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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram) : I say to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that we all share hidesire to see a settlement reached and an agreement reached between the parties and, indeed, between the two Governments. That is very much the background to what my right hon. and learned Friend
Column 978the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, and it is certainly very much central to the Government's policy in relation to the political situation in Northern Ireland.
I do not have a great deal of time in which to deal with all the points raised in this short, but very interesting and constructive debate. I shall deal with a few of the specific questions and with one or two of the points which should either be corrected or put into perspective.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked a number of specific questions. He asked first whether I could give an idea of the timetable of the framework document. There are no artificial time constraints in putting together a framework document, and it is important that there are not, because obviously it is a complex matter and we need to take the time needed to achieve agreement, if agreement is possible. So, it would be wrong to say that the document would be ready by a certain date or not ready by another date. I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North appreciates that that is the most responsible position we can take on that difficult matter at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman asked again about what he saw to be the nub of disagreement. There are a number of difficult areas, as he would expect, which the two Governments are discussing. It would be totally wrong to try to conduct those discussions in the full glare of publicity. Indeed, to try to do so, I suspect, would make it even more difficult to achieve a meeting of minds. I am therefore sure that, again, he will understand if I do not go into the details of what is being discussed in the talks on the framework document beyond what my right hon. and learned Friend said in his opening remarks. As to the publication of the framework document, it is obvious that, if we are to achieve the widespread or broad-spread agreement of the people of Northern Ireland at some time, they will have to see and be able to take a view of what is being proposed. Again, it must be a matter for political judgment of when the right time for that to happen is reached.
I very much appreciate the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). Once again, he has shown not only his great interest but his knowledge of the political situation in the Province, and I thought that his speech was both reasoned and sensible. He underlined, as I shall again, that the bottom line to everything taking place is the need to achieve widespread agreement. That is the practical reality. Our history is littered with the wreckage of imposed solutions.
Mr. Trimble : On that point, may I refer the Minister to the intervention made in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), in which the latter drew the utterly false distinction between changes which relate only to sovereignty and those which relate to cross-border institutions of a merely administrative nature, which he said would not require consent ?
In his reply to the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the Minister's hon. Friend appeared to endorse that view, and confined the requirement of consent to so-called sovereignty changes, and not to the sort of cross- border institutions to which he was referring. I give the Minister the opportunity to correct that, and make it clear that there would be no question of any cross-border institution being created without the freely given consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Ancram : We have made it clear, and I make it clear again, that the political settlement, which includes all three strands, not only strand 2, will require the widespread or broad-spread agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. The quotation cited by my right hon. and learned Friend of the Taoiseach's speech at Oxford made it clear that that is also the view of the Irish Government. I can only reiterate that to the hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) referred to the history of the talks up to November 1992. There is a difference of view about the nature of those talks. In my understanding of what he said, he suggested that there had been a sequential basis to those talks.
I have looked up the original statement in 1991, and it is clear that there was not a sequential system proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), the then Secretary of State. In fact, he was saying at that time that, although the parties would start with strand 1, at a moment which he judged to be appropriate, it would launch into the other two strands.
In a sense, that is rather different from what the right hon. Gentleman was saying. May I say to him again that, when we talk of strand 1 being banked and then looking at strand 2, we are not talking in theory. We have to talk about the practical realities. The practical realities of the situation, as I have learned in the talks over the past year, is that we shall not achieve agreement on strand 1 without achieving agreement on strand 2 as well. There is an inevitable and unavoidable interlocking of all the strands, and it is for that reason--the political reality of the situation- -that all those strands have to, and will, be looked at together.
The right hon. Gentleman also called again for us to tackle the democratic deficit. He will understand from what my right hon. and learned Friend said that that is also very much the earnest desire of Her Majesty's Government. However, the way in which that democratic deficit can be tackled and met is by moving the process of dialogue forward, until we reach a situation in which we can achieve a political settlement and within which those institutions can be provided again for the Province.
I shall turn briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). I am afraid that, again, he
Column 980made a number of assertions which bear little connection with reality. He first spoke about joint authority and joint sovereignty. I can only say to him, again, that it is the stated position of both the British and Irish Governments that joint authority is not being considered.
The hon. Gentleman may find that he would have a closer and a better understanding of how the process of dialogue is proceeding if he were to accept my invitation, which I renew today, to come to the talks that I am having with the constitutional parties. He would then begin to see the type of structures that we are discussing to try to achieve a political settlement.
In particular, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of strand 1 and whether that was part of the discussions with the Irish Government. The discussions with the Irish Government, as with the parties, are about the overall package, which includes, by its nature, all three strands. However, we have made it absolutely clear that the specifics of strand 1 are matters for the British Government and the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. That has been the position, and it remains the position.
I say again to the hon. Gentleman that he can set up as many Aunt Sallys as he likes, he may draw as many black scenarios as he wishes, but, at the end of the day, they all have to be subjected to the test of acceptability to the people of Northern Ireland. [Hon. Members :-- "And the House."] And this House. It is for that reason that many of the suggestions which he makes will be shown up for what they are : scare tactics and unhelpful to any settlement being achieved. I believe that we are moving to a situation in which there is a genuine hope that peace can be achieved and a political settlement can be arrived at. But it will not be advanced by shouted slogans, by wild assertions, by blazing headlines or by megaphone diplomacy. It will be taken forward only by steady progress, careful language and the will among all those who participate to achieve a settlement. We have that goal in mind--not only to achieve the rightful, peaceful life for people in Northern Ireland, but so that we never again have to come back to the House to ask for the order to continue once more.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 24th May, be approved.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram) : I beg to move,
That the draft Civil Service (Management Functions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 3rd May, be approved.
The order's sole purpose--I emphasise sole purpose--is to allow the Department of Finance and Personnel to delegate to other servants of the Crown its responsibilities for the management of the Northern Ireland civil service. At the end of 1992, Parliament approved the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill, which enabled the central Departments in the home civil service to delegate their management functions. The order before the House introduces for the Northern Ireland civil service provisions corresponding to the effect of that legislation.
The order is concerned with the way in which civil servants are managed in such matters as pay and grading structures, allowances, promotion, probation, staff appraisal and so on. Under the present arrangements, the DFP has the responsibility for determining those matters for the entirety of 30,000 Northern Ireland civil servants. In the existing legal framework, the Department of Finance and Personnel has been able to give Departments and agencies some discretion in respect of day-to-day personnel management arrangements. The DFP must continue to exercise general management and control. In the view of the Government, it is not in the interests of good management and efficiency that that constraint should exist.
I want to make it clear, however, that the order has nothing to do with privatisation, market testing or the removal of functions from the public sector, which I know is a concern raised by some Opposition Members when the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill was being debated. It concerns itself only with the management of the Northern Ireland civil service.
Nor does the order introduce any new powers ; rather, it facilitates a redistribution of existing powers. Under the Civil Service (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, the Department of Finance and Personnel is responsible for the general management and control of the Northern Ireland civil service. The proposed legislation will allow powers that are currently discharged centrally to be exercised by managers in Departments and agencies, but within a proper framework of accountability. Recipients of delegations will be made clearly responsible for the exercise of a function, but the ultimate accountability of a Minister to Parliament remains intact.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : I thank the Minister for giving way on the question of delegations and accountability. During the passage of the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill, the Government gave an important undertaking that they would find a procedure by which an annual report would be made to the House to ensure that the people and, indeed, hon. Members would know what had been delegated and when, and that that accountability could take place.
I should be grateful if the Minister--I do not require an immediate answer ; he may deal with it later--could give a similar undertaking that a mechanism will be found,
Column 982whether by way of written answer, statement or whatever, to enable us to know what delegations have taken place, so that an account of these matters may be kept.
Mr. Ancram : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that that position was set out when the original Bill was passing through the House. Obviously, in general terms, it is our intention to try to reflect the same position with regard to Northern Ireland. I shall check whether any detailed arrangements have been made in that regard, and I will either answer the question towards the end of this debate or write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter. The delegation of responsibility, which this order permits, will assist the Government's aim of bringing about improved service and better value for money for the citizen through better management of the public service. Even allowing for the difference in scale between the Northern Ireland civil service and its counterpart in Great Britain, it makes no sense to manage such a diverse organisation, engaged in almost the whole range of government, as though it were a single business.
Next steps agencies, which employ almost 9,000 staff in Northern Ireland, are expected to meet clear objectives and targets within given budgets. To insist upon a regime of central management and control where this would have an inhibiting effect is contrary to the desire to achieve the objectives of the organisation concerned to the quality of outputs required. The Northern Ireland civil service takes more than £700 million of taxpayers' money a year in running costs. We must be free to ensure that such a large sum can be used to best effect.
I should perhaps say something about why legislation is needed to achieve the purpose of better management of public services. The Northern Ireland civil service is separate from the home civil service in Great Britain and, until direct rule, it operated under the direction and control of local political institutions. As with the home civil service, the management of the Northern Ireland civil service is a matter within the scope of the royal prerogative. The power to determine the terms and conditions of civil servants is delegated by the Crown to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and is exercisable through the Department of Finance and Personnel. The functions now exercised by that Department have been the subject of orders transferring them in 1975 and 1982 ; and that parliamentary intervention means that further primary legislation is needed to allow the Department of Finance and Personnel to delegate its management responsibilities to Departments and agencies. Issues raised by the order were extensively debated during the course of the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill some 18 months ago. I think that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was involved in some of those discussions, and he will appreciate that many of these issues were aired at that time. Similar points to many of those raised then have arisen during the consultation process on this order as well : for instance, concerns about accountability, and fragmentation of the civil service.
Although no changes have been made to the substance of the proposed legislation, all the issues brought forward were examined very carefully and responded to in detail. Where a delegation is being taken to introduce changes more suited to the business objectives of a Department or
Column 983agency, there will be consultation in the usual way with the staff concerned and their representatives, just as discussions have already taken place with the civil service trade unions about procedures for consultation on delegations. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that those discussions have proceeded satisfactorily. Fears were also expressed that the high standard of conduct and impartiality of Northern Ireland civil servants, and the service's record in promoting equality of opportunity, might be damaged by an absence of central control. On the contrary ; encouraging ownership of responsibility should enhance the strong sense of duty which characterises our civil service in Northern Ireland, and to which I pay a tribute. I can also assure the House that the fundamentals of Government policy in areas such as equality of opportunity will remain inviolate, and essential standards of conduct will, of course, continue to be the subject of whatever central rules are necessary to safeguard them.
I turn briefly to the main provisions of the order. I hope to demonstrate to the House that this is a limited piece of legislation. It enables the Department of Finance and Personnel to make delegations, but does not compel it to do so. Each Department and agency will decide whether having responsibility for management decisions would help to improve its organisational efficiency and performance, so there is no coercion about it.
Article 3 limits delegations to functions related to the personnel management of the Northern Ireland civil service, and permits delegation of those functions only to servants of the Crown. That means that the order cannot be used to transfer management functions outside the public service, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland remains fully accountable for those functions.
The Department of Finance and Personnel remains the legal holder of the powers. While the intention is to give managers in Departments and agencies appropriate freedoms, the Department may attach any conditions it considers necessary to a delegation. Furthermore--this is important--it may withdraw a delegation at any time.
There are some civil servants who work in bodies which were created by statute--for example, the Public Record Office and the Land Registry. Their management is not determined by the civil service order because the statute creating the bodies specifies arrangements for the appointment and management of their staff. Typically, the Department of Finance and Personnel is required to approve their terms and conditions of service. Article 4 allows the Department to relinquish central control of the management of those bodies, just as it may do in the case of the rest of the Northern Ireland civil service under Article 3.
The Northern Ireland citizens' charter pledged to improve the standard of service to the public. I know from my own experience that Northern Ireland Departments and agencies are determined to live up to that pledge. This order enables them to have access to management flexibilities to help to achieve that goal, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) : On behalf of the Opposition, I wish to oppose the order. As the Minister explained, the main provision in the order allows the Department of Finance and Personnel to
Column 984delegate any management function of the Northern Ireland civil service to any servant of the Crown ; that is, it enables the Northern Ireland civil service to be dismembered, to reduce pay and conditions and, sadly, to undermine the morale of the civil servants. In common language, what we are looking at is dismemberment of the civil service in Northern Ireland. The implications of the order reach across all civil service Departments and are likely to have adverse effects on standards, accountability and impartiality. The Government are planning to effect major changes to the structure and workings of the Northern Ireland civil service through an enabling order which pays scant regard to the views of the civil servants themselves and elected Members of this House. Article 3 of the order enables the Department of Finance and Personnel to create a service which is so disparate as to render the concept of a Northern Ireland civil service meaningless.
The provisions in the order highlight the failure of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to look at the measures in the unique context of Northern Ireland. Again, in their lust after legislation which has already been passed and applied to Great Britain, Ministers have failed to recognise that the Northern Ireland civil service is a separate service under the Crown, and the unfortunate absence of local democratic oversight, which we have debated this afternoon, adds a distinct dimension to the work of the civil servants in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland civil service is comparatively small and, at approximately 25,000 people, is only the size of a small Government Department in Britain. Yet the Government have gone for complete overkill in trying to treat what amounts to one Government Department in the same way as they have treated the whole of the British civil service.
It is nonsense, and wasteful of taxpayers' resources, to insist that each Department and agency--no matter how small--must have the right to attempt to set up, manage and police its own pay and grading structures, conditions of employment, individual systems for recruiting staff and the personnel and management of staff. Ministers have referred to "unnecessary central control", but managers in the Northern Ireland civil service already enjoy considerable freedom, and there is no evidence that they are clamouring for more flexibility.
If each Department within the Northern Ireland civil service is allowed to go its own separate way in relation to recruitment and promotion of staff and, in consequence, in pay and conditions of employment, the unity of the Northern Ireland civil service could be fundamentally undermined.
The Minister failed to tell the House if the present high standards of impartiality within the Northern Ireland civil service will be guaranteed. Surely numerous delegated bodies operating as arms of the civil service also implies a wide variance in standards. It is vital that the Northern Ireland civil service maintains its reputation for impartiality.
In a divided society, it is essential that the institutions of Government set the highest standards in terms of equality of opportunity in employment and in the provision of service. The Northern Ireland civil service has in recent years provided a model for fair employment provisions and affirmative action programmes. It is only right that the
Column 985instruments of government set an example in the implementation of provisions within the Fair Employment Act and the sex discrimination order.
If the order is implemented, such a co-ordinated and centralised approach to equal opportunities would, we believe, be lost. It is generally accepted that, unfortunately, the political situation in Northern Ireland often spills over into the workplace. Personnel management in Northern Ireland is therefore extremely complex and requires a high degree of expertise, both from managers and trade union representatives of employees.
The anti-discrimination legislation to deal with the problem is unique to Northern Ireland. Fair employment practices in Northern Ireland are of national and international political interest, and we are extremely concerned that, by exercising the powers under article 3 of the order, the Department of Finance and Personnel could dissipate the existing expertise to an unacceptable level. It will be difficult to maintain the current standards under a regime of delegation, because the intention is to keep to a minimum the monitoring at the centre of the Northern Ireland civil service. The Northern Ireland civil service has been actively promoting greater equality of opportunity. However, the momentum for that derives from the fact that it has been driven from the centre. Over the years, the Northern Ireland civil service has developed high standards of conduct, but they will be eroded if common ideals are no longer prescribed by the Department of Finance and Personnel. Complaints against members of the civil service for breaches of confidence, conflicts of interest and corruption have been minimal. However, that record has been achieved by the reinforcement at the centre of the need for the highest standards. If that force were removed, there is a danger that standards would be relaxed. The order could potentially severely damage the equity principle on which the civil service is based. That would further damage the morale of civil servants, with potentially harmful effects to the services which they currently deliver. Creating a culture of insecurity and equity in relation to terms and conditions of employment in the Northern Ireland civil service is not likely to make the organisation function more effectively. Fear, greed, resentment and jealousy do not lead to better performance. Rather, they place the self-advancement and survival of the individual above the sense of public service.
In a community such as Northern Ireland, that would be a tragedy. Already there is resentment within the Northern Ireland civil service, and some feel that they have been treated partially compared with colleagues. There are clear signs that that attitude is on the increase, fostered by performance-related pay schemes, where perceived identical levels of performance have been rewarded differently in different Departments.
If the order is implemented, the chief executives of the agencies which are to be hived off will be able to introduce new terms and conditions. That would inevitably add to the sense of resentment which is already growing as new layers of pay differentials are imposed.
We are concerned that article 3 of the order allows functions to be delegated to any servant of the Crown. That may remove the function concerned from immediate
Column 986parliamentary scrutiny. The power which the order grants to delegate management functions represents a dramatic erosion of ministerial accountability to Parliament.
The Minister of State said that the Secretary of State would of course be responsible, but we have seen what has happened in Departments and agencies after delegation. A matter goes to an agency manager who writes a letter which then appears in the Official Report. Ministers are gradually shouldering off their specific responsibilities for the day-to-day running of Departments. If the order is implemented, there will be no clear line of accountability between Northern Ireland agencies and Departments and Parliament. The order would therefore continue the trend of diminishing direct parliamentary accountability.
The term "servant of the Crown" is not defined anywhere in legislation. Therefore, depending on how the Government decide to interpret that, the order could potentially enable Ministers to delegate functions to persons who are not normally regarded as civil servants. They would not be subject to democratic accountability and would have no obligation to Parliament. For example, a private company which was given a service could say that the prime responsibility of the people running that company was to the shareholders, not to Parliament or the Secretary of State. A person to whom a function is delegated can further delegate the function to another servant of the Crown. In that way, the order allows the exercise of functions to become increasingly remote from the central apparatus of accountability.
The circumstances in which the civil service operates in Northern Ireland are not same as those in Britain. The Government have made no attempt to recognise the differences, and have merely replicated the British legislation for Northern Ireland. In a divided society, it is vital that the civil service is seen to be impartial and committed to the principles of neutrality and equality.
At present, the Northern Ireland civil service is seen as being an employer at the forefront of the movement to ensure fair employment and equality of opportunity. That position will be jeopardised by the implementation of the order and, for those reasons, we shall oppose it.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : The order simply mirrors and applies the provisions of the Civil Service (Management Functions) Act 1992 to Northern Ireland, and that has been made perfectly clear by the previous two speakers. It is, of course, a technical order but, like most apparently innocent technical orders, it has consequences downstream which I think deserve rather more careful examination than would normally be given.
I begin by asking the Minister the reasons for the various textual changes which have been made between the proposal for the draft order and its publication. For instance, article 2(2) of the order has simply disappeared, and articles 3 and 4(4) seem to have been completely rewritten. I am curious as to the technical reasons for the changes. Do they make any real changes to the meaning of the order, or is it simply a neater and clearer way of expressing the same meaning as was in the original draft ? Do they arise because of the passing of the legislation for Great Britain ? We are entitled to a full explanation of why the changes have been made.
Column 987We understand that the structure of the civil service in Northern Ireland is not quite the same as it is in Great Britain, in that there are no heads of Department, as the term is understood over here, in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the "heads of Department" were laid down as the members of the 1973 Northern Ireland executive, and they were to be politicians. There are now no such persons in Northern Ireland, although I notice that the term "head of a Department" is used in the last sentence of the order. Perhaps the Government are keeping on a little bit of insurance or at least paying the insurance premiums just in case we have an Executive in Northern Ireland in the future.
Regardless of that, however, I must express my reservations about the transfer of management functions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) did during the debate on the Civil Service (Management Functions) Act 1992, which applies to the rest of the United Kingdom. That transfer, like all transfers of power to agencies and quangos, will create even greater problems for hon. Members, because they will then express their concerns to the Ministers who are ultimately responsible without any hope of having an effect.
We have seen from similar transfers that Ministers tend to shrug off various obligations, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, so that their own ultimate responsibility is diminished. Everything is handled at arm's length. Within the United Kingdom context of government, that is wrong. The buck should stop on the Minister's desk, but he is quietly moving it to someone else's. I do not believe that that is acceptable.
We need a system of government and administration which allows hon. Members to call Ministers to account, but once that is made more difficult, the quality of the services under examination will eventually fall.
Ministers are giving powers away to others, often to their own creatures. They can then say, "Look, my hands are clean, but I will ask the person I have appointed to write to the hon. Member." In other words, Ministers will simply dodge the responsibilities that they took on when they stood before the electorate and said, "Vote for me. I am capable of doing all these wonderful things. I am capable of actually running a Department of Government. I am capable of answering questions. The buck does stop on my desk and I will answer for it." I am sorry to note that the Minister of State is going along with that principle. Perhaps he would like to shuffle off some of his responsibilities elsewhere.
The debate in the other place on the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill took place on 7 July 1992, just two years ago. That is the normal time it takes before Northern Ireland catches up with the rest of Great Britain, unlike the happy position that we once enjoyed of leading the rest of the state. Lord Howe said that the transfer of functions included all aspects of the determination of pay and other conditions of service in the civil service. He said that the Bill was intended to cover those functions.
The proposed changes are therefore substantial and I fear that the consequences will not be altogether happy. I fear that the downstream consequences will go much further than the Government are prepared to admit.
The Government are, once again, introducing legislation and putting changes into effect that may be used as a rod to beat their own back should they cross to the Opposition Benches. They seem to forget that they will not always be in office. The changes will lead to the delegation
Column 988of functions, not of civil servants, and they will alter dramatically how Northern Ireland is governed and administered. When the Minister replies to the debate, perhaps he can tell us whether he has discussed that change in the governance of Northern Ireland with his counterparts in the Irish Republic. Were there any discussions with Dublin ? If not, have the Irish Government expressed any annoyance at being left out of the reckoning in this matter ? Or perhaps the Government are finally beginning to reverse the disastrous decisions that they accepted in 1985. Are they really now saying, "Yes, we will govern Northern Ireland as we desire. That is the way it is because that is the way in which the United Kingdom is run." I hope that there was no agreement with Dublin, and I hope that the Government have been their own man in this matter.
I fear that the changes will lead to the break-up of the Northern Ireland civil service. I also believe that they will place the high standards of confidentiality in Northern Ireland in jeopardy. There is no place in the kingdom where such strict confidentiality about individuals is more needed than in Northern Ireland, with all the terrorist dangers that surround many people, especially servants of the Crown. Their names float around various sections of the civil service and the dangers accruing to those individuals, should there be a leak of information, are quite appalling.
Another problem is the possibility of regionalisation of pay, conditions and grading. That matter should concern everyone. A considerable number of United Kingdom civil servants as well as Northern Irish ones work in the Province. Many functions that are carried out there apply throughout the United Kingdom. Various aspects of civil service and Government work have been centralised in various places and we have been fortunate that some centralised services have been moved to the Province. That is welcome because a large part of the economy of Northern Ireland depends on the money paid in salaries and other expenses to those civil servants. If wages were forced down in the interests of greater competition, the entire economy of the Province would suffer. None of us wants to see that. We want national standards to prevail across the board.
Another danger is that the pressure and interference exerted by the Fair Employment Commission will increase with regard to recruitment in Northern Ireland. The most recent report from the Fair Employment Commission on the civil service of Northern Ireland noted that it employed considerably more Roman Catholics than their number within the general population required. It held that that was fair, so we can expect further application of such fairness to the detriment of many other people in Northern Ireland. I expect that the Government will live to rue the day that they fragmented the Northern Ireland civil service and broke up its various sections, because that will allow all the evils that I have detailed to flourish.
Every time responsibility is shuffled off Parliament is denied an opportunity for debate. I much regret that step. It will allow changes to be concealed unless the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann is acted on. I hope that the Minister will give a favourable reply, because at least we would then know what fool decisions had been made, even if we are not allowed to discuss them beforehand.
The number of 25,000 civil servants has been bandied about, but I checked and the number listed as employees of
Column 989the Northern Ireland civil service is larger than that--it has full-time equivalents of 27,661. That must be set against the total home civil service number of 546,339. In national terms, we are talking about a small number of people. There is no reason why Ministers should not be able to exercise their functions under the present system, which has worked well. I regret that the Government have clearly never heard of the advice, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," never mind tried to act on it. If there is something wrong, we have not been told. If there is nothing wrong, why fix it ? As far as we are aware, the current system works well. It is widely accepted as fair and reasonable. It is being unnecessarily upset and ruptured simply because some folk seem to be intent on endless change. They want to give the impression of renewal and advance, but, at the end of the day, we will probably wind up in a rather worse state than that in which we started.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : I do not intend to speak at length on this subject, although I am tempted to do so because, due to the mismanagement of the House's proceedings by the business managers and usual channels, we have 58 minutes left to debate it. With all due respect to the Northern Ireland civil service, the previous debate was much more important, but it had to be truncated without the subject being properly discussed.
The Minister will be also be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go into matters of substance, although I am tempted to do so because I served on the Committee that dealt with the Civil Service (Management Functions) Bill when it went through the House a couple of years ago. The substance of the matter is tangled and involved, so I shall simply ask the Minister a few questions on procedural aspects.
The order began as a purely mechanical operation to extend the 1992 Act to Northern Ireland. It was to be a negative resolution order, which would not have been debated in the House. Two years have elapsed since then. I have complained before about the Northern Ireland Office's inefficiency in handling Order in Council procedures and the fact that it cannot even run its squalid direct rule system effectively. Although the reason for delay in this case may be other than the usual inefficiency of the Northern Ireland Office, will the Minister spell out the factors that have caused a two-year delay ? That question touches on points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who drew attention to differences between the proposal for the draft order and the draft order now before the House. I presume that the proposal for a draft order was based on the 1992 Act. The order before us has evidently been changed. Given that it started as a parity measure extending to Northern Ireland legislation that operates in England and Wales and that it was to go through by negative resolution without debate, will the Minister say not only what those changes are and why they have been made, but whether the changes now reverse parity in England and Wales ? Having adjusted the order to meet circumstances in Northern Ireland, should not we re-examine the 1992 Act ?
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Mr. Ancram : The whole House will have welcomed this constructive and interesting, if short, debate. As much as I enjoy listening to speeches by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I am glad that he did not succumb to the temptation to interest the House for a lengthy period. I speak for the whole House in saying that I listened to his brief, succinct remarks with interest.
A number of points have been raised. At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Upper Bann asked me about the undertaking to report to Parliament, which has been given in relation to the legislation that was passed some time ago. I told him that I understood that that position would be reflected as regards Northern Ireland, and that is correct. A report will be provided to Parliament periodically on the delegations made by the Department of Finance and Personnel, but the precise content of the report is yet to be decided. It is likely to follow the format of the written answer on delegations in the home civil service printed in the Official Report in January this year, which provided details of the nature of the delegations granted, the recipients and the main conditions attached to the delegations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels reassured that that safeguard will be built in. I do not wish to confirm the report's precise content. Once it is known, I shall arrange for a letter to be sent to the hon. Gentleman explaining that, if he so wishes.
The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) raised the important matter of accountability, particularly parliamentary accountability, for management of the Northern Ireland civil service under the order. Like that of the home civil service, management of the Northern Ireland civil service is within the royal prerogative, but nothing in the order affects Parliament's right to raise questions about how it is managed. The order does not affect the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland's direct accountability to Parliament for the general management and control of the Northern Ireland civil service. That accountability remains the same. In addition, as I have just said, there will be an annual report. Together, those will provide a sufficient safeguard.
Both hon. Members asked about the order's effect on equal opportunities and fair employment. Departments and agencies operate within the Northern Ireland civil service policy statement on equality of opportunity, which is underpinned by equal opportunity and fair employment legislation. Obviously, Departments and agencies to which delegations are granted must comply with the law. They will be expected to operate in a manner, and retain in place policies and procedures, reflecting the well established priority of fair participation in employment in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North also asked about the term "servant of the Crown". The term is limited to those in Crown service and cannot apply to anyone outside the public service. In that respect, accountability to Parliament for all delegations will remain with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked about changes between the proposed draft and the draft order currently before the House. The amendments to the original order were not substantive and did not alter the legislation's intent. Two of the changes clarified the terms of the proposal published in August 1993 and the
Column 991amendment to article 3(1) reflected the constitutional position in respect of the management of the Northern Ireland civil service, and brought the wording of the order closer to the terminology in the Letters Patent and Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. Paragraph 4(4) of the proposal for a draft order was found unnecessary because there were no statutory bodies where the approval of two Departments was required to exercise a power relating to the management of staff. That is why the changes were made.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East also asked whether officials in the Republic of Ireland had been consulted. The proposal for a draft order was sent to a number of organisations. Several of them have a general interest in the proposed legislation and some were party leaders, who were invited to comment. In addition, notification of the proposal's publication was placed in the Belfast Gazette . Two comments were received from trade union representatives on the central Whitley council. There was no such consultation with the Republic of Ireland.
Finally, the hon. Member for Upper Bann asked why the order had taken so long. He will recall that, when the original legislation was going through, he spoke out against the negative resolution procedure because the affirmative procedure would allow greater consultation and for comments to be made and taken into account. His comments were listened to on this occasion and the procedure which we are pursuing today is in accordance with what he requested. The effect is that a certain amount of time is taken up in the consultation process. This useful debate has covered a number of points. Ultimately, some will always believe that there is a hidden agenda, but in this case there is none. The draft order will simply enable delegation by the DFP of its management and control responsibilities. It must be prudent in taking such powers to allow appropriate management action to be taken.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked why we should fix something if it was not broken. I have heard that adage before. If we took that as our guiding principle in life, many improvements that have been made would not have come about because the measures which they replaced were not broken. I commend the order to the House. Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 126, Noes 37.
Division No. 278] [6.18 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)