Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 7 April 2003
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2003.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Pike. We shall all appreciate your customary fairness and diligence when dealing with such matters.
The debate will be familiar to hon. Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. It is the counterpart, though under different legislation, of the direct rule renewal debates with which the House became so familiar before 1999. We all hoped that such debates had gone for ever. The Northern Ireland Act 2000, under which devolved government in Northern Ireland is at present suspended, and under which the Secretary of State, my ministerial colleagues and I run the Northern Ireland Departments, provides for its legislative powers to expire unless renewed after six months. The six-month point will be 14 April, six months since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—was obliged to suspend the institutions last autumn.
In many ways, it is sad that we have to renew the suspension arrangements. The Government, particularly the Prime Minister, with the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland have made the most intensive efforts since suspension first came about to restore the devolved institutions. Such efforts have not yet been successful, but there is genuine hope that they will achieve success in a short time and lay much more stable foundations for future devolved government. As soon as we can, we shall restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. At that moment, the powers that we are renewing today, along with the whole panoply of direct rule, will fall away, and the devolved Assembly and Ministers will take back their powers.
I shall say a little about how Northern Ireland may progress during the six months to which the order relates and about how we may soon make the order history, with the end of direct rule. I shall refer briefly to the stewardship of economic and social responsibilities. I shall be happy to take questions on that, or on the role that Ministers have played.
Devolved government released many new initiatives. Ministers had made an energetic start to resolving the complex social and economic problems with which Northern Ireland was left after 30 years of conflict. There was a full programme for Government and a substantial legislative programme before the Assembly. We have done our level best to build on
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that foundation to ensure that none of the work of the devolved Administration went to waste.
Lady Hermon (North Down): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pike. I thank the Minister for ensuring that I made it to this sitting. There were bomb scares at the airport earlier.
Northern Ireland Office Ministers have worked efficiently and conscientiously, but I ask them please to liaise on criminal justice. That is not a devolved issue. It is a matter of great concern that we had the Criminal Justice Bill last week, as well as criminal justice legislation in the form of an Order in Council. There must be some joined-up government between the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office on criminal justice issues.
Angela Smith: The hon. Lady is right. Several points have arisen in recent discussions with the parties about the possibility of introducing a Bill. She will appreciate that that is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), and I shall pass on her comments to him.
During devolution, the Executive developed several key initiatives. As I have said, we wanted to ensure that the work of the devolved Administration did not go to waste, so that we could build on it and carry through initiatives. The initiatives were aimed at making a difference in the strategic and policy approach as well as in terms of engagement with the community and its representatives. Locally elected Ministers sharing power and taking decisions on local issues for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland became a normal, everyday process, which we welcomed.
When the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, spoke on 15 October about the suspension of devolved government, he indicated that direct rule Ministers would dedicate themselves to working for the good of the people of Northern Ireland to the best of their ability. In giving that commitment, he added that the process of government in Northern Ireland would be continued proactively. Indeed, it was made clear to me when I took office on 15 October that we were not involved in a care and maintenance operation but giving effect to the work undertaken by the Assembly. We would not duck difficult issues, and governing Northern Ireland would build on the progress made by the devolved Administration in many areas.
I believe that we have met those objectives and delivered proactive government in a fair and balanced manner. The devolved Administration had, just prior to suspension, agreed its second ''Programme for Government'', which gives direction and draws together the work of the Government, under key strategic priorities, across the full range of social and economic issues. We have taken careful account of that programme and embraced much of its thrust in the six months since October. We have done our best to build on that foundation, to maintain and increase momentum in policy development and to be innovative, when it was considered appropriate, to
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ensure that none of the work undertaken by the devolved Administration was lost.
I know that that prompted some concern among hon. Members, including members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, about the speed with which we have passed legislation. In addition, on occasion, issues affecting Northern Ireland have been taken on the Floor of the House and in Committee at the same time. I sympathise with those concerns but, as I said, we felt obliged to enact the Assembly's legislative programme without delay and following the time scale to which the Assembly would have worked—that is, to put through the programme in advance of the scheduled dissolution last month. That often meant moving quickly, without time for additional reflection and consultation, but most of the legislation had been subject to considerable reflection and consultation and had been examined in detail by the Assembly and its Committees. However, I take on board the concerns expressed.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): It sounds to me as if the Minister is saying that the Government would rather have the legislation put through than ensure enough time and space to correct matters of concern. Have the Government considered a more flexible approach, which would have given us the opportunity to table amendments? One of the greatest frustrations has been the take-it-or-leave-it process, and I am sure that that was not intended in carrying through the Assembly's legislative programme.
Angela Smith: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that point in the past, and he is being unfair. He said that the Government are more interested in putting legislation through than in reflection and consideration, but much of the legislation that went through in Committee had been discussed in detail in the Assembly and its Committees. We would all agree that the Order-in-Council process is not ideal. It is a temporary position, and we would all much rather that such matters were debated and voted on by the devolved institution. That is what we aim to achieve now.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I agree that evidence of a partial process in the Assembly before suspension and the ability to see how the debate had run among locally elected people were always a reassurance. However, that was not the case with last week's criminal justice measure, where a substantial item was passed that had not been considered by the Assembly or Executive.
Angela Smith: I take on board the hon. Gentleman's comments and will pass them on to my colleagues, but we all hope that we will not have to use the same procedure again. We want the devolved Administration up and running. However, if direct rule lasts, and is it is, unfortunately, necessary to introduce further orders, we shall generally allow three months' public consultation on draft Orders in Council before we lay them before the House, subject to considerations of urgency. That is as the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said when suspension was first enacted and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State repeated
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to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) in his capacity as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We would also seek more frequent meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and greater use of question times at those meetings. I hope that that in part addresses the concerns of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).
It is appropriate to consider our hopes for the coming months, as well as to look at what has happened during the past six months. As hon. Members will know, when we were obliged to suspend devolved government in Northern Ireland on 15 October last year in the aftermath of concern about continuing paramilitary activity, it was apparent that there had been a breakdown of trust on both sides of the community, which made the effective functioning of devolution impossible at that time. As the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said in their joint statement, it must be clear that the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which has been in progress since the agreement and before, is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion.