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Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for the explanation of that amendment. Does he accept that there is a disincentive to proceed with any Assembly if such matters are pushed through in the meantime, anyhow, and therefore it would be important for the amendment to be accepted?

Mark Durkan: I take fully the hon. Gentleman's point. It is the corollary of the point that I have just made—it is the other side of the coin. Given the point that the Government are at in pushing through some of these disagreeable measures, people might well have cause to allow the failure of the exercise so that they do not have to take responsibility for managing and steering those affairs from then on. So long as they can blame somebody else for that failure, they are home in a boat, as they would see it. I take his point and I hope that the Secretary of State is persuaded by the fact that there is a clear, strong argument, in terms of realpolitik, for this particular amendment.

I will not speak to the amendments that we do not support. In this group, we are supportive of the amendments from the Ulster Unionist party on ensuring that the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers is carried out absolutely on the basis that was specified in the Good Friday agreement.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): May I put on the record my deep appreciation of the House authorities and, in particular, the Public Bill Office for accepting amendments at very short notice? The Bill was introduced and published only last Thursday. By virtue of the fact that it was introduced so late, amendments had to be late, but I appreciate, most sincerely, the great leniency that has been shown by the Public Bill Office.

May I also say what a delight it is to see the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), and also the Secretary of State in their places—for the entire debate, we hope? May I just say to the Secretary of State that I do know that there has been a death in his family? I extend my deepest condolences to him and I am sure that they will be shared by everyone in the House.

We have a lively debate ahead of us and a number of the amendments that stand in my name are in this first group, under clause 1, "Preparations for restoration of devolved government". I will briefly indicate what the amendments relate to and then speak to them in more detail. Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 deal with the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, which I wish to see carried out by means of a joint election, with both names on the same ticket.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 deal with the name of the new creature that we discussing. As I indicated yesterday, I find it disturbing that the Bill, the Secretary of State and the Minister constantly refer to this new creature as the Assembly. In the minds of the people of Northern Ireland, that conjures up the idea that it is the same as the Northern Ireland Assembly. Of course, it is a very pale shadow of the former Northern Ireland Assembly; it is a talking shop. Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 seek to christen it a "Forum" rather than an assembly.

Amendments Nos. 23 and 25, which stand in my name, deal with the election of the Presiding Officer. I take exception to the Secretary of State taking to himself
 
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even more power. I know that those concerns are shared by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). We have not had discussions in the Tea Room about elections, but I hope that he and the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) will support the taking away of additional Executive powers from the Secretary of State, which is what is embodied in my amendments.

Amendment No. 24 deals with the replacement of any Presiding Officer. Again, the Secretary of State is taking the power to replace any Presiding Officer or deputy, or to fill a vacancy. I hope that I will have the support of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) for amendment No. 26, which would remove the power of the Secretary of State to control proceedings in the Assembly by directions. Amendment No. 27 deals with the privilege of Members of the Legislative Assembly. I admit that it is a probing amendment, but its purpose is to find out why when MLAs take up their posts in the new body and sit again in Stormont, their statements will have limited privilege.

1.30 pm

Perhaps I can deal with the amendments in reverse order. If anything emphasises to the entire House that the new creature will not be the old Assembly, it is paragraph 6 of schedule 1, which amendment No. 27 would remove. The provision sets out the limited privilege that will be attached to statements made by the 108 MLAs. I think that I am right in saying that all Democratic Unionist party Members who sit in the House are also Assembly Members. Indeed, apart from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), all Social Democratic and Labour party Members are Assembly Members. They will be curious to find that the law is being redrafted to reduce what can be said with privilege in the new Assembly.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 could be described as the constitution of Northern Ireland because, according to its long title, it is the main piece of legislation for the "government of Northern Ireland". The Secretary of State and Assembly Members will know that according to section 50 of that Act:

The 108 MLAs thus have absolute privilege, but paragraph 6 of schedule 1 will take that away. This does not affect me, as the Member for North Down, because I do not sit in the Assembly, but I am genuinely worried about why the 108 Assembly Members who return will find that their privilege has suddenly been reduced.

According to paragraph 6 of schedule 1:

Will the Secretary of State or the Minister kindly comment on the impact that the provision might have on any publication of the new Assembly, or, indeed, any media coverage of its proceedings? Why will the absolute privilege attached to Members of the old Northern Ireland Assembly—the proper Assembly—not carry through to the new creature?
 
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Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): I have sympathy with the hon. Lady and hope to support amendment No. 26, which she tabled, in due course. Does she know how the question of privilege for the Assembly relates to what goes on in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?

Lady Hermon: I, as the Member for North Down, could not possibly comment on the business and proceedings of the Welsh Assembly, but we are greatly honoured and benefited by having in the Chamber a Secretary of State who is not only Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but Secretary of State for Wales. I am sure that his knowledge also extends to the Scottish Parliament, so we look forward to clarification of the situation for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly from the person who is best qualified to comment.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I cannot speak for the Welsh Assembly, but I assure the hon. Lady that the Scottish Parliament has absolute privilege.

Lady Hermon: That is most helpful.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I think that the hon. Lady will find that the same applies to the Welsh Assembly.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful for those two interventions.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP) rose—

Lady Hermon: I might as well take a third intervention, especially as I am sure that it will be helpful.

Mr. Robinson: I hope that the hon. Lady does not cancel our engagement for tea.

Does the hon. Lady realise that the Northern Ireland Assembly still holds full privilege? We are discussing not that Assembly, but a new creation with a specific purpose. The Government judge that the purpose for which the new Assembly will be sitting may not require full privilege. What distinction does she draw between that full privilege and the privilege that will be extended to the new Assembly, which will require people to prove that malice was intended? How on earth will that be short of full privilege? I suspect that no one will be able to prove that someone has made a statement with malice in mind.


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