Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fourth Special Report


The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—


1. In January, we produced a report on our work in Session 1999-2000.[2] This was our contribution to the broader exercise carried out in response to the recommendation of the Liaison Committee in its First Report of Session 1999-2000[3] that all Select Committees should make an annual report, which would, inter alia, review progress on outstanding recommendations. The Secretary of State has now written to the Chairman in response to our Report, and the text of his letter is reproduced in Appendix 1. We are grateful to the Secretary of State for his helpful response and give further consideration below to some of the points he has made.

2. In view of the imminent Dissolution of this Parliament we are also making a brief report on some aspects of our work in the current Session. We have also included, at Appendix 2, a complete list of our Reports in this Parliament.

3. We have completed our inquiries, started in the last Session of Parliament, into the Parades Commission[4] and into relocation following paramilitary intimidation.[5] We have also completed a short follow-up to our 1998 Report[6] into the Northern Ireland Prison Service,[7] a report on legal aid in Northern Ireland, which concentrates on the Government's proposals for reform,[8] and a report[9] on a number of financial matters, including the progress of the Northern Ireland Office in introducing resource accounting and budgeting.

4. Our report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland,[10] published in March 1998, was debated in Westminster Hall on 29 March 2001.[11] This debate proved to be very timely as the Government had published a White Paper[12] a couple of weeks beforehand. In the debate, the Minister, for the first time, gave a clear commitment to a timescale for introducing those elements of the proposed reforms which are dependent on the enactment of primary legislation. He did so in the following terms:[13]

"It is hoped ... that the legislative measures, particularly those that we put forward in the White Paper, will be in place for the Assembly election scheduled for May 2003. I personally hope that we will be able to achieve that. Had all the practical difficulties been overcome, I should have liked to have done something more before the next general election, but it simply was not practicable."

5. In view of the concerns that we and others have expressed about the slow rate of progress in tackling the problems of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland, we welcome the assurance from the Minister which we have reproduced in the previous paragraph.

6. In our previous Report, we commented[14] on the operation of the new procedure under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for legislation by Order in Council. We recommended the introduction of procedural changes in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee so that, when proposals for Orders were debated there, there could be a Ministerial statement, followed by questions and answers, before the proposal itself was debated.

7. There have so far been two proposals for draft Orders.[15] In each case we have formally resolved that the proposal should be further considered by the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, reflecting our earlier recommendation[16] that there should be a presumption that each such proposal should be so considered. The debates took place on the morning and afternoon of 22 March 2001 and a maximum period of two hours was allotted to each.[17] The first debate lasted for 1 hour 45 minutes (Life Sentences Order) and the second for 54 minutes (Financial Investigations Order). In each case, and at our suggestion, the Government made available copies of the reports of the relevant ad hoc committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly.[18] These committees had reported on the proposals and published with their reports the Minutes of Evidence they had taken and written submissions they had received.

8. We welcome the Government's acceptance of our proposals both that there should be a presumption that proposals for draft Orders in Council under the section 85 procedure should be considered by the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and that the proceedings should include an opportunity for questions and answers, as well as debate. We note that the Government propose to review the situation after a couple of meetings to ensure that the new procedure is not causing any problems; we recommend that our successors are consulted before any changes are made.

9. We recommend that, as a matter of course, where the Northern Ireland Assembly has produced a report on such a proposal, that report should be made available to the Grand Committee by the Government through the Vote Office and that it should be formally 'tagged' on the Order of Business for the relevant sitting of the Grand Committee. Not only will this ensure that a valuable source of information is available to those taking part in the debate, it will also provide a clear demonstration of the mutual interest of the House and the Assembly in this legislative process. We also take the opportunity to reiterate that the section 85 procedure gives the House a long-sought opportunity to exercise greater influence over the content of important Northern Ireland legislation enacted by Order in Council. We would encourage Members to take full advantage of this opportunity.

10. In our previous Report, we also noted[19] that the Government intended to publish a draft bill on the implementation of the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Review.[20] A statement to this effect had been included in the Queen's Speech. At the time of that Report, the draft bill was expected to be published in the late spring. It has recently become clear[21] that this timetable has slipped somewhat: detailed preparation of the legislation and Implementation Plan is "well advanced" and these documents will be published "when the necessary remaining work has been completed".

11. In the light of the developing practice for draft legislation routinely to be reported on by select committees, we might have expected to have examined these important legislative proposals. We recommend that the Government provide an adequate opportunity for the draft legislation arising from the Criminal Justice Review to be scrutinised thoroughly, either by our successors or by another Select Committee specially constituted for this purpose, before the terms of the Bill itself are finalised.

12. We commented[22] in our previous Report on the importance we have attached to developing relations with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. In addition to the measures referred to earlier, we have been pleased to receive recently the first responses of the Northern Ireland Executive to Reports relating mainly to transferred matters.[23] In both cases, these relate to inquiries begun at a time when the Secretary of State had responsibility for the matters under examination, but which were the responsibility of the Executive by the time we reported. We welcome the Executive's willingness to respond to these Reports, and express the hope that it will continue this practice in cases where elements in our reports, and those of our successors, impinge on matters falling within its responsibilities.

2  First Special Report, HC 148. Back

3  Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, HC 300, para.55. Back

4  Second Report, HC 120. Back

5  Third Report, HC 59. Back

6  Fourth Report, Session 1997-98 (HC 716). Back

7  First Report, HC 263. Back

8  Fourth Report, HC 444. Back

9  Fifth Report, HC 458. Back

10  Second Report, Session 1997-98 (HC 316). Back

11  0Official Report, 29 March 2001, Vol.365, Cols. 325WH - 350WH. Back

12  Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland, Cm. 5080. Back

13  Official Report, 29 March 2001, Vol. 365, Col.345WH. Back

14  HC 148, paras. 27 and 28. Back

15  The proposal for a draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 and the proposal for a draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001. Back

16  HC 148, para.28. Back

17  Order of the House of 14 March 2001. Back

18  NIA 38/00 (Financial Investigations Order); AD HOC 3/00 (Life Sentences Order). Back

19  HC 148, para. 26. Back

20  Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland, March 2000. Back

21  Official Report, 26 April 2001, Vol. 367, Col. 342W. Back

22  HC 148, para 31. Back

23  See the Third Special Report, HC 522 . Back

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