|Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 and Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002
Mr. Browne: We have had a genuinely interesting debate in which some important issues have been raised.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for East Devon managed to make a contribution, albeit a somewhat brief one, because it gives me the opportunity to correct a misconception under which he is operating. He seems to have interpreted the idea that suspension will take as long as it takes to get the situation right—as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said—as meaning that the suspension will be short.
I did not say that, and was careful not to put any time lines on how long I thought the suspension would last. I said that the suspension created an opportunity for issues to be addressed, and that the process of addressing those issues had begun and would continue. As that proceeds, it will become clearer how long suspension is likely to last. However, the test of how long it will last is when we can get the process right and reinstate the institutions of devolution in Northern Ireland so that they work and retain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman's contribution was also helpful because it appears that we have at least persuaded him to move from the position adopted by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who articulated the somewhat dogmatic view that suspension was perhaps not the right thing. The hon. Member for East Devon was clearly prepared to listen to the debate and the argument.
On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South, I thank the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford for his welcome and his courteous words of encouragement, which were appropriate. He thought that taking the order in the Committee was somehow designed to avoid the glare of publicity on the issue, a point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire addressed well. On 15 October, the day of suspension, the former Secretary of State came to the House and made a statement. He gave an explanation for his decisions in front of the cameras of the world and answered questions, including quite testing questions from the hon. Gentleman. That suggests that, whatever else we have done on Northern Ireland policy, the Government have not avoided the glare of publicity. I do not think that the former Secretary of State could be accused of doing that during his time in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman stated categorically that he thought that suspension was the wrong thing to do. The fundamental flaw in his argument, unlike that of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, was that his analysis of the problems was partial and one-sided. The problems go far deeper than those that he articulated. He knows that, because the former Secretary of State told him so on 15 October. The former Secretary of State said that, when faced with the various options—ranging from doing nothing all
Column Number: 42the way through to the option that the hon. Gentleman prefers, which is the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive—he took the view that none of them was particularly helpful, and decided on the least bad one.
Mr. Davies rose—
Mr. Browne: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he must understand that if I do so there is no possibility that I will be able to answer his questions, so he will not have that assistance in deciding which way to vote.
Mr. Davies: If we to need to take a decision on how to vote in two minutes, we need to know the Government's answers to the questions that I asked about accountability and statutory instruments, and the one asked by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann about the Grand Committee.
Mr. Browne: I have very important things to say in these two minutes. It may be of the utmost importance to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that he receive answers to those questions. When making his contribution, he should perhaps have thought about whether he was leaving any time for the possibility of their being answered.
The focus of the principal part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was on the past, unlike the speeches of others about the future. That is an important point. He then said that we needed a period of calm and reflection, and I agree. He asked for a meeting with the Secretary of State in which he could discuss the issues that he had raised, and other issues. I can guarantee him that he will have such a meeting. He was promised that by the Secretary of State's predecessor, and he will have that meeting. He will have the time that he needs to go into detail on the issues, and he will get the response that he wants.
I want to take the opportunity to lay to rest—finally, I hope—any suggestion that the attitude that he would have brought, had he been the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to the business of implementation of the Good Friday agreement would have been a better process for the people of Northern Ireland and peace than the one adopted by the Government.
It being two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, The Chairman put the Question necessary to dispose of the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(5).
Question agreed to.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): I beg to move,
Column Number: 43
Mr. Beard, I can be brief because the order is consequential on the order that we have just considered at some great length. It provides that during suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland, expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in exercising the functions of the Assembly Commission and in relation to members' remuneration from pensions is to be defrayed from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund rather than from money provided by Parliament. It is thus a narrow, purely technical adjustment or correction to the 2000 Act, ensuring as it does that these payments continue to come from within the Northern Ireland block and are not a drain on the Northern Ireland Office vote.
The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that the measure is defined tightly around the financial consequences of suspension, and it will therefore not be in order to rehearse arguments already heard, related to the actual suspension itself.
Mr. Quentin Davies: I will, of course, focus entirely on the financial consequences of suspension, with one exception. I would like to take just one sentence to say that I much appreciated the Minister's commitment, given in the last sentence of his winding-up speech to the previous debate, to arrange that meeting. As a result of that we did not oppose the order, as you will have noticed, Mr. Beard.
The measure seems a purely technical matter. However, it is important in the interests of United Kingdom taxpayers as a whole—not just those in Northern Ireland—to establish clearly whether what is proposed is simply a change in accounting categories or whether there is any change in the actual flow of funds as a result. Therefore, the first question I must ask is whether there are any direct financial consequences of suspension. There must be some financial consequences, if only because Members of the Legislative Assembly have their pay reduced. I assume that several of their staffers will have their pay reduced, or will not be paid the same amount. We should know what the financial consequences are for Stormont itself. It is the most impressive public building on the island of Ireland, without the slightest doubt. Presumably it is not just going to be abandoned. It will have certain costs, but they will presumably be lesser than the current costs.
We want to know what, on balance, the net financial consequences of suspension are. The Minister may tell me that they are trivial, small amounts of money, but it is important that we should know exactly what they are. Equally, any savings in Northern Ireland will presumably be balanced by additional costs that the Northern Ireland Office will incur either here or in Northern Ireland in taking over all the new responsibilities that we have discussed: briefing Ministers, answering correspondence and so on. It would be extremely useful for everyone and would give us a sense of the organisational impact of
Column Number: 44suspension as well as the direct implication to the taxpayer. I would like the Minister to give me some estimate now or, if he cannot, perhaps he could write to me with a more detailed breakdown of the financial consequences.
I must ask him about a second matter because something curious has appeared in the press in the last few days concerning the payment of Members of the Legislative Assembly. I gather that they are no longer being paid the £41,000-odd a year that they were receiving. They have returned to a salary of £29,000 a year, but this is going to be reviewed in December. At least, that is what the press is telling us—as far as I know the Government have not yet made any statement in public, so this is their opportunity to do so. It is curious—why is it being reviewed in December? Do the Government have it in mind to take powers to lay off the Members of the Legislative Assembly altogether? Are they expecting some development in the political dialogue between now and December? We should be told if that is the case. On the other hand, is this talk of December merely speculation or fantasy on the part of the press? It is important for us to know that.
I deal now with financial accountability. There is no Stormont, so it is impossible for Members of the Legislative Assembly to exercise any kind of financial accountability at all. What is happening with the Audit Commission that was responsible to the Stormont Assembly? Will it continue? Will it report to us and, if so, through what mechanism? Will a Committee be established and, if so, will it be a standing a Standing Committee or a permanent Committee similar to a Select Committee? Will it be an ad hoc Committee, like the one constituted this afternoon to consider these Orders in Council, which would meet from time to time to consider any reports that the Audit Commission makes about Northern Ireland?
What opportunity will we have to question Ministers on the discharge of their financial responsibilities? What opportunity will there be to question the accounting officer of the Northern Ireland Office who is responsible for the discharge of the expenditure of the Consolidated Fund that we are creating—or of the addition to the Consolidated Fund to cover the costs of Northern Ireland? Who is that accounting officer? We should be told his name, because he will have much wider responsibilities than the accounting officer who previously worked under the permanent under-secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. We need to know exactly who is responsible and what mechanisms are envisaged by the Government to hold those people to account—Ministers or senior officials in the shape of the accounting officer.
The Government may not have thought about those matters. That would be unfortunate, but if they have not, I should like them to do so and to give me a commitment here and now as to the timescale in which they will make their proposals. We recognise that we are in a minority in this House and Committee, so the Government will have to take the initiative in these matters. We cannot impose our own solutions,
Column Number: 45although we can propose them from time to time. My experience of persuading the Government to take account of my insights or suggestions has not been altogether successful, which has been a pity for the process and for Northern Ireland. I do not know whether I shall have any more luck in my latest suggestions to the Minister.
I should have congratulated the Minister at the beginning on his debut before this Committee. We look forward to his contribution on every possible occasion, and hope that we have many opportunities to question him about the important responsibilities that he will be discharging.
Quite apart from the immediate consequences of suspension on the relevant financial flows in both directions—and we need to be given some idea of the net position on that—what about the dynamic issue? I refer to the forward-looking impact on the cash flows from whatever evolution takes place through the peace process. If the process results in a reduction in the military presence in Northern Ireland, as it would naturally be expected to do, will that be accounted for under the Consolidated Fund rather than under the Northern Ireland Office block vote? I take it that it would but, if not, the Minister might want to correct me. Presumably there is now no distinction between the Northern Ireland block vote and the Consolidated Fund. If there is a reduction in military expenditure, will it be regarded as an increase in that part of the Consolidated Fund that covers Northern Ireland expenditure? In other words, will it be regarded as additional money that can be used for the purposes of Northern Ireland, or will the money disappear back into the Ministry of Defence vote and be of no benefit to Northern Ireland?
If there is a bonus from the peace process in that regard, will it flow to the benefit of Northern Ireland? If so, it is an important political matter. It would be an incentive to the people of Northern Ireland, in whatever camp, to know that one consequence of a successful peace process was a saving of military and other security-related expenditures that would flow through to their benefit. Of course, there are other and more important consequences, such as democracy and the end of violence, but such a consequence would not be insignificant. We should know now whether that is the case. If, alternatively, the savings would simply mean an increase in the Ministry of Defence vote or could be reallocated at will by the Chancellor to other areas of Government expenditure, we need to know.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 29 October 2002|