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Welsh Affairs



16 Jul 2001 : Column 89


Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee

16 Jul 2001 : Column 90

16 Jul 2001 : Column 89

16 Jul 2001 : Column 91

Business of the House

7.42 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I wish to make a short business statement.

In the light of the votes, the Committee of Selection will now have to consider revised proposals for nominations to the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee. I hope that that will take place on Wednesday.

The House will be invited to consider those nominations on Thursday after the debate on the Police (Northern Ireland) Amendment Order 2001. In order for it do so, it will be necessary to agree to set aside that part of Standing Order No. 121 that requires notice of such motions to be given two sitting days before the motions are taken. It may also be necessary for the House to sit beyond 7 pm on Thursday. I hope that, in the circumstances, the House will agree to both those procedural changes so that we can respond to the will of the House and, at the same time, set up all the Select Committees before the summer recess.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): We shall, of course, be pleased to co-operate as much as possible to help the Government complete this business.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): We, too, of course, will co-operate. We recognise that the Leader of the House is trying to deal in the most sensible and expeditious way with the problem that his own side have created for him. We believe that it is important to get the Select Committees working as quickly as possible and we will do everything that we can to assist.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I welcome the statement by the Leader of the House. It is exactly the right reaction to the important events of this evening. However, he will not forget the significant concern shown across the House at the treatment of the minority parties. That has been indicated by votes that are well above our numbers.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to hon. Members for their responses. I have recognised the problem that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has identified and we shall look for ways of remedying it. I can only remedy some problems this week; I cannot promise to remedy them all.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Given the statement that the Leader of the House has just made, will he recommend to the Select Committees that they meet on Friday, so that they can choose their Chairmen?

Mr. Cook: When Select Committees choose to meet is a matter for them. It is, of course, open to them to meet on Friday or, indeed, on any subsequent day. Select Committees are not tied to meeting while the House is sitting. They could, if they chose to do so, meet next week.

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Northern Ireland

7.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

I am grateful for the opportunity presented by this debate to explain the background to the order and explain why the Government believe that it is necessary to introduce it at this time.

The order provides for the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is being laid at this time purely as a precautionary measure. It is essential in order to keep open the option of elections if the Assembly fails to elect new First and Deputy First Ministers within six weeks. However, that does not indicate the Government's intentions nor commit the Government or the parties to this particular course of action. It is too early yet to say what will happen. This is contingency planning: all our focus presently is on working with the Irish Government to put together a package of proposals to carry forward the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement following last week's intensive discussions.

I should like to say something about the content of the order which, of course, is understood to be compliant with the rights under the European convention on human rights. It is being made under the powers of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and replaces the original order, the New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1998, which provided for the original Assembly elections only.

The provisions of this order provide for the conduct of all future Assembly elections. The content of this instrument is broadly in line with that of the original order save for the necessary modifications as a consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Representation of the People Act 2000. One change that we have made is to the timetable for Assembly elections. All future elections will be based on a 25-day timetable rather than the 19-day one that was set for the 1998 elections. That makes sense as it brings Assembly elections in line with district council elections, which are also run on the proportional representation single transferable vote system.

As the original order provided only for the first Assembly elections, we planned to introduce these measures at some point prior to the programmed Assembly elections that are scheduled for 1 May 2003. However, as the House will know, the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) as First Minister became effective as of 1 July and the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 rendered that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) automatically ceased to hold office of Deputy First Minister at the same time.

The provisions of the 1998 Act state that, if the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers become vacant, the Assembly must hold an election to fill the vacancies within six weeks. However, should this process be unsuccessful, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to exercise his statutory duty and call fresh Assembly elections.

The order ensures that elections to the Assembly could be called if required. You, Mr. Speaker, will note that I used the word "if". The reason we are introducing the

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order at this time is to ensure that all the options laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are open to us. It is an option, and it does not force either the Government or the political parties of Northern Ireland into one particular course of action. It is certainly not our intention, in laying the order, to railroad them into holding Assembly elections or to assume that the search for a new First and Deputy First Minister will be unsuccessful.

We are continuing our efforts, with the parties and with the Irish Government, to find a way forward in implementing the Good Friday agreement and it is hoped that the process of the Assembly electing new First and Deputy First Ministers will prevail. However, it is our fundamental duty to ensure that the procedures are in place should early Assembly elections be required. For that reason, I commend the order to the House.

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