system in Northern Ireland.

If you have lived all your life through the Troubles, you will know the difficulties of establishing something that will appeal to the entire community, serve the entire community and create confidence within the entire community, where one tradition is still distrustful of the other. We cannot have people elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly who are not totally dedicated to those ends. For that reason, I fully support—as I hope the Government will—the concept of one man or woman, one job.

My Lords, I support these two amendments. The previous speakers have already stated the perception in Northern Ireland that our elected people are simply in it for the money. One thing that I try to do with the young people with whom I work is to encourage them to become citizens and to take part in the political system. But when they see what is going on, they turn away. For that reason alone, the Government should support these two amendments.

Forgive my ignorance, but if this situation should happen, where would that leave Sinn Fein? Is it a special party? For the past 10 years, I have had an MP who has never—not once—sat in the House of Commons, but to my understanding he still receives a certain salary and expenses. If we intend drawing that line, we need to draw it.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the points made by noble Lords. The issue of dual mandates is clearly extremely important. Noble Lords sitting in this Committee have a great deal of experience in relation to double-jobbing. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred to the Kelly report. It may be helpful if I open my remarks by highlighting what Sir Christopher Kelly said when he addressed this issue in his report on MPs’ expenses and salaries. He noted that:

“The holding of multiple mandates, or ‘double jobbing’ as it is known in Northern Ireland, appears to be unusually ingrained in the political culture there”.

Sir Christopher suggested two reasons for this. The first was,

“because of the legacy of ‘the troubles’, which discouraged many individuals from getting involved in politics, leaving it to a small minority to participate”.

The second was because of,

“the recent history of political instability, which led the political parties to be fearful of giving up seats in Westminster in case the local devolution settlement collapsed”.

I am sure that we would all concur with the points made by Sir Christopher. At paragraph 12.22, Sir Christopher Kelly concluded:

“The Committee’s view is that the practice of holding dual mandates in both the House of Commons and the devolved legislatures should be brought to an end as soon as possible. Ideally that would happen by the time of the scheduled elections to the three devolved legislatures in May 2011, or failing that by 2015 at the very latest”.

It is the Government’s view that the best way forward is for the parties in Northern Ireland to come to an agreement about how to bring dual mandates to a close. The Assembly and the Executive Review Committee have put dual mandates on their forward work programme. The Government are not therefore persuaded that this Bill should be used to force the hand of the Northern Ireland parties.

Consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland has been a key feature of the process for many years. While it might seem attractive to push ahead with these amendments—I hear what noble Lords have said about the problems relating to double-jobbing, public sensitivities and the need for new talent, to which I shall return—I am not convinced that there is such a consensus among the parties and that this is the right approach.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, raised the issue of new blood being prevented by double-jobbing. It is clear that engaging people in politics in Northern Ireland is vital, as the noble Lord also said. I am confident that all political parties are keen to bring forward new talented people. It is entirely plausible that this is one reason why all parties wish to bring dual mandates to an end. It is a question of timing.

The noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Maginnis, and the noble Baroness raised the issue of heightened sensitivity to double-jobbing in the Assembly and the inability of Northern Ireland politicians to play a full part at Westminster—something about which we should all be concerned. I appreciate the concerns raised by noble Lords in relation to representation at Westminster.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Would she not agree that she has contradicted the meaning of what she said? On the one hand, she said that the political parties in Northern Ireland do not have a consensus on this; on the other hand, she said that they will look at it. This is a voluntary regulation, and there are too many cases where we have looked for voluntary regulation and it has not come about. We will be waiting until the cows come home—the political parties will suppress new talent while they believe that they have a hold over the current system.

My Lords, the Government have said, quite clearly, that they agree with the Kelly report. We agree that double-jobbing must end by 2015. What we are talking about is timing. We are trying to ensure that there is a consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland, and we believe that ultimately this is what all the parties wish to do. One reason why they wish to do it is to ensure that new talent comes forward. We have to nurture that talent in order to nurture democracy—and goodness knows we all need to take care of our democracy and nurture new talent. We feel strongly that this decision should be taken by the politicians in Northern Ireland, and indeed by the electorate. Of course, I heed what the noble Lord says. Clearly he believes that there is a sense of urgency. We hope that the politicians in Northern Ireland will grasp that sense of urgency.

The noble Baroness asked how the amendments would affect Sinn Fein. The intended effect of the amendments would be that Sinn Fein MLAs who are also MPs would go from receiving the full MLA salary to receiving nothing. That is the effect of the amendments.

Were these amendments to be accepted, we at Westminster would be imposing a change of elected representative on many constituents in Northern Ireland. Whatever our opinions here about dual mandates, people in Northern Ireland saw fit to elect people to more than one legislature. Although I hear what noble Lords have said—

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I could suggest that there is an entirely different explanation for what has happened. I am sad to say that, through the actions of the Government, those parties that were supported until 1998, and which the population supported in a referendum to establish an agreement in Northern Ireland, were consistently—and sometimes, one is led to imagine, deliberately—undermined in order to change the balance of power in Northern Ireland and put it in the hands of those who had associations with the most difficult and despicable elements in our society. To walk away from this amendment would leave me—and, I believe, many in Northern Ireland—with the impression that the Government are determined to persist with building up those two despicable cabals to the detriment of the civil society that most people wish to see.

My Lords, I hear the strength of feeling expressed by the noble Lord and understand what he says. However, this is not about cabals. We are talking about a timescale, as I explained earlier. There is a 2015 deadline and a 2011 deadline. However, I have not finished what I was saying. We believe that it should be the parties in Northern Ireland that come to an agreed position on the issue. If the parties that represent the people of Northern Ireland agreed that the amendments were the correct way to bring dual mandates to an end, the Government would have no difficulty with that.

Well, it is surprising what one has seen in one’s life. It is not the case that the Government are interested in protecting the DUP and Sinn Fein, which is what the noble Lord was saying, although not in so many words. The Government believe that on an issue as important as this we should try to achieve agreement between the parties before taking action. However, I have heard the strength of feeling around the Committee this afternoon and I shall take this back and reflect further.

My Lords, I thank the Minister, particularly for those last few words. It is a long time since I took the opportunity to tell the Government that I think they are totally wrong. There were many occasions in the past, but in recent years we have agreed on most things going forward and I am sorry that we do not on this particular issue.

Noble Lords behind me raised a number of issues, all of which are relevant and should be seriously taken into account. One word has not been used, which I think the Secretary of State needs to use—that is, to have a little courage. It is easy to walk away from the difficult decisions and leave them to somebody else. I do not believe that this is a difficult decision, however, or that if the Government accept this amendment there will be any problems from people who are Members of the Assembly and Westminster. However, it will take a certain amount of courage, and I have not seen much of that from the current Secretary of State.

The other thing that I do not wish to happen is to see the Government defeated on any Northern Ireland legislation. Having listened to what has been said in this debate and to the strength of feeling from the opposition parties, it is my inclination that that could well happen when we bring the amendment back on Report.

There are two things. As I mentioned earlier, I have been listening to noble Lords and will reflect further and come back on Report, but I am not sure what is going to happen. However, I wish to defend my Secretary of State against the allegation that he has not shown courage. I know that Northern Ireland has had difficult days for many months and years, but in the difficult months in which I have been involved, my Secretary of State has shown courage. I wish to place that on record.

I thank the Minister for that. I accept her defence of the Secretary of State and withdraw my criticism. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendments 4 to 6 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 : Pensions etc

Amendments 7 to 9 not moved.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3 agreed.

Bill reported without amendments.

Committee adjourned at 4.10 pm.