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Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Will the Secretary of State confess that it is regrettable that the
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new creature created by the Bill has been christened "the Assembly"? It gives the inaccurate impression that this is the Northern Ireland Assembly back in "shadow" mode, and of course it is nothing of the kind. Does the Secretary of State regret that?

Mr. Hain: I am sorry; I am always reluctant to disagree with the hon. Lady, but I do not regret it at all. A body consisting of 108 elected Members of the Legislative Assembly will meet, and I do not know what we could call it other than an Assembly.

I am encouraged by early discussions with the parties to believe that there is a serious intention to make the Assembly work. Today we are making available an illustrative set of initial Standing Orders, on which we shall work further before 15 May. They can readily be supplemented at a later stage if need be, and if parties or individual Members have any comments, we shall be glad to take them on board. I am ready to refer to the Assembly a range of matters that will feature among the key concerns of a new devolved Administration. As I have said, we would take account of the Assembly's views on such matters, especially if they had cross-community support. They might include education reform, local government reform, water charges or rates rises. They might also include modifications to the institutions.

Northern Ireland's business community has presented the Prime Minister and me with an interesting policy agenda for economic reform. We have suggested that it would be a suitable matter for business leaders to present to the Assembly soon after 15 May. Obviously, if the Assembly were then to work on and agree a serious and costed economic policy reform programme, the Government would be obliged to consider it seriously.

We have been pressed to say that we would automatically give effect to views expressed by the Assembly. We as a Government are accountable in this place for the good government of Northern Ireland pending the restoration of devolution, and it would be wrong for us to have our hands tied completely. We cannot be accountable both to this Parliament and to an Assembly that is not even fully restored, and where there is little incentive to make the tough decisions that are needed. It is obvious, however, that a cross-community view from the Assembly would be very influential with us. The sooner devolution is restored, the sooner the Assembly will have complete authority over such issues.

I have been pressed to say why we are proceeding on matters such as education and local council reform when the Assembly could and should determine those matters. My answer is that our measures are absolutely necessary in the public interest and as I am far from certain that some of their most vociferous opponents are actually willing to restore the Assembly, why should I let them have their cake and eat it by delaying the reforms? Either they want to determine these policies, or they do not. If they do, let them get on with it and restore the institutions as soon after 15 May as possible. The longer they delay, the more irreversible these reforms will be,
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and the more I will have to decide the detail rather than leaving it to Assembly Members. It is their choice, not mine.

Lembit Öpik: The Secretary of State has made an interesting point. Will he confirm, for the sake of absolute clarity, that he would be willing to countenance self-determination in the education system in regard to whatever reforms may take place if the Assembly sits again? I ask because if that is the case, it surely gives those involved in education a strong incentive to restore the Assembly so that they can determine for themselves what happens to, for example, selection.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am grateful for the opportunity that he has given me to spell out the position even more clearly than I have already. If restoration is achieved very quickly after 15 May, as I hope it will be, the order abolishing the 11-plus will not have gone through Parliament. A restored Assembly will then have the opportunity to decide what it wants to do about education policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with me, but I happen to think that the policy is right, and is in the interests not just of those who do well at the top of the education ladder but of those who do terribly at the bottom. In any event, I think that that is an appropriate decision for a restored Assembly to make. However, because I believe that abolition is in the public interest in Northern Ireland, I will not delay in the hope that the Assembly may be restored at some point; next year, the following year or whenever people get around to it.

My message is absolutely clear. Some may think it blunt, but it is clear. If people want to make decisions for themselves, let them get on with making those decisions for themselves.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hain: I give way to a Member of the Assembly whom I invite to be precisely that.

Sammy Wilson: Does the Secretary of State not also accept that the converse is true? The more that he pushes through unpopular measures that the Assembly cannot change, the less incentive there is to have an Assembly. It will be incapable of doing the very things that people want it to do, anyway, because he has pushed through these unpopular changes.

Mr. Hain: That may or may not be true of a couple of important issues, but let us consider education policy, in which the hon. Gentleman takes a close and expert interest; indeed, I pay tribute to him in that regard. As I understand it, he disagrees fundamentally with the abolition of the 11-plus. However, even if the relevant order goes through because restoration of the Assembly does not occur before the order completes its parliamentary process, there are still a whole series of other matters to be decided, such as exactly what the new admissions arrangements will be and exactly what role the pupil profile will play. Some of those matters will be determined by further legislation, and others simply by policy implementation. So it is not true that there is less of an incentive to restore the Assembly; there
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is more of an incentive, because the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues can then tailor the policy exactly as they wish. The same point applies, by the way, to local government reform, water charges and a range of other issues.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, who, as always, is very courteous in giving way. Would it not be a logical extension of his carrot-and-stick policy to say that no orders will be introduced in this House until the November deadline, given that, as he made plain to me earlier, that is a real deadline?

Mr. Hain: I am afraid that, for a variety of reasons, that is not possible. For example, there is a yawning gap in the financing of Northern Ireland's water and sewerage system, and a gap in the provision of public financing, both of which can be filled through water charges. If we do not proceed in this way, we will leave a massive hole in the budget from April 2007. Here, the disagreement is not so much one of policy; whatever Opposition politicians may say, privately, they recognise the need for the action that we are taking. However, if there is an alternative view on how low-income families should be treated—an alternative to the special subsidies that we are providing them with—we will happily listen to it. I repeat; none of this is set in stone. Issuing one Order in Council may set a framework, but it does not establish the whole picture. Consequential legislation will have to be implemented by this House if we cannot achieve restoration, or by a restored Assembly if we can.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. He is talking about an issue of fundamental importance. He must acknowledge, in the light of our recent history, that some of the measures that have been implemented through Orders in Council and other non-democratic methods have been opposed on a cross-community, cross-party basis. This has to be a black and white issue. Is he saying that if there is cross-community, cross-party opposition to a measure referred to the Assembly, such opposition will stop it in its tracks?

Mr. Hain: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of the review of public administration and local government reorganisation, which is the only such example that I can think of, although he perhaps puts water charges into the same category. That policy, which has enormous merit, is supported by the business community, the voluntary sector and independent assessors. It provides for coterminosity in policing and health, thereby putting Northern Ireland in a unique position, compared with the rest of the UK, in delivering joined-up services locally. Of course, neither the hon. Gentleman nor his party is to blame for the current situation, but I should point out that, if people do not like the policies, they should get into power and take such decisions for themselves.

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