My Lords, there can be little doubt that the political settlement in Northern Ireland has delivered huge benefits, both for the people of Northern Ireland and for the wider United Kingdom. Many noble Lords present today are far better placed than I am to describe the changes we have seen since the dark days of the Troubles.
So much is now happening that would not have been considered possible even 10 years ago. Whether we look at big events like the G8 summit, the World Police and Fire Games, or the first Fleadh to be held in Northern Ireland, or important milestones in the process, such as the end of the first full Assembly term in 2011, or indicators of wider attitudes towards institutions, such as the almost 2,300 Catholics who applied to join PSNI this year, it is clear that enormous progress has been made. However, alongside those markers of progress, we have also seen violence and political tensions linked to issues such as flags. It is today exactly one year since violence broke out over flags issues.
We are all aware that there is still a long way to go before Northern Ireland has the prosperous economy and stronger society which I know all of us in this House would like to see. Sectarian division carries great risks to the economy, to security, and to the general well-being of Northern Ireland’s people. Without economic success, peace is less well rooted. There is much to do in Northern Ireland to bring us on from the legacy of decades of troubles, but it seems to the Government that the two challenges of community division and rebalancing the economy are ones that are critical for the future.
Of course, other questions are being considered in Northern Ireland at present. The all-party group chaired by Dr Richard Haass is considering parades, flags and emblems and the past. Those are some of the most deeply rooted problems that Northern Ireland faces, so that is important work. It is very welcome that that group is undertaking it, first, because the devolved institutions have taken up the challenge of dealing with these issues—not, as would have happened in the past, leaving the lead to the Government. It is welcome also because the Northern Ireland authorities secured to chair the talks someone of the eminence of Dr Haass, who has earned universal respect in Northern Ireland for his grasp of the issues and his energetic dedication to the task. I am aware that some noble Lords in the House will take a close interest in those issues, and we will have to consider when we see the report how we can best give opportunity for those views to be expressed, bearing in mind that the process and the report are owned in Belfast rather than here.
Few would argue that the institutions established under the agreements are beyond improvement, but let us remember that they have given us the relatively stable politics that no other approach in the past 40 years has been able to do. There may come a time when significant change is considered. However, the Government have been very clear that major changes to the institutions established by the agreements can go ahead only if they have broad support across the community in Northern Ireland. It is also essential that any such change is consistent with the principles of power-sharing and inclusivity that are at the heart of the Belfast agreement. At present it is clear that there is no consensus around fundamental changes, and the Bill does not seek to make any. The imperative in Northern Ireland at present is, as I have suggested, to tackle the issues around sectarianism and around strengthening the economy.
I therefore readily acknowledge that the Bill does not make radical changes, but it does make important ones. It is a Bill for more normal times. It reflects progress in Northern Ireland, making changes which remove some of the special measures which have been implemented because of Northern Ireland’s unique situation, and which bring the system in Northern Ireland closer to Great Britain. However, it also acknowledges that there are areas where institutions in Northern Ireland might benefit from further reform. I know that some noble Lords look forward to a day when there might be scope for more substantial changes to the institutions. I hope that debates during the passage of the Bill in this House will give us the opportunity to reflect on these possibilities, always bearing in mind the need to proceed by agreement.
I turn to the contents of the Bill, which amends the regime governing political donations and loans to make more information available to voters in Northern Ireland about the funding of political parties. This matter has been debated on several occasions in this Chamber and I know that noble Lords take the issue very seriously. I hope we can all agree that it is right to protect the names of those who made donations in the past. These individuals made donations in the belief that they would remain confidential, and it would be wrong to change this retrospectively. I hope we can also agree that future political donations in Northern Ireland should be published as soon as the security situation allows. What we may not agree on is whether that time has already arrived.
The provisions in the Bill take a cautious approach. They set a date after which permanent anonymity will not be guaranteed, and they give the Government the power to increase transparency incrementally. For the moment, we believe the security situation does not justify publication of donor names, but it is important to ensure we have the flexibility to move towards the goal of bringing Northern Ireland’s transparency rules into line with the rest of the UK. If the Bill proceeds successfully to the statute book, we intend to move as swiftly as possible thereafter to draft secondary legislation on transparency. We would, of course, consult on these provisions, but we can confirm that our intention is that information about donations and loans made to political parties since 2007 which does not identify the donor would be made public—for example, the type of donor, its value, the date on which it was received and whether it was from an Irish source. We will look to use the power to increase transparency in the Bill to bring Northern Ireland closer to the system which operates in Great Britain as soon as possible, taking into account the security situation.
The Bill will also bring about the end of dual mandates between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons, or the Dáil, by the time of the next Assembly elections in 2016. The practice has long been a matter of concern. Indeed, the Committee on the Preparation for Government, formed prior to the talks at St Andrews in 2006, debated the issue of dual mandates and agreed that the practice should be phased out. Even though good progress towards ending dual mandates has been made since 2010, half of Northern Ireland MPs were also MLAs following the Assembly elections in 2011. Of course, some have now given up one seat or the other, but it is important to ensure that double-jobbing ceases permanently to be a feature of political life.
Over the years, many Members have served with distinction in the House of Commons and at the Assembly. While the institutions in Northern Ireland were not stable, it was understandable that double-jobbing was a feature of political life. But times have changed; the stable operation of the Assembly seems set to continue. Being an MLA is now a full-time job and it is therefore no longer appropriate for dual mandates to continue.
When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was debated in late 2010, concern was expressed in Scotland and Wales that a general election would overshadow the devolved one and cause voter confusion if held on the same day. The decision was taken in early 2011 to extend the terms of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to avoid their elections coinciding with a Commons election. As regards Northern Ireland, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace indicated during the course of the debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill at that time that similar changes for the Northern Ireland Executive would be considered following the triple poll of May 2011. The Bill brings the position in relation to the Northern Ireland institutions into line with the approach in Scotland and Wales. By providing for a fixed five-year term for the Assembly, it will also permanently decouple Westminster and Assembly elections.
The Bill also makes changes to give the Justice Minister the same security of tenure as the other Executive Ministers. This is in response to a request from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that followed inter-party discussions, after which the Assembly agreed the permanent method of selecting a Justice Minister. It is vital for the continued stability of the Northern Ireland institutions that the Assembly is able to elect an individual who commands cross-community support to the post of Justice Minister and that the allocation of ministerial posts between parties thereafter is fair. I hope that all Noble Lords will be able to support the changes set out in the Bill to achieve this.
Clause 6 gives the power to the Assembly to reduce the number of MLAs itself, subject to consent from Westminster. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to secure agreement among the parties on an actual reduction, but we hope that agreement will be forthcoming. Many now take the view that Northern Ireland has too many elected politicians. Long-awaited reforms of local government structures are addressing that level, but there is also clearly scope to reduce the size of the Assembly. To allow the reduction to take place without further primary legislation, the Bill makes this matter reserved, meaning that the Assembly could legislate on this matter, with the consent of the Secretary of State.
This Bill also recognises that progress has been made in Northern Ireland that makes it appropriate for the Government to consider whether the Assembly and the Executive might take the lead on issues that have previously been excepted matters. The relationship between Stormont and this place is maturing, and the Executive are taking the lead on Northern Ireland’s future. In this context, we believe it right that we make provision that opens the way to devolving functions relating to the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the District Electoral Areas Commissioner. By placing these matters in the reserved category, the Bill would enable devolution to take place, following a full consultation, a cross-community vote in the Assembly, and votes in both Houses here. The Government would also be ready to consider devolution of the Secretary of State’s appointment responsibilities for the Equality Commission. We hope to begin consultation on these issues shortly after Royal Assent.
The Bill also makes a number of other important, but more minor provisions, in relation to equality duties, court rules and electoral registration and administration, among others. We want to give effect to recommendations by the Electoral Commission and Chief Electoral Officer to improve the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland, and to reduce the special measures that have been applied to Northern Ireland in respect of elections, recognising that, while we must always be vigilant, past concerns about electoral fraud have been ameliorated.
The measures in this Bill do not make the kinds of sweeping changes to government in Northern Ireland that we have seen when considering Northern Ireland matters in the past. But although the changes made in the Bill are not radical, they are important. They would improve the functioning of Northern Ireland institutions and the way in which they function; they would open the way to changes in the powers of Stormont vis-à-vis Westminster; and they would improve democratic accountability and strengthen the electoral system. I hope that this Bill will play its part in helping to address the challenges faced by today’s Northern Ireland, and I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation in moving the Second Reading.
As was stated in the other place, this has been a momentous year for Northern Ireland and is an appropriate time to bring forward this Bill. With the visit of President Obama to Belfast and the G8 summit in County Fermanagh attended by the Heads of Government, Northern Ireland was on the world stage, and these events were a great boost to morale throughout the community. Two thousand young people from schools across the whole of Northern Ireland were given a vision of the role that they can and must play in the future of Northern Ireland. President Obama’s speech was inspirational not only to those present in the Waterfront Hall but throughout Northern Ireland. The G8 summit worked out very well and it is only right to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on their vision in locating such an important international event in the magnificent location of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. I declare a personal interest in that my maternal grandmother came from the Enniskillen area.
I will not say where my paternal grandfather came from.
The whole of the Northern Ireland community can be proud of the way that the G8 was organised, including especially the co-operation between the PSNI, police forces in the UK and An Garda Siochana, which resulted in protests being facilitated in an orderly way. The summit was a success and a source of pride in the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland. That is the background to this Bill—one of success and not confrontation.
We are all aware that danger remains and there is a lot to do. The flag protests testify to that, and the activities of dissident republican groups remain a severe challenge to the peace process. We can all be grateful for the work of the various security services in making sure that the peace process continues. The Opposition are committed to supporting the Government in a bipartisan way, where it is possible, and we will work very hard to do that. We also have a duty and responsibility to hold the Government to account when we disagree.
As an Opposition, we have to state that there is some disappointment attached to the Bill, not because of what it contains but more to do with the issues that are not dealt with. The use of the word “miscellaneous” is unfortunate as it gives the impression that a number of minor issues are being bundled together and dealt with. The Bill’s provisions have been discussed within the Northern Ireland parties and received general but not universal support. In principle, we support the ending of dual mandates; the extension of the Assembly’s term—temporarily and then permanently; giving security of tenure to the Justice Minister and devolving power on the size of the Assembly. We want to move to full transparency and accountability in political donations. Clearly, we will look at the detail of all the proposals in Committee, but by and large they make sense. However, the Minister will know that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is looking at the size of the Assembly, the number of executive departments, designation, the composition of the Executive, and provision for opposition. These are difficult and sensitive issues. The principles of power sharing and inclusivity are fundamental, but there is an acceptance that the system could be improved and there are demands for more accountability and more rigorous scrutiny of the Executive.
The previous Secretary of State last year launched a review of the operation of the Assembly during a speech in which he criticised the Assembly and the Executive. Vernon Coaker said at the time that that criticism was largely unwarranted and unnecessary and suggested that the Government work in partnership with the Executive and the Assembly to look at how they and the Northern Ireland Office could work more effectively, individually and collectively. To be fair to the current Secretary of State, she has taken an approach more in line with that thinking. However, Vernon Coaker worried that in some respects she has gone too far the other way and has not engaged with some of the issues. Vernon Coaker also said that devolution should not mean disengagement. The Bill gives the House a chance to put its views appropriately and constructively and we hope that, as the Bill goes through its stages in the House, the Government will reflect on how they could take that opportunity.
A lot of progress has taken place on policing and justice. Security of tenure for the Justice Minister has to be welcomed. David Ford continues to do a good job in very difficult circumstances. One issue which I must raise is the National Crime Agency’s inability to operate in Northern Ireland. We regret that, and I hope that as we go through the Bill, we will support the Secretary of State in her attempts to persuade the Home Secretary to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to get the legislative consent necessary for the agency’s remit to extend to Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon has experience of this issue and I hope that she will enlarge on it later in the debate.
On the electoral registration provisions, Westminster still has a role in helping to build a shared future in Northern Ireland that is inclusive of all communities. However, we would like to urge some caution. There needs to be a balance between ensuring that as many people as are entitled to do so engage in the democratic process while protecting against the kind of electoral fraud that undermines the process. The history of violence is very difficult and painful to speak about, but we have had many difficult and painful conversations in Northern Ireland and made progress, and we need to have a conversation on the history of violence. Is there nothing we can propose in the Bill that would help this process and take it forward? The Government say that there is no consensus on the way forward, and therefore no possibility of agreement. We fundamentally disagree, as Members of your Lordships’ House will know.
Dealing with the past—the legacy of the Troubles—is expressly a responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. It cannot act alone, of course, and we have consistently said that we need a comprehensive and inclusive process with victims and survivors at the centre. The last time that Northern Ireland was debated in the other place, Lady Hermon asked what was meant by that. I repeat today that the Government, in partnership with the Irish Government, and in full co-operation with the Assembly, have a duty to lead but not to prescribe. There has to be consensus all the way. It is very difficult but we must try to create a vehicle through which these issues can be discussed and resolved. Of course that will take time, and it will not be easy, but the prize will be worth it. Victims and survivors are not afraid to talk about the past; the Governments should not be either.
Having said that, the hurt, anger and pain in Northern Ireland which are a legacy of more than 40 years of the Troubles—40 years of killing, bombing and other events—cannot be overestimated. We do not underestimate that legacy but a start has to be made some time, and we think that could be now. We are a little disappointed that the Government cannot find a way in the Bill to allow the issues of the past to be discussed and addressed so that consensus may emerge. The legacy of the past has to be dealt with and the Government must consider the impact that it has on the victims, the survivors and everyone else in Northern Ireland. However, despite those criticisms, we give the Bill our support.
My Lords, this is a worthy Bill and I welcome it, but when we go through it in detail I would like us to deal generally with devolved matters as opposed to excepted and reserved matters. During the interparty talks that preceded the agreement of 1998, I raised this issue on a number of occasions. We were then using the devolution provisions in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, with minor changes, as the basic starting point. However, I thought—and still think—that some matters which were devolved in 1920 were no longer suitable for devolution in 1998. Unfortunately, this was considered to be a side issue, but I do not think that is any longer the case.
In those discussions I gave two examples. The first concerned commercial law. I am not sure whether it was seriously intended in 1920 that there could be regional variations in the law concerning commerce, but it is not a valid idea now. Now, commerce operates within a single EU-wide market, and there is no scope for any regional variation and no real function for the Assembly. However, because of its 1920 Act inheritance, the Assembly must pass legislation identical to that enacted here to give effect to European directives. To have this matter no longer devolved would relieve Stormont of drudgery and add to its resources to do something useful.
The second example which would relieve the Assembly of even more drudgery concerns social security, and that is because of the operation of the principle of parity. That principle flows from the existence of the unified tax and benefits system, which is at the heart of being part of the United Kingdom. I do not have to remind folk in Northern Ireland that that parity was hard won and is of huge importance to poor and unemployed persons. The Stormont Parliament stuck firmly, step by step, to UK national welfare policies, whether it liked them or not, and resisted opportunist suggestions from some within its own ranks to depart from parity. The Northern Ireland Executive have done that until now.
I am not going to debate the advantage or otherwise of recent changes to social security because those changes are not relevant. What we are dealing with here is a matter of principle. I say to those in Belfast who are seeking regional variation that they have to bear in mind the consequences that would flow from it. If the door was open to regional variation, it could be a two-way street, and it could apply to other things as well. What comes to mind immediately are things such as public sector pay. Therefore, I suggest to the Northern Ireland Executive that they should close this Pandora’s box as quickly as possible.
If one favours, as I do, a nationally unified tax and benefits system, it does not make sense for part of that system to be under Westminster and part to be devolved to Stormont. Both parts should be together, which is the case with regard to Wales and Scotland, where welfare is not devolved. The anomaly could be tolerated while Stormont adhered to parity, but now, when Stormont has departed from parity, the matter should be addressed properly. I am sure that the Government here would prefer to sort things out quietly, but so far that has not worked and, as noble Lords will know, a financial penalty has been imposed. That is scheduled to increase but one cannot be sure that that will be the end of the matter.
Westminster has the power to enact its new welfare policies over the head of Stormont. However, if there is to be legislation, there is a case for transferring welfare to Westminster as an excepted matter so that this issue will not recur in the future.
There is an instructive example in another part of the Bill, and it was mentioned by the Minister. After devolution in Wales and Scotland, the national parties were against dual mandates. Originally there was a suggestion of legislation, but a voluntary approach has been adopted and that works after a fashion. However, with regard to Northern Ireland the voluntary route is being abandoned and this Bill legislates to put an end to dual mandates. Therefore, that, in a sense, is a precedent for what I am suggesting in this case.
If there is legislation to transfer welfare, I doubt whether there will be serious opposition at Stormont. I suspect that Sinn Fein has raised the issue of these welfare changes because of its embarrassment at the contrast between its bitterly opposing austerity in Dublin while appearing to implement it in Belfast. I suspect that privately it would be relieved if this burden were removed. I am not sure what the DUP’s position would be, but parity is a unionist position.
It may be objected that this is swimming against the tide when one considers what Calman has suggested regarding a fresh commission in Scotland amid talk of devo-plus and devo-max. However, while there have been suggestions in Scotland that some relatively minor welfare powers might be devolved in the event of a no vote, there appears to be no inclination to devolve welfare as a whole, and I would advise caution on that matter. I look forward to returning to this issue in Committee.
My Lords, when the notion of a Northern Ireland Bill was first discussed a couple of years ago, the Secretary of State at that time undoubtedly considered that the centrepiece of the Bill which he hoped to see through would be the devolution of corporation tax. I suspect that most noble Lords and indeed Members of the other place will see this as a very modest Bill because of the failure to be able to include that measure. I perfectly understand the concerns about the impact that such a proposal might have on Scotland. However, I think that that is mistaken: the argument for the devolution of corporation tax in relation to Northern Ireland is wholly different because of the existence of a land border, and that fundamentally changes the economic questions and challenges. Therefore, when the Minister says that there are no fundamental changes in the Bill, she is absolutely right, and that makes it a fairly modest provision.
The measure which I guess was not considered when the Bill was first thought of a couple of years ago concerned the position of the Justice Minister. That really emerged only at a later stage. I very much welcome the regularising of this situation. I know that my former colleagues in the Alliance Party found themselves having more Ministers than would be justified by their votes, although not by their abilities. However, in all fairness, they, like others, would feel that it is better to regularise this and to give a degree of stability to the position of the Justice Minister. In the context of Northern Ireland the Department of Justice is even more important than it is in any other state, although it is always an important ministry. Indeed, today, with the results of the Smithwick tribunal being announced, we recognise and recall that issues of justice and policing have always been central, difficult and contentious. I pay tribute to my friend and colleague David Ford, who has, I think, fulfilled this role with considerable distinction. It is not an easy role but he has worked hard at it and deservedly has gained considerable respect for the work he has done.
The rest of the measures are relatively minor and some of them are wholly unobjectionable from my point of view. I declare an interest as a serving member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. A number of these measures were recommended by the committee. I suspect that the current chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Bew of Donegore, probably will have something to say about that. I welcome the transparency of donations, although I feel that that could go considerably further. I have always been a bit sceptical of the degree of caution that there has been on this question over quite a number of years. The dangers are a lot less than people have claimed in recent years. It may not have been the case quite some time ago. Double-jobbing also was raised by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome too the relatively minor electoral measures brought forward.
One of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, is whether this Bill might have been made a bit more substantial by some kind of legislation on dealing with the past. Dealing with the past is a very difficult issue. I notice the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, in his place and no one needs to tell him about the difficulties in dealing with that issue. I am exerting myself considerably in thinking about it. I am not persuaded that lawyers or legislation will necessarily be the right way to deal with what is fundamentally a question of difficulties about identity. I hope that we find a way forward and that Dr Haass and his colleague Meghan O’Sullivan can assist us in that way, although I am not at all sure that we need more flags. We probably have enough of those in Northern Ireland.
However, there are two measures about which I would express a little caution. First, on the size of the Assembly, I know that in times of austerity the need for efficiency and care about money is important but there was a reason why the Assembly was larger than was justified by the number of electors. It is about dealing with a range of issues from a range of perspectives and having an Assembly large enough to make it function. For example, the Welsh Assembly is much smaller but there are substantial complaints about its size.
A number of people are proposing that we probably need something like 100 Members because certain fundamental functions need to be carried out to make an Assembly viable. I have a concern with the proposal that it should effectively be given, albeit with the say-so of the Secretary of State, to the two large parties to determine the representation size in the Assembly. I could see a temptation on those parties to reduce the numbers and the numbers in the electoral areas in such a fashion that those who vote for it might benefit most from it. One reason why past measures were accepted was that there was always a danger that those who were in power might use them to their own advantage, which is the fundamental problem in the Northern Ireland situation. It is one of the limitations of democracy in a society which is bedevilled by the problems we know well.
I understand what is being proposed and certainly my former colleagues in the Alliance Party have been very supportive of this kind of proposition. I believe that they are concerned about efficiency, reasonableness and so on. I remain somewhat concerned. I just want to flag that up. I hope that my noble friend and her civil servants and officials will think seriously about this issue. One could be creating a problem for the future.
The same thing applies to the human rights commission. It needs to be able to speak truth to power. It needs to be able to challenge authority. One of the dangers of repatriating arrangements and appointments to the commission might well be to create a similar kind of problem. Whereas there is a feeling on this side of the water that, “They are all grown-up boys and girls over there and they should just get on with things”, I am not sure that we are quite at that stage in Northern Ireland. There are still some difficulties that we need to find our way through before having that degree of confidence. So I flag up those concerns.
Of course, I support the general thrust of the Bill and wish it well. I hope, too, that it might not be too long before we come back with a subsequent Bill that would fill out the more substantial things that perhaps should have been here in the first place.
My Lords, I welcome this Bill, which provides the opportunity to give the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Executive and Northern Ireland politicians the tools that they need to continue to move forward as agreement allows. This will allow Northern Ireland to maintain the process of maturing and evolving politically as trust and confidence is built. The greatest challenge that we in Northern Ireland face daily is rebuilding our society after many years of division.
After the longest period of stable government in a generation, politics is changing. It is right that the regulation in relation to political donations should be adjusted to reflect that change. My party, the Democratic Unionist Party, supports Clauses 1 and 2, which provide for greater transparency concerning donations made after 1 January with the important proviso that a final decision will be made only when the security situation in Northern Ireland allows it. Those who donated to political parties under the current procedure did so with a full expectation to full and perpetual anonymity. We support the commitment not to retrospectively publish the names of donors who have given in the past.
Northern Ireland of course is a special case and I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate that, in this instance, there is a requirement for it to be afforded special status which does not exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Many individuals and businesses are to be commended for stepping forward during the bad old days of the darkest of times in the history of Northern Ireland. Despite great personal risk to themselves and their businesses, these brave persons donated to political parties, standing up for democracy. As we move forward to a more normalised society and as we attempt to put our troubled past behind us, it is correct that we move towards the system of donations employed throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. We support the normalisation process for political donations as is outlined in the Bill.
With regard to setting a timetable for the removal of anonymity, sole responsibility for this process lies with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Under the Bill as currently drafted, in assessing the security risk and potential future risks to commercial companies, the Secretary of State is obliged to consult only with the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission. It is certainly right for it to be consulted regarding the mechanics of changes, but as regards the security situation, surely the Secretary of State should also consult with those who have relevant experience and specialised knowledge of the subject. We also believe that provision should be made for consultation with political parties as political parties will have to live with the consequences of reduced funding if the Secretary of State gets the timing wrong.
One issue of concern is that the Bill will not close the sizeable loophole that at present permits political parties based outside the United Kingdom to be bankrolled by donations made abroad. Unfortunately, the Government have not so far seen fit to close that particular loophole, which should not be made available to any political party. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, political parties registered in Great Britain are permitted to accept donations only from UK residents and bodies. That is a solid and sound principle. The same Act extends to parties in Northern Ireland. However, parties registered in Northern Ireland may accept donations from the Republic of Ireland. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, an exception has been made in relation to Northern Ireland. Certain political parties have raised substantial amounts of money outside the jurisdiction, and that money is used to influence the political and electoral process within the United Kingdom. That is wrong and it is an area that should be looked at.
In relation to Clause 3, dual mandates served a useful purpose in Northern Ireland during the period of the Troubles. It was important to have political leaders present in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and another place when negotiations and decisions around Northern Ireland's future were being made. Given that the Troubles as we knew them are now over, we hope, the constitutional debate has been won and we now have the longest and most stable period of devolved government in a generation, it is clear that dual mandates are something that have naturally come to an end. My party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has been actively phasing out dual mandates for a number of years and by 2015 all our dual mandates will have ended. This legislation change simply underscores and re-emphasises what has been happening already on a voluntary basis.
While dual mandates do indeed need to be addressed, the anomaly of non-representation must also be brought to an end. It is time for those persons from Northern Ireland elected to the other House to make a decision. If they want their expenses and office costs, they need to demonstrate that they are doing the work. That means taking their seat. They are free not to take their seat if they so wish. However, the situation that exists where people do not take their seat but are allowed to claim expenses must end. The issue of non-representation while still claiming expenses is an affront to democracy.
Regarding Clause 6, there is broad consensus within Northern Ireland that there should be a considerable reduction in the size of the Assembly. As Northern Ireland moves towards a more normalised society, this should be reflected in a more proportionate legislature. As the party that has most consistently sought to improve Assembly structures, we believe that it is right and proper that the Government should change the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to allow determination of the size of the Assembly to be a reserved matter. That will allow the Assembly to legislate for themselves following consultation and agreement with the Secretary of State.
However, an important point that could arise from the reduction in numbers in the Assembly is that, as it stands currently, a petition of concern requires 30 signatures. If the Assembly were to be reduced to 90 MLAs or fewer, as would be my preference, it would clearly be right, proper and sensible to reduce the number required to sign a petition of concern. This debate should take place between the parties of Northern Ireland at the same time as a discussion on the reduction of MLAs. Thus, I believe that the Bill should be amended to make petitions of concern a reserved matter upon which the Assembly may legislate following agreement.
I also welcome Clause 7, which will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Holding elections for the Assembly and the other House on the same day leads only to confusion and does not allow for the issues pertaining to each body to be properly debated and considered. This change has been legislated for already in Scotland and Wales and is welcome for Northern Ireland as well. There is unanimity of support for the changes proposed in respect of the appointment of the Justice Minister. Those changes would permit that appointment to become normalised within the d’Hondt system.
As regards changes to the reform of electoral registration and voting, I welcome any proposals that will improve and simplify the current process. It is very important to compile an accurate and complete electoral register and I am glad to see that there has been a good uptake of people registering for voting, although some areas still need more work.
I welcome this Bill: it addresses some incredibly important matters. As I have mentioned, I wish that it had contained further provisions concerning political party donations and, in particular, the loophole regarding donations from outside the United Kingdom; but I have no doubt that we will turn to that issue some other time. It is to be welcomed that elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly have now been brought into line with those for Scotland and Wales. I welcome the new arrangement in place for the Minister of Justice and the Assembly’s power to reduce the number of MLAs, which we certainly want to see. It is clear that there are far too many Assembly Members in Northern Ireland and they need to be reduced.
I recognise that there are many other issues that need to be debated and for which provision needs to be made. I hope that after the talks with Dr Richard Haass and further consideration in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, we will be in a position to come forward with some consensus on these issues and debate them further. I believe that the Bill will help to keep politics moving forward in Northern Ireland and improve the working of the devolved Administration. Finally, in reply to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, the DUP is fully in support of parity.
My Lords, I think this is the first time since I came to your Lordships’ House a dozen years ago that I have followed a Cross-Bencher who in Northern Ireland is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party. The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, has spoken well on this thoroughly useful and comparatively tidy Bill.
The Library’s briefing pack identified this Bill as the first piece of constitutional legislation in Northern Ireland that has undergone recent examination by Parliament without a background of crisis. During the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill, Lady Hermon MP even elicited from Raymond McCartney, a Sinn Fein MLA, that he did not see any reason why Sinn Fein would not respond to an invitation to give evidence at Westminster, dependent on the context. This was the first evidence from Sinn Fein to a Westminster committee given in public.
That is not to say that one can only have a useful measure in less critical times. A particularly striking instance of that was the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, carried through your Lordships’ House early in the new millennium by the late, great Lord Williams of Mostyn, who, effectively, completely changed the Bill between Second and Third Reading, to its great improvement. My own absorption in Northern Ireland detail has diminished during the past score of years; but I am batting at number six among the 11 initial speakers in this Second Reading debate, which makes me its fulcrum and an apposite place to make the sort of remarks the chorus makes in a Greek tragedy.
I like the format of the Library’s briefing pack and I am delighted that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is now used to give pre-legislative scrutiny to new Bills. That House of Commons committee, which I chaired during the 1997-2001 Parliament, did not exercise that power, though we did, after ten years, review the working of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. Ken Livingstone, then an MP, who served on that Select Committee before he resigned to contest the mayoralty of London, suggested the review and agreed at first that it should be delayed until the end of 10 years. When we reached the time for the review, he acknowledged that he had originally suspected the legislation to be simply a sop to American critics, but that he now agreed it had made a real beneficial difference.
My only unease about the pre-legislative scrutiny was that it contained 29 recommendations whereas the Government’s response—they claimed that they had addressed each recommendation, as indeed they had—said that the report contained 24. On a day when the Government has made a Statement on, inter alia, UK arithmetic, the Northern Ireland educational establishment can still teach its colleagues in Great Britain something.
Having myself approved the title “National Lottery etc. Bill” in 1993, I suppose it is churlish of me to regard “Miscellaneous Provisions” as an inadequate substitute for,
“measures to improve the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly”,
“donations and loans to Northern Ireland political parties”.
Those were the subjects of consultations by the NIO in 2012 and 2010 respectively, which underlie the Bill and which both have a fine 17th-century timbre. My locus is all the more insubstantial to make these comments when I know even less about d’Hondt than I do about the Duckworth-Lewis scoring method in limited-overs cricket matches. Selfishly, I must say that I hope amendments about d’Hondt will not trouble us in Committee. As it is, there is clear evidence of progress on the size of the Assembly, the dual mandate and the transparency of donations—even if history takes a meandering course and it is less well known than it should be that there was a fall-off in Irish-American donations after Mrs Thatcher gave authority for the United States Air Force to fly bombing raids from British airfields to Libya in the mid-1980s, when France and Germany had declined to do so.
I profoundly welcome the Bill’s attention to detail over the year 2016, not just because of the centenary of the Easter Rising but because of that of the opening salvoes of the Battle of the Somme. I had no role in the Anglo-Irish agreement, the Downing Street declaration, the IRA’s ceasefire in August 1994 or the Belfast agreement, but I did have a role in the 75th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I represented the Cabinet on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, accompanied by the late Alan Clark, who was representing the Ministry of Defence. The noble Lords, Lord Bannside and Lord Molyneaux, were also present. It was a memorable day, not least because of accidents in the arrangements on the battlefield in both the morning and the afternoon.
In the morning, the local Catholic priest was passed over for his planned prayers, which were then taken at the end of the service at the Lutyens memorial. In the afternoon, under a light but wetting rain at the commemoration of the 36th (Ulster) Division at Helen’s Tower, mishaps were happily overcome. The first happened when the Minister from the Ministre des Anciens Combattants, representing the French Government, having returned to Paris after an excellent local lunch, was therefore not available to take up the tray of fleur-de-lys, which were refused in turn by the lady Mayor of Thiepval—population 86—and the British ambassador and were eventually accepted by me. The second was because of the ambiguity in a sentence in the service sheet to the effect that a piper, “will play a lament. Wreaths will be laid”. The latter phrase could have made the actions either simultaneous or consecutive.
The truly memorable event of 1 July 1991 was that, back in Belfast, the inter-party talks of that summer continued under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Mawhinney, who during the day negotiated an agreement that the talks had now run their course and should be brought to a gentle close. It was agreed that the close should be temporary and that the gentleness should bind everyone not to get into the blame game, so that the talks could be peacefully resumed in due course, as indeed they were, to the long-term benefit of the peace process. If useful Bills go well, the climate improves and we must hope that this is true this time too.
My Lords, I have to follow that slot. I thank my noble friend Lady Randerson for explaining the Bill to us. For me, the starting point in considering the Bill is, indeed, the Belfast agreement of 1998, which was of course endorsed by 69% of those who voted in that May 1998 referendum. It is perhaps right that we are considering this 15 years on. We are looking at the revision of two Acts of Parliament —the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the much earlier Act, the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975.
I support much of the miscellany that is before us in connection with the transparency of donations and loans to political parties, the ending of the dual mandate and the new method of appointing a Justice Minister. But I would like to highlight one or two areas of reservation. I am concerned about the size of the Assembly. The Bill suggests that this could change, and we have heard noble Lords speak about reducing the number of Members in a constituency from six to five.
I looked at the results of the most recent Assembly election. Of course, in looking at results one is not to know exactly how people would behave if there were only five elected rather than six. However, after studying that election, it is my view that the losers would not be the DUP or Sinn Fein but other Members of the Assembly, and there would be fewer people from minority causes serving in the Assembly. That would result in a loss of plurality, which is embedded in the Belfast agreement as to how Northern Ireland should go forward. Indeed, if we were to reduce the number from six to four, it would be even worse. If there were to be reductions under the present system, I would sooner reduce the number of constituencies from 18 to 12 and stick with the six Members.
One also has to take into account the fact that there will be a reduction in the number of those who serve in local government—it seems that the legislation is there for 2015. The folks in Northern Ireland would be well advised to think through what that will mean in terms of the number of public representatives who are available to serve the people there. I caution against that and wonder whether that clause ought to be supported in the Bill.
The Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 has not been referred to by anyone else but I would like to refer to it. It is interesting that it sets out those who are disqualified. Of course, those who are disqualified are justice officers, and there are 17 different sorts of justice officer specified; there are also civil servants, Armed Forces, police, national criminal intelligence people, the National Crime Squad, any member of a legislature of any place outside the Commonwealth, and other offices in Parts 2 and 3 of Schedule 1.
There are 105 offices listed in Part 2 and 136 in Part 3. For example, if you happened to be a member of the Football Licensing Authority, which is in Part 2, you are not able to stand for the Northern Ireland Assembly. If you are chairman of the Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal, you are not able to stand for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Northern Ireland is quite a small place and if you think of those who are serving on these 241 bodies, you are reducing the gene pool from which candidates can come. I think that needs looking at.
If this issue is not looked at in itself, it can be looked at in another way. The Minister will be aware that there was a little local difficulty in Wales a couple of years ago in terms of people standing for the Welsh Assembly and the problems that were caused. There could well be a situation where on nomination day you could stand down from the office of profit, and if you are not elected you resume after polling day. Of course, the specific reason that I am able to speak on this is that the Civil Service Commissioner for Northern Ireland is to be so listed, so there are 242 rather than 241 appointments that exclude people from standing.
As I said, it is important to look back at the Belfast agreement. Strand One of that agreement sets out:
“A consultative Civic Forum will be established. It will comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors, and such other sectors as agreed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister”.
Furthermore, Clause 56 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 sets out:
“The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters … ‘the Forum’ means the consultative Civic Forum established in pursuance of paragraph 34 of Strand One”.
Where is the forum today? It is not there. I do not know whether legislation will help, but again this is about plurality—about everybody being in this together for Northern Ireland. We should look again at that Belfast agreement. That is the test that we have as we take this Bill into Committee. Is there anything else that needs adding to the miscellany that is before us? Of course, I welcome the Bill, but I wonder whether there are some changes that we should be making.
My Lords, as we discuss this Bill this evening, we have to measure its provisions against the strengths and weaknesses of devolution as it has operated now for nearly 10 years. Do these provisions help or do they largely ignore developments and avoid the many problems that need to be resolved?
It is true that Northern Ireland has progressed in the years since the Belfast agreement was ratified. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that the percentage in the referendum was 71.2%, if I recall correctly. As has already been referred to, the visit of the President Obama and other world leaders ahead of the very successful G8 summit held in County Fermanagh in June signified just how far the Northern Ireland political process has come after many false starts. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, indicated his antecedence from that district—it is as well that that information was not freely available when the Prime Minister took his decision to go to County Fermanagh—and I join him in saying to the Prime Minister that he took a very brave decision which put the Province on the world stage in the most favourable possible circumstances.
However, it must also be acknowledged that to look forward to a bright future of peace and justice we must first deal with the weighty and at times seemingly unconquerable issues of “the past”. Attempts are being made as we speak by Ambassador Haass to do this, but it would be a brave Member who predicted a totally successful outcome to these deliberations before Christmas. The past, flags and parades are among the most difficult problems that we face. If Dr Haass does not succeed at this stage, we have to look at a completely new way forward; we just cannot allow things to sit where they are.
We have entered a decade of anniversaries in Northern Ireland, as has been referred to, with the first one of last year, the commemoration of the Ulster Covenant, having passed peacefully in September 2012. Given that positive start to the period, it was regrettable that, exactly one year ago today, we were plunged back into a dismal place following the decision of Belfast council with regard to the union flag.
Up until last year, there were no flag protests and demonstrations, not even from those who would have preferred no flags to fly—indeed, many citizens did not even realise that a flag was there at all. But Sinn Fein did, and it has waged a campaign for more than 30 years to get it removed. Even the public consultation held on the proposal to pull the flag down indicated that very few people in Belfast were seriously worried or offended by its presence, but, like so much that is symbolic in Northern Ireland, taking things down is both difficult and dangerous.
On the night when the decision was taken, two other events occurred. Newry and Mourne council decided to ratify the naming of a children’s playground after an IRA gunman who had been in possession of a weapon linked to the Kingsmills massacre. Sadly, David Ford, who has been referred to, whose councillors’ votes were necessary to take the decision, issued the statement that night:
“Tonight’s result has been a clear victory for the Alliance Party. Through the dedicated work of Alliance Councillors the image of a shared future has prevailed in Belfast”.
In view of the events of the year that has followed, many of them deplorable, I can hardly think of a form of words so far removed from reality. Community relations in Belfast have been set back by many years. Indeed, I have not seen things so bad in the city, having represented part of it for 26 years.
What we are seeing in Belfast and other places is really the legacy and the inability of our institutions to deal with the consequences of the brutal and lengthy campaign of terror that has left two extremely frightened and polarised communities in fear of each other and unable to come to terms with the past. To suggest that those injustices should be whitewashed or simply forgotten about as time goes on is both unrealistic and not in the spirit of justice.
The people of Northern Ireland know all too well that, if not adequately dealt with, those feelings of grief, injustice and hurt travel through the generations as if they were implanted in the genes. They leave the younger generations with true and genuine feelings of grief, anger and disgust although they have no real memories of the darkest and most brutal days of that period.
Acts of “tribal, intimate revenge”, as the late Seamus Heaney put it, will carry on for generations to come if there is no sense of due process and closure for every family who have been affected and feel that they need justice for their injured and lost. The idea that it is easier for the Government and perpetrators simply to write it off only adds to the hurt of each mother, father, son and daughter who has endured unspeakable grief and has carried on in the quest for truth.
In 1998, it was in the spirit of truth and justice that my party, the Ulster Unionist Party, under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, endorsed the Belfast agreement in the hope that the long and bloody days of terror would be put behind us and that it would install a functioning political institution enshrined in statute. Since then, and in the provisions before us, a number of measures are proposed that will slightly alter the configuration and circumstances in which the Assembly functions.
There is a proposal to extend the term: not a big proposal in itself. However, I make two points. The idea that that guarantees in perpetuity that future Assembly elections will not coincide with Westminster elections is false. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act does not guarantee in statute five-yearly elections to Westminster. That could change because of circumstances, which we debated here at enormous length. If it can happen, it will happen. The idea that that brings to an end a clash between the Assembly election and the Westminster election is untrue. It does not guarantee that at all.
My anxiety about that issue is that, in the other place, the Minister, and the Member for South Leicestershire, said that there was “general consensus” that the Assembly term should be extended from four to five years. That is not so. There is a majority for it, but it is not a general consensus. We take the view that all the people in Scotland and Wales knew in 2011 that they were voting for a five-year assembly. The people of Northern Ireland believed that they were voting for a four-year Assembly. The information was there, because the Government contacted all Administrations at the same time, but it did not filter out. When the Government came forward with their initial Explanatory Notes, they indicated that they were not proposing to effect the five-year change because there was not consensus on it, but, all of a sudden, consensus materialises. It is not a huge issue but I am making the point that when people went to the polls in Belfast and Northern Ireland, they did not know that they were voting for a five-year term. There has been little or no debate about whether there should be a permanent five-year or four-year term, just as we had people on all sides of this House with different views on that sort of measure.
On Third Reading in the other place, the Secretary of State said that the measures contained therein,
“do not reopen the political settlement enshrined in the Belfast agreement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/6/13; col. 49.]
It is a pity that Governments over the years did not adhere to that because in 2006, the then Government did not show the same respect for that document. They brought forward proposals that were not even discussed in St Andrews to change fundamentally how the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were identified. These changes were made behind the Speaker’s Chair without the involvement of political parties in Northern Ireland, with one exception. There was no widespread consensus on them and they have radically altered the agreement that was voted on by the electorate. I know that a number of us will be returning to that as the Bill progresses.
However, there are other, welcome measures in the Bill, including that on the issue of donations, which has been referred to. I fully endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, when he referred to the ongoing funding of political parties in Northern Ireland from outside the jurisdiction, which I believe would not be tolerated anywhere else. It is entirely wrong that people from any part of the world can put money into a party in the Republic and that that party can transfer money to fight elections in Northern Ireland. It is entirely unjustified and unreasonable but it is all part of a policy of “Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset the Shinners. We don’t want to annoy them”, never mind whether the thing is right or wrong. It is wrong, and it should be spelt out clearly that that is the case.
I have to say that I find one or two other issues concerning. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in his comments about some of the more minor provisions, which appear to be fairly innocuous with regard to appointing certain key individuals, whether that is in terms of human rights or district electoral areas. I say that because we have just had what is probably the longest local government reform process in the democratic world. It has taken 14 years from inception to finality to carry out a minor reform of local government, because the number of powers being transferred has gradually been eroded over the years until it is effectively a matter of a general competence and power over planning. That has taken 14 years but it is not my main concern.
My main concern is that the boundaries that have emerged, particularly as they apply to the city of Belfast, were flagrantly gerrymandered. For any of your Lordships who know the geography of the area, the outlying housing estates around the city are being brought into Belfast, which is perfectly natural because that is how cities have evolved. However, there are two glaring exceptions. In the north of the city, the Rathcoole area is not being included, yet it is part of the North Belfast parliamentary constituency. In the east of the city, the Dundonald and Ballybeen areas are not being included but are part of the East Belfast parliamentary constituency. When you get past Stormont, the third entrance into Stormont off the Upper Newtownards Road is now going to be in the city of Lisburn; anybody with any knowledge of the area knows that that is absolute nonsense. It has been done for political purposes and it is entirely wrong, so any thought that some of these matters can be handed back willy-nilly to Stormont will require thorough scrutiny in later stages of the Bill.
There is a final point that I want to make. We will deal with the NCA, the definition of victims and other matters at later stages, but there is a point about devolution in the United Kingdom in general that I hope the Government, and indeed the alternative Government, will pay attention to. It concerns the Sewel convention. We are getting ourselves into a position of saying that once you hand over a power, forget about it—devolution can just deal with it, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can go about their own business. Consequently, Parliament is becoming progressively more London-centric, and that is a mistake. It is nice for Whitehall to get these regional problems off the table and out of the way, but then you wake up to a headline, as some Members may recall we once did, such as the famous Sunday Times one, “John Bull’s Political Slum”. If noble Lords do not remember it, they may have read about it. Although I did not agree with the article, it was making the point that something was happening in Northern Ireland way back in the 1960s that people here did not know anything about because they were not focused on it. Northern Ireland was dealt with by someone at a desk at the Home Office, and that was it.
We are going to make the same mistake with regard to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if we do not watch ourselves. A point comes after you have transferred more and more powers when you have to say to yourself, “Apart from being a cash machine, what else is Parliament for? What other role does it have?”. There is a wider issue that we as a Parliament have to address about how we treat devolution. In the aftermath of whatever happens to our colleagues in Scotland next year, no doubt we will have an opportunity to return to that.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Empey, with whom I agree about nearly everything, in the closing stages of this debate on a Bill that has a limited but nevertheless most beneficial purpose: to help further the arrangements under which the Province is currently governed and its electoral system administered. As a Conservative and unionist with a long-standing interest in Northern Ireland, I welcome it.
The Bill has been the subject of extensive consultation within Northern Ireland. It has undergone detailed pre-legislative scrutiny at the hands of the Northern Ireland Select Committee in the other place, and has been usefully improved as a result. Such careful preparation is not a feature of all the legislation that comes before this House. As a Member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution, I have from time to time put my name to reports expressing regret that measures have been brought forward without having been given the full and detailed preliminary consideration that they needed. This Bill warrants no such comment, and the Northern Ireland Office is to be congratulated on its thoroughness. The manner in which it has been developed accords fully with the best practice recommended by your Lordships’ Constitution Committee.
From my own staunch unionist standpoint, the Bill has much to commend it. Northern Ireland ought, as far as possible, to be treated in the same way as other parts of our country on issues that affect them all equally. The funding of politics is one such subject. The Bill deserves full support for setting an early date—1 January 2014, less than a month away—after which information about new political donations can be made available without restriction by the Electoral Commission. At the same time, common prudence indicates that the precise moment at which the new power can be used must be determined in the light of security considerations. The Bill rightly leaves the Secretary of State, who I am sure will engage in widespread consultation, to judge when the change can safely be made, and so bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the country, in conformity with unionist principles and the wishes of the people in the Province. In a survey carried out by the Electoral Commission at the end of last year, fewer than one in 10 favoured the retention of confidentiality.
The Bill also brings Northern Ireland into line with practice elsewhere in another important respect, by extending the term of the current Assembly from four years to five, and by providing for five-year terms in future. There is nothing inherently superior about five-year intervals between elections; indeed, a powerful case can be made for elections every four. However, the next elections in Scotland and Wales will take place at the end of five years, and Northern Ireland stands to gain no obvious practical benefit from having a shorter electoral cycle. The Bill brings a welcome consistency to this aspect of the United Kingdom’s devolved institutions. All of them will now be re-elected in 2016. Having been brought into a common mould, they should retain it. Elections every five years are to become the rule in Wales as well as in Northern Ireland. It is a rule that Scotland should adopt too.
Much reference has been made in this debate to one particularly glaring disparity that currently exists between the Northern Ireland Assembly and devolved bodies elsewhere. The Stormont Assembly, with a smaller electorate than its counterparts, has a much higher ratio of elected representatives. Electors in Northern Ireland are therefore seriously overrepresented in comparison with their fellow countrymen in Scotland and Wales. The carefully defined power which this Bill gives to the Assembly to reduce its own size provides a most welcome means of tackling the problem. The Assembly should use it to serve both the interests of Northern Ireland, where every opportunity to cut its high levels of public spending should be seized, and those of the country as a whole. Greater uniformity between the various devolved institutions strengthens the unity of the kingdom. At the same time, the important points made by my noble friends Lord Alderdice and Lord Shutt need to be noted most seriously.
The Bill has been given wide support, and rightly so, because it bans elected representatives sitting in the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly simultaneously. There is nothing new about the existing practice. The first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 was also a Member of the House of Commons, and later went on to become Father of it; no one turned a hair. Over the years, his example was followed by a not inconsiderable number of Northern Ireland politicians. Today, in the face of much public criticism, the practice has declined sharply: only three Northern Ireland politicians currently hold dual mandates. However, the practice should cease for one simple and straightforward reason above all: the volume of work that elected representatives have to undertake today makes it impossible for them to discharge their duties adequately in two legislatures simultaneously. The era of part-time politics for constituency representatives that existed until after the Second World War has, for good or ill, gone for ever. The Government should, of course, go further—although this Bill is not the vehicle—and apply the principle of “one representative, one legislature” in all parts of the country, as the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended in its report on the draft Bill. Action is to be taken in Wales, but should not end there: Scotland, too, should be brought into line. Certain fundamental principles should apply throughout all devolved institutions, and that is one of them.
Should those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly continue to be eligible to sit in this House? The Government have not so far accepted the arguments in favour of change. Again, there is nothing new about existing practice. Membership of this House and of the Stormont Parliament were combined by the first Lord Brookeborough and by the first and second Lord Glentoran. Today, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Effective membership of this House may not require the commitment of as much time as the Commons demands, but even so the practical possibilities of working in this House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly simultaneously are severely limited, not least because the hours of business in both places tend to overlap. I suggest that it will be difficult to secure acceptance in the country at large for the proposition that the two Houses should be treated differently in this respect. The Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended that,
“the abolition of dual mandates should be applied consistently across both Houses of Parliament”.
The case for a consistent approach seems to me to be very strong. That is one matter to which we can return in Committee.
Another matter is the much discussed question of moving towards the creation of a formal Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its absence, for well understood reasons, sets Northern Ireland apart from other parts of the country and is incompatible with unionist principle. Disraeli said in 1844:
“No Government can be long secure without a formidable opposition”.
Is there not perhaps a link between the very slow progress now being made in tackling sectarian divisions and improving public services, such as education, and the absence of an Opposition that could hold the Executive rigorously to account? The Assembly and Executive Review Committee has recently concluded that,
“there is no consensus at present to move to a formal Government and Opposition model”.
However, given the growing evidence of increasing support for this move within Northern Ireland, it is surely incumbent on us to ensure that a transition can occur without difficulty in future. Perhaps the most effective way of doing that would be to add to this Bill a clause conferring on the Assembly the power to make the move in due course when agreement has been reached.
Committee may also be an appropriate stage at which to consider action by the current Executive that is contrary to the best interests both of the Province itself and the country as a whole. One example is the severe limitations that have been imposed on the new National Crime Agency, highlighted by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on several occasions and by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, who knows Northern Ireland well. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, of Fermanagh descent, also made a reference to it earlier in the debate. Another well known example is the Executive’s rejection so far of the new Defamation Act, which was the subject of a debate in Grand Committee in June. These issues raise fundamental constitutional questions that relate to the future government of the United Kingdom, as highlighted and expanded upon by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Empey. They are of immense importance.
In 1966, as dark clouds were starting to gather in Ulster, an incisive analysis of rising disorder was published in the New Statesman by Seamus Heaney, whose death this year has been so widely mourned and has been marked by a special occasion here at Westminster. Heaney wrote sorrowfully of the re-emergence of political extremism,
“directed at the breaking down of any bridges that might exist between Catholic and Protestant; it would create its own Troubles and set the political and religious question back 40 years”.
Tragically, these were prophetic words. Heaney also quoted words used by Keats after visiting Belfast in the 1830s:
“What a tremendous difficulty is the improvement of the condition of such people”.
The difficulty, tremendous now as it was then, can surely be overcome only by rebuilding the bridges that were so cruelly broken down after 1966, while showing true understanding of those whose sentiments are summed up in a well known line of popular verse quoted by Heaney at the conclusion of his article:
“It’s to hell with the future and live on the past!”.
It is surely our duty to do all we can to encourage Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions to direct all their attention in one direction: towards the future. The Bill can help us in that task.
My Lords, it is a pleasure immediately to follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. His speeches in this House reflect not only his love for the Province but his grasp of the political detail, the complexity and the history of the Province. He, at least, will not shirk the tremendous difficulty that Keats noted in improving the condition of these people.
Batting at number 10, I will make some brief remarks about the Bill, and I start by thanking the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and her officials for the helpful briefing last Thursday on the different elements of the Bill. I should also indicate that I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill.
I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, that the culture in the political parties of Northern Ireland is changing, and that double-jobbing is gradually curing itself and moving out of the system. I still welcome the provisions in the Bill to give a certain finality to that. It is worth recalling that there was a substantial struggle on this point. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and its previous chairman, Sir Christopher Kelly, played a major role, as the Library’s briefing note makes clear, in entrenching judgments and moving opinion towards the conclusion which we now have in the Bill. I pay tribute to that work this evening; we should not forget it. The Committee on Standards in Public Life—I declare an interest in that I am its newly appointed chairman—also pushed very strongly on another key element in the Bill, which is greater transparency in the area of political donations.
Because we have been absorbing some difficult news from the OECD today, it might be worth while drawing attention to the fact that in mid-November the OECD held a conference in Paris under the heading of “Restoring Trust in Government”. One of the features of that conference was an acknowledgement that the United Kingdom had a good record in the matter of transparency as regards political donations. One blot on the United Kingdom’s record is the problem with respect to Northern Ireland that has already been alluded to by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Browne. However, the United Kingdom generally has a good record of transparency, and there is no question but that the Bill, in some of its provisions, reduces some of the criticisms that can be made as regards part of the Northern Irish tale which reduces the overall record.
None the less, it is a fundamental fact that a key principle of our law in the United Kingdom is the notion that it is inappropriate to have foreign donations working in our domestic politics. That is increasingly widely accepted and is a key principle of our law. The difficulty, which has been the case for some years and remains so under the Bill, is the continuation of the arrangements that allow Irish citizens to contribute to Northern Irish political parties. I fully accept that there is a special relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and that the need to make provisions for Irish citizens who live on the island of Ireland to play that role is implicit in the Belfast agreement itself. That agreement conferred new rights on those who consider themselves British, those who consider themselves Irish and those who consider themselves both; it did not confer new rights on those who consider themselves Irish or American or both. However, we are effectively doing that by continuing with those arrangements.
When the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was the Minister responsible for these matters, he was very open in Grand Committee in acknowledging that there are a lot of Irish citizens around the world. The point is that the Irish state has an expanded extraterritorial definition of citizenship. We are locked in by those arrangements to the Irish state’s constitutional view of those matters. As a consequence, there is indisputably a contradiction between our broad approach to the question of foreign donations and what we are permitted in this particular case. There is a difficulty here.
One of the things that slightly surprise me is that, after all, in recent times we have heard a great deal about the very good relationship between the two Governments and how it has never been better. We—or those who pay attention to Dublin politics—also hear an unease about the money that arrives in Dublin politics; I am talking now purely about politics between the Irish Republic and America. There is growing unease on those points. One of the questions that I want to ask the Government is: are serious discussions going on about the implications of those matters? Is there a sense that both Governments have an interest in at least looking more closely at current arrangements? There are some very striking recent newspaper reports about fundraising developments in the United States and very striking unease in the Dublin newspapers about it. As I say, we are stuck with the capacious definition of Irish citizenship currently available in the Irish constitution. Finally, in the same context, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness if she can explain whether the new guidelines from the Standards in Public Office Commission in Dublin which came out in 2013 offer any real comfort to those of us who are concerned about that matter.
My Lords, it has been an interesting and useful debate. Some of the descriptions of the Bill have been that it is modest, useful and tidy, which probably explains the record number of shorter speeches in your Lordships’ House on Northern Ireland issues. Other noble Lords have spoken about the context in which this Bill is being considered, in that it shows how much progress has been made in Northern Ireland for future generations since the Belfast agreement.
I do not think that anybody in your Lordships’ House tonight underestimates the challenges and problems faced by Northern Ireland; that was evidenced by the flag protests. I was in Foyle a couple of weeks ago, and the lead item on the evening news—I am sure that the noble Baroness has read about this—was about a bomb that was left on a bus. The bus driver was told to drive the bus, and she showed enormous courage and bravery in getting passengers off before alerting the police. A similar incident happened in Belfast.
The difference now is that these kinds of stories do not dominate the news every day, but they highlight the continuing activity of dissidents and the challenges faced. My noble friend Lord McAvoy and other noble Lords referred to the hugely successful G8 and the visit by President Obama, as well as other events and examples of great progress, improving the reputation of Northern Ireland at home and overseas.
The Bill before us today has been drawn up by agreement with the Northern Ireland political parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, said, it is the first Northern Ireland Bill to benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny. I certainly agree with his comments about the value of such scrutiny. I very much enjoyed his speech, particularly his references to the Somme. I recommend to him a play that I saw in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast some time ago, called “Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme”, which he may know of already. It says a lot about Northern Ireland history.
Everyone in your Lordships’ House tonight knows that progress is hard won. Northern Ireland has got as far as it has today only because those in positions of responsibility have been prepared to get together to talk and have not been frightened to disagree before finding grounds on which to agree. The provisions in the Bill on greater transparency for political donations, electoral registration and administration have been agreed by political parties and largely welcomed here tonight, as well as being welcomed by the Electoral Commission. However, we also need to recognise and understand why transparency is not yet the same as in the rest of the UK; that must remain the objective, and that is part of the difficulty.
The Northern Ireland Home Affairs Committee in the other place heard conflicting views on this issue. This Bill seeks to find a way forward while holding the door open for further reform in future. There has to be recognition that, even when agreement can be found in principle, it is a harder task to work out and then agree on the detail. We found that with issues that are not in the Bill—with the number of MLAs, for example. I found the comments from the Liberal Democrat/Alliance Benches quite interesting—about not having a smaller Parliament or reducing the number of MLAs—because those were the exact proposals from the party opposite regarding the House of Commons. There seem to be two different views from the Liberal Democrats on that, but we should perhaps let that pass.
The point is that it is harder to work out the detail. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned the difficulty with the reorganisation of local government, and how long that has taken. These things are difficult, but I hope that we see the start of a process and not the end of seeing any progress.
I also concur with the very sensible changes regarding the position of Justice Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke about the difficulties that it could create for the Alliance, but it may not always been an Alliance MLA holding that position. I pay tribute to David Ford, as I know him well and know the work that he has done. In principle, those changes are very sensible.
The issue of double jobbing and the dual mandate came up several times. The comments from the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and others were that political parties have largely achieved this—and that is welcome—but all noble Lords still welcomed that provision.
There seems to be little disagreement about what is in the Bill, and a lot of the points raised tonight, particularly by my noble friend Lord McAvoy, highlighted our areas of concern about the missed opportunities—what is not in the Bill. He was not alone in raising such issues; the noble Lords, Lord Trimble, Lord Alderdice and Lord Empey, raised those issues, too.
As the noble Baroness said, this is a technical Bill. It will not make a great difference to the lives of people in Northern Ireland although it introduces some important changes. I refer to two areas of concern highlighted by my noble friend Lord McAvoy. I know that we are not the only ones concerned about these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to one of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has done previously, which is the deficiencies in the Crime and Courts Act 2013, specifically in connection with the operation of the National Crime Agency.
I understand the criticism of those political parties that did not support the relevant legislative consent Motion, although I do not think that blame is necessarily helpful in this case. I was the shadow Minister at the Home Office at the time and I think it would have been very productive if the Government had engaged with all the political parties at a very early stage. I spoke to Ministers very early on in the process about the obvious issues that would arise with policing being devolved and the creation of the National Crime Agency, but I never received any indication from the Government at all of any proper political engagement with the Northern Ireland political parties on the part of the Home Office or the Northern Ireland Office. Ministers in both departments told me that the other department was dealing with it. Where do you go from there? No one seemed to take responsibility. Whoever we may think is at fault, the Government should have worked harder and engaged more fully with the relevant people to try to prevent this problem occurring. I would have liked to see something in the Bill that gave confidence that the Government now better understand those difficulties and want to find a way to engage properly in order to move forward. It is so disappointing to see no such provision. I hope that does not mean that the Government have given up. This is too important an issue for that.
My noble friend Lord McAvoy has made the following point, as have other noble Lords. Devolution does not mean disengagement. I hope that the noble Baroness will assure me that the Government have not put this issue on the back burner, that it is still a very live issue and that the Government, with the political parties in Northern Ireland, will continue proactively to seek a way forward to address it.
Other noble Lords have referred to dealing with the past. I was the second Minister responsible for victims and survivors in Northern Ireland, following the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. In all the issues affecting the future of Northern Ireland, the past is always present. I echo the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on the importance of the Haass talks, the necessity of their succeeding and the consequences if they do not.
When the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 unanimously passed a Motion, proposed by an Alliance MLA, to ask the Secretary of State to convene all-party talks at Stormont to try to find a way forward—a framework, perhaps—that would allow some progress to be made, I think we all expected to see some movement. The substantial and very impressive report and proposals in 2009 from the Consultative Group on the Past, jointly led by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and Denis Bradley, had a mixed reaction in terms of the conclusions it drew. However, Shaun Woodward, as the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, undertook a consultation to see where there was consensus. It is shocking that in 2011, Owen Paterson, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, refused to convene a meeting asked for by the Assembly, saying that there had to be consensus before any talks took place. What if the Government had said that there had to be consensus before the talks took place that led to the Good Friday agreement?
Noble Lords will know how difficult this issue is, and I share that view. I have met and listened to many victims and survivors and their organisations from different communities across Northern Ireland. I have heard their stories, as other noble Lords present this evening have done who have lived through those events. I do not have the answers; I do not think that anyone does. There is no consensus. Progress might even mean talks about having talks or taking small baby steps to start with. However, I do know that there will be no headway unless there is a start to this process. This issue matters and the Government have a role to play in it. They cannot just step aside.
We support the Bill and many of the measures in it. It contains some welcome measures and we look forward to further debate in Committee and working with the Minister on this issue.
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the debate and I thank all speakers for their thoughtful and constructive contributions. Their depth of experience and the imaginative approach that has been adopted across the House augurs very well for the quality of the debate that we will have in the future as we examine amendments and go through the Bill clause by clause. I know that many of today’s speakers are truly expert on the matters under discussion and clearly their views are very valuable.
I am pleased that so many in this House felt able to express support for some of the provisions in the Bill. The Government have been mindful of the need to seek as much consensus as possible, particularly on the constitutional matters dealt with in the legislation. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that possibly our definitions of “consensus” are different. Consensus that there is a problem is probably the starting point with many of these things, although consensus on the solution may not come until some hard work has been done in searching for that solution to the problem.
I welcome the support for the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and should like to address one of the issues that he and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised concerning the NCA. The Crime and Courts Act includes order-making powers so that the NCA arrangements can be fully extended to Northern Ireland when the Northern Ireland Assembly gives its consent. Unfortunately, as a result of not securing consent, the activities of the NCA in Northern Ireland are restricted and the level of support that the NCA can provide to the PSNI in the fight against serious and organised crime is reduced. However, I emphasise in particular to the noble Baroness that David Ford, the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, is continuing to discuss this matter and is seeking to get agreement with the Northern Ireland parties. The Home Secretary remains open to proposals for arrangements to ensure that the NCA is answerable for its activities in Northern Ireland.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that explanation and I apologise that this issue is not quite clear to me. I am trying to understand whether the Government were engaged in discussions with Northern Ireland. I appreciate David Ford’s role—he has been very good on this—but my query concerns the Government’s role in this.
It is important to remember that justice is now a devolved issue. Although the Secretary of State and indeed the Home Secretary take a very proactive approach in liaising with the Justice Minister, the decision has to lie with the Northern Ireland Executive. I understand the sense of frustration felt by many noble Lords when we often talk here about issues that are devolved, but the whole stream of thought behind the Bill is to enable the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland to operate more as the other devolved bodies do, so that Northern Ireland becomes less of a special case. In this particular case, the Government are very concerned that there should be a solution, and they are actively working towards obtaining that solution in a way that is acceptable across the parties in Northern Ireland.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but the National Crime Agency—I repeat, the National Crime Agency—is not exclusively a matter for the devolved regions. I respectfully request that the Minister refers to a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who answered a debate in this House. I specifically asked him what would happen in the event that the Northern Ireland Assembly did not agree to this because I felt that it had no intention of agreeing to it. I asked what would happen if there was deemed to be a potential national threat posed by a pool of individuals in Northern Ireland who were not subject to the same rigour as would be the case elsewhere. He said that the Government would act responsibly.
I accept that the right way to do it is the way in which it is being pursued at the moment with Northern Ireland Ministers and the Executive. But this House cannot escape ultimate responsibility if leaving things unsatisfactorily resolved in Northern Ireland would ultimately pose a threat to the entire United Kingdom, which could happen. I just make the point to the noble Baroness that she might refer to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, when he answered the debate.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention and for his comments in respect of accepting the fact that this is a devolved issue and that the right way to deal with it is via the Justice Minister. The devolution of justice and the failure to accept the role of the NCA does not mean that it does not operate at all in Northern Ireland. Only some of its functions are affected. I say again that the Home Secretary is very proactively working to encourage a solution that will enable the NCA to be answerable within Northern Ireland.
Comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about the past on this topic were similar to those made by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and others. This relates to the Haass talks and the whole topic of the past. It is important to bear in mind that the Haass talks are reaching a conclusion. The expectation is that there will be a report before Christmas. The Northern Ireland Executive once again owns this process. These are sensitive and difficult issues, and it is important that we give our support to that procedure so that we are able to take from it any positive outcome that is possible. Three issues are being dealt with by the Haass talks. They are separate but intertwined issues and the past is a very important part of them.
I remind noble Lords of the words of Her Majesty the Queen when she said that as a society we must respect the past but should not be bound by it. It is important that, when the Haass talks are concluded, we give full support to the Northern Ireland Executive in the way in which they intend to implement any recommendations.
As my noble friend Lord Trimble pointed out, welfare devolution has existed in Northern Ireland since 1920. It would be a serious piece of undevolution to take that back now in the context of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure so far to introduce parity. It is important to bear in mind that it would be open to the Northern Ireland parties to seek to have the responsibility in these fields taken back, but it would require the agreement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. There would also have to be cross-community support in the Assembly and votes here and in the other place, so it would be a very complex issue.
To my knowledge, there been no call for control over welfare to be brought back to this place. It is, however, to be seriously borne in mind that the failure of the Northern Ireland Executive until now to address the issue of welfare reform will impose a serious financial penalty on the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive because of the costs of a more expensive welfare system.
I appreciate the points that the Minister has made, but I just wanted to point out to her that her earlier comments about this being a serious and grave matter are completely beside the point. This has in the past been a mere formality. There has been no substance to the devolved character of welfare in Northern Ireland. It is not a matter of significance at that end at all. With all respect, I think that the Minister's comments on this are inaccurate and premature.
At the moment, for the first time, I believe that we are seeing that the devolution of welfare to Northern Ireland is becoming a separate and tricky issue. Until now, it has not been of any great significance on a day-to-day basis because, after all, the welfare system in Northern Ireland has mirrored that in the rest of the country. Only now are we seeing an issue. Once again, it is an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive to take on board. There is a possibility that the legislation would make a successful passage through the Assembly.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of dual mandates and whether this legislation was only for Northern Ireland, although the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned that legislation would also be going through for Wales in the near future.
On the issue of not legislating in relation to the House of Lords, we are talking about a dual mandate. The House of Lords enjoys a very separate and interesting role, which is almost unique in the world. We are not elected, as such, and have no fixed terms. Indeed, many noble Lords rejoice in the fact that we are enriched by having so many Members who have very active lives outside this place. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Government would regard any restrictions on Members of this House in that respect.
Can I make a point about there being a lack of legislation in relation to Scotland? The Government are very concerned not to legislate to solve a problem that does not exist. This has not been a problem in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Therefore there is no proposal to deal with the dual mandate in relation to Scotland.
I turn to the comments made by my noble friends Lord Alderdice and Lord Shutt. In relation to the size of the Assembly and the proposal to enable it to become smaller, I take on board entirely the warnings that they both made in relation to making the Assembly so small that you could not allow breadth of opinion or enable minority parties to be elected. The Government and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State certainly will be considering that very seriously. The most commonly suggested figure is that each area should be represented by five MLAs rather than six, which would bring the number down to 90.
Comparison was made with the Welsh Assembly. I know from my personal experience that membership of the Welsh Assembly is a stretching exercise, because Members of the Assembly—there are only 60—have to be so broad in their approach. However, I do not think there are suggestions that would take the Northern Assembly down to that level.
I note the comments of my noble friend Lord Alderdice in relation to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the need for independence of view. I am sure that I can look forward to some probing amendments and some interesting points.
I note particularly the comments of my noble friend Lord Alderdice about David Ford. My noble friend said that he had done a good job as Justice Minister; I add my own endorsement. David Ford has tackled a heavy workload of very difficult issues with great sensitivity and imagination. We can rapidly forget how controversial it was when justice was devolved to Northern Ireland and the success he has made of that. His tremendous contribution is to be applauded.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the issue of transparency on donations and supported the proposals in the Bill. He rightly reminded us of the difficulty of getting donations in past years. Those of us who are politicians in mainland Britain probably find it hard to imagine how difficult it was in Northern Ireland in years gone by to encourage people to donate to political parties.
I want to address particularly the issue of donations from Ireland and Irish citizens living abroad. The Secretary of State already has the power to deal with that, should she wish to do so; but because some parties are established on both sides of the border, it can be very difficult to deal with that issue. However, I say to noble Lords who are concerned about this that the Bill makes the first steps to greater transparency. We do not yet know how much of a problem this is; the noble Lord, Lord Bew, speculated about it. We will know in the future, when the Electoral Commission is in a position to tell us the type of donation and where it came from. We will have those categories in the immediate future, even if we do not have the names of the donors. It is important that we welcome the Bill from that perspective.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, also referred to the petition of concern and asked whether the number there should go down proportionately if the number of MLAs is reduced. I remind the noble Lord that 30 was specified in the Good Friday agreement, so we would be open to changing that only if there was broad cross-community agreement. However, I share his support for the Bill in the hope that it will keep politics moving forward.
My noble friend Lord Brooke spoke from his own extensive experience. He referred to the name of the Bill and to the d’Hondt system. The d’Hondt system is very close to my heart as a Liberal Democrat because it is intrinsically connected with proportional representation. I think that MLAs in general understand the purpose of d’Hondt, even if they cannot actually do the intensely complex calculations. However, I share my noble friend’s comments about the need for, and the hopes for, improvement.
I ask noble Lords whether they will bear with me and accept that I will look through their speeches carefully and respond to any specific questions noble Lords have asked me at this point. Some things are clearly going to crop up time and again.
Finally, I know that the changes in the Bill do not go as far as some would like and that, in some cases, they go faster than others would like. I look forward to a flurry of amendments as noble Lords apply their creativity and test the provisions of the Bill. It may be miscellaneous but it has certainly provoked some very serious thought here today. The Government are focused on the priorities of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and creating a shared society. We do not view legislation as the answer to Northern Ireland’s most important problems but this Bill is an important step along the road to ensuring that politics and the constitutional structure in Northern Ireland become more normal and more like the rest of the UK.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 9.43 pm.