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Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I genuinely understand the situation in which Northern Ireland Members find themselves, but this is now a question of priorities. In carrying out their role as elected Northern
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Ireland Members, they need to consider the impact of following to its conclusion the zero-tolerance policy that we have heard about today. They really—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady must sit down. We should not have interventions from a sedentary position, and it is certainly not advisable to respond to them.

Rosie Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The big issue is Northern Ireland Members' priorities. Do they want to do the job for which they were elected, such as dealing with education and local government reorganisation? These are really big questions for Northern Ireland and now, in modern parlance, it really is a question of deal or no deal.

Mr. Hain: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; she has expressed herself eloquently and forcefully. It has been suggested that there is overwhelming or near total opposition to the education reforms, but in fact, there is strong support for them, including from those elected to this House who take their seats. So people should not assume that we are riding roughshod over Northern Ireland opinion by implementing this policy. One section of opinion opposes such education reforms, but another—it includes professionals, educationists, teachers and others—is strongly in favour.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Will he clarify one small point? This new creature—the completely new Assembly that the Bill sets up—could well be christened a talking shop. No matter what resolution or motion is agreed by it, all that it can do before restoration—if such an order is ever made—is to discuss and talk until it is blue in the face. It has no decision-making powers whatsoever. Would the Secretary of State care to confirm that?

Mr. Hain: No, I am afraid that I cannot. Its task is to restore the Executive, which it can do on day one, two, three or four, if it chooses. On the contrary, it has a solemn task of the highest importance: to achieve restoration.

Dr. McCrea: rose—

Mr. Hain: I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have been speaking for a long time. That is because I have taken a lot of interventions. I am being pressed to take another; then, I really must make some progress.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I reinforce the point that the Secretary of State has made. A number of hon. and right hon. Members intend to seek to catch my eye; however, the time that they will have to speak is being reduced with every single intervention.

Dr. McCrea: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Surely the financial black hole to which he referred earlier should not be filled through water charges. The fact is that the lack of infrastructure in the past 30 years was caused by the need to spend money on dealing with 30 years of IRA terrorism. The people should not be penalised.

Mr. Hain: I put it to the hon. Gentleman absolutely straightforwardly—I hope that he will not take this in the
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wrong spirit—that where I and my constituents pay, on average, £1,300 a year in water charges and household council tax, he and his constituents pay some £600 a year in water contributions and household rates. So they are paying less than half what Scottish, Welsh and English Members and their constituents are paying. That is not sustainable if we want a proper, modern water and sewerage system in Northern Ireland that meets future needs and provides clean water and beaches. Moreover, if we want to release up £200 million-worth of spending to put into health and education, we need to raise more finance locally. The same point applies to the rates. That gap—Northern Ireland's households contributing less than half what Great Britain's households contribute—is simply not defensible or sustainable.

The key purpose of the Assembly is to pave the way for a devolved Executive, by electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister; and then running the d'Hondt process. When all concerned have affirmed the pledge of office, including the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, the Bill requires me immediately to make an order restoring devolved government. The newly selected Executive would take up office, and the Assembly would have all its powers and responsibilities restored. The direct rule powers would come to an end; indeed, they would be repealed from the statute book.

If restoration is achieved, we have provided that the Assembly's life should be prolonged for a year beyond May 2007, when an election was due. That is not the sort of step to be taken lightly, but it makes no sense, having laboured for years to restore an Executive, for its members then immediately to have to focus on pre-election positioning and campaigning, instead of focusing on the difficult process of self-government. It is going to be hard enough to build the trust and experience necessary to make the new arrangements work without electoral politics intervening.

Of course, some parties are seeking changes to the arrangements under which devolution would operate. Much the best way forward would be for the parties in the Assembly to resolve those issues among themselves. Under devolution, the Assembly achieved remarkable things with all the parties working together, and in that spirit I am sure that we could overcome the remaining obstacles. We as a Government of course stand ready to contribute to discussions on those issues, and to give effect to the outcome. But accommodation among all the parties is what matters.

If we do not get an Executive by 24 November, the Bill is absolutely unequivocal. The Assembly Members will go home, the May 2007 elections will not take place and, from 24 November, the Assembly Members will receive no pay, though the powers governing that already exist and do not depend on the Bill. We do not believe that it would be justified to pay Members of the Legislative Assembly any resettlement allowance. After three and a half years on generous pay without having been able to carry out their role, the public would not accept MLAs receiving golden handshakes.

It has been put to me that MLAs could face some unavoidable costs, arising after the November deadline, associated with the closure of their offices and the release of their staff. There are existing arrangements for those
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to be reimbursed strictly on the basis of receipted claims. Suggestions that that means a £16,000 retirement package in the back pocket of every MLA are completely misguided. Frankly, however, I am not particularly sympathetic to even those winding up arrangements for office rent, staff and so on. The public are heartily sick of taxpayers' money being doled out to MLAs who will not do their jobs by working together like all other elected politicians across the world.

Mr. Dodds: Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Northern Ireland are also heartily sick of the Government doling out money to Sinn Fein MPs who do not do their work in this House? We are told that they do their constituency work, as do MLAs, but this Government saw fit to introduce payments of hundreds of millions of pounds to Sinn Fein MPs on the same basis as payments to Assembly Members. Is not he being utterly hypocritical?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure that hundreds of millions of pounds is anything like correct. The hon. Gentleman may want to check the accuracy of that assertion. He surely is not suggesting that the fact that Sinn Fein Members have not taken their seats, which I regret—although they continue to do their constituency work—in this House, which has sat for centuries, is the same as Members of the Legislative Assembly refusing to sit together and do the job for which they were elected.

If we failed by 24 November, we would then carry forward the government of Northern Ireland. Of course an Assembly and Executive could at some future year be restored under the original Good Friday arrangements; that is to say, without the fresh basis for which this Bill provides. In that event, the Bill enables an Assembly election to be called later, subject to an affirmative vote in Parliament. But I do not want, and I am not anticipating, failure. I believe that matters need not and will not come to that.

Devolution was a success before. Not only does it tap local resource and initiative in a way that direct rule never can, but it embodies the spirit of working together that is necessary for Northern Ireland to find a truly successful place in a changing world. It says to people at home and beyond that Northern Ireland has moved on, is meeting the challenges of the past on the basis set out in the agreement, and is determined to confront the challenges of the future, for the good of all its people.

I want to stress again that 24 November is for real. The past practice whereby deadlines come and deadlines go is over. This is a time for decision. Either the curtain comes down on the process since 1998 or it rises on a new future. We hope that the parties will have the courage and vision to make sure it rises. They will make their fateful decision, bearing in mind—I hope—what has been achieved in Northern Ireland's politics these past years. That is not democratic perfection; of course not. It is not even normal, modern, democratic politics of the kind operating elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

But it is, nevertheless, the foundations of a new democratic culture embracing everyone from Unionists to nationalists, from loyalists to republicans. It is a democratic culture to replace violence, never before achieved in Northern Ireland's tangled and tortured history. That democratic culture is a precious asset. Its
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foundations have been carefully assembled over the years of painful negotiation, political sacrifices, ups and downs and periodic crises. It is for Northern Ireland's parties now to decide whether they wish themselves to close down that political culture and write off a political generation. I hope that they will not do so, but instead build on it by having the courage to work together and share power together.

2.35 pm

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