Fifth Standing Committee on
Tuesday 30 October 2001
[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Enactment) Order 2001
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Enactment) Order 2001.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, no matter how brief today's sitting may be. A draft of the order was laid before the House on 16 October.
The order is a tidying provision that corrects a legislative oversight in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It amends section 6 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, which lists the bodies from which nominees to the Committee of the Regions can be drawn, and adds the Northern Ireland Assembly to that list, thereby allowing Members of the Assembly to be nominated by the devolved Administration as members of the Committee of the Regions. The order brings Northern Ireland legislation in line with that for Scotland and Wales.
The mandate of the members and alternates of the Committee of the Regions expires at the end of the year. The Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for nominating members and alternates to the Foreign Secretary, and Northern Ireland is entitled to nominate two members and two alternates.
The order will increase the pool of nominees from which the Executive may draw, and that pool will include Members of the Assembly and district councillors. The order does not entitle Northern Ireland to increase the number of members or alternates that it nominates, nor will it affect the allocation of members in the rest of the UK. I hope that that allays any fears that hon. Members may have.
The Executive are currently settling on a selection process to choose Northern Ireland's members and alternates and are acutely aware that the process must be fair and open. Those nominated must represent the full range of interests of Northern Ireland society. The order will broaden the Executive's choice of nominees, thereby ensuring that the most appropriate are chosen.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, however long today's business detains us.
The Minister is correct to say that the order is a technical measure to remedy an oversight in the devolution legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I want to press the Minister on the balance of United Kingdom nominees to the Committee of the Regions. She said that Northern Ireland will still nominate two members, but that over-represents it by a factor of three, given its population relative to that of the rest of the UK. Will representation be brought in line with UK populations?
I hope that the Minister will comment on the fact that London and the south-east, which contain 40 per cent. of the UK's population, have four representatives on the Committee of the Regions, but should have about 10 for it to reflect the population balance in the UK.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) indicated dissent.
Mr. Blunt: I see that others in the Committee represent sectional interests and are anxious to preserve their right to enjoy the benefits of attending functions of the Committee of the Regions. The largesse and the gravy train that attend such functions are paid for by the European Union.
I notice that the Committee of the Regions does not do anything, but is entirely consultative. As it is difficult enough for the European Parliament to impress on the Council of Ministers the need to put yet another body in place following the 1991 Maastricht treaty, I wonder what benefit the United Kingdom may derive from membership of the Committee of the Regions, although that may go beyond matters under consideration in today's debate. Will the Minister address the issue of balance and say whether the Government intend to rebalance the Committee of the Regions to reflect more properly the population of the United Kingdom?
Lembit Ipik (Montgomeryshire): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood, and I only regret that our time together will be all too finite.
I welcome the order as a positive step towards Northern Ireland playing a fuller role in Europe. Europe has greatly helped Northern Ireland with investment and grants, so it is important that Northern Ireland and its politicians should have the voice to go with the significant role that Europe has played. That will be particularly important after 1 January with the introduction of the euro in the Republic of Ireland and everything that goes with that.
I beg to differ with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on the importance of the Committee of the Regions. It has responsibility for economic and social cohesion, as well as trans-European infrastructure networks such as health, education, culture, employment policy, social policy, the environment, vocational training and transport. In that context, the Minister is wise to introduce the order, because, despite being a significant beneficiary, Northern Ireland has been under-represented in the work of Europe and, by implication, the Committee of the Regions.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for Reigate's comments regarding the over-representation of Northern Ireland on the Committee of the Regions. I hope that his passionate conversion to proportional representation will be seen elsewhere as we debate other matters in the House.
Mr. Trimble: I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood.
I thought that this sitting would be brief, but the hon. Member for Reigate has introduced a note of controversy and I cannot resist the temptation to deal with that. As hon. Members have said, the order corrects an oversight in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I hasten to add that that is not the only mistake in that Act; there are many, owing to the desire of some draftsmen to change our agreement before we had even got round to implementing it. However, that is by the way.
The purpose of the Committee of the Regions is to represent regions. As the hon. Member for Reigate said, it is purely consultative. It is not an Executive body, nor is it part of the Administration, so it does not need to be representative of populations. If, however, one were to confer functions and powers on the Committee of the Regions, its composition would be of great concern as to whether it was genuinely representative. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Reigate is suggesting that we should confer functions on the Committee of the Regions.
Mr. Blunt: I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's endorsement that the south-east of England should not properly be considered a region. That is certainly the view of people in the south-east of England. However, if the south-east of England is not formally a political region and if those in the south-east of England do not wish it to be considered a region, surely the Government are imposing that on them with the various regional assemblies and other bodies. Surely they have the same rights of representation on those bodies as do people in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Trimble: The hon. Gentleman is getting into even more complex territory. My point is that the Committee of the Regions represents regions. The question then arises as to what are the regions in the United Kingdom. Undoubtedly, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are regions, but there is the problem of what forms of local administration there should be in England.
Over the years, Labour and Conservative Governments have acknowledged the concept of seven or eight regions in England. Therefore, it is natural to identify those areas as regions. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues want some other regional structure, well and good. The Committee of the Regions can reflect that.
The purpose of the Committee of the Regions is to be a consultative body and a channel for information. We in Northern Ireland find it valuable, as it enables us to obtain information and furthers our opportunities to influence policy making. We sometimes find that our national Government are not as fast in consulting the regions as we would like and that they tend to think that information that comes from the centre is sufficient. That is not always the case.
The order is sensible, as it enables Members of the Assembly to represent the regions. It just so happens that the representatives that Northern Ireland has sent are Members of the Assembly. They went to the Committee of the Regions as councillors and were subsequently elected to the Assembly. That is an indicator of how important the Committee of the Regions is to the parties that made the nominations. We are considering nominations for the new year, but I hope that the current excellent distribution of membership will be perpetuated.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Will the Northern Ireland Assembly have to submit names to the Foreign Secretary? Perhaps it would be preferable if the Northern Ireland Assembly, and indeed the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Greater London Authority and, eventually, the assemblies in England, were able to nominate their members directly to the Committee of the Regions without the Foreign Secretary or anyone else down here having a veto over that process.
Jane Kennedy: I am in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit O£pik), and in almost complete agreement with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate on managing to ginger up what I hoped would be a very succinct debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) asked about how the regions should nominate. I do not want to be drawn into a more general debate on the Committee of the Regions but, at the moment, the nominations go to the Foreign Secretary and there are no plans to change that. I am sure that the debate on how regions should be represented and how the nominations should be made will continue.