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Lady Hermon: I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, which I am sure was intended to be helpful. He helped to clarify and reinforce a point that I made at the start of my comments on the amendment: if any measure in the Bill jumps off the page to reinforce the fact that the body will be not the Northern Ireland Assembly in shadow or devolved mode, but a new creature, it is the change to the law on absolute privilege.
I simply wish to know from the Secretary of State or the Minister the impact that the measure will have on those in the media who genuinely report what is said. According to
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the Bill, the privilege attaches to the Members. Unlike under section 50 of the 1998 Act, it will not extend to publications from the Assembly. The media perhaps have the most to lose financially as a result of the measure, so they may also want clarification.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: While the hon. Lady has been talking, I have had the opportunity to read section 50 of the 1998 Act, which is, indeed, widely drawn. What worries me about paragraph 6 of schedule 1 of the Bill is how intent and malice would be proved. Would it be possible that the measure would put the leader of the Assembly in an invidious position? The leader might become involved in court proceedings to rule on whether something was said with malice.
Lady Hermon: The Secretary of State has already chosen an individual to be the Presiding Officer, although I do not think that he had the authoritycertainly not under the 1998 Actto appoint any individual as a Presiding Officer. I assume that he has discussed the new law on defamation and privilege with the nominated Presiding Officer.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I understand why the hon. Lady is worried about the measure. Although I could have waited until my reply to make this point, it is important that I do so now. The arrangements are exactly the sameI think that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) was alluding to this pointas those that applied in 1998 before we had a fully-fledged Assembly and restoration. All that I am doing is reproducing those arrangements, and I think that it is entirely appropriate to do so.
Lady Hermon: I thank the Secretary of State for his helpful intervention. I just hope that those in the media who intend to reflect and comment on the body's proceedings will do better than they have in recent days by describing the new creature as "the Assembly".
Sir Patrick Cormack: Does not the Secretary of State's intervention underline the fact that the hon. Lady is wise to use the word "creature", because the new Assembly is in every sense the creature of the Secretary of the State? It is not legally elected. It is appointed by him. The Presiding Officer is appointed him. Although its Members will be the Members who were elected to the Assembly, the body that we are discussing is not the Assembly.
The Chairman: Order. I should not have to remind the hon. Gentleman that he should address the Chair. In not doing so, he also takes his voice off microphone, which is a complication for the Official Report.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
May I remind the hon. Lady that I was the first person to bring
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the "creature" to the attention of the House? I called the Minister to attention and told him straight that it was not the old Assembly, but a new creature. The hon. Lady is not the only person to make that great finding. We all know that the body is not the old Assemblyit is not the old Assembly resurrected, even. It is a new body, designed by certain people who feel that this is the way they should go. We are going to take on board what they say and go away, but we will see how far we get.
Lady Hermon: I was not claiming to myself anything new. I was particularly pleased that yesterday, at the beginning of the Secretary of State's contribution on Second Reading, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) was quick off his feet to correct the Secretary of State, who had referred to the Assembly coming back. Lest there by any doubt whatever, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim for pointing out, quite rightly, that we are discussing a new body. I regret it if I suggested otherwise. That was not my intention.
However, the right hon. Gentleman does reinforce the need for amendments Nos. 21 and 22, which would christen the body a "Forum" rather than the "Assembly". I have referred to media reports giving the impression that the new institutionthe new Assemblyis not a different institution. The two are being confused in the minds of the media, at least, but they are certainly not confused in the minds of the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the one Ulster Unionist.
Again, that gives the impression that the new body is the old Assembly, which it clearly is not. That is why my amendments would call the new creaturewith, I am sure, the endorsement of the right hon. Gentlemana forum, or a talking shop, because that would be a more appropriate description than the confusing double title of the Assembly.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP):
I know that the hon. Lady has gone to considerable lengths to prove the nature of the body. Has she looked at the provisions in paragraph 2 of schedule 2, which deals with making the restoration order and, if we so decide in this Assembly, the things that will be carried over to the Northern Ireland Assembly on restoration? In particular, sub-paragraph (8) provides that by virtue of the restoration order, things that have been done here, will be treated as having been done in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
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Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a good point. I have done some homework on schedule 2. He is right. As he will see when we reach a later group of amendments, I am particularly concerned about the pledges of office and, for example, the idea that
as the Presiding Officer of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. I am most taken aback by things that have been deemed to have been done in one place being carried over to the reconstituted Assembly, which I genuinely hope to see.
Rev. Ian Paisley: Is it not right to remember that the Presiding Officer of the Assembly was never elected by the Assembly? He was chosen by the powers that be, and that was never rectified or done away with. He just took his place and stayed thereand for far too long as far as I was concerned.
Lady Hermon: I hope I do not misrepresent the views expressed, but I take it that the DUP, and certainly its leader, would prefer to select the Presiding Officer as it is they who sit in the Assembly, rather than have a Presiding Officer nominated, appointed and swept into power. That is no criticism of the individual herself, but it is an appointment that has been made, and it will be deemed to take effect under the Bill by the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] I take it that that is an endorsement of my point.
Lady Hermon: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic for me to move to the removal of the directions that can be given by the Secretary of State to conduct the proceedings of the Assembly.
I hardly think any hon. Member would take exception to removing such wide Executive powers from the Secretary of State. I was reminded of words, wisely spoken, by the right hon. Member for North Antrim, and I am sure that I will find myself on his Christmas card list by the end of my comments. With reference to, I regret to say, the late Mo Mowlam, the right hon. Member for Redcar and then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he made a helpful statement as far back as 22 April 1998.
"The Secretary of State could sit in her office and say, 'I don't like the way the assembly carried out its business yesterday. Here is a new order. Send that off to the Clerk and call them to order.'
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