Clause 6: Reduction in size of Assembly to be reserved matter
1: Clause 6, page 6, line 30, leave out from beginning to “(reserved” and insert—
“( ) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
( ) In Schedule 3”
My Lords, on Report I indicated the Government’s intention to bring forward an amendment on a future reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some noble Lords were concerned about the breadth of the current provision in Clause 6 to make a reduction in the size of the Assembly a reserved matter.
The Bill as it stands would enable the Assembly to legislate, with the Secretary of State’s consent, to reduce the number of Members returned to it for each Westminster constituency. Currently six are returned from each of the 18 constituencies, which makes a total of 108 members. In Committee, views were expressed that the Secretary of State’s ability to withhold consent to such an arrangement was not a sufficient safeguard. It would be open to the larger parties to legislate for a very substantial reduction in size. Smaller parties might suffer disproportionately if the number of Members returned for each constituency was significantly reduced.
The Government recognise those concerns and we have reflected carefully. Many in Northern Ireland hold that, at 108 Members, the Assembly is too large. However, it is certainly not our intention that it should shrink dramatically. When it was established, the intention was that it should be a widely inclusive body, and that remains essential to the healthy functioning of the Northern Ireland settlement.
This amendment would limit any reduction in the Assembly’s size to five Members per constituency. It also requires that any such reduction must have cross-community support in the Assembly. Of course, the decision to reduce the size of the Assembly is ultimately a matter for the Assembly itself. The effect of the amendment is to confine the option to a reduction of one Member per constituency. If the Assembly decides to take that up, smaller parties and minority voices will still be well represented within the Assembly.
A number of noble Lords have indicated to me in the past day or so that, in speaking to these amendments this afternoon, they intend to refer to issues that have arisen in the past week in relation to the issuing of letters to so-called on-the-runs. I assure your Lordships that I will address that issue when I sum up on this amendment, once I have listened to noble Lords’ points and questions.
I hope that your Lordships will agree that the proposed amendment offers sufficient protection and that they will feel able to support it.
My Lords, two potential processes can affect the size of the Assembly. The noble Baroness has mentioned one process but, of course, there is a second, over which the Assembly has no control whatever—that is, if a future Parliament decides to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons, as was the case in this Parliament. The net effect of that would have been to reduce the size of the Assembly by two constituencies, thereby reducing its membership by 12. If the Assembly decided to reduce itself to 90 Members, which would be the proposal if you reduced by one seat per constituency, it would have no control over the fact that it could subsequently be reduced to 80; that would be an entirely separate process over which it has no control. Incidentally, I do not accept that the size of the Assembly is exclusively a matter for the Assembly. The size was determined by agreement, and therefore is at this point in time not a matter exclusively for the Assembly.
I just make the point to the noble Baroness that there are two processes that can affect the Assembly’s size. The Assembly may have control of one, but it most certainly does not have control of the other. That needs to be borne in mind. While the noble Baroness has repeated to us on a number of occasions that there is no consensus on certain things and therefore we cannot proceed with them, I point out to her that there is no consensus on this in Stormont either. It is merely setting out a stall, and I think that she was trying to respond to some of the concerns that a number of us raised. I still think that it is a tricky issue, and I caution the fact that there could be a two-stage rocket here, and that the Assembly has no control over a reduction in the size of the House of Commons, which would have a subsequent effect on the size of the Assembly.
My Lords, I want to speak in a more generic sense about what is literally going on at the moment and what is being contrived. I was grateful to the Minister for turning up at the meeting with the Secretary of State yesterday evening. I am somewhat disappointed that she has not preceded the amendment with a statement that would have clarified some of the points that we raised. It appears to me—and I think most people would accept—that we are being asked to legislate on Northern Ireland affairs while they are being blanketed over by secret deals and arrangements that are not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, certainly not in the interests of the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and not in the interests of those soldiers and policemen who, to try to bring peace to our part of the United Kingdom, gave their lives in considerable numbers.
The reality is that eight years ago, in the aftermath of the St Andrews agreement, secret deals were carried out not with one section of our society in terms of nationalist or unionist, but with one little caucus within one section of our society. Those arrangements were dishonourable in the extreme.
If I had had a relative die in Regent’s Park, I would not have a great deal of sympathy for a Government trying to build the future of Northern Ireland, given their attitude to one of the perpetrators of that outrage. I was closer to those victims than most in this Chamber, and that is why I challenge the Minister on this issue on their behalf. It is not always the case in another place but I always believed that this House was an exemplar of democracy and doing things correctly, not a place where we would seek to build on deceitfulness and sleight of hand, such as we have seen in respect of the post-St Andrews arrangements.
Before the Minister goes any further, will she address the reality of deceit that pervades the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom? Not to do so will leave unsatisfied people such as myself, people in Northern Ireland and, not least, the relatives of soldiers and members of the Army who may still be subject to investigation by the PSNI in respect of that unfortunate situation 40-something years ago, when we put young soldiers with no experience of crowd control into a very difficult situation in Londonderry. Perhaps she can tell me whether they are still under investigation by the PSNI. That situation was more than unfortunate; it is something of which we have been ashamed over the years. Some 40-something years on, people in my age group are sitting at home wondering when they will be hauled in front of the courts while the terrorists—the people who planned and murdered in cold blood—are given carte blanche in respect of their actions.
My Lords, from the start when there was discussion about reducing the number of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I have expressed some concern about it. I have never bought the proposition that 108 Members was too large for Northern Ireland, because of the complexity of representation and the running of affairs in Northern Ireland. However, in a time of austerity, when the Assembly and Executive have not exactly distinguished themselves by the volume of quality legislation or governance that they have produced, there is without a doubt public pressure to reduce its size. At the same time, there is a substantial reduction in the number of elected representatives at municipal level and an increasing complexity in the running of events in Northern Ireland.
One thing that is clear, which we shall consider later, is that the Government want to give more and more responsibility to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Assembly were functioning well I would have no objections, but it has not been functioning well. Indeed, over the past week or two, given the recent events that were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, relationships between the parties at the most senior levels are worse than they have been for a long time. I therefore want again to express concern about this whole question of reducing the number of Members of the Assembly.
However, I value the amendment brought forward by the noble Baroness. It at least makes it clear that you cannot simply keep on salami-slicing the Assembly’s representation. However, there are often rather superficial views of the work and value of Assembly Members, as compared with the situation in Wales or Scotland, where the issues are completely different. Devolution was not brought to Northern Ireland for the same reasons for which it was introduced in Wales and Scotland. There were different requirements and functions in addition to all the important issues about making sure that governance is as close to the people as possible and so on. I want to flag that up.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the whole structure is now somewhat shaken by the recent revelations about the on-the-runs letters issue. This is serious because for the past few years there has been within the unionist and loyalist community a sense of alienation. Whether that is justified is not the issue, but we all know that it is there. At the same time, we have elections coming up this year, next year and the year after, over which there are all sorts of anxieties and concerns within the unionist community and, indeed, more widely.
What troubles me somewhat about the general drift of the Bill is that it feels like some measure of disengagement. It is as though we are saying, “We’ve got a resolution with the Good Friday agreement. These are big boys and girls, and it is time to let them get on with things”. Not to be too trivial, it seems to me that it is much more like bringing up teenagers and adolescents, whereby you have to be there and not be there. There is no right way of doing it, but you always have to make sure that you are available because, as sure as eggs are eggs, problems will arise, and if you are not there to help out there will be tragedy.
In terms of administration, the Northern Ireland Office is a tiny affair. It is not quite back at the level that it was before the whole process began in Northern Ireland when Sir John Chilcot, who now has other responsibilities, was a junior official at the Home Office and part of his responsibility was all the Northern Ireland issues. It is not now quite at that level, but it is getting there. Even within the Northern Ireland Office as it is, there are very few people who remember what was necessary for the peace process. The institutional memory is almost threadbare. That is not the fault of the people who are there; it is just the reality of what happens over a period of time.
People may assume that everything will go swimmingly, simply because Northern Ireland is not so much in the news. Events over the past week or two have made it clear that there are serious issues to be dealt with. Why were Mr Haass and Dr O’Sullivan brought in? It was because there were problems regarding the legacy of the past that had not been resolved and were unable to be resolved by the devolved Assembly and Executive. So we did what we have done in the past and asked people to come in from outside to help us. However, it is clear that that did not work.
If the Assembly and the Executive are unable to address the issue, and if those eminent, thoughtful, committed and knowledgeable people who were brought in were unable to resolve it, it seems to me that it is incumbent on the British and Irish Governments at the highest levels to address the question of how we deal with the issues of the past. Although there are lots of matters that one can bring up regarding the on-the-runs letters, this is fundamentally about how we deal with the issues of the past, not just in terms of republicans but in terms of loyalists, and particularly those who served in the security forces over a long period, who still wonder what the future holds for them.
Without wanting to drag this out, I emphasise that it feels—although this may not be the case—as though there is an element of pulling back and disengagement in the drift of the Bill. What has happened in the past week or two has been a very clear demonstration that this is not a time for disengagement, emotional or otherwise. Rather, at the highest levels of government— I am talking about the level of Prime Minister and Taoiseach—there needs to be some responsible re-engagement between the British and Irish Governments and the leaders of the Executive in Northern Ireland to address the issues of the past and all that they mean. There should not be a feeling that we can simply shovel them back over the water and hope that everything will work out well. That is what happened between 1921 and the late 1960s.
For goodness’ sake, let us not make the same mistake of leaving things unattended to until it is too late and we then face an intolerable mess. That is not necessary and we should not do it.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for bringing forward the amendments that we are going to consider. They go some way towards addressing the concerns that have been expressed and it is very welcome that she has responded to them in that way. I also thank her for her acknowledgement that we could not pass by the events of last week. We have not had the opportunity in this House to refer to these matters because Statements were not repeated. If we were simply engaged in a mundane debate, people outside looking in would wonder what on earth was going on. Therefore, I am very glad that the Minister has widened the scope of the discussion, and I am going to take advantage of it in just a moment.
I very much agree with quite a few of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. I was particularly attracted to his analogy of teenagers, although he should perhaps go a little further and bear in mind that some teenagers have delinquent tendencies and it is slightly better to view the matter in that way. We all know that it is absolutely essential that teenagers with delinquent tendencies have clear boundaries. In that situation, nothing is worse than letting people think that the boundaries can be blurred and that they can get away with things. Unfortunately, that has been done again and again over the past 15 years with regard to the republican movement.
Although what the noble Lord says about institutional memory is true, one tendency has not been forgotten. In the old days before the agreement, we used to say that the default mode of the Northern Ireland Office was to make sure that it kept the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade happy. Since the agreement, the default mode of the Northern Ireland Office has been to keep Gerry and Martin happy, irrespective of any other consideration—or that is how it seems. What was revealed last week regarding the letters that were sent out in connection with 187 cases, and what was described by Dominic Grieve in his Statement to the other place as the administrative process involving the Northern Ireland Office, the public prosecutor and the police, certainly ought not to have happened in the way that it did, and perhaps it ought not to have happened at all.
There are a number of really interesting aspects of the judgment, which I recommend to everyone. I am going to mention just a couple of paragraphs, one being paragraph 36. It reads:
“On 2 June 2000 the Attorney General”,
who I think at that time was Lord Williams of Mostyn,
“wrote to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland … Peter Mandelson stating: ‘… I am seriously concerned that the exercise that is being undertaken has the capacity of severely undermining confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive of times. Individual prosecution decisions have to be justifiable within the framework in which all prosecution decisions are reached and I am not persuaded that some unquantifiable benefit to the peace process can be a proper basis for a decision based on the public interest”.
Interestingly, that last phrase about the peace process was echoed by the judge, Sweeney J, in this case at paragraph 168, in which he said that he was not taking that into account, adding,
“that is a matter for politicians and Parliament”,
and not for judges. I heartily applaud that.
Paragraph 37 is even more interesting. After referring to the letter from the Attorney-General, paragraph 37 states:
“That was followed by further correspondence and meetings (whether between Ministers or officials) during the course of which the need to proceed ‘by the book’ was accepted”.
“the need to proceed ‘by the book’ was accepted”.
The implication is that before this stage people were not proceeding by the book. Of course, the great danger of this scheme is that it will create pressures on officials in the prosecuting authority and among the police not to stick to the book and to give what they think is the answer that Ministers want. One has seen that happen in Northern Ireland in other circumstances as well.
I urge noble Lords to read paragraph 82 of the judgment, which is a lengthy statement by an official from the prosecuting authority indicating all the problems and difficulties that this caused. If noble Lords read that, they will come, as I have done, to the conclusion that this whole exercise was misconceived and that it was asking questions of the police and the prosecuting authority that they could not reasonably and properly answer, and that the whole process is one that should never have been undertaken. If you have any doubt about the undesirability of it, you only have to read paragraph 52, which states:
“At a meeting with the SSNI”—
the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—
“in May 2001 Mr Adams expressed the view that … it would be better if there was an invisible process for dealing with OTRs”.
Even Mr Adams wanted it to be kept but of course he wanted it to be kept invisible because it existed for the benefit of the IRA only. That is part of the reason why Lord Williams of Mostyn was so concerned about it. That concern comes out in paragraph 82 if you read it alongside.
This scheme was being put in place deliberately for the purpose of benefiting only one party and only one side of the community, and obviously was to be kept secret from the rest in so far as was possible. Incredibly, it was kept secret for so long, partly due to Answers to Parliamentary Questions given from the other side of the House which were quite simply lies. There is no other word to describe that. It is appalling that this happened.
I feel particularly ashamed that it continued after 2010 and that our Conservative Ministers were engaged in the decision. The decision to continue doing this was made by Owen Paterson. I wonder what advice he received to lead to that. I am very disappointed that it did not occur to him or to the other Ministers involved to say, “This is something which we should not have anything to do with. The previous Government may have done it but this is not something which we should put our hand to at all”. I have to say that I applaud what David Ford has said on this matter that he is not going to tolerate it in his department. Of course it should have been devolved to his department in 2010 but it continued after that being run by the Northern Ireland Office. It was interfering with criminal justice matters even though it no longer had responsibility for criminal justice matters. That is really very strange. It could only happen in the Northern Ireland Office. At that, I think I should conclude.
I wish to speak first of the reduction, the possible reduction and future reduction in the number of constituencies. The constituency in which I live is some 75% or 80% unionist. Of the original seats, two managed to elect nationalist, non-unionist politicians. The boundaries were withdrawn. One of the nationalist seats disappeared, so we are now down to five unionist and one nationalist seat. I declare an interest because my husband held one of those seats in the Assembly.
My point is that the impact of reducing the number of seats on the possibility of there being any purpose at all in voting in Northern Ireland is something of which the people of Northern Ireland are very aware. There are whole constituencies on both sides of the divide where people feel that at present there is little purpose in voting. We have single transferable voting so there is some purpose but I would very much endorse the words of my noble colleagues in regretting any attempt not to preserve the current numbers of Members of the Assembly.
I also want to talk about a matter which other noble Lords have addressed; namely, the crisis—it is a crisis—in the justice system in Northern Ireland at present. It is reaching right across the community. It has introduced a sense of distrust, which was beginning to be healed, throughout our community.
There has been no discussion in your Lordships’ House about what was done. Last week, a man walked free from court because he had had a letter that said the police had no interest in him. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, we believe that there are 187 such letters. I heard one former Secretary of State talk of the possibility of 200 such letters.
The problem is that letters of comfort may or may not have had the effect of removing the possibility of any future prosecution—not least because their very existence gives rise to the possibility of an abuse of process application in the event of any attempt to prosecute, but also because the letters of comfort have generated such consternation. There was no knowledge of these letters of comfort among the general population of Northern Ireland. It was a betrayal of the people.
Great courage was needed to do some of the things that had to be done, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for what he did to bring peace to Northern Ireland. However, it was a very difficult time, and I have said repeatedly in your Lordships’ Chamber that this deal is not done and settled; it is a very fragile state of affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, told us that Adams said it would be better if it were an invisible process—but it was an invisible process. I know, because in 2001 I was investigating cases involving IRA men who were acting as agents of the state for the police. In investigating those cases I had to look at the criminality of the IRA personnel. The HET is investigating the criminality of the IRA personnel, and the PSNI currently is also investigating that criminality. Neither the HET nor the criminal investigations branch of the PSNI was informed of the situation. None of us knew who we might have in our sights, if you like, and who would have been taken out of the sights of the Director of Public Prosecutions by virtue of a letter that may or may not have been issued, which may or may not have been correct in its terminology but which ultimately might have the effect of compromising any possibility of prosecution.
In such circumstances, the Government are spending huge sums of money to sustain a criminal justice system in Northern Ireland that is based on, to some extent, very significant failure. Throughout the Haass talks, there was a lot of talk about how we would deal with the past; it was one of the three strands of the talks. As I understand it, the possibility of letters of comfort did not at any stage get a mention.
We knew about royal pardons and the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. We could identify where both those might have happened, although the information was generally not made public. However, we did not know about these letters. It is profoundly important that this Parliament should concern itself with them. This Parliament is concerned that those who might have abused children in years past, and who are being investigated in the Savile investigation, should be prosecuted. Surely this Parliament has a duty to have the same standards of justice for the people of Northern Ireland.
The final thing I will say is that this was a secret process that has, as I said, undermined our justice system. The fact that it would do so was recognised in 2000 when the process started. There is much work to be done to try to explain what happened and what the ongoing implications are for the operation of the justice system in Northern Ireland today.
My Lords, I will not detain the House for long, but I had the honour to be the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place for the whole of the previous Parliament. During that time, I came to know, respect and admire many of those, from all parts of the community, who were fighting very courageously for peace. I came to have a particular regard for the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I had many meetings with her and admired the judicious sensitivity with which she approached her difficult task.
I have always had a very high regard for my noble friend Lord Trimble, who was a very courageous trailblazer. Without him, and without what he and Seamus Mallon did, we would not have had the Good Friday agreement. Although that came about during the premiership of Tony Blair, Prime Minister Blair himself was the first to acknowledge, in the ceremony that was held a few yards from here in the Royal Gallery, that without what John Major had done he could not have achieved what he did.
The essential ingredient in coming to the Good Friday agreement was trust, and you cannot have trust without a degree of confidentiality and without, therefore, a fair number of secrets. I make no complaint about the fact that I and my committee were not privy to all the secrets, but I have to say that I was profoundly disturbed last week when, for the first time, we became aware of these letters. The reason I was particularly concerned was that it created a retrospective imbalance between the communities in Northern Ireland: “Oh, if they did that, what else might they have done?”. A breakdown of trust could undo all that has been achieved, painfully and courageously, over the past 15 or 16 years.
I am glad therefore that the Prime Minister responded very quickly and said that he was going to have these matters investigated by a senior judicial figure. That is right. I am glad also that Mr Hain made the remarks he made about those involved in what will always be remembered in history as Bloody Sunday—something referred to very movingly this afternoon by other noble Lords. However, we have to go forward in Northern Ireland without constantly wondering who let down whom in the past, and I very much hope that we can reach an agreement in the Province whereby there will be no more digging up. We have to know precisely what happened with the letters and to whom they were sent but we do not want to have another Saville, which took so long and cost so much. My committee had seven Labour members, four from the Province, myself as chairman and one other Tory. We were as one in feeling that commitment to major further public inquiries was not necessarily in everyone’s best interests. We made an exception in our report on the Omagh bombing, where we said that further consideration must be given, but even there we were not advocating a full-scale Saville-type inquiry.
I hope that the events of the past week will not bring forward, from anywhere, requests for long, expensive public inquiries. They can, in a way, only impede and hold up the healing process. That process has been dealt a very severe blow, and I am grateful to my noble friend for allowing us the latitude that we have this afternoon. It would have been wrong if this House had not had the chance to reflect on these matters, but I hope that we can now move forward and soon have a wider knowledge of precisely what happened, and that we can rebuild the trust that has been undoubtedly shattered in Northern Ireland, and indeed throughout the United Kingdom, by the revelations of last week.
My Lords, I listened with interest to my friend—and my noble friend—Lord Alderdice and his comments about delinquent children. As a product of the Province about which he was talking, I have tried to keep my delinquent tendencies under control. He and I spent many a happy hour together talking about the foundations of what was eventually to be the Good Friday agreement, and he will recall that there was always a tendency to say at a certain point, “This really ought to be moved up the chain of command to the very top”. There is a well established political ambience in Northern Ireland where, when things get particularly difficult, the inclination is to say, “Let the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Taoiseach sort it out for us”, or at the very least to give them the opportunity to put pressure on us local politicians so that we can use them as an excuse for doing what is right.
I hope my noble friend will not mind if I say that I did not quite buy the analogy. There has to come a time in Northern Ireland when, no matter how difficult it is, the locally elected people see it as being in their interests and in the interests of the people whom they serve to take on the very difficult stuff. I yield to no one in my understanding of how difficult it is.
In that context, I, too, want to show my appreciation for the work that my noble friend Lord Trimble did. He was key to this process and, as is frequently the case in Northern Ireland, those who make the principled stand soon get moved away from centre-stage for other reasons. It is right that your Lordships’ House should not forget the role that he played. When he addresses this Chamber, his words need to be taken seriously.
I had the privilege of working as a Minister in Northern Ireland—I am one of only two who did more than six years in the job—and I learnt at the knees of my noble friends Lord King of Bridgwater and Lord Brooke, who is in his place. They both know how grateful I am to them for what I was able to learn from their leadership. But their leadership consisted of us dealing with the Northern Ireland political parties on the basis of truth. Nobody ever accused us, in all the years that we had the responsibility for building up to the Good Friday agreement, of being misleading, disingenuous or plain untruthful.
One could not necessarily say that about all of the build-up to the agreement. I remember the first time that my noble friend Lord King told me about the proposed details. He asked me, as an Ulsterman, for my reaction and I said, “The unionist community will not like”—and I mentioned three things. I went on to say, “They will not like it very much”. His reply is burned into my memory: “That’s not what my officials are telling me”. Of course, those officials, by deliberate decision, excluded all Northern Ireland Office officials.
One could argue that whatever within the law had to be done to move forward the possibility of a better relationship between the two Governments and the two parts of the island of Ireland, was worth it. Personally, I take that view. I understand how difficult the agreement is, but it was a historic net plus for the island of Ireland and for the people of Northern Ireland. However, there is all that has been said—including by my noble friend Lord Maginnis, if he will permit me to call him that—about the hurt, sacrifice, bloodshed, killing and lack of being held responsible on the part of so many people. Not even your Lordships’ House in all its strength, wisdom and experience can sweep that emotion under the carpet as if it is of no concern. That is why over the past week I have been—what is the diplomatic word that would pass your Lordships’ approval?—disappointed in the former Secretary of State, Mr Hain. To argue that because people understood that there was a problem about on-the-runs meant that everybody knew exactly what was happening was disingenuous to the point of, well, being really disingenuous. People knew there was a problem but did not know what the solution to that problem was.
The second thing that bothers me greatly is the claim that these letters were only an administrative process. As we have heard this afternoon, the Attorney-General was involved in repeating that claim. When I was Minister in the Northern Ireland Office we did not do administrative processes: a Minister was responsible and had to say “yes”. Nobody has told us which Northern Ireland Ministers and which British Ministers said “yes, go ahead” to this. I do not want to hear anything more about it being “only a bureaucratic activity” or “administrative process”. That is not the constitutional way in which the British Government operate. Let us come clean on this. I look to my noble friend on the Front Bench to come clean at the end of this debate. If people are to have confidence and trust, they must be treated not as delinquent children but as grown-up adults who can take the truth and handle that truth.
One final thing: I am pleased that we are debating this. I share my noble friend Lord Trimble’s disappointment—I think he used a stronger word—that Ministers in our party have continued to behave following the bad example of the Minister in the preceding Government. However, maybe because I am getting old and cynical—I hope not—I am also seriously disappointed that my noble friend on the Front Bench did not address this issue at the start of proceedings rather than at the end. I heard her say that she would reply after she had heard the views expressed. What your Lordships’ House needed was a definitive government statement that would have set the framework for the rest of us to express views, to which she could have returned because she has the opportunity to close this debate. I do not find this process acceptable. By the way, I support the amendment.
My Lords, the voices we have heard in this debate represent among them some of those who have made, on a sacrificial basis, a situation of relative peace, relative progress and relative hope. I am delighted to hear the tributes that have been paid, among others, to those who made that sacrificial attempt to bring us to where we are in Northern Ireland today. In particular, I join my voice to those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.
In my position not as a politician but as the elected leader of a major denomination in Ireland for 22 years —those years spanning much of the worst years of our troubles—it was a privilege to get to know those elected politicians who found themselves in a position to move us towards peace. I was also privileged as a pastor to share with them their emotions, their thoughts and their problems. That is a privilege I will carry with me to my grave.
Listening to the debate this afternoon, I am reminded of two factors that I would beg the Minister to keep in mind when she responds to this debate. First, it is not just political voices that we must listen to today. We have to listen to widows. We have to listen to little children who are now adults. We have to listen to those who are not here to make their voice heard from Northern Ireland but who, through those tremendously devastating years, hoped that they could make trust with some.
The events of the past few days have not just shattered the trust of so many of us but have raised questions that, in their turn, have raised other questions: questions about misleading; questions about lies; and questions of a lack of trust in high places. Whatever we argue about this afternoon, and whatever we disagree about, of course there was a price to be paid for peace, of course things had to be done which were in a grey area, rather than black and white. I accept that, and I know something of the agony through which many decision-makers had to pass to make those decisions and to make those policies a possibility and a brick towards peace, but there is a limit to the way in which the elastic of public trust can be pushed or pulled. I beg the Minister to recognise that in listening to the voices that she has heard in this debate, the voices that she will not hear in this Chamber are saying, “Who do we trust, who can we depend on and what is the honest emotional answer to the grievous memories we have of the past?”.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to remember this. While of course we have to look forward and have our hopes for the future, and while so much has been achieved in the political process for which we must be thankful, I beg the Government to realise that we are talking about a very fragile situation and that one little incident can be multiplied out of all proportion and used to build on mistrust. I therefore share the view that it would have been helpful had we had a Statement at the beginning of this debate, rather than allowing our emotions to build up with other questions. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I pay tribute again to all the Lord Trimbles who have played a part in building this fabric.
It was my privilege when, five years ago—it is hard to believe that it was five years ago but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, as the former chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee, will know exactly what I am talking about—I was asked by the then Government to co-chair the consultative group on the past of Northern Ireland. We produced many suggestions. I venture to suggest that some of those proposals should been given more serious consideration five years ago than in fact turned out to be the case. Many are now recognising, as they say to me, that we should have given more consideration to some of those proposals for dealing with the past.
I say to the Minister that until we find a way of dealing with the past—not just this incident but the fabric that went to cause the division, the Troubles and the suffering—that involves all those who can make worthwhile decisions in finding a structure to deal with that past, Northern Ireland’s future will go on to have incidents like those of the past few days. I beg the Minister to use her influence with Her Majesty’s Government and all the other Ministers involved so that what we have been agonising over in the past few days never happens again.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing the time to discuss the issue of on-the-runs. To quote the First Minister, the right honourable Peter Robinson MLA,
“This entire incident has been another salutary lesson about the dangers of allowing powers to be exercised by those whose only concern was in appeasing the IRA”.
He said that devolution may be imperfect—indeed, today we are looking at ways of improving devolution—but that no Stormont Administration would ever have allowed that scheme to be put in place. That scheme, he went on,
“was put in place by a direct rule administration. It is appalling that we are now having to deal with the legacy of a process begun so many years ago”.
This issue has caused incredible instability in the Northern Ireland arrangement. The credibility of the justice system is a cornerstone in any democracy. In the weeks and months ahead, I am sure that we must all work together to make sure that the damage which has already been done will be repaired. The need of victims demands no less; the requirement of justice requires no less. I hope that the actions to be taken in future will bring this scandalous episode to an end and that all the efforts which we will make will be well worth while.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Trimble spoke for me regarding the events of last week. I associate myself completely with his remarks. I have two questions arising from what he said, and to which he himself gave voice. I shall repeat them and ask the Minister for replies to them. First, how was this dishonourable and disreputable policy allowed to continue under the current Government, from whom I and many others hoped for better standards and a better approach? Secondly, why was all knowledge and all information about this policy withheld from the devolved institutions when security and justice were passed to them? We have been told repeatedly in this debate that we must respect the devolved institutions and that they must have entire responsibility for those things that are in their Province and devolved to them. Now we hear that the Government themselves have not adhered to that principle. Why?
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to the amendments. The Opposition welcome them. In Committee, concerns were expressed by several noble Lords about the current provision in Clause 6 to make a reduction in the size of the Assembly a reserved matter. These amendments would limit any reduction in the size of the Assembly to five members per constituency, and would make it clear that any reduction must have cross-community support in the Assembly. They would also prevent the Secretary of State putting forward for Royal Assent any Bill passed in the Assembly to reduce its size if that Bill did not have cross-community support.
I place on record the Official Opposition’s respect and admiration for the contributions made by several noble Lords in the House today. The situation over the past week has been extremely difficult, and it is good to have an opportunity to discuss it. The House has served Parliament and the country well with the tone and content of all the comments, which have been reasoned, informed and constructive. They have looked forward, with no great hassle about delving into the past but recognising that the past is presenting problems. As we have all discussed before, Northern Ireland is on a journey, and this is a particularly bumpy part of the road.
I would like to pick up particularly the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about disengagement. The message must go out from the Chamber today that there is no disengagement. The message must go to the UK Government, the Republic of Ireland Government and all parties in this House and in the other place that we cannot allow this situation to derail the whole process. There are legitimate questions to be asked and it is right that they are, but today’s contributions give me hope that we will collectively get over this situation because of the reasoned response of so many Members with so much experience in this House and in Northern Ireland itself, and we will move on.
This House has shown a flexibility and maturity that other places are perhaps too strict to deal with. This is not at all meant as a criticism of the Minister but, in line with a point that has been made, I ask that in any future Statement on this issue adequate time is allowed, rather than the usual 10 minutes that we would get. This debate today has showed that, without taking overlong, the contributions have been extremely well made, and I ask that any future Statement be that little bit longer. As I say, that is not meant as a criticism of the Government or the Minister, but the maturity and dexterity demonstrated today by all concerned show that this House is the place to deal with these issues.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I shall respond in two parts. I shall first deal with the amendments in this group, and then I shall deal with the issue of the letters.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, made a point about the potential impact of boundary changes in Westminster constituencies on the Assembly in Northern Ireland. This issue could be looked at again in the context of any reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies. Indeed, we would expect that to happen. Under the provisions of the Bill, it would be open to the Assembly to reverse any reduction if the number of Westminster constituencies were to be reduced. Therefore, it could restore the number of representatives per Westminster constituency to six, for example, to restore the overall size of the Assembly.
I take issue with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made about this not being the time to give the Assembly additional powers. It is important to reassure noble Lords that there is no plan immediately to introduce all these potential changes. The Northern Ireland Office and the Government are acutely aware of the importance of timing and of dealing with this in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time. As one or two noble Lords have said, it is important that we develop and trust devolution. The point was made that the problems we have had in the past week are problems associated not with devolved government but with the UK Government. Therefore, it is not appropriate to say that because we have a problem now we should not trust devolution. It needs the opportunity to grow.
I now turn to the letters issued to so-called on-the-runs. One or two noble Lords made a point about the timing of what I shall say in relation to the debate as a whole. I remind noble Lords that we have tried to keep the House informed. We have issued two Written Statements, and in the other place there have been questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Attorney-General about them. I used the opportunity of the Bill to try to overcome the procedural constraints which I understand are frustrating noble Lords. I am trying to make the best use of the time available. I assure the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that I will do my very best, within the constraints of the procedure in this House, which is agreed with the Opposition, to ensure that there is adequate time to satisfy noble Lords on the various points that they have raised.
I entirely understand that many noble Lords are very keen to set on record their deeply felt concerns about recent developments in Northern Ireland. The Bill, of course, does not directly bear upon those concerns, but it does indeed touch on the issue of confidence in the institutions. It is important to bear in mind that, throughout the past week, it has been clear that Northern Ireland is no longer in a position in which our business can be derailed by political disagreements in quite the same way as was possible in the past. It is essential to the peaceful and prosperous future of Northern Ireland that ordinary, good government goes on. I acknowledge that this House has not yet had the opportunity for debate that many noble Lords are still seeking. However, I point out that, since the High Court judgment in the case of John Downey was delivered on 21 February, there have been, as I said, two Written Statements by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 25 and 28 February. The Attorney-General has also made a Written Ministerial Statement.
Looking at the substantive facts as far as they are known, on coming into office in May 2010, the Government were made aware of a list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous Government under an agreement they had reached to clarify the status of OTRs. These were people living outside the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned they would be wanted by the police for questioning in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast agreement. One or two noble Lords have asked why such a scheme was not available to loyalists. It is my understanding that there had been no request for a similar scheme.
Under the scheme, the police and, in some cases, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland checked whether sufficient evidence existed in each case at that time for these individuals to be questioned, arrested or prosecuted if they returned to Northern Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom. If it was found that they were not wanted by the police and that there was no prospect of any prosecution based on the evidence available, the individuals were informed of that fact by a letter from a Northern Ireland Office official. The letters did not amount to immunity, exemption or amnesty from arrest. I say to the noble Baroness that they were not letters of comfort. They were factual statements.
The fact that the letters did not confer immunity, exemption or amnesty was the situation in the past and remains the case now. No recipient of such a letter should be in any doubt that, if evidence emerges after the date on which the letter was issued in connection with terrorist offences committed before the Belfast agreement, they will be liable for arrest and prosecution.
Is that not pie in the sky? The reality is that these people are now free to come back without interference from the police. Is the Minister honestly trying to convince us this evening that there would be the degree of further investigation that would produce fresh evidence? The Minister knows different, and I certainly know different.
I beg to disagree with the noble Lord; I certainly do not know different. I am aware that, for example, the Historical Enquiries Team is looking assiduously at a number of cases and will continue to do so. It is important that the noble Lord takes account of the fact that there will be an inquiry into this, to which I will come in a moment. That will establish many of the facts that the noble Lord seeks.
I listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness has just said, and I want her to clarify whether there was an investigation before the issue of these letters—which proved to be a comfort to some, I have to say—or whether the police were tasked to check whether there were outstanding warrants. Had there been an investigation there would have had to have been a proper review of the investigation file in respect of specific events and the extent to which individuals were linked to them. Was that investigation conducted or was a lesser exercise conducted, which simply examined whether there was sufficient information to justify a warrant for the arrest of someone? I hope that the noble Baroness understands the question.
It is my understanding that inquiries were made with the PSNI as to whether the people on the list were wanted for specific offences. However, it is important that this will be examined by the inquiry, which will examine the nature of the whole process, and we will get far more detailed answers than that as a result of the inquiry.
I was saying to noble Lords that people who receive such letters should not consider them to be an amnesty. On the basis that those were simply factual letters, the current Government agreed in May 2010 that the list of names submitted by Sinn Fein to the previous Administration could continue to be checked. That answers questions from one or two noble Lords.
As my noble friend will be so kind as to do some investigating, can she check on one very important thing? There was a civil case in which certain people were judged to be guilty of the Omagh bombing. Can she find out whether letters were sent to any of those people?
I thank my noble friend for that question. I am certain that that will be covered by the inquiry. If it will not, I will of course ensure that he receives an answer to that question in writing.
The Secretary of State has made it clear, and I reinforce it, that if at any time we had been presented with a scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty, we would have stopped that scheme, consistent with the opposition of both coalition parties to the previous Government’s Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill 2005, which noble Lords will recall was withdrawn because of the level of opposition to it. We believe in the application of the rule of law and due process, regardless of whether a person is in possession of a letter or will be eligible for early release under the terms of the Belfast agreement. We will take whatever steps are necessary to make it clear to all recipients of letters arising from the scheme, in a manner that will satisfy the courts and the public, that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later. In the light of the error identified in the case of John Downey, the Prime Minister announced—
The Minister has just said that if information became available now or in future, there would be no impediment to prosecution. What would the situation be in respect of evidence or information which is currently in the possession of police but which has not been processed to an extent that it becomes attributable or linked to those named individuals? Will that information be taken into account or is there a line in the sand, and the only information that can be used to prosecute in the future in respect of these named individuals is that which comes to the attention of the police in the future?
I fear that the noble Baroness will be frustrated by my answer, which is that that will be clearly part of the information that will become public once the inquiry is finished.
I was referring to the error in the case of John Downey. The Prime Minister announced on 27 February that a judge would be appointed to provide an independent review of the administrative scheme, and I have referred to that several times already this afternoon. I wish to set out the terms of reference of the review.
I thank my noble friend for giving way. In reference to her answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, when this inquiry is held and a Minister is asked the question that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has just posed, is the Minister going to answer that question? In that case, your Lordships’ House is being told that an independent inquiry is worthy of an answer but your Lordships’ House is not.
I am certainly not saying that your Lordships’ House is not worthy of an answer, but I am anxious that the answer should be legally consistent and robust. This situation has arisen in the last week. It is important that the Northern Ireland Office and the Government are able to check their records to look in detail at the history of the scheme. They will do so as part of the evidence that they give to the inquiry. It is obvious that both civil servants and current and previous Ministers will give evidence to this inquiry, and it is important that the overall picture is taken to make sure that it is accurate. I am sure that, once this inquiry reports, noble Lords will want to examine the outcome of that inquiry in considerable detail.
The noble Baroness may or may not be aware that for the past few months a Select Committee of this House has been engaged in post-legislative scrutiny of the Inquiries Act 2005, and I am a member of that committee. It has now wound up its proceedings and finalised its report, which will be published on about 11 or 12 March. When that happens, I ask the noble Baroness to draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because there are things that will be in that report that will bear very much on the inquiry that has just been announced, in the light of which it would be wise to make some changes to the way in which the Government are proceeding. I do not want to go into further detail. I happen to know what is in the report, but it is not published, and it is not appropriate for me to say further than this. But I urge the Minister to make sure that the Secretary of State gets her head around some of the significant recommendations in that report.
I thank my noble friend for that comment, and I certainly give that undertaking. It might be useful if we were to have further discussions on that outside this Chamber.
It may be useful if I set out the terms of reference of the review. The aim will be to produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme for OTRs. I think that that answers the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, in terms of reassuring her that it will deal with her questions. It will determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors other than, of course, the one that we know about. It will make recommendations, as necessary, on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the inquiry. Noble Lords will see that this is a very broad remit.
The persons conducting the review will have full access to all government papers on the operation of the scheme and will be free to interview key individuals in the Civil Service and the police, and any others who are willing to give evidence. The report should be provided to the Secretary of State by the end of May 2014 for full publication.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who asked a question about the Bloody Sunday investigation, that the police must, of course, carry out investigations when serious offences have been alleged, and the actions of soldiers are not beyond that scrutiny. However, this is an ongoing investigation.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to disengagement by the Government in relation to Northern Ireland. I emphasise that it was the Northern Ireland parties which invited Dr Haass to help resolve critical issues. However, the Government took a very close and active part in supporting those talks, as they are doing in continuing efforts to resolve the problems. The Secretary of State has spent an enormous amount of time dealing with the parties, and the Irish Government, on Haass issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, pointed out that the recent crisis concerns UK Government procedures and is not a crisis of devolution. I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, that the inquiry will reveal how, and in what way, Ministers were involved. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke very powerfully. We recognise the strong feelings about the OTR issue and, indeed, the pain it has caused the families of people who have been murdered over the years. It is important that we bear it in mind that families and friends in Northern Ireland and beyond are suffering as a result of this issue.
I get the impression that the noble Baroness is coming to the end of her response. She has clarified the issue about the soldiers involved in the 1972 incident in Londonderry, and I understand that answer. However, I still fail to understand the issue of the 187 letters because she was not clear on that. She said that they are not letters of comfort because the people concerned can be further investigated. When I asked her whether she had knowledge of the police investigating any of those 187 cases, she talked vaguely about the Historical Enquiries Team. Therefore, I extend the question: are any of the 187 people currently being investigated by the HET? I hope by now that she has some knowledge of this.
My Lords, the House has been extremely flexible about what we have discussed. We are really supposed to be discussing Amendment 1 and whether or not we should adopt it. My noble friend the Minister has answered quite a few questions and we ought to let her wind up this debate and move on.
I will, however, answer the noble Lord’s question. I am not speaking of specific numbers because that is also for the inquiry, but the issue is this: letters were sent following inquiries from a number of people. Those who received a letter that said “There are no known issues against you” were therefore free, if they wished, to return without fear of prosecution. Not everyone who made an inquiry received a letter of that nature. Does that make it clear to the noble Lord? By implication, therefore, there were ongoing inquiries in many cases. That is an important fact that reveals the nature of the exercise; there were and are ongoing inquiries in many cases.
I am aware of the mood of the House but we need a clear answer and we still have not got one. Out of the 187 cases, are any of them likely to be prosecuted? It is not worthy of this House and it is not worthy of the Minister that we do not have clear answers. I am finished; I have concluded what I was going to say. I apologise, but it must be said.
The noble Lord is fully aware that I cannot give answers relating to the prosecution of individuals. That is certainly not a matter for a government Minister but one for the police service and prosecuting authorities. It is important that we bear that in mind in this discussion. I want to finish now and make it clear to noble Lords that the inquiry will be wide-ranging, and I have absolute confidence that in the future this House will have the opportunity to debate this issue further. I want, however, to return to the purpose of this discussion and commend the amendment to the House.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendments 2 and 3
2: Clause 6, page 6, line 35, leave out “exceeding” and insert “lower than five or higher than”
3: Clause 6, page 6, line 37, at end insert—
“( ) After section 7 insert—
“7A Cross-community support required for Bill altering size of Assembly
(1) The Assembly shall not pass a relevant Bill without cross-community support.
(2) In this section—
“pass”, in relation to a Bill, means pass at the stage in the Assembly’s proceedings at which the Bill falls finally to be passed or rejected;
“relevant Bill” means a Bill containing a provision which deals with a matter falling within a description specified in paragraph 7A of Schedule 3 (size of Assembly).”
( ) In section 14 (submission by Secretary of State), after subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) The Secretary of State shall not submit a Bill for Royal Assent if the Assembly has passed the Bill in contravention of section 7A (cross-community support required for Bill altering size of Assembly).”
( ) In section 53(3)(b) (agreements etc by person participating in Councils), after “section” insert “7A,”.”
Amendments 2 and 3 agreed.
4: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Protection of opposition status in the Assembly
After section 41(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (standing orders) there is inserted—“(3) Following a request to do so arising from a resolution of the Assembly, the Secretary of State may amend this section by order to make provision for the Secretary of State’s consent to be required (in addition to cross-community support) prior to the repeal of any standing orders that provide for official opposition status to be allocated to any party which is not a part of the Executive.””
My Lords, I did not in my remarks on the previous group of amendments make any reference to the issues pertaining to the on-the-runs and the general conduct of government. Given that, perhaps I may be permitted some latitude.
This amendment is an attempt to accept and acknowledge the concerns of the government and opposition Front Bench that earlier amendments on the subject of opposition status would interfere with the internal affairs of the Assembly, which already had powers at its disposal if it wished to have an Opposition. However, it was acknowledged by the Minister that there were anxieties and concerns that should the Assembly provide an Opposition, that Opposition’s powers would of course be open to change and amendment by the Assembly without any guarantees being provided for the people who sought that status. The amendment asks for guarantees to be provided only if the Secretary of State was asked to do so by the Assembly. Therefore no offence is done to Sewel, and no direct interference is done to the Assembly. Indeed, only upon a request being received would this amendment take effect.
It is ironic that some of the amendments, including the previous one and the subsequent amendments that we are going to discuss, have never been asked for, yet we are bringing them forward. Throughout this process, the people who have proposed these amendments have wagged their fingers at us and said, “We must respect the devolution settlement and ensure that we do not impose anything on Stormont”. I understand that. However, the parties that have done the most disservice to devolution and have shown disrespect for devolution and for the settlement are the Government and their predecessors. A grave disservice has been done. In 2010, the powers of policing and justice were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I believe that the powers pertinent to these letters were also devolved. Perhaps the Minister can help me but it is not clear under which legislation the Northern Ireland Office has been dealing with these matters since 2010. As I understand it, this is a devolved matter, and indeed the Secretary of State would say that any future letters would be a devolved matter.
The other argument put forward is that any letters that came in prior to devolution were dealt with by the Northern Ireland Office, even if that took them past devolution. A number of Members here have become Ministers, both devolved and national Ministers. Where there is a change of government or Minister or where there is a transfer from direct rule to devolution, you always know that whatever is outstanding in a department at that point becomes the responsibility of the Minister who takes over. Matters are not carried over in that sense. A department in Whitehall which gives devolved power does not keep on dealing with bits and pieces; the relevant matters are handed over to a devolved institution. I took over from two direct-rule Ministers: John McFall, now the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and Maria Eagle in the other place. Anything that was outstanding in the department at that time was transferred to me, and the same went for every other Minister. So why were these matters not transferred in this case? The first document that every person gets on becoming a Minister is the first-day brief. That brief should have clearly stipulated that this issue was afoot, but the Minister of Justice who came into office was unaware of it.
That brings me to one other point. The Permanent Secretary at that department, Mr Nick Perry, is the chief adviser to the Minister of Justice. Apparently he knew about this matter but he did not tell the Minister because, allegedly, there was a Civil Service rule that you did not say anything. The Permanent Secretary at the department is a Minister’s principal adviser. In my opinion, the principal duty of Mr Perry—I know him and he is an excellent civil servant—is to his Minister and he should have told him. Therefore, the irony is that, on the one hand, we are being told that we have to respect devolution and, on the other hand, the Government have disrespected it. That is why we have this crisis of trust.
Perhaps I may say one other thing about Haass. I am probably the only person here who was involved. We sat talking about the past. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, clearly identified the huge emotional capital that people have invested in this issue. People in both Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom are horrified by what is unfolding here. As I said, we were discussing the past and talking about setting up institutions such as the Historical Enquiries Team, which would have had a mini-police force and would have been able to conduct inquiries. Some people in those discussions knew about these proposals but nobody said anything. I can tell the House that this has done huge damage. Who will now sit down with any confidence and discuss these matters when something like this was going on behind our backs? Not only that but does anybody seriously believe that this is the only outstanding issue? It is very corrosive and, unless people come clean and make a clean breast of it, we will never regain the trust.
When we were discussing an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, last week, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said in very good faith that we had had the longest period of stable government since devolution started. Of course, he was correct in that, but within 24 hours we had a mini-crisis. It was a resignation that never was, and I am glad that it never was, but the fact is that we ended up with a potential crisis. We should not forget that if the First Minister resigns, he automatically takes out the Deputy First Minister, and I think that there are only seven days in which to replace them. Therefore, by this week we would have had a major crisis and we might have been discussing an emergency Bill to reinstate direct rule. That is just how serious this has been.
The fact that we are saying that we cannot accept amendments because that would interfere with devolution, when in fact the Government are the biggest culprit in interfering with devolution, has to lead us to the conclusion that we need a complete rethink on how we deal with these matters. I have a lot of sympathy—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He refers to the potential crisis that unfolded last week. I am sure he accepts that the crisis has not gone away; rather, I suspect that it has been suspended as a result of the Prime Minister’s intervention and his announcement of a judge-led inquiry into the matter. Should that not happen, and should the terms of the inquiry not be satisfactory, then we will go straight back to where we were.
I think that there is an element of truth in what the noble Lord says, although huge issues relating to the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act surround some of the conditions that were attached by his colleagues to the First Minister’s potential resignation, such as the production of a list of names. Somebody else suggested that the letters be rescinded. They have not been rescinded and I do not believe that they will be. The possession of those letters is the issue. The people who possess them can always go to the court and those Acts will be their defence. I doubt whether a court will overrule that.
In her response to the previous amendment, the noble Baroness talked about people having letters and not being investigated. However, what happens if the evidence that existed when the person received the letter is subsequently capable of further interpretation either by scientific advance or other material? What impact is that going to have on those letters, and will it be a satisfactory defence for the people who hold them?
I return to the amendment. Without doing injury to the devolution settlement, we are trying to signal that, if requested to do so, the Secretary of State would positively respond to the Assembly by providing a guarantee that opposition status could not be arbitrarily changed by the activities of majority parties at some point in the future. The purpose of the amendment is very simple. I would encourage the Assembly to go down the road of creating an Opposition but it still needs that extra guarantee. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that that guarantee is sought by the Assembly. It is much weaker than I would have liked but, nevertheless, it does what it says on the tin. It is a response to a request from the Assembly to the Secretary of State after a cross-community vote. Therefore, I believe that it is perfectly capable and compatible with the settlement that we have before us. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have supported my noble friend on previous occasions on which he has brought forward amendments designed to strengthen the constitutional basis on which an Opposition would be established in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As he has explained, this is a more modest, scaled-down version of the amendments that have gone before. It still seeks to give effect to the fundamental principle, which is extremely important, on constitutional grounds, as I have said previously. My noble friend and I have listened to the Government’s view. We have held discussions with the Secretary of State. We have sought to meet the points that have been raised to render this amendment as compatible as possible with the Government’s view of the position. I hope very much at this late stage that my noble friend will be able to indicate the Government’s support for it.
My Lords, we come to an issue which was discussed at Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and now again at Third Reading. The creation of an Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly already has been discussed extensively at every stage of this Bill but I need to apologise if my remarks sound repetitive. I maintain the position that the Opposition have held before. This amendment acknowledges the powers of the Assembly regarding an Opposition. Behind it there is an understandable concern to prevent the Assembly withdrawing anything it were to grant. However, as I have said so many times before, the Northern Ireland Assembly is a special creation designed to have as many representatives of the community in different shades as possible. It is not the time for this amendment.
I repeat that unfortunately this is not the time to accept this amendment. In June 2013, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee concluded that, as yet, no cross-community consensus had been reached. This followed a government consultation in 2012 that reached the same conclusions. The Assembly must reach a cross-community consensus on the creation of an Opposition before Parliament can consider legislating in this way. Consensus cannot be created retrospectively as this amendment would seek to do. It is for the Assembly to make the first moves towards creating an Opposition.
The issue is about having an Opposition. Should it be our Parliament making this decision or should it be by consensus within the Northern Ireland Assembly? In taking the latter position, the Government are asking some of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland, all of which are in the Government, to resign to become the Opposition. What incentive is there for any of the five parties to resign from the Government? The answer is none: they will never reach a consensus to have an Opposition.
I take a slightly more optimistic view. Whether I have that view or not, the fact of life is that this is for the Assembly. As I mention that, I notice the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has a smile of experience on his face. I hesitate to say this but it is not yet in the tradition of this Parliament, although I hope that we are on the road to it. Surely the latest stramash—the incident of last week—shows that we are not there yet. But we are on the road and we should be going there.
I thank the noble Lord. I just get the impression that he is looking at a different amendment. The first line states:
“Following a request to do so arising from a resolution of the Assembly”.
Whether there is a consensus currently or not is irrelevant. Such a request could come only when there is consensus. The amendment refers to “following a request” from the Assembly. Therefore, it can come only when such a consensus is reached.
The noble Lord is taking great care to quote me but I must remind him of the sentence that I used; namely, that consensus cannot be treated retrospectively, as this amendment would seek to do. It deals with a situation that has not yet been created. I hope that we are still on the road to a continued normalisation of politics.
It is a matter of judgment as to whether one takes that point of view or not. I do not share the noble Lord’s point of view. I still insist that the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are not ready yet. I am repeating myself, although I was trying not to. Last week, I referred to the fact that we are still on that rocky road. This amendment does not have the support of the Opposition.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for his introductory speech. I want to deal briefly with the points he made about the letters that were sent. Perhaps I may say yet again that because these were purely factual letters, they were of course non-statutory. Therefore, they were not the subject of any formal transfer provisions in the legislation that accompanied devolution in 2010. The noble Lord asked questions about further evidence and how it would be treated. I refer him to my earlier answer to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, because it is important we remember that this is the subject of part of the inquiry.
As I have said previously, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friend Lord Lexden, have done us a great service in raising the profile of this issue through the various amendments that have been tabled. At Report, I indicated that the Government would consider the matter further and set out their position at Third Reading. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lords but we will not be supporting this amendment. As I have said previously, the creation of opportunities for responsible opposition in the Assembly would be a progressive step. As a Member of the Government here in Westminster I know only too well how much an Opposition can keep us on our toes. I think that noble Lords have illustrated that point very effectively during the passage of this Bill. It would be a welcome development if similar arrangements were put in place in Northern Ireland. I believe that the Assembly’s reputation would be enhanced if that were to happen.
We are, however, talking about the Assembly’s internal procedures and it is important that we do not make changes to those without, at the least, having consulted the Assembly. I know that I have mentioned this previously but the Government consider that it is important that the Assembly should be consulted. “Consulted” implies that one would take account of their expressed view.
In previous debates, it was noted that the Assembly could provide for an Opposition through its existing standing orders. It was also noted that the rights accorded to an Opposition created in this way could be revoked at the behest of the largest parties in the Assembly. It is right and proper that any Opposition in the Assembly should have the ability to carry out their functions without fear of losing their status by virtue of having challenged the Executive. It is also right that opposition parties should have sufficient status if they are to be truly effective in holding the Executive to account. To the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, who asked what incentive there was to become a member of the Opposition, I say that the original amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, envisaged the potential status that would come to opposition parties: that would be part of the incentive.
The noble Lord’s amendment attempts to offer a safeguard in the shape of the Secretary of State’s involvement. I pay tribute to the effort that the noble Lord has expended in refining his successive amendments to the Bill. However, we still do not believe that this amendment is the appropriate means of ensuring more effective opposition. We believe that it would be inappropriate in any circumstances for the Secretary of State to have such a direct role in the internal procedures of the Assembly, as envisaged in the amendment—the more so when the Assembly, as I said, has not been consulted.
The noble Lord will point out that his amendment would allow no role to the Secretary of State unless the Assembly took the first step. Even so, given that the Assembly has not been consulted, our taking this step now could be misunderstood by at least some in Belfast as hostile interference in the Assembly’s procedures. The consequences of that would be negative for the long-term prospects of facilitating opposition. As the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, there has been discussion of this in recent years in the Assembly, and there was no consensus. I will add that we also see technical difficulties with this amendment. I would not normally draw attention to them, but we are now at the stage where such difficulties cannot be remedied.
I welcome the comment in Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that his party was willing to support additional resources and speaking time for genuine opposition. I hope that his party will deliver on this commitment and that other parties in the Assembly will share that view. I am also encouraged by the Private Member’s Bill brought forward by Mr John McCallister in the Assembly, and I hope that it will spur more debate. I hope that the Assembly, when it debates the Bill, will take cognisance of the various points that have been raised here.
In the mean time, the Government will impress on the parties in Northern Ireland their desire to see an effective Opposition in the Assembly and will consider ways in which we might do so. I hope that noble Lords will feel reassured that this is an issue that the Government take seriously and on which we hope to see real and meaningful progress in future. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, it is almost as if one is answering a debate on an amendment that one has not actually tabled. The amendment is based on the assumption that the Assembly is the initiator. That was to ensure that no harm would be done to the convention. The Minister also said that of course the Assembly has not been consulted. That is a fair point. However, neither has it been consulted—to my knowledge —about reducing in size to 90. It has not been consulted —nor did it seek to be—on the content of the next two amendments. It appears that we have a law for one process and a totally different law for another.
That is hardly surprising, and dare I say to the Minister—although it is not her responsibility—that the one big thing that the Assembly was not consulted about was what was going on behind its back. That is the elephant in the room, and has been since last week. One can be very picky about what one decides to use as a mechanism for saying that one does not want to do something, but I have to say that the Minister’s arguments were not convincing.
On the technical aspects of the amendment, I accept that there is an issue. One understands that those of us in your Lordships’ House have only limited resources to table amendments; we do not have the power of the Government. The Minister made it very clear in her closing remarks in Committee that she and the Government acknowledged that there was a genuine concern that an Opposition born exclusively out of the Assembly changing its standing orders would be vulnerable. I feel that that point at least has come across. On whether this is the right mechanism to deal with the issue, we have an open mind.
The Minister also indicated that the Government were going to set out ideas on how the matter could be addressed. So far, those have not been set out. I hope that the Minister will shortly be in a position, through the Secretary of State, to set out the Government’s proposals. Like so many other things regarding change, they are all stalled and going nowhere.
If we have done nothing else, we have raised the profile of the issue. It will not go away. I think that the necessity to have a guarantee that an Opposition cannot be abused by a majority in the Assembly has been accepted by the Minister. Of course, I acknowledge that there are technical issues, to which she correctly drew attention. On that basis, and not on the basis that the amendment does any harm or ill to the Assembly, I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Clause 10: Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland
5: Clause 10, page 9, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) Section 4 of that Act (transferred, excepted and reserved matters) is amended as follows.
“( ) In subsection (2), for “and (3)” substitute “to (3D)”.
“( ) After subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) The Secretary of State shall not lay before Parliament under subsection (2) the draft of an Order amending paragraph 16 of Schedule 3 (Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland) unless the Secretary of State has, at least three months before laying the draft, laid a report before Parliament.
(3B) The report under subsection (3A) must set out the Secretary of State’s view of the effect (if any) that the Order would have on—
(a) the independence of the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland;(b) the application of the principle that persons should be selected for appointment to the Northern Ireland Civil Service on merit on the basis of fair and open competition; and(c) the impartiality of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.”.”
My Lords, the amendment refers to the appointment of Civil Service Commissioners. At present, that is an excepted matter and this function is exercised by the Secretary of State on behalf of Her Majesty. The functions and procedures of the Civil Service Commissioners are currently reserved matters.
Northern Ireland has had its own Civil Service since the 1920s. This was referred to in our previous debate. It is quite distinct from the Home Civil Service that serves the Westminster Government and the Scottish and Welsh Administrations. The Northern Ireland Civil Service itself is and always has been a devolved matter, but a decision was made in 1998 not to devolve the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland for the time being. They, like their Whitehall counterparts, are responsible for ensuring that appointments to the Northern Ireland Civil Service are made on merit and on the basis of fair and open competition.
Clause 10 moves the appointment of the commissioners from the “excepted” category in Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to the “reserved” category. Appointment of the commissioners would then be in the same category as their functions and procedures. The Bill does not propose any immediate devolution of these responsibilities. The change it makes in constitutional categories opens the way to devolution at some future point following votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly and here.
Many matters at the time of the Good Friday agreement were regarded as too sensitive to devolve. There were, in this case, concerns about safeguarding the independence of the Civil Service in the face of political pressures. Since then, the Executive and the Assembly have taken on many sensitive responsibilities, not least the field of law and order. It does not seem unthinkable to us that at some point the Civil Service Commissioners—like the Human Rights Commission, which we will come to shortly—should pass under the aegis of the devolved institutions.
However, it has become clear in debates, as we have carefully noted, that there were acutely felt concerns about the implications. I think we are all in agreement that impartiality and merit in the NICS are of paramount importance and that the commissioners, whatever their constitutional status, should be in a position to protect those principles. Protections for the Home Civil Service were enhanced in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, but there is nothing similar for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I outlined on Report some elements that we envisaged incorporating in an amendment, and I have previously indicated that any future devolution of responsibility for the Civil Service Commissioners would be subject to prior public consultation. This is not a statutory matter, but I reiterate that commitment here today.
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to lay a report in Parliament at least three months prior to bringing any order on the devolution of responsibilities in respect of the Civil Service Commissioners. The intention of that time restriction is to ensure that there is adequate time for both Houses to debate the matter and influence the Government’s proposals before any devolution order is brought. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice, had concerns that a vote on any order would be on a simple yes or no proposition and therefore a blunt instrument. Our new proposal is intended to guarantee time for a wider debate in advance of a devolution order being brought forward. I confirm now that we as a Government will facilitate such a debate if and when the time comes and take into account its outcome in deciding whether to bring forward a devolution order.
The amendment also requires the Secretary of State’s report to set out the effect such an order would have, in her view, on the impartiality of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, including on the merit principle for appointments and the independence of the Civil Service Commissioners. Again, we have gone further in the amendment than our initial proposals. The responsibility for the Northern Ireland Civil Service is a transferred matter, and changes there would be for the devolved institutions. However, the amendment recognises that the House would wish to take into account the overall arrangements governing the Northern Ireland Civil Service, including the safeguards for the merit principle and impartiality, before making a decision on whether or not to devolve the appointment, functions or procedures of Civil Service Commissioners.
Although we cannot amend much of the law relating to the NICS itself in this Bill, as it is a devolved matter, that does not mean that Parliament cannot take account of the overall position of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland before making a decision relating to the Civil Service Commissioners. This amendment will ensure consideration of safeguards in respect of the Civil Service in the devolved sphere before devolution takes place. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this amendment provides an appropriate mechanism for scrutiny of any future proposals to devolve responsibility for the Civil Service Commissioners and that they will feel able to support it.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the discussions on this matter. The language that she is now putting before the House is better than the language we had before. However, I remain uneasy about the necessity for this provision at all. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to a spirit which runs throughout the Bill, of a certain disconnectedness from the affairs of Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has also raised issues about elements within the Bill for which there is no obvious hunger in Northern Ireland. This is one of them. I am unaware of any particular local pressure, inside or outside the Assembly, on this point.
None the less, if there is to be devolution in this area, it is important to send a signal. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for meeting me and for having discussions with other noble Lords who are concerned about this matter. I am also very grateful to her officials for the work that they put in on this. At least now we are sending a signal that this Parliament believes, in principle, in the importance of the independence of the Civil Service Commissioners and that appointment to the Northern Ireland Civil Service should be on an impartial basis and on the grounds of merit. It is important that a clear signal should continue to be sent out by Parliament on this point. It is certainly clearer in the language that the Government are currently offering than it was when the Bill first came before this Chamber. I thank the noble Baroness for her help in this matter.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend. In Committee and on Report I put my name to an amendment which was originally piloted by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, because of our concern about the impact at home in Northern Ireland. A number of things that my noble friend has said, and which are in the amendment, are extremely helpful. First, there is the fact that the Secretary of State would be required to produce a report. The contents required to be in the report are also spelt out, as is the fact that it would have to be done three months beforehand. Furthermore, my noble friend has given undertakings that if we find ourselves in that situation, the Government will facilitate the opportunity for debates on the report in this House and in another place, and will take account of the content of those debates. That is a very helpful undertaking.
I think that my noble friend has also indicated something which goes a little further and which I really welcome—that any expectation that the Northern Ireland Executive might have that such legislation will be passed here will to some extent depend on whether there has been demonstrable progress on the Northern Ireland Civil Service rules and bringing them up to date with the arrangements on this side of the water. I am rather encouraged by that because one of the concerns that I expressed at a previous stage was that the Civil Service in Northern Ireland—for which I have enormous respect—has not necessarily kept up with some of the progress on this side of the water as quickly as it might have done. My noble friend has indicated—not just in the amendment but in her undertakings and her description of the amendment—that this could be a very helpful lever if we come to a time when the Northern Ireland Executive were eager to make progress in the direction of the amendment and this clause in the Bill.
Not only have the Minister and her officials listened, taken account of what was said and obviously consulted the Secretary of State but there has been a very positive response. I welcome that and I certainly support her amendment.
My Lords, I am glad that we brought this matter forward for discussion. There is no doubt that the proposals in front of us are infinitely better than the ones that were in the Bill as originally drafted. However, I am still not clear what the driving force behind this is. It was left as an excepted matter quite deliberately and for very good reasons, and in my opinion those reasons are as valid today as they were then. It would be impossible for me to avoid pointing out to the noble Baroness that there has been no consultation with the Assembly on this, and it is not an issue that has any traction except within the small group of people who are directly affected. But the proposals in front of us today are a lot better than what was there before. Some protections have been put in. I am quite sure that reference to the 2010 Act could very well have been the mechanism to sort the whole thing out at the end of the day. Nevertheless, I thank the noble Baroness for listening to us and for acting on what has been said. At least we have put in some protections that were not there before and, I hope, will be of benefit in the long term. On that basis, I support the amendment.
My Lords, I was greatly encouraged by the Minister’s offer when we previously debated this matter to have conversations with those of your Lordships who had taken part in the earlier debate on this subject. It is perfectly clear that, unlike with Amendment 1, we are not talking about a secret deal. There has clearly been openness in discussing this. It has obviously been extremely constructive. I infer that there is approval of where we now are.
I have only one tiny niggle. I hold no proxy whatever for the noble Lord, Lord Butler, but those who have been taking part in these debates will recall that, in our most recent discussion of this subject, he raised the question of why the Government appear to have resiled from the position that the Minister had expressed in Committee. Is the Minister confident that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is now satisfied—or would have been satisfied, had he been here—by what she said in moving the amendment?
My Lords, at the risk of upsetting the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I join him in supporting this amendment. It would have been a lot better if we had discussed this on Report but the flexibility shown by the Minister, referred to by other noble Lords, indicates that once again there has been a success in talking to people.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, this amendment requires the Secretary of State to lay a report in Parliament at least three months prior to bringing any order on the devolution of responsibilities in respect of the Civil Service Commissioners. The report should set out the Secretary of State’s view of the effect such an order would have on the impartiality of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, including the merit principle for appointments and the independence of the Civil Service Commissioners. The amendment marks a move towards ensuring the impartiality of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and we welcome it.
There are key differences between the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Westminster Civil Service. Senior civil servants in Northern Ireland have a higher profile than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. This is partly because, particularly when the Assembly has been suspended or there have been different governance arrangements, it has often been a civil servant who has undertaken the role that Ministers have here in defending or promoting policies and engaging with the public. The difference is cultural and practical. Due to these marked differences, the Northern Ireland Civil Service would benefit from a requirement for the Secretary of State to produce a report that outlines the effect such an order would have on the impartiality of the Civil Service, including the merit principle for appointments and independence of the Civil Service Commissioners. I am delighted to welcome the amendment on behalf of the Opposition.
I thank noble Lords for their comments. Specifically, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for the very constructive comments he has made on this throughout. My response to his specific question is that so much of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland is already either devolved or reserved and this was the one aspect that was still within the purview of the UK Government. Therefore, it is the logical next step to put this in the same category as the procedures and functions of the Civil Service Commissioners.
I say to my noble friend Lord Alderdice and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that there are now strong safeguards on the condition and position of the Civil Service Commissioners. Indeed, this could be a real improvement on the status quo, and it is important. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in an earlier debate. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, has not pursued those issues with me directly but I hope that he is now content, particularly because of the commitment in this amendment to provide for a debate on the Secretary of State’s report. That ensures that the views of noble Lords who have a particular interest in this issue will be heard. I commend the amendment to the House.
Amendment 5 agreed.
Clause 11: Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
6: Clause 11, page 9, line 13, leave out from “matters),” to end of line 16 and insert “after sub-paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) in Part VII, sections 68 to 69A, 69C to 70, 71(2A) to (2C) and Schedule 7;”.”
Noble Lords will probably be relieved to hear that my comments on this amendment will be rather briefer than they were on the previous one on the Civil Service Commissioners because there are considerable parallels between the two.
Serious concerns were expressed in our earlier debates about the possibility of devolving responsibility for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. These concerns were in many respects analogous to those that were outlined concerning the Civil Service Commissioners. In this case, too, we believe that those concerns deserve a very serious response. We have revised our approach in a similar way, so, as I said, I will make my comments as brief as is in accordance with being clear—I hope. As with the Civil Service Commissioners, I outlined a possible approach on Report. We have taken that approach substantially further in the amendments we have now tabled.
To recap, responsibility for appointments to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is currently an excepted matter, as are the commission’s functions. Clause 11 moves these responsibilities from the “excepted” to the “reserved” category. The Bill does not, however, propose the devolution of these responsibilities at this time. In previous debates, concerns were expressed in respect of the commission’s independence should it ultimately be devolved. Your Lordships regard this as being of great importance. We share those concerns and are clear that they must be addressed before devolution. I indicated previously that any future devolution of responsibility for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would be subject to public consultation. That remains the case.
These amendments require the Secretary of State to lay a report in Parliament at least three months prior to bringing any order on the devolution of responsibilities in respect of the Human Rights Commission. As I have set out in relation to previous amendments, that is intended to ensure that there is adequate time for debate and for noble Lords to influence the approach being taken in Belfast before a devolution order is laid. As before, we undertake to facilitate a debate at that point. I hope your Lordships will agree that this is a reasonable approach to ensure proper consideration and scrutiny.
These amendments would require that the Secretary of State’s report should set out the effect, in her view, that such an order would have on the commission’s independence—which is of cardinal importance to its work. I recognise the emphasis that the commission places on its compliance with international best practice, currently embodied in the Paris and Belgrade principles. My noble friend Lord Alderdice referred to this in speaking to his amendment on Report. To reflect these concerns, this amendment would also require the Secretary of State to set out in her report the effect, in her view, of devolution on the commission’s compliance with internationally accepted principles in respect of national human rights institutions.
An important issue bearing on the independence of the commission, and dealt with in the principles, is the relationship of the commission and the Northern Ireland Assembly. These amendments would therefore require the Secretary of State in her report also to address the effect of devolution on that relationship. I hope noble Lords will feel we have reflected their concerns expressed here in debate and are able to support this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I again welcome the amendments brought forward by my noble friend the Minister. I accept what she said about this device or resolution being similar to that in the previous question on the Civil Service Commissioners. However, the matter at issue here is very different and one of much more substantial importance. Indeed, the Minister will recall that at Second Reading this issue was one of two that I identified as being absolutely critical. In Committee, I spoke against the question that the clause should stand part of the Bill. On Report, I came back with an amendment on the question and I am very grateful to my noble friend the Secretary of State and her officials for being prepared to engage on the question.
I do not want to repeat what I said before but I point out the signal importance of this issue and its difference from the previous one. Right back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was pressure in Northern Ireland for a Human Rights Commission. In 1973, when the legislation was passed, a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights was established. That was not sufficient but it was the best that could be achieved at that particular time. It produced some very worthwhile reports, some of which were acted upon in part and some more fully. Some very distinguished colleagues, not least my predecessor as leader of the Alliance Party, Sir Oliver Napier, was a chairman of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Eventually, we moved on. We had a Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland. The point is that this is not something that came in with the Good Friday agreement. It did not arise lately. There was absolutely critical demand and pressure for it from the 1960s and onwards. It continues to be of signal importance.
In her amendment, my noble friend has very helpfully identified a similar procedure to the previous issue. The Secretary of State would, at least three months in advance, bring forward a report identifying three very important issues: the independence of the Human Rights Commission, its relationship with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the international commitments and responsibilities of Her Majesty’s Government. That is extremely good. She has also said, again very helpfully, that in the event that your Lordships’ House wanted to debate such a report, it would be given an opportunity by the Government to do that, and that the content of that debate would be taken seriously in the construction of the draft legislation. That is all extremely helpful and very welcome.
However, I feel strongly about the significance of this issue. If the Government did not bring forward a satisfactory report or set of proposals, this is of such significance that it is the kind of thing that one would be prepared to vote down. Not many things come forward here in terms of Orders in Council where your Lordships’ House is called on to use what we might describe as the politically nuclear option. This matter of the Human Rights Commission is of such importance that a Government—not just this one; it is likely that a subsequent Government might find themselves in this position—should not be under any illusion that if this matter were to come forward in an unsatisfactory way, they would face very serious opposition. I would be part of that opposition.
My noble friend has listened seriously to the concerns of the moment. The Government are clearly intent on making this facility available to the Northern Ireland Executive, whether or not they wish to take that up. The Minister has listened seriously and there has been a reasonable response. If all the things in this amendment are fulfilled as she described I would be more optimistic that a positive outcome might be possible. On that basis, I support her amendment.
My Lords, I think I support the amendment. I see that it takes account of the comments from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It would help if the Minister could give the House one assurance—I do not know whether she can.
New subsection (3D)(b) refers to,
“the application of internationally accepted principles relating to national human rights institutions”.
That is exactly the right criterion. I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission of the UK. In the UK we are in an exceptional position in that three human rights bodies are brigaded together for the purpose of receiving a certain status. I am happy to say that at present it is an A status. Our fates are bound together in that way. It would be extremely important to be clear about the implications of this move to a new status for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We must take into account the fact that if that misfired it could bring down the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Could the Minister comment on that? It would be helpful to know that, in considering this move, that particular set of risks would also be considered.
My Lords, the Opposition support this amendment and commend the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for their discussions and decision to bring it forward. Everyone agrees about the fundamental importance of human rights to the exercise of devolved government in Northern Ireland. It is also agreed that this is ensured through the independence of the Human Rights Commission and the impartial nature of its work. The preservation of this impartiality will be foremost in discussions when we come to actually devolve these powers. The Government’s amendments mark a move in the right direction to enable that. They have our full support.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, for his support for this amendment and amendments moved throughout this afternoon. To answer my noble friend Lord Alderdice, we believe we have now taken a belt-and-braces approach to this issue. We accept its considerable importance but surely it is of the same order of importance to Northern Ireland as policing and justice, both of which have been successfully devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government hear my noble friend’s concerns and take note. We will certainly bear in mind that his intention would be to vote against anything that did not come up to what he judged to be the appropriate approach.
On the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, we are well aware of the impact of one human rights institution on another in terms of their reputation. That is one reason why we may be looking towards the Scottish model, because it has been successful in providing answerability to the Scottish Parliament. Although that is not absolutely specified in the report that the Secretary of State would make to Parliament, it is in the amendment as something of which account has to be taken.
A future Government would be mindful, of course, of the risks to the UK’s reputation in human rights issues as a whole. I commend the amendment to the House.
Amendment 6 agreed.
7: Clause 11, page 9, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) In section 4 of that Act (transferred, excepted and reserved matters), after subsection (3B) (as inserted by section 10) insert—
“(3C) The Secretary of State shall not lay before Parliament under subsection (2) the draft of an Order amending paragraph 42(aa) of Schedule 3 (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) unless the Secretary of State has, at least three months before laying the draft, laid a report before Parliament.
(3D) The report under subsection (3C) must set out the Secretary of State’s view of the effect (if any) that the Order would have on—
(a) the independence of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission;(b) the application of internationally accepted principles relating to national human rights institutions; and(c) the relationship between the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Assembly.”.”
Amendment 7 agreed.
Clause 28: Commencement
8: Clause 28, page 17, line 30, at end insert “(but see subsection (2A) below)”
My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, Clause 24 amends an order-making power already passed in the Protection of Freedom Act 2012 to allow us to take forward by order the changes to the new biometric framework in the reserved and excepted fields, which the Northern Ireland Department of Justice could not legislate for within its Criminal Justice Bill, which received Royal Assent in April 2013. It will allow us to bring the position in Northern Ireland with regard to the retention, use and destruction of biometric data in the interests of national security, or for the purposes of a terrorist investigation, into line with that in Great Britain.
The amendment makes a technical change to the commencement of Clause 24. As the Bill is drafted, the clause would come into force on the day the Act is passed. However, the order-making power in the Protection of Freedoms Act—paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 —is not yet in force. The proposed change to commencement is intended to avoid a situation where the amendment to the order-making power in Clause 24 comes into force before the power itself, which would have no practical effect and which I understand is technically undesirable. This is a technical change to the clause which I hope that the House will feel able to support, as it is not an issue that has raised concern previously.
Before I sit down, I take this opportunity to thank all those who have participated in debate on the Bill. Any Minister attempting to shepherd a Bill through this House feels some trepidation because of the great reservoir of expertise and experience here. As a relative newcomer to Northern Ireland, I was certainly very aware that I could not hope to match the knowledge of some noble Lords, who have first-hand experience of many of the events which led to the settlement we have today.
I also want to thank the Bill team and other Northern Ireland Office officials, who have worked so hard on the Bill and have made huge efforts to address and take account of the concerns raised by noble Lords in debate. I am grateful for the patience and the willingness that has been shown by noble Lords to attend not only debates but the many meetings we have organised outside this Chamber. I respect the persistence that has been evident in raising those issues of most concern. I believe that the Bill has been greatly improved as a result of our dialogue.
We have developed our understanding of some of the issues which set the context for this Bill: the nature of devolution; the limits of government power and influence in devolved matters; the operation of the agreements which established the current settlement in Northern Ireland; and the scope for development of those institutions. Those debates are important, not just for Northern Ireland, but for our constitution throughout the UK.
I introduced this Bill on a note of optimism as a Bill for more normal times. It is the first Bill in recent times not to have been subject to emergency procedures in Northern Ireland. I cannot conclude our debate without acknowledging the extent to which political peace has been challenged, not least by the events of the past week. It has been a difficult time for Northern Ireland, particularly for those who have suffered as a result of the atrocities of the past. Our thoughts must be with them at this time.
I believe that there is still reason for cautious optimism. Despite the real anger and hurt felt by many on both sides of the community, the devolved institutions have avoided crisis and devolved government continues. This underlines the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland as a result of the peace process. While ensuring that we deal properly with the past, it remains essential that our determination to build a shared and prosperous future in Northern Ireland is unwavering.
The Bill is, I believe, a modest way of making a contribution to fulfilling that objective, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I do not want to address the technical aspects of the amendment, but I cannot let the opportunity pass without saying something about my appreciation of and gratitude to my noble friend Lady Randerson. Perhaps it is because of her distinguished service and experience in the Welsh Assembly, perhaps it is just because of the person that she is, perhaps it is because of the conscientious way in which she approaches her work, but, for whatever reason, she has shown great sensitivity to the difficult issues in devolution in a provincial part of our United Kingdom and to the complexity of the issues concerned. Nowhere was this better shown than in your Lordships’ House today, where she dealt with such extraordinary patience with all the difficulties, which were not immediately difficulties of the Bill, but were certainly difficulties with the context in which the Bill is passing in Northern Ireland. The patience that she showed in her responses reminded me a little of George Mitchell and the sort of patience that he had to show at a much earlier stage in the whole process. She has been an exemplar in that regard.
It is also the case that no predecessor for a very long time has had to take a Bill on Northern Ireland here through all the normal stages and passage of time. I see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, nodding his head, because he was very familiar with those times and that work in Northern Ireland. The Minister, her officials and, indeed, the Secretary of State in the other place, have listened carefully and responded as far as they felt able. Even to our questions today, I think that she responded as far as it was possible to do given the difficulties and complexity of the problem. I express my sincere appreciation for all that she has done, in the knowledge that she will continue to serve in this House for Northern Ireland—and for other places, but from Northern Ireland’s perspective I express my appreciation.
My Lords, I apologise for my overeagerness, especially to support the Government in principle. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, this is a technical amendment, it is welcome and I have no intention of going into the fine detail that the Minister had to in introducing it. I also join in commending her for her attitude throughout the process in listening and making changes. I also pay tribute to the officials of her office for the way that they have responded to the various processes within the procedure.
As mentioned by the noble Baroness, I also pay tribute to the expertise existing in this Chamber. I have been involved in Northern Ireland for a long time, back and forward, off and on. I know how she felt about having some trepidation in getting involved in a Bill with all the expertise around this House. It has been a success for her, a success for this House in processing the Bill in the way that we have, especially with the events of the past week, and we support the amendment.
Amendment 8 agreed.
9: Clause 28, page 17, line 36, at end insert—
“(2A) If paragraph 8(1) of Schedule 1 to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 comes into force on a day after that on which this Act is passed, section 24 comes into force immediately after that paragraph comes into force.”
Amendment 9 agreed.
My Lords, I would like to make a brief footnote to the debates that we have just had. My noble friend Lord Mawhinney made reference in debate on Amendment 1 to my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater and myself. I did not intervene in that debate, especially on the subject of secret deals, but certainly my basic attitude to such matters was learnt at my mother’s knee. I mention this because I recall that the Reith lectures given by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, treated on the same matter. It is happy that she is here so that she can reprove me if I misrepresent her. Her view on behaviour was that those people with whom one has contact react and respond to the way that you treat them. If you communicate liking, they are likely to behave in a likeable manner while if you show that you trust them, they are likely to behave in a trustworthy manner. In both these examples, the converse is true. Secret deals are therefore fundamentally counter- productive. I once worked for a great American who taught me that the strongest argument against falsehoods is that the truth is much easier to remember. I am not seeking a response.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.