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Sir Geoffrey Howe : Speaking as one Surrey Member of Parliament to another, I am prepared to endorse my hon. Friend's anxieties about the shortcomings on certain suburban rail services. I understand that the changes that are being made are intended largely to endorse those which follow from the absence of negotiations of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred. I shall certainly bring his point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. We should like to see a real improvement in those services. I am glad that my hon. Friend still remembers with affection the inventor of Hutber's law, the late Patrick Hutber.
[That this House condemns the proposals by Bradford Health Authority to close either partially or completely Westwood Hospital, dump some two hundred mentally handicapped people into the community in order to sell off the land from this tranquil, sheltered site in an insensitive, money- grabbing operation which ignores people's needs, treats the mentally handicapped like pawns, rides rough-shod over the hopes of parents, staff and the community at the whim of stoney-hearted apparatchiks ; and urges them to use the site for a small, hospital-linked village which would enable those who can, to manage a more independent life in a caring and collective environment.]
That debate ought to be held in the context of a general debate on care in the community.
Column 1131Does not the Leader of the House realise that Bradford health authority has made a proposal to close an important hospital for the mentally handicapped in my constituency and that it has sent shivers of fear through relatives, often aging relatives, who fear for the future of their loved ones in that hospital? The health authority is damaging the prospects for the mentally handicapped. They are also damaging the prospects of, and the excellent work carried out by, the staff.
Ought not the Government to encourage the Bradford health authority to use this excellent sheltered site for a village community so that those who are able to live more independent lives close to the hospital can do so? Instead, we have this wretched proposal to close yet another important hospital for the mentally handicapped.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman will know that Bradford district health authority is considering the development of community-based services for the mentally handicapped, and no doubt it will take note of his point. He will also know that any proposal to close Westwood hospital will be subject to normal consultation procedures.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend for an early debate next week on competitive sport in schools, as in some areas only one in eight primary schools are teaching cricket and in others soccer is not on the curriculum? The England team could not possibly lose if every boy, and some girls, learned to play soccer and learned the discipline of playing competitive sport with a referee. Is not that highly valuable? If they also learned to take penalties properly, would we not succeed where we did not succeed last night and give proper backing to the excellence and sportsmanlike activity of Gary Lineker and his wonderful team?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : As always, my hon. Friend has managed to get a mini-substitute for an entire debate in his intervention in business questions. Broadly speaking, I endorse his approach and will bring it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport.
Mr. Tony Banks : Did the Leader of the House see the horrific pictures in The Sunday Correspondent of the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe islands and the equally horrific pictures in today's Daily Mirror of dolphins being butchered in Japan? As decisions are being taken at the International Whaling Commission, will he arrange for an early debate so that we can discuss the plight of the small and great whales?
If we cannot have the opportunity to debate whether the House should adopt sanctions against Governments that so barbarously exploit whales, may we have a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the position of the British Government and what they intend to do to make the highest level representations to Japan, Norway, Denmark and, indeed, now the Soviet Union?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The exchange between the hon. Member and myself on this topic will follow familiar lines. The position of the United Kingdom on ending the moratorium on commercial whaling is well known. The Government believe that the species should not again be
Column 1132placed at risk by the hasty resumption of whaling. That position is being maintained by our representatives at the International Whaling Commission meeting that is currently taking place. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to take the matter further, I dare say that he will follow his usual practice of raising it on the summer Adjournment debate or perhaps on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) : May I return briefly to the Scottish Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill and to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir R. McCrindle)? It appears that the Government, in the person of the Secretary of State for Scotland, have accepted a fundamental objection to the principle that the financial institutions--the lenders--should not also represent borrowers in conveyancing transactions. If they are prepared to accept that as a fundamental principle in Scotland, it is quite beyond my understanding why it should not also apply in England and Wales. Would it not be proper for the Law Officers, who are responsible for these matters, to re-examine their position? It cannot be right up there but wrong down here.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The last point made by my hon. Friend surely fails to take account of the fact that one of the reasons for having two different systems of law--one for Scotland and another for England and Wales--is that they should from time to time differ from each other. It is surely entirely sensible for people to advance arguments such as my hon. Friend's, comparing one with the other and seeking to advance change. I cannot provide for the unification of two separate legal systems.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : As we shall all be hanging around for another three weeks, largely as a result of Government incompetence on the Scottish legislation, would not it be entirely appropriate to use the time productively by having another full-scale debate on the future of the Scottish steel industry--this time, in Government time--so that the Secretary of State for Scotland can say whether he is prepared actively to seek an alternative investor for Scottish steel assets? If such an investor were to emerge, would he be prepared to make British Steel sell the productive assets that it intends to run down to someone who is prepared to run them properly?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I do not think that, at this stage, I can go beyond the intention expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ask the Scottish Development Agency to carry out an analysis of the prospects for the steel industry in Scotland.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Since the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, has there been anything to match the Select Committee on Members' Interests in relation to the case of the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates)?
Will we have a statement before the end of the Session on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure, because if oral questions are to be different next Session, the matter must be dealt with pretty quickly? Will something be done about syndication and about hon. Members handing in their own questions to the Table Office? The Order Paper is littered with questions about which hon. Members of all parties do not have a clue. That is a scandal and an abuse of the House of Commons.
Column 1133Sir Geoffrey Howe : The way in which the Select Committee on Members' Interests conducts its affairs is a matter for that Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith).
I am very much aware of the importance of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on questions. I had hoped to table my proposals today. However, I hope to table in the near future proposals designed to implement those recommendations. The whole House agrees that the recommendations are sensible and that we should press ahead with them as soon as possible.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Is the Leader of the House aware that the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Colchester was so desperate to avoid defending the poll tax that he said that he could not attend a public meeting because law breakers might be there? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make a statement to the House confirming that the Cabinet have had some papers that say that the Rover sweeteners were illegal, as that candidate might not want to attend the Conservative party conference this year?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I did not catch the last part of the hon. Gentleman's rather contrived question. However, I am glad to endorse the quality of the Conservative candidate for Colchester. He is the son of the former hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, the right hon. Lord Jenkin of Roding, and he will be a credit to the Conservative party, just as his father was.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Does the Leader of the House realise how wholly unsatisfactory his answer to Leicestershire Members was when they raised the case of Leicester health authority? For his information, Leicestershire Members of all parties visited the Secretary of State for Health and he behaved in a cavalier manner towards the suffering of those who will be affected by the cuts. Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman seen early-day motion 1237?
[That this House deplores the recent proposals for ward closures at the Leicester Royal Infirmary and the redundancies of 167 workers there, including doctors and nurses, announced by the local health authority as part of its plans to implement government cuts of £6 million from its budget ; is deeply concerned that cutbacks at the Leicester General Hospital will lead to complete ward closures in the future ; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Health urgently to inject vital funding into the local health budget to prevent the needless suffering of thousands of local people who are waiting to have operations and treatment.]
Does he realise that doctors and nurses will be made redundant as a result of what the health authority will do? When can we have a debate with the Secretary of State for Health on that important issue?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : This is the third question from hon. Members of all parties on this matter. As I said in answer to earlier questions, the matter has been raised in debates in the House by the hon. Gentleman. There will be an opportunity of doing so again either on the Adjournment debate or on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I can add nothing to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health has already said.
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) : May I be the fourth hon. Member to address the Leader of the House on the health service in Leicestershire? I plead with him urgently to arrange either a debate or a statement from the Secretary of State for Health. Despite the platitudinous responses of the Leader of the House and of the Secretary of State for Health, there is a real crisis in the health service in the county of Leicestershire, as evidenced by the recent decision by Leicester royal infirmary to close 10 per cent. of beds and to get rid of 5 per cent. of nursing staff. As a consequence, waiting lists in some specialties will increase threefold over the next 12 months. If that is not a crisis, when is there a crisis in the service?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman should put those figures into perspective. Leicester royal infirmary is making service reductions that will involve the loss of 167 staff posts, but 122 of those are already vacant. In addition, the royal infirmary has some of the shortest waiting lists in the county, and staff and management at the hospital intend to do their best to maintain that record.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) : Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on early-day motion 1223, which refers to the outrageous delay in dealing with nurses' grading appeals in Wales?
[That this House deplores the delay in dealing with the clinical grading appeals of nurses, health visitors and others in Wales ; notes that after 20 months 3,088 appeals have still not been dealt with ; deplores the unfairness that such slow progress inflicts on thousands of dedicated and caring professionals ; and calls on the Secretary of State for Wales to take a personal initiative to clear up all remaining cases by September.]
This matter is now becoming a public scandal, and should be debated in this place, especially as the delays in nurse grading appeals, taken with the appalling decision to delay the implementation of Project 2000 for nurse training in Wales, are doing enormous damage to the morale of the nursing profession on which we depend so heavily. Please may we have an opportunity to debate those two matters on the Floor of the House in the near future?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : There may be an opportunity to debate those issues on the Adjournment or during the Consolidated Fund Bill debate. It is worth noting that just over half the 6,188 appeals lodged at local level have already been processed. The agreed appeal procedures are complicated and time consuming, but when the new clinical grading structures were introduced, the nursing trade unions insisted on retaining these complex procedures. Such a large and unprecedented volume of appeals has inevitably placed great strain on management and staff sides alike. Good progress is being made and the employing authorities are doing everything possible to deal with the outstanding appeals. Consideration is being given by Welsh officials, in conjuction with management and staff sides, to ways in which the procedures may be expedited.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : Would my right hon. and learned Friend organise an urgent debate before the summer recess on the conduct of local government in London, so that the House can discuss the matter of the millions of wasted pounds which is now coming to light in
Column 1135Ealing, the thousands of empty houses in Labour-controlled boroughs and the millions of pounds' worth of uncollected rents? During such a debate, the Labour party might discover conclusively why it did so badly in London in the May elections.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I think that the whole House would benefit from a wider discussion of the matters referred to by my hon. Friend, including the underuse and non-use of local authority housing and the number of empty council flats and houses that could be used for the homeless. The 10 authorities that have the worst record in that respect are all Labour controlled.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : May we have a debate on why it is that, day after weary day for the past 10 years, we have been told by the Labour party that the health service is running down, with cuts here and loss of money there, given that the health service is improving daily? Everyone to whom one talks who has had any experience of the health service is singing its praises and saying how well they have been treated.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the massive increase in real resources devoted to the national health service--an increase of 40 per cent. since 1979. For every pound being spent on the health service then, no less than £3 is being spent today.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order Mr. Speaker. As you know, Back Benchers who table questions can find themselves at your door if there is any argument about the way in which they have been tabled. Since April this year, the Government have increasingly adopted the practice of hiving off employment questions to a fellow by the name of Michael Fogden, the chief executive of the Employment Service. It is bad practice for the Government not to answer questions but to send them instead to a civil servant to answer. The result is that, when the Low Pay Unit and other bodies look for the information in Hansard, all that they find are the words, "Mr. Michael Fogden will reply to the hon. Gentleman."
I should have thought that Hansard --in which you, Mr. Speaker have some interest--should be able to pass on the information, not just to Members of Parliament but to other interested people outside the House, especially the Low Pay Unit. I ask you to deplore the Government's growing practice of not answering questions but sending them to someone who is not a Minister or even a Member of Parliament. They ought to put an end to that practice.
Mr. Speaker : I think that I have the correct reference here. In answer to a question on this matter, the Prime Minister said that questions about agencies were passed to the chairman of the agency concerned.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : When agencies have been debated in this place, the Opposition have always asked who is going to answer for those agencies. In every case Ministers have asserted that there will be no diminution of responsibility to this House. They have said that Ministers remain responsible and inevitably that means that they are responsible for answering written and oral questions in this House. That is an important principle which none of us wants to see eroded, but the Government appear to be doing just that. Therefore, I invoke your support to prevent that, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker : It is a very important matter, and I should like to look into it to refresh my memory as to what has been said about it. I agree that questions to Ministers in the House should be answered. I am aware that some letters written to Ministers are transferred to the chairmen of agencies. That is a different matter from parliamentary questions.
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I welcome your statement that you are going to look at the matter. It is important that hon. Members pursuing constituency interests and other important matters of policy have the absolute right to answers to their questions from Ministers. Otherwise, the whole purpose of this House is nullified. It is a facet of Government behaviour at the moment that, in answer to questions and to letters about constituents, the responsibility is being deflected to agencies and civil servants in a way that I want to make clear the Opposition believe is unacceptable.
Column 1137The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : May I, by way of reply, draw the attention of the House to the fact that there have always been arrangements for questions on certain aspects of Government behaviour to be answered by the agencies concerned rather than by Ministers. That kind of balance has always been necessary to maintain a sensible distribution of the work load between Ministers and other Government agencies. The proposal for the establishment of agencies has in general been welcomed by all parties in the House. Obviously I will look, as you will, Mr. Speaker, at the point that has been raised, but it should be considered in that context.
Dr. Cunningham : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We cannot accept that. The Leader of the House says that the point is one of balance, but the point is that the balance is being altered. Whatever the Leader of the House may say about agreement about the creation of agencies, there is no agreement about Ministers wriggling out of their responsibility for policy matters and deflecting questions to those heading the agencies. That is a matter for the House. Questions should be answered directly between Ministers and hon. Members.
Mr. Harry Cohen presented a Bill to provide entitlement to compensation, in certain circumstances, to an individual who suffers damage by reason of the unreliability or lack of security of a computer, program or data ; and to extend the application of the Data Protection Act 1984 : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 July and to be printed. [Bill 180.]
That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1990, which was laid before the House on 20 June, be approved. The draft order renews the temporary provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1974, under which government by direct rule continues in Northern Ireland. In presenting the draft order, I owe the House both an account of the Government's stewardship in Northern Ireland over the past year and an assessment of the prospect that these temporary arrangements can be set aside in favour of more permanent arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland.
As regards the Government's stewardship, our overriding aim is to provide good government for Northern Ireland. Given the challenges it faces, that requires a combination of policies designed to bring peace, stability and prosperity. As we know only too well, peace in Northern Ireland is still threatened by terrorism. By no means all of that comes from the republican side, but the principal threat to peace comes from the provisional IRA. It is difficult to see any kind of logic in the dreadful atrocities claimed-- as though there was pride in the ownership of murder--by the Provisionals. But we must presume, from statements made on their behalf, that they believe that the continuation of the policy of killing and maiming will lead the Government, or some future British Government, to withdraw, or agree to withdraw, from Northern Ireland. If they do think that, they are wholly mistaken. No British Government--and here I am sure that I speak also for the parties in opposition--will respond to terrorism in that craven way. And if, for once, I can presume to speak for the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, the Provisionals are mistaken also if they believe that bombing and shooting will change the determination of Unionist people to remain British. The Provisionals' campaign is therefore not only vicious and depraved ; it is also tragic because it is futile. It will not have its intended effect.
The first priority of the Government will continue to be to eradicate terrorism in Northern Ireland--from whichever side of the community it comes. All our policies for Northern Ireland are intended to contribute to, or be consistent with, that objective, but effective action by the security forces against terrorists will continue to be the key factor. The police and the Army know that they have the wholehearted support of Government as they courageously carry out what is, every day of the week, an enormously difficult and dangerous task. The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to their courage and determination. We intend to ensure that the security forces have the necessary resources--both physical and legal-- for their essential work. Terrorism will continue to be dealt with by firm and effective action within the law. We remain ready to strengthen this further if necessary. We shall shortly be looking at Lord Colville's review of existing anti-terrorist legislation as a preliminary to bringing forward legislation to replace the present emergency provisions Acts before they expire in 1992. When there is a demonstrable need for new powers, I shall not hesitate to ask the House to approve them.
Column 1139Despite the efforts of the terrorists to bomb jobs away, the Northern Ireland economy has been growing strongly over the past seven or eight years and it is continuing to improve this year. Visitors to the Province will see immediately the changes in Belfast and Londonderry--the new spirit of economic optimism following the privatisation of Shorts and Harland and Wolff. We have been frank about the Northern Ireland economy's structural weaknesses in our new economic development strategy, "Competing in the 1990s". We have set out in it our belief that, if Northern Ireland is to make its way in the Europe of the single market, its industry must become more competitive, its labour force more skilled and its culture more imbued with the spirit of enterprise. That will require much effort by individuals and the private sector. Though the Government will help, the drive must come from outside.
I am happy to say that, in the past year, there have been many hopeful signs of Northern Ireland's ability to bring off such a transformation in its economy. Unemployment is at its lowest point for over six years, though at 14 per cent. it is not, in any sense, at an acceptable level. In the past year or so we have attracted new industrial investors from France, the United States, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway, Korea, Great Britain and Japan. There are about 2,500 people employed in Japanese manufacturing companies in Northern Ireland, which compares very reasonably with the 3,300 in Japanese companies in Scotland. The increase in inward investment looks set to continue. Increasing job opportunities for all and improving living standards are a crucial ingredient to restoring social harmony and self- confidence, and reducing deprivation and communal division. In the social field our aim is, through fair and effective government, to tackle the underlying problems of division and disadvantage in Northern Ireland. We have shown through the introduction of stronger legislation, which came into force on 1 January this year, our determination to ensure fair employment. We shall be studying closely the recommendations of the recent report of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights on discrimination. We have taken a number of measures, including the "Making Belfast Work" initiative, designed to achieve real and lasting improvement in conditions in the most disadvantaged areas. The Springvale initiative provides a further example. We are addressing with renewed vigour and success the underlying community relations problems, through encouraging greater cross-community relations and co-operation, and fostering respect for the different cultural traditions.
As I said at the start, our aim is to provide the best possible government for all the people of Northern Ireland. We can, I believe, justifiably claim that we have had some success in that task, but we are governing via the artificial mechanism of direct rule, under constitutional arrangements which are avowedly temporary, and which no one would dream of inventing as a long-term way of governing any sizeable community.
Even if we are, in practice, getting most things right--and that is for others to judge--we are doing so in the knowledge that, as Ministers, we are not directly accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. It seems to me and my ministerial colleagues that we have a moral
Column 1140duty to seek to find ways of returning substantial responsibilities to politicians who are elected by the people of Northern Ireland and who will be accountable to them for their stewardship of Northern Ireland affairs. But before I turn to the efforts that I have been making to address that issue, I wish to deal briefly with a broader constitutional issue.
Although the constitutional question has often seemed central to matters in Northern Ireland, I turn to it now in the hope of putting it to one side. We regard the position as clear. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom in national and international law. It is part of the United Kingdom because that is the clear wish of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. There will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland unless and until a majority of the people there want it. That seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. I believe that most in this House, and I number myself among them, would wish to see the Union continue, but the principles of democracy and self-determination mean that the people of Northern Ireland must themselves be the final arbiters.
By virtue of its constitution, the Republic of Ireland has since 1937 also claimed sovereignty over Northern Ireland. We do not accept or recognise that claim, which has no basis in our law or, equally important, in international law. That claim is, I know, seen by some in Northern Ireland, and in other parts of this country, as a major stumbling block to the development of constructive relationships. I do not regard it as helpful. Nor, however, do I believe that it should be a major preoccupation--for this reason : the Republic of Ireland has accepted, through the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that the status of Northern Ireland could be changed only with the consent of a majority of its people. In short, through that binding international treaty it has shown that it, too, supports the right of the people of Northern Ireland to self-determination. The agreement also enshrines the Irish Government's support for our policy of establishing local institutions of government on a basis that would secure widespread acceptance throughout the community.
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Is not it a fact that the status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of this United Kingdom is not spelt out in the Anglo-Irish Agreement and that it contains no definition of Northern Ireland's status?
Mr. Brooke : Meanwhile, under the direct rule system we now have, I have found the framework for Anglo-Irish relations provided by the agreement valuable. Both the agreement and its working have demonstrated the desire of the two Governments to have a close and friendly relationship, and to tackle the reality of Northern Ireland's different cultural, historical and religious traditions.
Mr. Gow : Will my right hon. Friend allow me to intervene now? He has gone past the point in his speech at which I wanted to intervene, when he was telling the House that he did not think that the continuing existence of articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution is of any great significance. Will he address his thoughts to this
Column 1141element of that problem? In the McGimpsey judgment, the Irish Supreme Court relied specifically on articles 2 and 3 of the constitution in order to refuse the British Government's extradition request.
While neither Goverment are seeking a new agreement, if a better agreement- -which commanded widespread support within both sides of the community in Northern Ireland--were to be arrived at, that would prove to be an important step forward. Obviously, neither Government will abandon the agreement except for something that they regard as better. By what criteria might a new agreement be judged an improvement? I am clear that a central test will be the one that I have just mentioned--that it should enjoy widespread support not only within both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, but from the people of Great Britain and the Republic.
Mr. Trimble : I know that the Secretary of State has said that a new agreement should enjoy widespread support, but does he not accept the indisputable fact that the existing agreement does not have, never has had and never will have widespread support?
The second test would be that any new arrangement should address, at one and the same time, all aspects of the matter, including arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland and relations between the various parts of these islands.
I said on 9 January that any agreement between the constitutional political parties on new arrangements for exercising political power in Northern Ireland would have substantial implications for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and that both Governments would be bound to consider those implications seriously and sympathetically. The Taoiseach also made clear later that month that
"if a new and more broadly-based agreement can be reached by direct discussions and negotiations between all the parties involved, the Irish Government would be prepared to contemplate, in agreement with the British Government, a new and better structure, agreement or arrangement, to transcend the existing one".
I can confirm that, in the context of discussions about possible future arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland, we should give serious consideration to any implications for the agreement that such arrangements might have, and we would also consider any proposal--including any proposal for an alternative to the agreement--that would advance the underlying objectives of achieving peace, stability and reconciliation.
In this debate a year ago, my predecessor--my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Defence, who is here today--was less than fair to himself when he described political progress as being virtually non- existent.
Column 1142He made great efforts to explore the scope for political progress towards an accommodation that might be reflected in the re-establishment of local institutions of government. In my own efforts to carry that process forward, I have been conscious of building on the sound foundations that he laid down.
There are a number of reasons for continuing this work. Quite apart from the long history of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and the need to find means of recognising Northern Ireland's distinct local interests and needs, there are two important reasons of principle. First, the present arrangements--under which local government has only the most modest powers, while the regional government has been absorbed into the machinery of central Government--mean that there is no effective vehicle for local democracy in Northern Ireland. There is a gap in democratic accountability which the House cannot contemplate with equanimity. Without a regional political forum, elected representatives in Northern Ireland are left with little opportunity to influence the decisions of the Government, or to exercise powers that are available to politicians elsewhere in the United Kingdom or, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland. It has been said that a healthy community needs as its respiratory system a healthy and well- functioning political machine. The present weakness of local political involvement in the government of Northern Ireland is not a satisfactory long-term arrangement, and it causes a local power vacuum which terrorists and their supporters attempt to exploit to their advantage.
Secondly, and most crucial to the future of Northern Ireland and for those of us who share the agonies which that community is facing, perhaps the best hope of reconciliation between the two sides of the community is to be found in the achievement and maintenance of a long-lasting local political accommodation. It is the existence in Northern Ireland of the two traditions and the two identities, one of them looking, as it is free to do, to another jurisdiction to the south, with which it feels cultural and other affinities, which, above all, distinguishes its situation from that of other parts of this country. It is that which suggests that a distinct approach is needed, whatever the constitutional arrangements made for England, Scotland or Wales. Although the constitutional position, as I have explained, is clear, the internal and external dimensions cannot be wholly separated.
I should like to report to the House that during the past year modest but, I hope, valuable progress has been made towards the goal of new, democratically accountable, political institutions. In the past few months I have had lengthy discussions with the Irish Government, with representatives of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, with spokesmen for other parties in the House, and, indeed, with a wide range of well-informed people in all parts of these islands. I have been greatly encouraged by the co-operative and constructive spirit I have encountered, and by the evident willingness to work to find a way through the difficulties. I have also been gratified by the discretion my interlocutors have shown and which I have sought to reciprocate, and, finally, for the patience of the House. It has been important to the building of confidence that such discussions must take place on a confidential basis. Our discussions have been, for the most part, on preliminary issues : how talks might begin, how they might be organised, within what timetable and on what agenda.
Column 1143Those matters are important, because, in any talks, the participants should have a clear understanding of what is involved. Let me briefly explain the Government's position in these matters. First, we wish to safeguard the constitutional guarantees that I have described and to ensure that the future of Northern Ireland is determined by the free will, without intimidation, of the people there. Secondly, we wish to establish arrangements for government which give full rein to the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, and which safeguard both traditions and provide for the full expression of both identities. Our overwhelming concern is for the people of Northern Ireland, and those who think that we have some other interest mistake not only our sense of responsibility for our own citizens but our determination to ensure that their rights--the rights of all of them--are respected and preserved.
As I said, we seek institutions of government in Northern Ireland which will be directly accountable to all its people, and to which they can all give their wholehearted commitment and support. We do not prejudge the detailed form that such political arrangements should take. The local politicians who are expected to work them must help to create them. Our broad criteria for endorsing any particular system are that it should be workable and likely to prove stable and durable, and that it must command widespread support and provide an appropriate and fair role for both sides of the community. The exploratory discussions that I have had, especially over the past six months, have confirmed and, I believe, modestly enlarged the shared appreciation of the common ground. They may, too, have strengthened the realisation that a number of those concerned share perceptions, or at least accept others' different views and the reasons for them, to a greater extent than previously.
It seems clear that, if talks are to be held, they would need to embrace all the main relationships and, accordingly, have different strands. One strand would involve the Government and the main constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland. Its objective would be to work towards agreement on new arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom, which might provide a basis for the transfer of political power, authority and responsibility to locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland on a basis that was widely acceptable. That strand would need to deal, too, with the relationship between Westminster and any new institutions in Northern Ireland. That dimension of the issue is perhaps mentioned less often, not because it is unimportant, but because we on our side are clear about it. The Irish Government, who, as I have mentioned, are committed by virtue of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to support our policy to transfer power to locally accountable institutions in Northern Ireland, would not be directly represented in such talks, although we would certainly wish to take account of any views and proposals that they might put forward. It is generally agreed, too, that the process of talks and negotiations should cover the relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It is also, I believe,
Column 1144common ground that such talks would need to lead to the simultaneous drawing together of the different strands. That is, no agreement on any one aspect would be reached unless and until all parties were finally satisfied with the whole of what might emerge from such a dialogue.
I detect also a significant measure of agreement on the structure that such talks might have, and the role that each of the potential participants might fulfil in the various stages of the process. I would not, however, wish to exaggerate the extent to which views on those matters converge.
The more immediate difficulty--although I hope that the House will join me in seeking to surmount it--is to secure agreement from all the potential participants that the conditions to start dialogue now exist. As is widely known, most, if not quite all, of the potential participants to these complex and interwoven issues have preliminary preoccupations of principle, some of which appeared at first sight to be irreconcilable. Some of the potential participants frankly acknowledge these as preconditions to talking ; others do not. My task has been to explore the extent to which those important preliminary points can be overcome.
It is, of course, the privilege and responsibility of all political representatives to express their own point of view. I cannot speak for others, and I would not want it thought for a moment that I claimed to. However, I should tell the House that it is my judgment that there now exists, following the exploratory discussions that I have held, a basis for entering talks intended to cover all the relationships--a basis which I believe would meet everyone's essential interests and which would allow all participants to enter talks on a basis of mutual respect without any sacrifice of important interests or essential principles. The basis would also be consistent with our international obligations, including those under the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
I pay tribute to the flexibility, imagination and resolution of those with whom I have conducted discussions. Many have, I believe, shown readiness to accept the challenges that the long history of Northern Ireland provides, and to respond, with a combination of strength of purpose on behalf of principles and of the interests of those they represent, with a capacity to seek a constructive way forward. I will not disguise from the House the fact that I had hoped to be in a position by now to give some indication of when it might be possible to move to formal talks. I am in fact not yet in a position to do so. It would no doubt have been convenient to be able to give such a report today, but this debate is a function of the parliamentary timetable, and no mystic significance therefore attaches to it. The provision for direct rule will shortly expire unless renewed. The important thing is that we have been making progress and will continue to seek to do so. That can only be on the basis of careful and detailed preparation of the ground at each stage, as has been my practice to date.
As the House is fully aware, I have throughout this process been careful to express the prospects in cautious terms. I have said that talks are possible rather than probable. I have also emphasised that, in the end, it is a matter for the potential participants and, in particular, for the political parties within Northern Ireland, to decide if and when the conditions for carrying matters forward exist. It is, above all, a matter of individual and collective political will. For my part, I will continue to work for a
Column 1145way forward, since it is clear to me that constructive dialogue, particularly between the representatives of the two sides of the community within Northern Ireland, is of the greatest importance.
Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down) : I was present to support the Secretary of State when he launched his initiative at the beginning of this year. He deserves praise for his endeavours. I hope that, despite a hiccup- -I do not think that it is more than a hiccup--the talks will progress to a successful conclusion. The Secretary of State certainly deserves congratulations on his endeavours up to the present.