This is essentially a probing amendment. We hope that the Government will give us appropriate reassurances that the devolution of policing and justice functions to the Assembly will not occur until that body is on a secure footing.
We hope that the Government will not misinterpret the intentions behind the amendment. The Liberal Democrat party is a devolutionist party, and our policy for a number of years has been that policing and justice functions should be devolved to the Assembly. We generally welcome part 5, but the importance of policing to society was shown clearly in the previous debate, so we must be careful about when, and under what circumstances, those functions are devolved.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for three and a half years. In the period between the elections of 1998 and the beginning of the current suspension in October 2002, the Assembly went through a stop-start process, with various periods of suspension. Even when it was functioning, there were several crises involving the resignations of First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers.
Given that instability, it would be wrong to devolve policing and justice functions to the Assembly. We cannot allow something as important as policing to be devolved to an Administration that does not look as though it will stand the test of time. It would be disastrous for policing to be in the hands of an Assembly Minister one week and the responsibility of a Minister in Westminster the next. Of all the areas of life for which Parliament is responsible, policing is one of the most fundamental.
We recognise that the amendment may not be perfect, but hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance when he responds. It is relatively simple and provides that the Secretary of State could not lay an order before Parliament to devolve any policing or justice functions to the Assembly unless two conditions were fulfilled.
The first condition is that the Assembly must have been up and running for a continuous period of two years. We chose that length of time because it was mentioned by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in the proposals for the comprehensive agreement in 2004.
I realise that defining "stable and secure" is difficult, but I suggest to the Committee that we will know that the state has been reached when we see it. However, it would be helpful for the Minister to describe the factors that he will take into consideration when the time comes to lay an order before Parliament to devolve policing functions to the Assembly.
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for moving the amendment. I share her concern, in the sense that the conditions should be right before the devolution of policing and criminal justice functions takes place but, with all due respect, her amendment applies a precondition that is not necessary. We have already put in place secure processes to ensure that, should devolution take place, it does so with the support of a range of bodies and institutions. Under the terms of section 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, policing and justice will not be devolved until the triple lock, as we have termed it, is in place. The first element of the lock is that the Assembly itself must vote on a cross-community basis for such devolution before it can take place, so in the first instance, the ball is firmly in the Assembly's court. On the Assembly's not being "stable", as her amendment describes itit remains to be seen how we define thatshe will doubtless recognise that the Assembly would want to devolve policing and criminal justice only on the basis of cross-community confidence in such devolution.
The hon. Lady has witnessed today the great strength of feeling that exists in all parts of the Committee on several issues appertaining to building the confidence that will allow policing and criminal justice to be devolved. The Assembly itself must first have such confidence. Secondly, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must agree to introducing the relevant order in this House; in other words, the British Government must first take into consideration the Assembly's stability, safety and security. Finally, the House of Commons must vote in favour of the transfer order before the devolution of policing and criminal justice can become a reality.
With due respect to the hon. Lady, the two-year period to which her amendment refers would prove arbitrary. The Assembly, the Secretary of State and the House of Commons could support such devolution as soon as this December, following the Assembly's restorationwe hopeon 24 November at the latest. Alternatively, such support could be forthcoming in one, two or five years' time. Establishing an arbitrary limit of two years would not add anything of substance to the safeguards.
As the hon. Lady herself seemed to recognise, every lawyer in the United Kingdom would find it difficult to define the phrase "stable and secure". The use of such a phrase would not help the Secretary of State in reaching a judgment on the timing of devolution, with which section 4(2) of the 1998 Act already deals. I accept that
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her objectives are soundshe wants to ensure a "stable and secure" environment before such devolution takes placebut her amendment would add nothing to the Bill. I therefore hope that she will reflect on my comments and withdraw it.
Lorely Burt: I am very grateful to the Minister for his comments and I have taken on board the points that he made. Given the power and passion demonstrated on both sides of the argument this afternoon, two years could well be an optimistic assessment of the period required, but we shall see. Although we reserve the right to reintroduce it at a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 10, in page 28, line 29, leave out from 'passed' to end of line 33 and insert 'with cross-community support.'.
Lorely Burt: These are essentially probing amendments. Schedule 2 requires that a nomination to the ministerial department with policing and justice functions must be approved by a cross-community vote of the Assemblya vote in which a majority of Unionists, a majority of nationalists and a majority of all Assembly Members approve the appointment. However, by virtue of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there are two ways in which a cross-community vote can be achieved. The first is the 50:50:50 method, outlined in the Bill, while the second requires that the vote be approved by 40 per cent. of Unionists, 40 per cent. of nationalists and 60 per cent. overall of Assembly Members voting.
The first method of achieving a cross-community vote was designated in the 1998 Act to approve the appointment of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. As we have seen, there were difficulties in achieving a vote on that basis. Can the Minister confirm that it is the Government's sincere intention to use that type of cross-community vote when the Assembly asks that policing and justice issues be devolved to it? If so, can he explain why that version was chosen, rather than simply using the wording
As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) mentioned, the Bill specifies that the 50:50:50 procedure should be used. We chose that method because we felt that the procedure for taking
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office in the case of the Minister for criminal justice and policing had in more common with that of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister than any other Department. Correspondingly, the requirement for cross-community support should be reflected in the method of election.
I am reasonably flexible in the matter. Although 50:50:50 was our original choice, the amendment would mean that there were two methods. I have not discussed the election of a criminal justice Minister with any of the parties in Northern Ireland to take their views about what would be acceptable to the Assembly, but I am reasonably content to look into that possibility.