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Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for a helpful contribution, in which he legitimately probed a number of points.

For the record, I inform the House that the draft standing orders were in the Vote Office from this morning, they were placed in the Library yesterday and they were circulated to all the parties, so I think I have discharged my obligations in that respect.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) for her reference to the death of my father-in-law, Lieutenant Commander Douglas Haywood. The House will want to know that he served the Navy as a naval commander with great distinction in the second world war and afterwards.

Clause 1 makes it clear that under the Bill the primary task before the Assembly will be to elect a First and Deputy First Minister, and to ensure that the remaining ministerial portfolios are filled upon restoration. It also permits the Secretary of State to refer other matters to the Assembly. Schedule 1 sets out the arrangements under which the Assembly will function in this phase.

Let me make general points about the matters raised by the amendments, before I turn in detail to points raised with me by right hon. and hon. Members. There was a lengthy discussion yesterday about the Assembly's role in relation to current issues that may be referred to it, apart from its central task of selecting an Executive. There was a suggestion that we intended the Assembly merely to be a talking shop. A number of hon.   Members suggested, as has been suggested this afternoon, that in order to confirm that that was not the case, we should amend the Bill so as somehow to give the Assembly formal powers over legislation in the period before restoration.

The Assembly is most definitely not intended to be a talking shop. I disagree flatly with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on the matter. I do not want to debate with him or to make a remark that he may see as provocative, but some of the contributions this afternoon have not taken account of the background to the present position. I made it clear that I would have preferred a shadow Assembly—a period in which we could have built up trust and working together, and then moved to restoration. That was expressly rejected by the SDLP and by Sinn Fein, who wished instead to move straight to restoration, or to try to do so.

I remind the Committee that we have sought to bring the two positions together and get the Assembly going, seeking to achieve the successful election of a First
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Minister and a Deputy First Minister in its early days, and the selection of the Executive as well. We have sought to do that, but not with any great expectation that it would succeed, and then to move forward with a deadline at the end of November.

We hope that the Assembly is a body on the brink of assuming powers over a wide range of economic and social issues in Northern Ireland. That is the objective. The issues that have most often been suggested for referring to it are the ones that are not merely currently important—education and so on—but will raise important questions on the agenda of any devolved Administration and Assembly that assumes power in the near future. Any views that the Assembly expresses from 15 May onwards would need to be listened to very carefully by all concerned, and particular account would have to be taken—I give this assurance—of any that were expressed with cross-community support.

In the nicest way, I remind the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), who advanced his arguments with passion, that I was the one who helped to draft the statement made by both Prime Ministers in Armagh and inserted the specific references to education, water charges, local government and economic policy, and I am the Secretary of State who has arranged for the business community to come and make an early presentation to the Assembly on its case for economic reform. That is an opportunity—to use a phrase mentioned earlier—for real meat to be discussed in the Assembly. In response to representations made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and a cross-party delegation that he brought, to which he referred yesterday on the subject of industrial de-rating, that is also a matter that I would refer to the Assembly.

I cannot make the Assembly discuss anything. I can refer a matter to a business committee, which I hope will be established and operate by consensus, and that will refer the matter to the floor of the Assembly or to working groups, committees or whatever it decides. May I remind the House that as Secretary of State I pressed hardest for the restoration of devolution, as I want those decisions to be made by a fully restored Assembly?

Lembit Öpik: I am encouraged by the Secretary of State's comments. Given his form on devolution in Wales, I do not doubt his intentions. However, he is asking us to trust his commitment to devolution. Surely, the principle of amendment No. 6 should sit comfortably with his own desire to involve the Assembly in decision making. Is he willing to make a commitment to introduce, perhaps on Report or in another place, a formal system that would ensure that the Assembly, which starts on 15 May, plays a role in the decision-making process in Orders in Council? I do not see why he should have a problem with enshrining that in legislation.

Mr. Hain: I cannot agree to that, because we must not confuse lines of accountability. I am responsible for affairs in Northern Ireland, and I am accountable to the House. When the House considers those issues, it is obviously anxious to reflect on the Assembly's views
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but, ultimately, I am answerable, in the absence of a fully restored Assembly, to the House. We should not shackle ourselves.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hain: May I finish this point before accepting interventions, including one from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)?

We all agree that devolution is a good thing, and those decisions are much better made in Belfast, but that cannot happen until there is necessary agreement between the parties on the structures on which devolution is to take place. Halfway houses are not possible. There is ministerial responsibility, either here or in Belfast; it is not possible to have both, or for them both to be statutorily defined, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) wishes. It is possible, however, to ensure that politics is at work in the Assembly and in the heed that my ministerial team and I take of its views; we must ensure that the politics works to move things forward.

I shall give a concrete example of the dilemma that we face before giving way, as I promised. All the parties oppose water charges, and they would like Northern Ireland to be a unique position, in contrast to the rest of the United Kingdom, so that such charges are not levied. That is a legitimate political case. If the Assembly were not fully restored, and I said that it could vote without responsibilities for its decisions, it would vote on water charges in an oppositionalist mode—I hope that that is not an unfair characterisation—if it decided that it did not want water charges. That decision would knock a great big hole in the budget from April next year, when it is proposed that the first tranche of water charges should be phased in. If the Assembly, acting irresponsibly, in the sense that it does not have responsibility for the consequences of its decisions, did not want water charges—I accept that no one likes to pay more money—that would knock a great big hole in the budget for health, education, children's services and agriculture. Decisions that are made therefore have consequences. The Assembly is not yet fully restored, but when we reach a point where it has responsibility, because it has an Executive who can make recommendations, and the parties in the Executive vote accordingly because they know that their decisions have consequences, I am happy for decisions on water charges, the RPA—the review of public administration—education reform and so on to be made by the Assembly.

Sir Patrick Cormack: May I try to pin down the Secretary of State on the RPA? Is he absolutely fixed on the seven new local authorities, or can that number be revised by the Assembly?

Mr. Hain: The House of Commons voted yesterday to provide instructions to the boundary commission to work on boundaries for seven councils. Parliament has therefore made its decision. However, putting that into effect will still require a series of consequential legislative and regulatory measures, which I hope will go through the Assembly.

The situation in respect of education reform is similar. Opposition to the reform proposals has been expressed, quite properly from their point of view, by DUP and
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UPP members, yet they have received strong support from the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the teaching profession, educationists and the business community. That shows that these matters are not as black and white as may sometimes be assumed.

Does the hon. Member for South Staffordshire want to come back on that?

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