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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The Minister will notice that I am temporarily in charge of our affairs, and it seems to me that we may be belated in our historical references. Was it not the white rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland" who had learned to believe six impossible things before breakfast? That seems to be exactly relevant to the situation in which the Committee finds itself at this hour.

Mr. Howarth: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is occupying the Front Bench or has stepped through the looking glass. In any event, he should consider looking at his own reflection rather than try to cast doubt on what we are doing.

6.30 am

Mr. William Ross: The Minister referred earlier to the Spanish civil war. It is a subject that I have not studied; perhaps he could recommend a good book.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. That can be done in the Tea Room, but certainly not here.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Member for East Londonderry is capable of finding his own reading material without my help.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and to his colleagues for drawing attention in the amendments to the fundamental difference between the Statutory Committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Committees in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. They will be aware that the Statutory

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Committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly are entirely different. In addition to the scrutiny role that the Committees of this House and other legislatures have, they have an important role in developing policy. They do that in partnership with Ministers, and that point is set out clearly in the Good Friday agreement and in section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

It would be right to accept in principle amendments Nos. 7 and 9 and to include within the offices of the Assembly which may not be held by the Irish Government the positions of Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Statutory Committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As drafted, the amendments apply only to the proposed new section 19A(1), covering the position in which a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly is nominated to serve as the Chairman or Deputy Chairman. To have the desired effect, the proposed section 19A(2), will also require amendment to cover the situation in which a serving Chairman or Deputy Chairman becomes a Minister in the Irish Government. The Government will therefore wish to table the necessary amendment when the Bill proceeds to another place, to cover the issues raised by the two amendments before us.

I do not think that it would be right to extend the Bill to add further to the list of offices that may not be held, hypothetically, by Irish Ministers. There is, however, a fundamental difference between holding ministerial office in the Northern Ireland Executive or serving as the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of an Assembly Committee and serving as the Presiding Officer or Deputy Presiding Officer of the Assembly. While Northern Ireland Ministers and Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Committees are appointed under the d'Hondt system, the Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer are elected by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which can therefore judge for itself whether any individual proposed for such an office is likely to be affected by a conflict of interest.

It is appropriate that the Assembly should have the freedom to make up its own mind, and amendment No. 21 would prevent that. Similarly, this House should have the freedom to select its own Speaker. Therefore, new clause 3 should be rejected. Amendments Nos. 14 and 18 should also be rejected. As I have said, Statutory Committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly are fundamentally different from those in other legislatures which do not have the same statutory role in the development of Government policy. It is not therefore necessary to prevent the Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Committees in the legislature of Ireland from serving as Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Mr. Forth: I am sure that we are all grateful to the Minister for taking the trouble in his courteous way to guide us in the debate at this relatively early stage. Having cleared the ground in our deliberations as a Committee, we are now starting to reach the meat of things. It is a relief to have got the preliminaries out of the way. I am delighted that we can now get down to the nitty-gritty-- I have been waiting for this moment for some time.

The Minister was, in fact, less helpful than he might think he was. He helpfully indicated that the Government were prepared to accept at least the principle of two or three of the amendments, for which I suppose we should all be grovellingly grateful.

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Mr. William Ross: We should never be grovellingly grateful to a Minister. We should be thankful for his good sense.

Mr. Forth: That is certainly a different way of looking at things. Typically, my hon. Friend is far more charitable than I feel inclined to be at this stage in the proceedings.

It is sad that the Minister resorted to the sort of argument that he has employed throughout our debates--one that is almost entirely false. I shall return to that matter later. First, I shall go carefully through the amendments and examine the different meaning and relevance of each one. The Minister acknowledged that they are all different by stating that he was sympathetic to some of them, but that he would reject others. That proved that, although the amendments are grouped, each contains principles and suggests approaches of which we should be separately aware.

The essence of clause 2 is that it makes an important distinction between those who hold political office, either elective or appointed, in the Republic of Ireland, and those who are, in their different ways, to participate in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. It is important that we have clear in our minds the lines of distinction that we wish to draw, and that we decide whether we are willing to contemplate those lines being blurred.

The thrust of much of our argument is that it is not only legitimate but essential that we maintain a clear distinction in our minds, in practice and in the Bill, between different nations, different sovereign states and different countries. It is of no consequence that those countries might share interests in the EU--that has no direct bearing on the Bill.

I do not believe that the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its various posts should be sufficient to persuade us that there should be a crossing of the boundaries that we have hitherto held to be important in distinguishing nations and their identity, and politicians and their responsibilities. We have touched on that issue in previous debates, albeit from a different angle. Now, we clearly see that the issue is whether someone who holds office in the Republic of Ireland should ever have the opportunity to hold further office, in a different capacity, in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Minister has correctly pointed out that some of the descriptions are slightly strange to us--for example, the posts of Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer. He helpfully told us that the roles of the Committees is different: Statutory Committees have both a scrutiny role and a policy development role--in partnership with Ministers, he added. Ministers of the current Government do not like to let too many sentences pass before slipping in the word "partnership". It gives them a feeling a security--it is a device to make Ministers feel that they are doing good things, that they are on-message and that everything will work out well. Partnership is a word they like to use as often as possible.

I suppose that it was innocent of the Minister on this occasion to tell us that the Statutory Committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly had not only the scrutiny role but the policy development role, in partnership with Ministers. He was at pains to say that. I have no objection to the word, but I think that it is usually fairly meaningless. The real test is whether the Committees work effectively and produce results.

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Surely the important point is that the role of the Statutory Committees in combining scrutiny and policy development makes them particularly vulnerable to infiltration by politicians from an altogether different country. We must be aware of that as we pick our way through the complexities of the amendments. Time and again, we must ask ourselves how far, or whether, we believe that it is or is not compatible for politicians from the Republic of Ireland--a separate, independent country--to have the opportunity to play any role in the new arrangements that are emerging and developing in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We have the Presiding Officer and his Deputy and the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Statutory Committees, who must be the subject of our considerations. On the other side of the coin, we must consider whether different sorts of people from the Republic of Ireland are, in their different ways, able to insert themselves into the political process in part of the United Kingdom. Amendment No. 14 refers--I must use the words because they are used in the amendment--to the

Amendment No. 18 refers to

    "a Chair or Vice Chair of a subject Committee."

I find those words difficult and distasteful, but I want to remain faithful to the amendments. I shall have a quiet word with those who wrote them later about using such ghastly forms of words. However, I suppose that we know more or less what we are talking about.

The issue is whether the Committee believes that it is reasonable to expect politicians holding either legislative or executive office to be doing so simultaneously in the Republic of Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a fairly straightforward question and I cannot understand why the Minister is unable to face it and accept the thrust of the argument.

If we want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly as a new and valid body to which people in Northern Ireland will look to reflect their new identity in the sort of world that we all want to see developing there, I have serious doubts about whether it will help the process if we allow, encourage or permit participation by political figures from a different country altogether. My argument is that it will distinctly hinder the process. In blurring these hitherto well-understood political distinctions between one country and another and their respective institutions, we are getting ourselves into some considerable dangers. The amendments are entitled to somewhat closer consideration than it would appear the Minister has been prepared to give them.

New clause 3 takes us again into different territory. It makes an explicit reference to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, and a different argument arises. The Minister touched on a part of it, and that was a reflection of an earlier debate. He said that surely the Members of a body--the Assembly or the House of Commons--should be free to choose or to elect anyone they saw fit to hold an office such as the Presiding Officer or the Speaker, for example. That is something on which we should reflect. It is a seductive argument and it plays to our vanity that we in this place should feel secure in being able to choose anyone for those offices.

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