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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order

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First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 9 September 2003

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003.

    What a pleasure it is to be here again in Westminster in the sunshine and serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.

A draft of the order was laid before the House on 3 July. Northern Ireland Members will be very familiar with this sort of debate, which is in the same vein as the annual direct rule renewal debates that the House got to know so well before 1999. We had hoped that such debates were a thing of the past.

On 15 October 2002, section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was brought into force, thereby suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland. Under the schedule to the 2000 Act, there is a power to legislate for Northern Ireland by Orders in Council. That power was limited to the first six months of suspension, but it may be extended for a period of up to six months at a time. The first order extending the period by six months was passed this April. That six-month period comes to an end on 14 October 2003.

This second order provides for a renewal of the powers. They are a regrettable necessity, given the suspension arrangements. Since suspension first came about, the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland have been making strenuous efforts to restore the devolved institutions. Those efforts have not yet been successful, but we remain hopeful that they will bear fruit and, as a result of our experience, will lay much firmer foundations for future devolved government.

As soon as we can, we shall restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. When that happens, the powers that we are renewing today, along with a range of other powers relating to devolution, will revert to the devolved Assembly and to Northern Ireland Ministers.

In the old direct rule renewal debates, it was customary for the Government to give a brief account of their stewardship of government in Northern Ireland since the last such debate. I shall therefore briefly outline some of the important things that we have done in place of the old devolved Administration. I believe that the Government have acted conscientiously and have provided good government to the people of Northern Ireland since suspension began. I shall then say a little about how we hope that Northern Ireland may progress during the six-month period to which the order relates.

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I pay tribute to the previous Administration, as my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) did six months ago. Ministers in the devolved Administration made an energetic and a visionary start to resolving many of the deep and complex social and economic problems that Northern Ireland faced following years of conflict. When direct rule was reintroduced some 11 months ago, a second programme for government covering key strategies and priorities across a range of policy functions was already in place, and a significant legislative programme was before the Assembly.

Our objective was to give effect, wherever possible, to the broad thrust of policies initiated by the Executive so that they might resume their operations as seamlessly as possible. That objective remains. During the past few months, the Government have worked vigorously towards that aim, building on those earlier foundations to ensure that the momentum generated by a locally elected Assembly and Executive is not lost. We introduced a programme of Assembly legislation through Westminster, which we completed in March. That time scale is similar to that envisaged by the devolved Administration. In the past few months, we have also been especially keen to ensure that developments in the economic field continue to receive a high priority.

Under the reinvestment and reform initiative, which is a cornerstone of the Executive's second programme for government, a Strategic Investment Board has now been formed to implement the major strategic investment programme, which aims to provide investment of some £2 billion and improve radically Northern Ireland's health, education, infrastructure, roadworks—excuse me, I meant road networks, although ''roadworks'' is the operative word at the moment for those who travel in Northern Ireland. The programme is also designed to improve water and sewage treatment services. It is linked to locally generated financing initiatives to support additional borrowing under the reinvestment and reform initiative.

We remain committed to healing the deep communal and social divisions in Northern Ireland, and we fully recognise the need to tackle unemployment in enhancing social inclusion.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am delighted to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Atkinson, and I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way so early. May I ask her to elaborate and to explain to the Committee, and in particular to those of us from Northern Ireland, why, when the Government have done so much on so many fronts, the criminal justice aspects have been left well behind? The antisocial behaviour legislation was not extended to Northern Ireland, nor was the Criminal Justice Bill. Will she deal with those two crucial issues?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Lady raises a point that I know is close to her heart. I take her point about extending to Northern Ireland elements of the Criminal Justice Bill that went through last term. I should like to reassure her on some of the points that she has raised. I am mainly interested in them because of my responsibilities in working with the police, and I

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know that they are interested in some of those issues. Whether the Criminal Justice Bill was the right vehicle to introduce those measures for Northern Ireland, I am not convinced, but we remain interested in some of the issues to which she refers. Not everything that we introduce in England, Wales or Scotland will be applicable to Northern Ireland, but I am very much aware of the arguments that she has been advancing about this issue and I maintain a close interest in it. Indeed, all the other Ministers involved also take a close interest in these matters.

We have further progressed work arising from the taskforce on employability and long-term unemployment and from the West Belfast taskforces, with targeted initiatives being implemented in the Greater Shankill, West Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane. Earlier this year, we announced the creation of an integrated development fund of some £50 million to support that work. We hope to announce in the coming weeks the first areas to benefit from the fund.

We have established the Ilex Urban Regeneration Company, under the reinvestment and reform initiative, to develop a master plan for the city of Londonderry and the Derry city council area. It is aimed at stimulating social and economic regeneration.

We are working to ensure that the public can avail themselves of improved services in all the areas that matter to them. Increased investment in the health service is already making an impact. Further improvements in service delivery will be gained through the work being undertaken to streamline the structure of the health service and through the recruitment of extra doctors and nurses.

In the education sector, a substantial investment programme is providing new buildings and improved technology. We are also tackling under-performing schools.

There is further investment in new buses, railway rolling stock and the roads infrastructure to facilitate delivery of the regional transportation strategy and with it the commitment to sustainable living. Under welfare reform, work on establishing local jobs and benefits offices is ongoing, with 20 centres to be in place by early next year.

Work is proceeding apace on the Government's responsibilities for equality and rights. A Commissioner for Children and Young People will take up post in October, placing Northern Ireland at the leading edge of best practice in the promotion of the rights and best interests of children and young people.

In line with previous commitments, we have endeavoured, as far as possible, to subject new legislation to a 12-week public consultation period before it is laid before Parliament as an Order in Council. That has been done in relation to proposals for draft orders on employment and partnerships, and similar consultation is under way on draft legislation on gambling and licensing. In addition, we instigated the meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee that considered the proposal for a draft employment

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order, which was welcomed by all the parties. We hope that next week the House will approve the partnerships and employment orders, safe in the knowledge that both were subject to proper consultation and consideration.

If direct rule continues, we shall introduce further legislative proposals for consultation over the coming months on such matters as rating reform, support for new entrants to farming, the agricultural census, GP contracts, dangerous wild animals and special educational needs and disability. Where appropriate we shall also instigate meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to consider that legislation before it is formally made.

We would of course rather that we did not have to seek the renewal of the powers at all. We have been working hard to create the conditions for an election to an Assembly from which a viable Executive can be formed to put the government of Northern Ireland back into the hands of locally accountable representatives. That means rebuilding the trust and confidence on all sides necessary for stable and inclusive power-sharing government to be re-established. That means genuine commitment on all sides to move forward and, crucially, real commitments on an end to paramilitary activity.

As hon. Members know, we and the Irish Government published in May our proposals for rebuilding that trust and confidence, and completing the implementation of the Belfast agreement. In the absence of the necessary commitments on an end to paramilitary activity, we cannot implement all our proposals. However, as part of our drive to rebuild the conditions for progress, we are implementing a further important step with the introduction of the legislation relating to the Independent Monitoring Commission. That will play a valuable role in helping to provide assurance that the necessary steps towards a genuinely peaceful and democratic society and stable institutions are really taking place. The commission has a crucial role in rebuilding trust, but for that to happen there must be real steps to bring paramilitary activity to an end, and we shall continue to engage with all the players in the coming weeks to push the process forward.

The power is being extended for six months, simply because we cannot be sure of the date of the restoration of devolved government. That will depend on the success of the process that I have outlined. Until that time, we must ensure that we have the full machinery of administration in place while direct rule lasts. I believe that the Committee will share not only my view on the regrettable for the order but my hope that that need will be short-lived.

2.42 pm

 
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