|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Lady Hermon: I shall endeavour to do so. I do, of course, read the right hon. Gentleman's words in Hansard. I may not agree with half of what he says, but I thoroughly enjoy reading what he says. I therefore expect the DUP and certainly the right hon. Gentleman to support the removal of schedule 1, paragraph 4, which allows the Secretary of State to direct the proceedings of the Assembly. That is not acceptable in any democracy.
Moving on to the election of the Presiding Officer, under the Bill the Secretary of State has the opportunity, and he has taken the opportunity, to appoint a Presiding Officer. Schedule 1, paragraph 3 states:
to do so. I wish to remove the power of the Secretary of State to appoint a Presiding Officer and Deputies, and to ensure that that is the task of the 108 Assembly Members. That is what they are there for. According to section 39 of the 1998 Act, which, I repeat, is the constitution of Northern Ireland and sets out the governance of Northern Ireland,
I was delighted to receive a draft copy of the standing orders, which arrived in my office this morning. Before the Bill has seen much daylight and before it has been seen or discussed in the other place, it is rather unusual procedure that the Secretary of State has already sent out draft standing orders for consultation. I wonder where the authority came from for him to do so.
27 Apr 2006 : Column 750
"Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the offices without the support of a majority of the members voting in the election, a majority of designated Nationalists voting and a majority of the designated Unionists voting."
Mr. Clifton-Brown : On a point of order, Sir Michael. I understood that it was a convention of the House that if the Government sent out papers that were to be discussed in a debate, those papers should be available to the whole Committee. As far as I am aware, the papers are not available in the Vote Office or on the Table of the House. Could you ask the Minister to make them available as soon as possible so that we can benefit from them in the debate?
Mr. Hain: I am grateful, Mr. Lord. [Hon. Members: "Sir Michael."] I am grateful, Sir Michael, and apologise for that discourtesy. I circulated the draft standing orders in good faith to all Members of the Legislative Assembly and made it clear in my statement last week that I intended to do that on publication, which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) may not have heard. I am happy to make them available to him or to anybody else. No disrespect was intended to anybody. A copy is available in the Library.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I begin by speaking to amendment No. 4, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and is a probing amendment. It is linked to amendment No. 5, in that it deals with the extent to which the Assembly can decide matters for itself. We are curious about the phrase
Does that mean that the Assembly will be able to choose a Presiding Officer or deputies not of the Secretary of State's choosing if it so wishes, or will the Assembly be able only to confirm the Secretary of State's choices? That is important.
27 Apr 2006 : Column 751
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the previous Speaker was universally admired and respectedI see a smile leaking from those on the DUP Benchesand he did not stay long enough, but he has gone now. I pay tribute in advance to Eileen Bell, who I think will be a superb Presiding Officer, but if the Assembly wanted to change that appointmentI hope it would notwould it have the capacity to do so? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 were tabled by the SDLP. "Command Paper 3883", as we know, is the Good Friday agreement. I am slightly concerned that the aim behind the amendments might be to ensure that no changes are made to the operation of the Assembly and the Good Friday agreement.
It is recognised that there have been difficulties in the operation of certain aspects of the agreement. Perhaps the most obvious of those was the use of designations. Who can forget the fiasco of autumn 2001, when members of the Alliance party had to pretend to be Unionists for five minutes in order to facilitate the election of a First and Deputy First Minister? That occurred despite the fact that over 70 per cent. of Assembly Members voted for David Trimble and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) to take up those positions. That is fundamentally wrong. If the amendments would prevent a change, they would enshrine some rather bad practice.
Mark Durkan: I wish the amendments, if they are made, would have the effect of preventing any changes. They would not. The Secretary of State told us earlier that much of the Bill reproduces much of what was in the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, and the amendment does the same: it reproduces a provision that was in the original Act.
Rev. Ian Paisley: Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that when the Deputy First Minister resigned, his resignation was mentioned at the Dispatch Box, and eulogies were offered. The then Secretary of State discovered that he had not resigned at all, and his motor car, free phone and all his servants had to be reinstated. That was approved by the House, and anyone who voted against it was regarded as a leper.
Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman makes a self-contained point, and we hear him loud and clear. His youthful exuberance is a delight in these debates and his impish cheekiness lifts everyone's spirits. I hope he will retain those characteristics as he matures.
To return to past mistakes, the Bill provided an opportunity to solve the problem of designation, which, I accept, was proposed as a way of ensuring cross-community consent. However, it contributes to the
27 Apr 2006 : Column 752
reinforcement of sectarian divisions. A system of designation presumes that everyone fits neatly into a category, but it ignores pluralism and means that the votes of people representing cross-community parties do not have the same value as those of Unionists and nationalists. That basic lack of equality is contrary to the spirit of the original agreement, and to the spirit of European anti-discrimination standards. It is quite wrong that the votes of Assembly Members who refuse to subscribe to the sectarian labels of "Unionist" or "nationalist" count for less than those of Members who accept those titles. I am therefore concerned lest we enshrine previous bad practice in the Bill by accepting amendments Nos. 7 and 8.
Amendment No. 16 appears to have been tabled to avoid the problem of voting separately for a First Minister and a Deputy First Ministeran arrangement that means, for example, that some parties would actively have to vote for a Sinn Fein candidate. I do not know whether that was the explicit intention of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), but I do not have any difficulty with her proposal. To be honest, I would prefer Ministers to be endorsed collectively, rather than individually, because that reinforces the belief that they should work together.
Amendment No. 17 deals with the age-old problem of deciding how individuals should be elected to office. We have still not got to grips with that problem, which is not just about redesignation. The Secretary of State may wish to explain why 70 per cent. of all Assembly Members can vote for a candidate, yet for that candidate not to be elected.
The hon. Member for North Down sensibly pointed out the difference between a forum and an assembly, thus highlighting the inevitable confusion caused by using the same word for both. The Government have some form on this issue. The Secretary of State is also the Secretary of State for Wales, so he will remember a recent debate on the Government of Wales Bill. I tabled an amendment proposing that we call the Welsh Assembly "the Welsh Senedd", but the Government rejected it, because they argued that the building in which the Assembly operates is a Senedd, so it would be confusing to call the Assembly the same thing. They appear to have taken exactly the opposite view in the Northern Ireland Bill, and have decided to use one word for two things that are clearly not the same.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|