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Lady Hermon: Not only did the hon. Gentleman not please me in his response to my first intervention, but I am sure that he will not please me in his response to my second. Am I correct in understanding that he has told the House that the Liberal Democrats now support, in a democracy, the shifting of the date of a scheduled election at the whim of the Secretary of State? Is that now the policy—a changed policy, a U-turn—of the Liberal Democrats?

Lembit Öpik: No, it is not. It is a judgment. The hon. Lady asked a serious question and I will give her a serious answer. That is exactly why I was dubious about this at the start. However, there is a specific reason why I can live with the change on this occasion. In practical terms, there simply would not be enough time for the Assembly to bed down. If the Assembly elections were to take place in May 2007, there would necessarily be an additional friction in the bedding-down process, because political parties would vie for advantage instead of working together to consolidate what will almost certainly be a fragile democratic environment as the Assembly seeks to work. I note that the hon. Lady feels very strongly about that, and she is perfectly entitled to hold that view, but I counsel her to consider the practicalities of forcing an election agenda on top of a fresh, re-established and perhaps slightly volatile Assembly so soon, with the previously scheduled election date.

Mr. Donaldson: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that when I was a member of the Ulster Unionist party, the then leader of that party, the former Member for Upper Bann, begged the Secretary of State to postpone the election in May 2003 and then begged him again to postpone the election in November 2003. Thankfully, the Secretary of State did not give way on that occasion. It seems that the Ulster Unionist party has changed its policy on shifting election dates.

Lembit Öpik: I remember making common cause with the Democratic Unionist party on that occasion, and saying that that was going to be a massive own goal for the Government. I think that the word most used at the    time was "gerrymandering". It looked like gerrymandering to try to support the perceived allies of the Government's agenda at the time. I do not hold the hon. Member for North Down responsible for her former leader's decision, but it is important that we learn the lessons from that. If there is one absolutely
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certain reason not to change election dates, it is if the change is being made to try to manage or engineer a particular outcome.

Lady Hermon rose—

Lembit Öpik: I will give way, but I hope that we do not go too far from the content of the Bill.

Lady Hermon: Just in case there is any confusion or doubt, I am a very poor lookalike for the former right hon. Member for Upper Bann. Reflecting on the point that the hon. Gentleman has made about the inconvenience, difficulty and pressure that an election might put on political parties, I must say, with the greatest respect to him, that elections are for the people to express their will—[Hon. Members: "Absolutely."] They are not for the convenience of political parties.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady makes her point, and other hon. Members make their points. On this occasion, we think that there is a point in changing the election date. The Government have paid the price for what they have tried to do in the past. I remember congratulating the Democratic Unionist party on running a very good election campaign and smiling to myself because I suspect that at the time, the outcome was exactly the opposite of what the Prime Minister had intended.

The Bill is fairly short, but it has significant potential consequences. I want to highlight one very serious danger. If the Government do not succeed in re-establishing the Assembly, they must do something about how Northern Ireland is managed through direct rule. In the failure scenario, it would be utterly unacceptable for Orders in Council to be used to decide the future of 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland.

The Minister knows how resentful many of us have become—and not just about the overloaded business agenda, which the Government seem willing to impose gratuitously on those of us who do not have the benefit of the Northern Ireland Office preparing our briefings. The Minister will also know that this all-or-nothing approach towards profoundly important and constitutionally significant legislation in Northern Ireland is not democratic at all. To an extent, Ministers have already squandered much of the good will that we have tried to show in helping them to do their business, but if it looks as if we have not got an Assembly, we cannot carry on like this.

I hope that the Minister will provide some kind of an indication, either by intervening or in his winding-up speech, that the Government will take a more inclusive and democratic approach than they have done so far.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to him and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) to say that we are happy to look at the matter. The Government find the process of Orders in Council unsatisfactory on occasions, too.

Lembit Öpik: I am delighted that we violently agree. Actions speak louder than words, and I hope that we
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can have those conversations in parallel with any negotiations that take place after the Bill is passed. If the Minister has good ideas on how we can make the process better, there is no reason why we should wait until 24 November to implement them, because we could start doing that now.

I look forward to tomorrow's short Committee and Report stages—

Sir Patrick Cormack At this rate we will still be here.

Lembit Öpik: I look forward to hearing other speakers, too.

More than anything, the Minister can be assured that we want a restored Assembly. I hope—perhaps I may even suggest this to the DUP—that there will be sufficient common cause in the interest of preventing the Government from running Northern Ireland like an old-fashioned Commonwealth outpost. Until we restore the Assembly, there is a significant risk that the Government will impose their will on many occasions, against the unanimous opposition of all politicians in Northern Ireland.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I owe the House an unqualified apology. At Prime Minister's questions today, I put questions to the Prime Minister that were based on an alleged incident at a prison in Stockton-on-Tees. The information had been relayed to me by an apparently reliable source and I accepted it in good faith. I now understand that my information was inaccurate, and I apologise for any embarrassment or inconvenience that I might have caused. I have written to the Home Secretary himself to make an apology in such terms as I have indicated to the House. I understand that the convention of the House requires a Member to come to the Chamber as soon as possible when he or she realises that something of this kind might have taken place, and I have sought to do that. I repeat my apology to the House for inadvertently relying on information that has now been demonstrated to me to have been inaccurate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for coming to the Chamber as soon as he has to put the record straight and feels that that is characteristic of the way in which he conducts himself in the House.

3.41 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Government Ministers know that we believe that the proposals for which the Bill provides do not go far enough. It is a matter of record that we wanted the British and Irish Governments to be firmer and to go further. We wanted a real restoration date so that parties knew that they were on a countdown to restoration, which would be the biggest possible reality conditioner. Of course, the Bill provides not for that, but for an Assembly that is not restored, but convened on a different basis. It provides for an Assembly that is almost legally distinct from that provided for in the agreement. We are told that the Assembly will not be a shadow Assembly, so it will not even be a shadow of its former self.
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We know that the rules of the game—I am not a golfer—are that the ball must be played where it lies. When we believe that the Governments have not gone far enough, we will take what is in front of us as far as possible in the direction of securing the full and proper implementation of the Good Friday agreement. We will test the Bill. We will also test the Assembly and its arrangements. We will test other parties in the Assembly and will no doubt be tested by other parties, too. When taking things forward as far as we can, we will not go down any cul-de-sacs or go off on excursions and diversions that only distract us from the real primary task—the key job—of delivering what the people voted for when they voted for both the institutions of the Good Friday agreement and all the parties since then, because they voted for all the parties to take the powers available to them according to their mandate in the context of the institutions.

Of course, the key question is whether the Bill offers a definite path to restoration, or simply a temporary, dead-end talking shop. Given what we have seen and heard to date, it might offer either. There could be a path to restoration because if the Assembly elects a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and runs d'Hondt, and if everyone takes the pledge of office, the Secretary of State, under the Bill, must restore the institutions. We would welcome that. We want those things to happen, so we will be there for the Assembly proceedings to try to make that happen.

On the other hand, the Secretary of State has power to refer "such other matters" to the Assembly as he "thinks fit". That was dealt with by the two Governments in a statement earlier this month and last week in Parliament by the Secretary of State, who said that the Government would "take account" of motions passed with cross-community support on matters such as water rates and the review of public administration. What confidence can parties or the public have in such variable indications from the Secretary of State, when the Government have consistently failed to respect the combined will of parties on a cross-community basis on water rates, industrial de-rating and the review of public administration? They ignore clear and manifest views outside the Assembly, and it appears that the Secretary of State has given himself and Ministers the right to continue to ignore such views, even within the Assembly as constituted by the Bill. It has not been clarified whether "take account" means abiding by the express cross-community will of the Assembly.

We have tabled a probing amendment to give the temporary Assembly a power by cross-community vote to veto orders, effectively giving it the power of negative resolution on a cross-community basis. If the Secretary of State wants to encourage us to believe that we will have a meaningful and effective role in the Assembly, I look forward to his accepting our amendment. Earlier, he said that if the Assembly were not restored in November, proceedings would begin to wind it up. He said that allowances would be stopped, and referred to people being paid for not doing their job. He should remember that many Assembly Members did not cause suspension or choose it. Some of them even gave up better-paid jobs to take elected office, and they have lost out ever since. The Secretary of State does not impress anyone by talking in dismissive terms that many people find insulting.
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Some of us submitted proposals more than two years ago that would enable us to do a full job as a legislative assembly. We would oversee the work of Departments, control the budget and deal with legislation. We would not have direct rule. Even if parties would not form an Executive, local people would act as accountable Ministers. Our proposals would therefore enable us to do what we were elected to do and what we are paid to do. However, the Government and others made sure that that did not happen, so the wagging and pointing of fingers are not particularly helpful.

I concur with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) in taking issue with the postponement of elections. Bizarrely, only last month, the Secretary of State said that power was needed to bring the date of elections forward to cement progress. Now, however, he says that power is needed definitively to postpone the date of elections to cement progress. I have a funny feeling that, whatever happens, the Government will revisit the issue, because if the institutions are restored someone will engineer an election before May 2008, as the way in which the institutions work means that they will be in a position to do so.

We do not believe that the timing of elections should be rejigged at will. Like others, we opposed the postponement of elections. We opposed the original four-week postponement in May 2003, and certainly the second, longer postponement. Others were loud in their opposition to postponement, but they are silent now. I wonder how far the new date reflects any other agreement or understanding that the Government now have.

Restoration is the big challenge that we all face. As the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) reflected earlier, the important principle for all of us must be that we as elected representatives and as democrats share responsibility for governing our affairs now and into the future.

In the previous experience of devolution, institutions worked. People had their doubts about whether the inclusive arrangements could work. People had their doubts about whether the need for cross-community support on matters as basic as budgets and programmes for government would work. It would be a tower of Babel, there would be gridlock and it would all fall apart. The fact is that it worked, even when not all Ministers were in the Executive, and so on.

The Government and all parties in the House, including the Liberal Democrats, need to remember that there were no issues to do with the working of the institutions that caused suspension. Suspension did not come because of how strand 1 works, how strand 2 works or how strand 3 works. Suspension came because of issues outside the institutions.

Parties and Governments are on a dangerous course if they are inviting people to go through a menu of preconditions relating to changes to the workings of the agreement as further preconditions for restoration. If the issues that caused suspension have been dealt with and are out of the way, we should be on course for restoration, but the idea that we are undertaking a pub crawl of preconditions to change this bit of the agreement and that bit of the agreement to satisfy the Democratic Unionist party mandate is a dangerous misadventure.
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I fully respect the DUP's mandate. I want the DUP to have everything to which it is entitled for its mandate under the Good Friday agreement, and that is a lot. I have never tried to deny the DUP what it is entitled to under the agreement. However, I will not accept the rest of us being denied what we are entitled to under the agreement. The DUP has rights under the Good Friday agreement. It does not have rights over the Good Friday agreement.

With regard to changes in the workings of institutions, that can all happen in the context of restoration and the DUP will be in a very strong position, whether in reviewing the agreement or in a working Assembly, to help to oversee changes and adjustments in the workings of the institutions. Indeed, we, the Social Democratic and Labour party, have proposed many changes and adjustments in the working of the Assembly, the Executive and so on. There is a difference between making those adjustments in the context of working institutions when everyone has confidence in each other's position, and granting gratuitous changes to the agreement as a precondition for restoration.

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