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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Under the terms of the Order of the House of 12 May, any Lords amendments relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill must be considered forthwith, without any Question put. I should add that copies of the amendments are available in the Vote Office.

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Election of Next Assembly

Lords amendment: No. 1.

7.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Bill that we debated on Monday attracted a wide range of comment in the House. The time scale, which was dictated by circumstances, meant that there was little or no time for earlier consultation, but we have looked again at some of the provisions in the light of comments made here and in another place. I might say that the other place debated all parts of the Bill without any programme motion in, if my arithmetic is correct, less than two hours and thirty minutes. In consequence of those considerations, earlier today we tabled in another place two amendments, which I hope may meet a number of the concerns expressed here and in the debates in the other place.

We continue to believe, of course, that the Bill is in itself right, although the need for it is highly regrettable. The Government were heartened by the number of reflections of that view from senior figures on the Opposition Benches here and in another place. We are, however, aware of and sympathise with the feelings that have been widely expressed that a decision of this sort should not simply pass out of Parliament's hands without further provision for scrutiny once the Bill is through. Indeed, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee reported in that sense on clause 1. Accordingly, the amendment subjects the calling of an election by the Secretary of State to the affirmative procedure. The House will have to vote to approve any election date set by the Government. Because, however, we believe that, following a political accommodation that made an election possible, there would be a general wish to proceed swiftly to the holding of an election, the amendment will make it possible for the order to be considered after making.

We have some experience of the need to move quickly in Northern Ireland. For example, the suspension and restoration powers in the Northern Ireland Act 2000 are exercisable, and have been exercised, with votes taking place after making. Concern was expressed in another place that Parliament should have an opportunity to debate any such order as soon as possible. I am happy

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to give this House an undertaking on behalf of the Government that the method of debate and where it takes place will be subject to consultation at the time.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister says that the debate will be subject to consultation, but surely Parliament should be in a position to do the debating, rather than doing it in Committee.

Mr. Browne: I made my observations about the amendment in appreciation of the very point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He can be assured that the Government would take such an order as an extremely important step in the process of the exercise of the franchise in Northern Ireland, and that we would, in consultation, adopt such a posture.

We have no wish to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. We see the 28-day period within which Parliament would be required to debate and vote on the order very much as a maximum. In the event that we did make an order for an election in this way, I give the House the Government's assurance that we would bring it before Parliament for debate as soon as was practicable.

The amendment gives the House an opportunity to debate any calling of an election to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will be of comfort to hon. Members, and I invite the House to approve the amendment.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the officials who have contributed assiduously over a concentrated period to ensure that the work that was needed to get the Bill to its present stage was done expeditiously and efficiently.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): We have had a great deal of discussion about this matter over the past few days in the House and in another place, and the Government are well aware of our views about elections. We believe that electoral dates should be respected and that electoral laws should be regarded as being above political convenience or the intervention of Governments. These are very important matters.

The Government are also well aware of our view that we must do nothing to prevent a review from happening in accordance with the Belfast agreement on 1 December or to make it impossible for the Belfast agreement to be implemented in its entirety. Conservative Members feel strongly about that. We are worried that the Government who produced the Belfast agreement—I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for that achievement—are taking measures that make its implementation impossible.

Much discussion has taken place between the Under-Secretary, the Liberal Democrats and me in the past few days. It is right to make it clear to hon. Members that we decided not to oppose the amendments on the basis of two assurances. The first was that the date of 31 December should be changed to 13 November. I expect that the Under-Secretary will claim that the officials made an honest mistake, but he and I specifically discussed whether the date was 13 or 15 November on the telephone this morning. We agreed that it was 13 November. The point is significant because 15 November is a Saturday and there is a justified

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suspicion that if nothing happens by the Saturday, matters will be held over until the following week. The urgency is created by the date of 1 December.

Mr. Browne: I hate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but we spoke this afternoon, although I tried to contact him this morning. I had a conversation with him about the date. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to speak to him, an agreement had already been reached in another place between Conservative representatives and the Lord Privy Seal. On the basis of that agreement, which was made in the hon. Gentleman's absence because nobody could contact him, the amendment was printed. I tried to contact him subsequently to explain what had happened, and I have been looking for him around the building for some time. I noticed that he came in as the debate started. He was not contactable. Perhaps he could explain the reason for that.

Mr. Davies: I had a conversation with the Under-Secretary and we reached an agreement. It should not be necessary to have a subsequent conversation after one has reached an agreement. Moreover, he knows that I took action on the basis of our conversation early this afternoon. It involved people in another place doing things that they would not otherwise have done. It was therefore a decisive conversation.

It is perhaps useful for the public and those who listen to our debates to appreciate that there are, rightly, two sides to the conduct of legislation in this place. There is public debate and sometimes there is a need for compromise and understanding between parties. Conversations sometimes occur outside this place, as they should in any democratic assembly. However, they must be based on full trust and understanding. We had an agreement and one party took action in good faith on that basis. It does not matter whether the Under-Secretary was trying to contact me or whether I was on Mars. The agreement should have stood, because we withdrew an amendment in another place.

Mr. Browne: I greatly regret that I did not have the opportunity for a private conversation with the hon. Gentleman this afternoon or this evening about the matter. That happened because he was not contactable, not because I was trying to avoid that conversation. However, the Conservative party in another place had already reached an agreement and taken the steps that, according to him, were conditional on his intervention. That is why I wanted to speak to him to explain what had happened. He appears to be making a mountain out of a molehill about whether elections will be held on 13 or 15 November. Frankly, that has nothing to do with the amendment that we are considering—it relates to amendment No. 2. However, since he is making such a song and dance about it, he should understand what happened.

Mr. Davies: I wanted to deal in the same breath with the two agreements that we reached. They determined the Opposition's action on the amendments, and both hang together. One is the declaration, which the Under-Secretary undertook to make, that if the Government—I see from his gestures that he intends to fulfil that undertaking, and I shall not anticipate the statement to which we are looking forward. The other was the matter of the date.

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7.30 pm

This is not an ideal situation. What has emerged is a compromise, and it is right that there should be compromises in a democratic country. Sometimes, I think that there should be more compromises, and more consultation. I hope that, when there is a change of Government in two years' time, we shall abide by that aspiration and that principle—indeed, I am sure that we shall. I also hope that we shall not regard ourselves as having a monopoly of wisdom, and that there will be occasions on which we shall be prepared to come to reasonable agreements. I am glad to say that the Government have done that on this occasion, and I pay tribute to them for that. It must be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we can have a frank exchange of views, that different points of view can be put strongly, and that, at the end of the day, all those points of view can be accommodated to some extent—although not, inevitably, 100 per cent.—in the agreements that are reached.

I shall give the House and the Government the assurance that they are waiting for: on the basis of the assurances that I have received, we shall not oppose the amendment further. I look forward to hearing the comments of the representatives of the other parties and, on the subsequent amendment, to the promised declaration by the Minister.

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