The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the decision in relation to maternity services in Belfast. He has misrepresented the facts of that situation. Everybody agreed that a decision had to be taken on one side or the otherthe position could not
27 Apr 2006 : Column 769
be sustained on two sides. There was going to be no cross-community support available for a decision on one side or the other. The SDLP supported the Minister in taking the decision that she took. Joe Hendron, as the SDLP person who was the chair of the health committee, did not disagree with the Minister on health grounds. His interest was as the chair of the committee, respecting the committee's interest and locus. The other SDLP member of that committee was the representative of South Belfast who disagreed on constituency grounds. So, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents the situation.
Dr. McCrea: The SDLP is saying that its member disagreed on constituency groundsso, it is willing to play with the issue, as well. We should be dealing with the issue on health grounds, and health grounds alone, instead of trying to play around with people's lives and futures.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): May I just bring some semblance of reality to the debate? The then Minister, Barbara Brown, had announced in An Phoblacht, a republican rag sheet, that she was going to locate the maternity services at the Royal Victoria hospital site, even before the committee took its decision to support the Belfast City hospital site. A majority of people voted for the Belfast City hospital site, but the Minister overruled that.
I have to make clear what the hon. Member for Foyle has suggested to the Secretary of State: amendment No. 7 really says, "Listen, irrespective of the will of the people, let us go back to the Belfast agreement." The hon. Member for Foyle had better realise that the Belfast agreement is dead. We have moved on. The people of Northern Ireland, through their electorate, have moved on. That is why his party has three Members in this House, the Democratic Unionist party has nine and the Ulster Unionists have one. It is because the electorate have moved on. We cannot accept a situation in which no cognisance is given to the realities of what is going on and in which there is an attempt to pretend that we must have what has failed in the past. We have to look at the realities, rather than our wish list for the future.
There was a lot of stir about the word "Assembly". Should what we are discussing be called an assembly? Is it a forum, rather than an assembly? In many ways, that is a storm in a teacup. Those who are going to the Assembly are Assembly Members. With the greatest respect, it is not a forum. In 1996, I was elected to a forumthe Northern Ireland Forum. It was a forum and so I was called a Forum Member, not an Assembly Member. No one can call what we are discussing a forum, because I am not a Forum Member. I will be
27 Apr 2006 : Column 770
called there because I am an Assembly Member. That is why the invitation will be issued to me. Why is the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) not invited? Because she is not an Assembly Member. Others will be invited because they are Assembly Members.
The body will not be the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the new Northern Ireland Assembly, but will be the Assembly of the Assembly Members of Northern Ireland. We should not take up time in the House by arguing that the body should be called not the Assembly, but the "Forum", or something else, because no one can call it anything else. Assembly Members will be assembling together because they are Assembly Members.
Lady Hermon: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and disagree with most of what he is saying. He cannot have it both ways. He has said repeatedly that the Belfast agreement is dead, but now claims that time is being wasted discussing whether the new creature is an Assembly or not. Will he kindly accept that as the Northern Ireland Assembly is the creation of the Belfast agreement, the agreement cannot be dead? He is looking forward to getting back into the Assembly created by the Belfast agreement, which is definitely not dead.
Dr. McCrea: We will not carry out a funeral procession today because the funeral for the Belfast agreement was held at the time of the last election. No one is suggesting that the body will be the new Northern Ireland Assembly, but it will be an Assembly of Members who were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a waste of the House's time to try to put another name on the Assembly because only Assembly Members will be invited to it, so I will not spend any more time on that point.
The hon. Member for North Down mentioned the 1998 Act when she talked about bringing the First Minister and Deputy First Ministers together. I know the motives behind the Ulster Unionists' position on that, but, once again, we have to move on. If there is one thing that the hon. Lady should know, it is that the people of Northern Ireland made a decision about the Belfast agreement at the last election. With the greatest respect, no one can resuscitate or revive the agreement because the people, through the ballot box, have moved on.
Just because a decision was taken years ago, are we going to live with the failures of the past? Do we not want a brighter and saner future for our people by moving away from putting criminals and terrorists into government and towards a situation in which the only credential for a person to hold ministerial office is democracy and democracy alone? That is why I ask the House to allow those who were elected as Assembly Members to meet and discuss. I hope that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will take account of not only Assembly Members' decisions, but the wise counsel given by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) when he asked the Secretary of State to hold back on the likes of the offensive decisions on the review of public administration, at least until the November deadline has arrived. The House and the Secretary of State would do well to heed such wise counsel.
27 Apr 2006 : Column 771
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I will be brief because we have had a long debate on the amendments, probably because they are wide ranging. I do not especially want to join in the debate on what the name for the new Assembly should be. There is a little confusion about what the Bill does and it has sometimes been difficult to explain that to people, who have responded by saying, "Oh, so you're setting up a shadow Assembly," and I have replied that it is not quite like that. Although the situation is difficult, I do not want to take up the Committee's time on that issue.
As other hon. Members said, it is important that the Assembly deals with real issues. That will be an incentive to make it work, so that the real Assemblyor the Northern Ireland Assembly, as I should call itcan be set up and full devolution can be realised. If it ends up as a talking shop, which I very much hope it will not, we will not have served the cause of devolution well.
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said. In particular, it is important that we put on hold as many statutory instruments as possible until the Assembly is up and running and fully able to consider those matters. We recently considered water rates and local government, and we are about to consider education. Those are big issues. I do not want to get to the point in November, or, I hope, before then, when devolution is fully triggered, to find that the Assembly is landed with a load of legislation of which it does not approve. That would not be a helpful start.
I appeal to the Secretary of State to allow the Assembly to have something left to do. That is important. However, it is wrong for this House to decide such important matters for the 1.7 million people who live in Northern Ireland. I do my best from the Dispatch Box and in Committee, but I do not have, and do not pretend to have, the knowledge that hon. Members from Northern Ireland have. We all do our best, but we cannot have the same expertise as they have.
On privilege in the Assembly, again, I am not a lawyer, but I would find it odd if the word "malice" remains as a qualification in paragraph 6 of schedule 1. I realise that malice is an important factor in the law on murder, for example, but we are talking about a very different matter when it comes to defamation. To prove that someone said something with malice would be very difficult. I do not think that it should remain in the paragraph.
We would have preferred the Assembly to elect the Presiding Officer, for the reason given by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). He or she would command greater authority, and it would also be fairer for the Assembly and the people who serve in that office.
On the Secretary of State's powers to set the proceedings of the Assembly, it would have been useful for the Bill to include "after consultation with the Presiding Officer." That might have been better, but probably only if the Presiding Officer had been elected by the Assembly, rather than appointed by the Secretary of State, to avoid an incestuous relationship.
We have some concern about the fact that the Secretary of State is taking on extra powers. We seem to be considering so much legislation. Some of it is definitive, but then we come to a clause that says, "The
27 Apr 2006 : Column 772
Secretary of State can do this, that and the other", and think, "Why bother sitting through all the deliberations if he can do that?" I am fearful of that, because it is wrong to vest so much power in any one person. I have no objection to this particular Secretary of State, but it would lead to more statutory instruments, which we all want to avoid. He should think about the powers that he is taking and whether they are going to lead to more statutory instruments. I think we would agree that that would not be a good thing. However, it is a temporary measure, and we do not intend to divide the Committee on it.