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Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 30 January 2003
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Draft Protection of Children and
Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland)
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. Although I do not object to the two orders being taken together, I ask you to convey to the relevant authorities that the sheer intensity and frequency of Northern Ireland legislation is putting a strain on those parties that do not have the Government's resources.
Moreover, the fact that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is meeting at the same time to consider a statutory instrument makes it impossible for us—or at least for the Liberal Democrats—to take part in both debates. I ask you to raise those concerns with the relevant authorities to see whether something can be done to ensure that scrutiny is not lost as a result of the compressed hours under the new arrangements.
The Chairman: I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand that that is not a matter for the Chair. However, I apprehend that the Minister has ears to hear.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Further to that point of order, Mr. Hurst. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. I am not so uncomfortable with the fact that there are two Northern Ireland Grand Committees in one week, which is unusual but tolerable. However, I am no more comfortable than he is with the coincidence that one of those Grand Committees is considering a statutory instrument. That is difficult. I know that you will give a similar answer to the one that you gave him. However, if the Minister could lend a sympathetic ear to those representations, I should be grateful.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
Mr. Browne: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. I shall come to the point that the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) have appropriately raised in my address to the Committee.
I am grateful to Committee members for agreeing to consider the orders together. They are linked, and they significantly contribute to an environment that is designed to improve the safety of health and personal
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social services in Northern Ireland. I am sure that non-Northern Irish Members present will recognise some of the legislation as having already been debated at some length in the House for England and Wales.
I shall deal with the points of order that the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Solihull raised. I know that the issue will be of concern to others with an interest in Northern Irish affairs, not least those from both the Ulster Unionist and the Democratic Unionist party.
Hon. Members will understand that the Government are in an unusual position as a result of the suspension of devolution and the institutions. Immediately after suspension, my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, who was then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, assured the Northern Irish people that it was with great reluctance that he made the order to suspend the institutions and that we would do our best under direct rule for the people of Northern Ireland not to pay any more of a price than is necessary following that loss of democratic institutions. He gave an undertaking that we would go ahead with the legislative programme of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as much as possible within the context of the timetable that the Executive and the Assembly had expected to deliver.
I understand the point about the strain on limited resources to deal with such legislation. I am sure that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will accept that I sometimes feel a bit of strain in relation to the process myself, despite the support that I have as a Minister, for which I am very grateful.
Mr. Taylor: I want to make it clear to the Committee, and to the Minister, who is always very fair minded in such matters, that I understand why the House of Commons Committee Corridor is taking the strain of unfinished business from the Northern Ireland Assembly. I, too, wish to sustain the good faith of the Secretary of State's undertaking, as far as possible, to finish that business within its planned timetable. I utterly accept that, I have no complaint about it and I am prepared to pay a personal price for it. I shall come here every day—in fact, I seem to be doing so—but I cannot be in two places at once. My willingness does not go that far.
Mr. Browne: I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for what we are trying to achieve. More than once on this Corridor, I have been grateful for the co-operation of the official Opposition, of Northern Ireland Members and of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and his colleagues, and for the approach that they have taken to such issues. There is some irony in the point that is being made, because in other discussions the Government are being asked to find more time and more opportunities for scrutiny of Northern Ireland issues and for Ministers to be accountable to Parliament for our decisions. All Committee members will recognise that I am in favour of that. Parliamentary scrutiny of what I do as a Minister is crucial: it has often helped me to develop and even change policy. However, we cannot create opportunities in an already crowded parliamentary diary without increasing the load on those who
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specialise in these matters on behalf of their parties or of others.
I am pleased to see here a Northern Ireland Member who is not a member of the Committee. I hope that, if she chooses to do so, Mr. Hurst, she will catch your eye and will be able to contribute to the debate. There needs to be an understanding of the opportunities that Committees afford people who are not necessarily selected for them, but who can contribute to debate and share the load. I reassure the Committee that the Government are aware of the need to strike a proper balance. We have now laid all the Orders in Council that it is necessary to lay in order to fulfil our undertaking to the people of Northern Ireland in terms of legislation. If hon. Members who have an interest or are official spokespersons will bear with us, there will be a concentration of work for a couple of weeks and then it should tail off.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I hope, Mr. Hurst, that you will bear with us while we go down this route. It is important for this order and for future scrutiny. My understanding, as the Whip involved, is that we are making progress. The Government have entered into discussions, and I thank them for that. There is an alternative route. I am not criticising the Government by saying that this procedure is about the worst that we could have. It puts pressure on a small number of people and will, if we are not careful, exclude the 18 Northern Ireland Members. The Grand Committee route, which the Government are willingly exploring, offers an alternative to the method by which one or two hon. Members must attend and catch the Chairman's eye.
I am grateful for what the Government are doing, and I emphasise that criticising the procedure that we are using is not the same as criticising Ministers. The procedure does not give Northern Ireland Members the right opportunity. They matter more than I do. I am the official Opposition Whip and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull is the Opposition spokesman. We have a role in the House, but the Northern Ireland Members should have a bigger role in this context. Any criticism that we make is on their behalf, with a view to involving them.
Mr. Browne: I do not want to try your patience, Mr. Hurst, any further than necessary, but I am sure that the Committee understands the relevance of this exchange in the context of today's debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support, and I know of the conversations and discussions that have taken place in an attempt to generate the appropriate opportunities for rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, but also for debate of Northern Ireland issues—never mind the question of scrutiny. I know that all the parties have co-operated, and I am grateful for that.
The hon. Gentleman knows and has acknowledged that the Government are listening to suggestions and responding to them. The problem is, of course, that responding to suggestions, and the creation of further opportunities, continues to strain the scarce resources of other parties. I am pleased that at least part of what the Government and others have been arguing has
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been understood—that Committees generate opportunities for hon. Members who are not selected as members to contribute to the debate. That is an important principle to establish.
Lembit Öpik rose—
The Chairman: Order. The Committee has given this matter a fair hearing. Perhaps the Minister would return to the business of the Committee.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire may want to make a point in relation to what I am about to say about the order.
Lembit Öpik: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Browne: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me introduce the order first.
The purpose of the order is to protect children and vulnerable adults by preventing unsuitable people from working with those vulnerable groups. The order provides for checks to be carried out against lists held by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in relation to those seeking work with children or vulnerable adults. In relation to those seeking work with children, checks will also be carried out against a list held by the Department of Education of those prohibited from working with children in education-related employment. In broad terms, the order provides an equivalent to provisions in England and Wales contained in the Protection of Children Act 1999, part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 and part 7 of the Care Standards Act 2000. There are a couple of substantive differences, which I shall mention later.