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Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : I am sorry that the official Opposition are making this a party political debate. The weakness of their argument is evident when they have to drag in Maastricht, because this is a House of Commons matter about government.
I congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on at last grasping the nettle and establishing a Select Committee on Northern Ireland which, as I shall try to explain, is something that has been recommended since the Select Committee on Procedure's report on Select Committees in 1978-79. Previous Secretaries of State have prevaricated, which has culminated in no action being taken, so my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State deserves great credit. I shall be brief, because I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak.
So that there can be no misunderstanding, I shall make it clear how the current situation with regard to a Select Committee on Northern Ireland has arisen. The Procedure Committee's report in 1977-78 said :
"the development of the system has been piecemeal and has resulted in a decidedly patchy coverage of the activities of government departments and agencies, and of the major areas of
Column 352public policy and administration."
It went on to say that although some Departments were subject to detailed scrutiny,
"other major departments have received scant or at least insufficient attention."
It said that that was especially so in one case--Northern Ireland. The report continued :
"The House should no longer rest content with an incomplete and unsystematic scrutiny of the activities of the Executive merely as a result of historical accident or sporadic pressure and it is . . . desirable for the different branches of the public service to be subject to an even and regular incidence of select committee investigation into their activities and to have a clear understanding of the division of responsibilities between the committees which conduct it."
The paragraph concluded that it was essential to have a means of scrutinising the activities of the public service on a continuing basis.
It will be noted that the report excluded reference to responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs because of
"uncertainty about the future form of government for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that the appointment of separate committees for these areas may need to be further considered in the light of future constitutional developments."
That was way back in 1977-78.
In 1989-90, the Select Committee on Procedure examined the scrutiny of Northern Ireland affairs and found that it was "fragmented among many different Committees."
It said that the scrutiny of Northern Ireland corresponded to the functions exercised by Departments shadowed by specific Select Committees. In other words, housing in Northern Ireland falls within the terms of reference of the Select Committee on the Environment, even though responsibility is exercised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Could anything be more foolish ?
On the same basis, the Committee found that the Northern Ireland prison system and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the structure of secondary education and the health service in Northern Ireland could be examined by the Select Committees on Home Affairs, on Education, on Science and Arts and on Social Services. That is nonsense because a separate Secretary of State is responsible for each subject. The Procedure Committee's report in 1989-90 said :
"All the same, it can hardly be said, on the basis of the evidence we have received, that Northern Ireland matters are receiving the attention from the departmentally-related Select Committees which they deserve".
The Committee's second report concluded that a
"lacuna in the system of scrutiny has been the lack of a separate Committee to monitor the policy, expenditure and administration of the Northern Ireland Office . . . Like Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland has its own Secretary of State with authority over a wide range of matters . . . In that respect, therefore, the powers of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are more extensive than those exercised by his counterpart in Wales . . . It is therefore anomalous from a practical point of view that no separate Select Committee exists to oversee the affairs of Northern Ireland . . . It will be clear that we see a case for bringing the Northern Ireland Office formally within the system of scrutiny by Select Committees." It also stated that it did
"not believe that the uncertainties over the future administration of the Province can be allowed to preclude indefinitely the establishment of proper arrangements for the scrutiny by the House of the Northern Ireland Department".
I have quoted from paragraphs 272 to 278 of the Select Committee's report-- which, incidentally, was supported by all the Labour Members on it. No one voted against it.
Mr. Winnick : As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we concluded that we should not recommend a Select Committee on Northern Ireland at that stage because of the advice given to us by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We thought that that advice, given on political grounds, was all important and we made that clear in our report. We were advised that there should be a consensus of opinion in Northern Ireland before any such Committee was established. The Government have changed their mind for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).
"not believe that the uncertainties over the future administration of the Province can be allowed to preclude indefinitely the establishment of proper arrangements for the scrutiny by the House of the Northern Ireland Department".
The Select Committee's 1993-94 report concluded :
"The Committee see nothing to add or subtract from their previous views."
The Committee believed that the House and the Government would decide when it was appropriate to set up a Committee.
[Interruption.] It is the House that will decide. I think that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North understands that.
Sir Peter Emery : That is brilliant ; I never realised that. That is the most outstanding piece of procedural information that I have heard in the House for many a moon. [Interruption.] That will not get the hon. Gentleman very far.
From a procedural point of view, it is absolutely right that every Department of state should be scrutinised by a Select Committee.
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) : The right hon. Gentleman is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. Clearly, the procedure that he is outlining is factually correct, but even he must realise that, although he is concerned mainly with procedure and the need for all Government Departments to be closely scrutinised, the Government's decision to table the motion was not influenced only by procedure--it was deeply political.
Sir Peter Emery : If the hon. Gentleman asks a question in the proper manner, I shall answer it. He should not put words into my mouth. There is of course a political factor in the consideration of Northern Ireland ; no one denies that. It seems that the vast majority of Members of Parliament elected in Northern Ireland wish to have a Northern Ireland Select Committee.
If we are considering democracy, we do not need to consider the percentages that were cited from the Opposition Front Bench, but we should consider the Members who have been elected by the people. The people have a right to those who represent them being able to work in a Select Committee.
Column 354After all, we are granting powers to a Committee so that it can monitor, investigate, examine witnesses and act as a public and parliamentary watchdog for the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, his Department and the Ministers under him. I have confidence in him, as I have confidence in all my Ministers, but I still believe that they need watching and that they need to have a House of Commons Committee on their backs. That is right and proper. I am sorry that the Labour party does not seem to agree.
The appointment of the Committee should not be interpreted as a political factor, as the Opposition have made out. The political difficulties in Ulster
Sir Patrick Mayhew : While I am touched by my right hon. Friend's confidence in me as one of his Ministers, may I say that it is not only the majority of Members of Parliament who support the Select Committee. Does he accept that it is my appreciation of the feelings of people throughout Northern Ireland that they want to see more parliamentary control and scrutiny over legislation in Northern Ireland as a mitigation of the effects of direct rule, however benificent that may be ? They do not share the only substantive reason for opposing the Committee that we have heard-- that the Unionists want it.
Sir Peter Emery : I am delighted to be supported by the Secretary of State. He has added grace and charm to my few remarks as well as great factual substantiation. As well as the public being represented by their Members of Parliament, it is the width of public opinion in Northern Ireland, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred, which is important.
Mr. Canavan : I do not recall the right hon. Gentleman supporting the establishment of a Scottish Select Committee in the previous Parliament, when there was no such creature, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people of Scotland wanted the establishment of such a Committee, as did the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament who represented Scottish constituencies. The Government denied that during the entire Parliament, for political reasons.
Sir Peter Emery : Whatever the hon. Gentleman may want to say against the Government, he cannot say it against me, because I, with the Select Committee on Procedure, recommended that there should be a Select Committee for Northern Ireland. As I was tutored by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), the Government tabled the motion, not the Procedure Committee.
Therefore, may we consider the specific reasons why, on a political basis, the Committee will be useful in dealing with the difficulties in Ulster ? I hope and believe that the new Select Committee will be able to ensure that the people in Northern Ireland can have confidence in what goes on in Westminster and in the dedication of Northern
Column 355Ireland Ministers to look after the problems of Northern Ireland. They will know that the Members of Parliament whom they elect will have the power to ensure that the interests of Northern Ireland will be not only considered on the Floor of the House, but will be under close scrutiny and that Ministers will be cross-examined by their own elected representatives.
It will be good for Northern Ireland on political grounds to know that it will have an extra power through Northern Irish Ministers and Members of Parliament. I welcome the motion, and I believe that it is long overdue.
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : I trust that the Leader of the House will not mind my paying tribute to the Select Committee on Procedure and especially its chairman, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), for the consistent and fair-minded approach to the desirability of extending the trend of comparatively new Select Committees, which was put in place in 1979 by Lord St. John of Fawsley, the then Leader of the House.
During the consultations leading up to that decision, which was not unanimously received in the House even in those days, I put in a bid for a Northern Ireland Committee. I was only partially successful and my pleas were heeded to some extent. The Government, who, we must remember, had a safe majority after the 1979 election, said on 25 June :
"we have thought it right to provide that they should be within the scope of the new Select Committees at Westminster."--[ Official Report , 25 June 1979 ; Vol. 969, c. 40.]
--as a temporary step.
That led to the beneficial visits of the existing Select Committees to Northern Ireland, which have given a great deal of encouragement and reassurance to all sections of the community. The visits illustrated in a flesh and blood fashion that their rights and privileges as citizens of the United Kingdom were not being overlooked in any way.
In the intervening 15 years, Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the scrutiny of those specialised Committees and, if I heard the Leader of the House correctly towards the end of his speech, that valuable overview will continue with the same civilised degree of co-operation which exists, for example, between the Scottish Select Committee and the specialist subject Committees, which undertake, by invitation perhaps, by consultation, by agreement or perhaps through the Liaison Committee, the scrutiny of special matters in Scotland. We are grateful to the Leader of the House for taking so much care to ensure that the terms of reference of the new Northern Ireland Select Committee and its relationship to those other Committees were set out so clearly in his speech. Will he confirm that the title of the Committee--I thought that he may have left out a word --will be the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee ?
Mr. Newton indicated assent .
I pay tribute once more to the right hon. Member for Honiton and his Select Committee, which initiated in 1990 the process that has resulted in this motion. They have given careful consideration to all the submissions made five long years ago and they have updated their thinking at
Column 356frequent intervals since the Committee made that decision in principle ; we want them to know that their efforts are greatly appreciated.
While debating motion No. 3, I pay sincere tribute to two former Members who have been elevated to another place--Lord Wilson and Lord Glenamara-- who decided following the destruction of Stormont that Northern Ireland should have a measure of accountability as a temporary measure before they could progress. That resulted in the establishment of the Northern Ireland Committee. Lord Glenamara, then Ted Short, will be remembered by all Opposition parties with great gratitude for the scheme that he introduced to provide financial support to the Opposition parties which is enjoyed today and which has been recently increased. I pay tribute where tribute is due. Another consultant, if I may refer to him in that way, in that process of consultation with Lord Wilson and Lord Glenamara, was my colleague Enoch Powell. During those consultations with the then Labour Government, I cannot ever recall a suggestion of a sordid deal being done, although the Wilson Government had a single-figure majority and eventually no majority at all.
It may be that, almost 20 years ago, Lord Wilson was aware of the consistent position of my party, which is that, provided that Her Majesty's Government of the day govern in the best interests of the United Kingdom in general and of Northern Ireland in particular, we see no reason why we should terminate the life of Parliament prematurely. That remains the position, and I hope that it will in some way reassure the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and perhaps lower his blood pressure.
I always found that Lord Wilson, unlike some of his successors, had the ability to perceive objects not yet visible to the naked eye, and sometimes not even over the horizon. With its grand new title, the Committee's authority will be enhanced and its influence will be increased. I trust that, through consultation, we can find ways of making fuller use of that body, now the Northern Ireland Grand Committee.
For example, we need a clearer understanding of the number of sittings per Session, because that seems to fluctuate from year to year. We also need, not this evening but on another occasion, a clear definition of the procedure for adjourning a debate in Committee and returning to the same subject another day. We have had experience of being ruled out of order when we have suggested, as a result of unanimous agreement in the Committee, that we have not quite finished our deliberations. At about 12.55 we would decide among ourselves to adjourn and come back another time, only to find that some obscure rule made that impossible, although that used to be possible in the early days of the Committee's activities, under the original guidelines of 20 years ago.
On behalf of my colleagues, I have great pleasure in welcoming and supporting motions Nos. 2 and 3.
Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster) : I am grateful to be called, and I shall endeavour to be brief and to keep my remarks succinct. I must say straight away that I have sought to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because although I have no objection in principle to the measures
Column 357and will support them, I have certain reservations. Having expressed some of those outside the House, I now wish to express them inside.
There are political ramifications here. I wholeheartedly agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and others said about the parliamentary context. But we are dealing with something that goes beyond Parliament. We are engaged in what may be one of the most historic endeavours ever to try to secure peace in the island of Ireland.
Northern Ireland is a special case that goes beyond purely parliamentary matters. A major effort for peace is being made and in comparison the measures before us, worthy as they are, represent a small endeavour. Nothing should be done to impede progress in any way on the joint declaration that has been worked for so hard by my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government.
This is a question of timing ; it was, it is now and it remains so. The measures before us will be perceived by certain elements vital to peace to be an integrationist move, and they will see it as the wrong time to make such a move. I do not want to trivialise the matter, but as far as the nationalist community is concerned, in this whole great endeavour it takes two--indeed, more than two--to tango. The process cannot go on with one side alone.
The nationalist community--the 43 per cent. that we have heard about--is a vital part of the peace process and anything that we as a House do concerning Northern Ireland should have the nationalists' support. Certainly this measure should have both their support and that of their leadership before it is put into practice.
Of course Sinn Fein/IRA prevaricates. The Downing street declaration and the peace process are far from over. My definite view is that those people could still come in, and we must work with that process. The rhetoric of some of us has not helped in the early stages, in the vital context of getting them, or at least some of them, to come in. I hazard a guess that this measure will not help either.
The Government of Ireland--this is the last section of the pattern with which I shall deal--are also a vital component part of any settlement and of any peace on the island. By supporting what we are doing together through the joint declaration, they deprive Sinn Fein/IRA of any claim to political legitimacy and make it into what could be called a historical reject. While they are with us that will be the status of Sinn Fein/IRA. So if the Irish Government opt out in any way or diminish their efforts to implement the joint declaration the peace process would sustain a blow that it would not be able to survive.
I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--clearly, my remarks have little to do with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House--for a simple assurance that he has considered the matter in the greater context, that it is purely a parliamentary process, that it will not be perceived as an integrationist move, and that it will in no way hinder the all-important peace process, which should be our overwhelming priority.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : There are some bad reasons for the introduction of the Select Committee and the hon. Gentleman has spelt out the problems, in terms of alienating the nationalist community and of the Government's simply using the idea to overcome their problems. However, there are some good democratic reasons, too, which will benefit the whole of Northern Ireland and everyone involved. Should not the
Column 358House concentrate on the positive aspects of the proposals, pushing them forward and ensuring that they form the agenda, rather than concentrating on some of the underlying poor reasons ? Perhaps the bad reasons are motivating people in various ways, but should we not turn that into a positive agenda ?
Mr. Temple-Morris : I am glad that that remark came from the hon. Gentleman. I accept it, in the context that any judgment on the issue must be a matter of balance. We come down on one side or the other. We have not yet heard all the arguments from Northern Ireland Members, and it is a question of balance. I have come down, and have made my position fairly clear by expressing a serious reservation.
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) : I do not wish to detain the House too long. I share most of the misgivings expressed by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), and I wish that he would have the courage to follow them and vote with the Opposition parties. Much of what he said expresses a fear shared not only by Opposition Members but by many people throughout Great Britain and the island of Ireland.
I must say at the outset that I am a fervent supporter of the Select Committee procedure. We certainly need parliamentarians overseeing Departments. That has been one of the most important constitutional changes over the past 14 years. Because of that background and that feeling, I wholeheartedly support the establishment of a Select Committee for Northern Ireland. If only I could be convinced that it was a purely procedural matter, I should follow the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). I heard what he said and I am sure that he is convinced that the matter is purely procedural. However, to me and to many other people the decision to establish the Select Committee seems not simply a procedural matter but a deeply political matter.
None of us would disagree that the present governance of Northern Ireland is totally inadequate. But as parliamentarians, most of us, except our colleagues from the Province itself, have accepted that position because we believe that the only possible solution would involve political institutions in the Province acceptable to both sections of the community there, and also a clearer definition of the triangular relationship between Belfast, London and Dublin. It is for those reasons that we have hitherto been prepared to accept the democratic deficit in the Province.
I am alarmed by the fact that the Government appear this evening to be undermining that approach. What the Secretary of State said about 20 minutes ago served only to fuel my fears that this action will be interpreted as a first step towards a purely internal settlement. After this evening's decision has been made, the Government will, without a shadow of doubt, come under increasing pressure to change the Order in Council method of dealing with Northern Ireland business--the very point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made himself.
The Secretary of State will also come under increasing pressure to reorganise local government in the Province. After tonight's decision the Government will find it increasingly difficult to resist the proposals for change. Moreover, the Government's decision represents a total about-face. Before, they have always said that they will not
Column 359support the establishment of a Select Committee for Northern Ireland until there is agreement between the elected representatives from both communities in the Province. They have also said that they will not support the establishment of a Select Committee until there is an outcome, successful or not, of the three-strand process. Neither of those conditions appears to have been met.
Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that tonight's decision is a cheap political fix--the victory of political expediency over political principle. It represents the payment of a debt owed by the Government to the Official Unionists. I do not blame the latter for exacting that price from the Government for having supported them in the Lobby over Maastricht last year. This motion has everything to do with the survival of the Government and nothing to do with the best interests or future well-being of Northern Ireland. I consider that a disgrace ; the people of Northern Ireland deserve a great deal better.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) : If there were any integrity on the part of the Government in their dealings with both communities in Northern Ireland, this motion would not be before us tonight. If the Government genuinely believed that both communities should be dealt with equally, the motion would not be before us. By their action tonight the Government have forfeited the right to be regarded as even-handed--as honest brokers--in Northern Ireland affairs. More than that, the Government have jeopardised the integrity of the inter-party talks, based delicately as they were on the six-party agreement of 26 March 1991. The Government have shattered that process. They have betrayed the trust given to them by the nationalist people of Northern Ireland and they have broken faith with the Irish Government, their partner in the cause of peace in Ireland.
The British Government have tried to dupe the Irish Government and others with their claim that this is merely a procedural matter with no repercussions beyond the confines of this House. It is no such thing : it never was. This is a political act ; Unionist votes were bought at a crucial time last year--first, for the vote to kick miners out of their jobs, even though their sons were defending us from terrorism in Northern Ireland ; and, secondly, to save the Government's bacon over Maastricht. This is a political decision ; it has nothing to do with procedure.
Since 1978, the Procedure Committee has time and again said that it is up to the Government whether the process should go ahead. Time and again, that Committee has commented on the political aspects of the problem. I do not have time to quote all the Committee's recommendations over the years, but the most recent one, which appeared on 1 December 1993, stated :
" It should be remembered that the only reason given by the Procedure Committee in 1978 for its decision not to recommend the creation of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs was the continuing uncertainty over the future consultational arrangements for the Province' . . . However, the Committee accepted the advice of the then Secretary of State in 1990 that appointment of such a Committee at that time whilst attractive in principle, could cause difficulties for the initiative launched by the Secretary of State.' The Committee see nothing to add or subtract from their previous views. The appointment of the Committee must rest with the
Column 360decision of the Government to propose to the House its appointment and its terms of reference."
As I say, this has nothing to do with procedure and everything to do with Government politics.
I ask whichever Minister replies to the debate the following question : does this mean that the premise on which previous recommendations were made to the Select Committee by the Secretary of State no longer applies ?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I am entirely satisfied that the setting up of the Select Committee, if the House approves it, will have no adverse effect on the talks process, to which I attach great importance, as I know the hon. Gentleman does, too.
Mr. McGrady : I thank the Secretary of State for that information, but he and I both know that the principles of the 26 March 1991 agreement among the six parties to the talks, especially those pertaining to the three strands of the relationship between this Government and the Government of the Republic, clearly meant that nothing was to be agreed until all was agreed. As a party to that agreement the SDLP has never agreed with this proposed procedure.
Mr. McGrady : I have not given way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As the only representative of the nationalist community to speak in this debate, I have only a few minutes left in which to make the case against the motion.
We know, even from its timing, that this was a political decision. Within 24 hours of the Downing street declaration of 15 December, the Leader of the House had announced that a Select Committee would be set up. How could any sensible person conclude that that was not a sop to the Unionists to get them to acquiesce in the Downing street declaration ?
I must move on quickly to the question of numbers. There can be no justification for the lack of equitable representation for the communities of Northern Ireland in this proposal. The recommendation was that those communities must be allowed to participate in the scrutiny of the business of this House, but that is not borne out by what has happened.
In public statements and letters throughout 1993--15 February and 22 July, to name but two such occasions--the Secretary of State reiterated the extent of the support from the elected representatives of both sides of the community that would be needed for such a move. These statements alternated with demands that procedures such as this must have widespread support. This procedure does not command widespread support among the representatives of Northern Ireland--a fact that will be illustrated when we divide on the motion tonight. Also, the motion has been put to the House on false premises. I could go on to deal with the lack of consultation, even with my party, on the proposals before us, but I do not have the time to do that. I ask the House to reject the proposal and to support instead the inter-party talks in Northern Ireland and the peace process, against which the proposal will impact. There is no doubt about that.
The establishment of the Northern Ireland Select Committee is ill conceived, and it will have political ramifications. It would also be incorrect to proceed with such a Committee when the British and Irish Governments