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Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Can the hon. Gentleman define what constitutes a key decision?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, that is part of the agreement. A key decision will be defined by a substantial minority of Members in the Assembly, triggering the mechanism by which the assembly will examine major decisions such as the election of the Presiding Officer and the Budget. The agreement outlines in some detail a facility, which is also in the major constitutional Bill, that refers precisely to the way in which those key decisions are defined.

The Bill provides for a shadow assembly that will have to make key appointments, draw up Standing Orders and deal with the smooth transfer of power to the new institutions. The shadow Minister will be consulted by my right hon. Friend and my other ministerial colleagues in the next few months.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The Minister has now turned to the shadow assembly. I am sure that he knows that the Bill does not explain how long that assembly will exist and the circumstances in which it will cease to exist. Can the hon. Gentleman inform the House whether the assembly's existence is time limited and what is the mechanism for bringing it to an end?

Mr. Murphy: The assembly, in terms of membership, will be the same when it has transferred to it the major functions of the Northern Ireland Departments that are now in the hands of my right hon. Friend and other Northern Ireland Ministers. The functions of the assembly will change as a result of the major constitutional Bill that the House must consider in some months. This Bill provides for the elections to the assembly and the functions and preparatory work for establishing the assembly.

Mr. Hogg: As I understand it, the Minister is saying that this body, set up initially as a shadow assembly, will become a full assembly in due course. That means that we must focus on the term of election of individual Members. Does the Minister expect that Members elected to the shadow assembly will become Members of the full assembly? Does he expect that there will be an election in the fairly near future when the shadow assembly will become the full assembly?

Mr. Murphy: No. There is precedent in our system of government to allow for that. Hon. Members may recall what happened--it happened to me 20-odd years ago--when local government in England and Wales was reorganised in 1973. Those who were elected served on shadow local authorities for one year and then assumed the full functions on 1 April 1974. Precisely the same thing will occur in this instance. A four-year term is envisaged in the agreement, but the major constitutional Bill will firm up those provisions.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): The agreement appears to provide that one function of the shadow

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assembly will be to agree the terms and functions of the north-south ministerial council and the extent of the powers and remit of the cross-border implementing bodies. Is there a time limit within which the shadow assembly must make those decisions, bearing in mind that the shadow assembly will fall if it fails to do so?

Mr. Murphy: The limit is imposed on the basis of when the constitutional Bill is enacted by the House of Commons. That will put into legislation the exact time when the functions of the Northern Ireland Departments will be handed over to the new assembly. At that point, the assembly will cease to be a shadow body and the new assembly will take over.

As to the north-south situation, it was a matter of great discussion and negotiation in the last few weeks of the talks that it was important that Members elected to the Northern Ireland assembly should play a major role in determining the sorts of implementation bodies that would result from a north-south ministerial council. It would not be right for Ministers of this Government, with our Irish counterparts, to deal solely with those matters. It is a matter for those who will be elected in Northern Ireland on 25 June, in consultation with my right hon. Friend and other colleagues.

Mr. McCartney: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. With respect, he has not answered my question. The full constitutional Bill that transfers those powers will do so only if the shadow assembly has fulfilled the criteria that will allow a full assembly to come into being--it must agree the terms and functions of the north-south ministerial council and the terms and remit of the implementing bodies. Is there any time limit on the shadow assembly doing so? Bearing in mind the fact that the north-south ministerial council and the assembly are interdependent, the assembly cannot come into being until the shadow assembly takes that decision. When will the shadow assembly take the decision that will allow for the full constitutional Bill to transfer power?

Mr. Murphy: The deadline is set out in strand 2 of the agreement, which states that the implementation body should be agreed by the end of October. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House today that if he felt that events were not progressing properly on the agreement, the Government will examine the matter in six months' time. That is the date that the agreement envisages. I hope that that helps the hon. and learned Gentleman.

The shadow executive committee will meet the Irish Government in the shadow north-south ministerial council and identify about six implementation bodies, which will be set up by the time the new institutions go live.

The Bill is designed to permit the first election to the new assembly and for the assembly then to begin in the roles envisaged for it in its shadow phase. The major Bill, which we shall introduce later this year, will provide for the agreement as a whole and will replace this Bill's provisions for the conduct of the assembly and regulate future elections. This Bill deals only with the immediate future, as I explained earlier.

Clause 1 sets up the new assembly and states its purpose in the shadow phase. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can refer specific matters to the

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assembly--particularly those arising from the agreement. She might refer matters such as the assembly's final Standing Orders and preparations for the British-Irish council and for north-south activity. The parties in the assembly may also agree a work plan on the key issues. The Government will consult as far as possible before exercising the powers under the Bill, and we shall always seek to act in the spirit of the agreement. The schedule makes further provision for the assembly to get off to an effective start.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The Bill does not require the Presiding Officer to be a Member of the Assembly, but I understand that part of the agreement was that that should be the case. I refer hon. Members to the Hansard of the Northern Ireland assembly created in 1973, where they will see that the best part of a day was spent taking points of order regarding the election of the Presiding Officer. On that occasion, the Secretary of State had designated that the Clerk of the assembly should be the Presiding Officer until that election. If the Secretary of State is to make the appointment and it has to be a Member of the Assembly, I believe that the role should be clear from the beginning. Much time and energy was lost on that point on a previous occasion. Notwithstanding what was intimated to me during the last Division, I believe that there is a case for allowing the initial sittings of the assembly to be presided over by a distinguished former Speaker of the House of Commons or the Canadian or Australian Parliaments to ensure that the assembly is well run. It should not founder over issues regarding new Members who are probably not familiar with Westminster practice or with "Erskine May" procedure.

Mr. Murphy: That prejudges who will be elected to the assembly. I have not the slightest doubt that men and women of considerable ability will be elected to it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consult the parties before she makes her appointment. It is implicit in the agreement, and I am sure in the legislation as well, that that person will have to be elected to the assembly.

The Secretary of State will also provide a first set of Standing Orders to give a framework so that business can start reflecting those aspects in the agreement relevant to the shadow phase.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan): I am sorry to be pedantic, as my hon. Friend may think, but as we are reaching the new millennium, there should not be much slack marking in the draftsmanship of the Bill.

Clause 1(2)(b) states that the Secretary of State may refer to the assembly

It is palpable that the Secretary of State is not a he, but a she. I do not know why we continue to use the male gender in the Bill, particularly when the draft statutory instrument states

    "therefore, in exercise of the power conferred on her",

referring to the Secretary of State--her, rather than him. I am sorry to be pedantic, but it bugs me that in the Bill we do not recognise the gender of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Murphy: I take the point. I noticed it myself when I looked at the Bill. While my hon. Friend spoke,

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I consulted the Secretary of State. In her inimitable way, she said that she was not unduly perturbed by the references.

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