Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 and Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister saying that, as occurred before devolution, a proportion of items will be taken as orders on the Floor of the House and the rest will be taken in Committee? I had the same portfolio pre–1999 as I have now, and I made representations to the Government and helped to steer the relevant legislation by consensus in the appropriate direction.

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If that is what he is saying, we are presumably back to where we were pre–1999.

Mr. Browne: The way in which we intend to process legislation is, of course, subject to the qualification that this situation is intended to be temporary and not long-term. I said that we would revert to the procedures that applied between 1974 and 1999 and to the practices and conventions of the House that applied at that time. We shall always be ready to consider whether it is appropriate to take orders on the Floor of the House and to consider representations from parties on those issues, although our ability in that area is subject to the other business of the House and the availability of time. It may also be subject to the decisions that we take today.

Mr. Wilshire: As the usual channels do not officially exist, it would be inappropriate to discuss what took place and did not take place in that regard. My recollection of what took place is not exactly as the Minister describes, but I shall pass over that. I am grateful for his offer to consider requests in future, if they are made through the non-existent usual channels. It would be churlish of me not to thank him for that.

Mr. Browne: I do not think that I am giving the hon. Gentleman anything that he did not have before, but I am grateful to him if he is grateful to me.

I sought to explain to the Committee that, with reluctance, we are reverting to procedures that applied between 1974 and 1999. Compared with the procedures under devolution, they are inadequate procedures. I accept that, and I take no pleasure in saying what I have to say. The conventions and procedures of the House that applied in that regard will continue to apply. With some reluctance, we shall all have to relearn them. However communications take place, they will take place and information will pass between parties.

The remit of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will expand to include the whole of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's responsibilities. In addition, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is able to debate questions across the field, such as proposed legislative measures and major policy issues. Standing Orders also permit it to hold Question Times and to consider issues on the Adjournment. The Committee will clearly have to meet more frequently than has been the case since devolution.

Mr. Trimble: I welcome what the Minister has just said about the need for the Committee to meet more regularly. He is absolutely right. One of our disappointments with the Grand Committee has been the infrequency with which questions have been available there. In view of the expanded responsibilities and the obvious need to cover a wider range of topics, it would be good during this period for questions to be taken at the Grand Committee as a matter of course.

Mr. Browne: I will take on board what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I mentioned Question Time. That is exercising Ministers and my right hon. Friend in relation to the Grand Committee. It is particularly

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acute in our minds because of points that have been raised on the Floor of the House, not only yesterday but in the context of last week's Northern Ireland questions about the inability of members from Northern Ireland to question Ministers.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will let his party colleagues know that, out of curiosity, I counted the number of questions asked of the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions, which was 30 minutes after Northern Ireland questions last Wednesday, as some reference had been made to the fact that the Prime Minister got to question 8, whereas my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State only got to question 4. As a matter of fact—I shall try to be precise—one of them answered 21 questions and one answered 20 in the same time. My point is that I recognise that we must consider the accountability of Ministers to Members of the House who are answerable directly, in a democratic sense, to the people of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that for however long we have these responsibilities that will be high on our list of priorities for accountability and scrutiny.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman spent some time talking about the Grand Committee, of which I am now a member. I have not got my mind round that yet, but he also referred to the Select Committee, on which I served, and I do understand that. He said, if I heard correctly, that it will now have to play a bigger role because of what has happened—we agree on that. I wonder whether he or his non-existent usual channels will be prepared to discuss whether we should revisit the composition of the Select Committee. It may also be helpful, when I have my mind round the Grand Committee, to discuss the composition of that, for as long as devolved rule is suspended.

Mr. Browne: I hear the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that those who have responsibilities in this area will, if they do not hear him, read what he has to say. Before I was a Minister, I, too, was on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Now that I am an Executive Minister, it seems singularly inappropriate for me to express any view about the composition of the Select Committee that scrutinises my job. That is a matter for the House, and regardless of whether the channels of communication exist, the hon. Gentleman will know exactly how to use them to get his view across.

Mr. Swire: Will the Minister clarify something for a relatively new Member, who has not served on either the Select Committee or the Grand Committee? Is he suggesting that he and his colleagues are considering ways whereby they could be held accountable more regularly outside the Committees and regular Northern Ireland questions, particularly by Northern Ireland Members?

Mr. Browne: What I am saying is that there are structures of accountability, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has come to terms with them even in the short time that he has been a Member. I know from his contributions to debates not only on Northern Ireland but on other issues that he is

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acutely aware of scrutiny and accountability. I am sure that he knows what the structures are for Question Time and Select Committees, the procedures by which legislation is consulted on and made, and the Grand Committee structure—albeit I am not sure whether the Grand Committee, of which he could be a member, meets all that regularly.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that since the Labour party came to power in 1997, it has been seeking ways to make the Government more accountable to elected Members—despite what he and his colleagues may say—and, through them, more accountable to the electorate. Part of that is a process of consultation. I have already said, in the context of legislation, that the process of consultation was already well established in Northern Ireland prior to its becoming as significant to the legislative programme as it is now—and it will probably become more significant.

All the Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are acutely aware of the burden laid on us to be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. Those who are directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland are sent here to make us accountable. It is our duty and obligation to ensure, in so far as the structures and procedures of the House allow it—those procedures are agreed by hon. Members—that we are as accountable as we possibly can be.

Over and above that, I have said that, in so far as others co-operate with us, there will be consultation and discussion with politicians in Northern Ireland—that, again, is well established. Indeed, before I was given my present extended responsibilities, I consulted politicians in Northern Ireland—not only Members of Parliament but Members of the Legislative Assembly and local councillors—in a concentrated fashion. We will endeavour to build on the structure that already exists—a structure that I understand was already in place when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power.

I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman. However, I set all of that against our desire to restore the institutions of devolved government as quickly as possible. Although we accept that there is work to be done, and that those structures need to be put in place, they must not be misinterpreted. We are not putting them in place because people think that we are in this for a long haul or that it is a long-term project for the Government or Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. It is not.

Finally, until the point of devolution, we did not have the opportunity to debate Northern Ireland matters in Westminster Hall. Hon. Members will be interested to know that we can consider Northern Ireland matters under the less pressured and more informal atmosphere afforded by Westminster Hall, and I am sure that we shall take advantage of that. In short, I believe that we can scrutinise Northern Ireland business appropriately during what I profoundly hope will be a short period of direct rule. We shall welcome the House's contribution to getting our policies and our legislation right.

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I have dwelt on some of the immediate consequences of suspension for our work here. Many hon. Members rightly believe those questions to be important and will no doubt want to discuss them. None of that should detract from the principal focus, which must be to restore the devolved institutions. That can only be done by restoring the underpinning of mutual cross-community commitment to the democratic principle and a willingness to work with all parts of the community. Those commitments are essential to the renewed functioning of the institutions. We will do all that we can to bring that about. I hope that we will have the full support of hon. Members in doing so.

5.10 pm

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Prepared 29 October 2002