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Sir Patrick Cormack: As always, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his impeccable courtesy. Two issues seem to have become slightly mixed up. I agree that there is division over the education reforms, but my observations and conversations lead me to believe that a majority is in favour of amending the 11-plus while maintaining the status quo in respect of selective schools. The Assembly should be able to perpetuate that system, if that is its wish. However, given that the three Northern Ireland parties represented and participating in this House are of one mind about the proposal for seven local authorities, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will assure me that we are not absolutely fixed on that number, whatever Parliament has decided. After all, Parliament can always re-examine a matter and reach a different decision about it, and he can always table further Orders. If the Assembly perpetuates the apparent alliance that exists, he should respond to the questions about the seven authorities.
Mr. Hain: Parliament has decided on the boundary commissioner's remit, and I have explained how the Assembly will be able to influence the subsequent pattern and delivery of local government. Further legislation is needed: I hope that the Assembly will undertake it and that we do not have to introduce it by Order in Council here.
The RPA reform proposal has not been picked out of a paper bag, as it were, to satisfy one party. I might add that the party involvedSinn Fein, in this casecame to support the proposal very belatedly, and I assure the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that its support was not material to the decision, which was reached after wide consultation and independent assessment.
I do not want to go too far into the matter, but it has been raised and deserves a proper response. The pattern of seven councils was chosen because the local government structure in Northern Ireland needs a strong revenue base that is more or less equal between authorities. There will be no need for cross-subsidy between them, but there will be coterminosity in respect of policing and health. Various other factors apply, and I repeat that the proposal for seven authorities was not made to satisfy one particular party.
Lady Hermon: The Secretary of State has been very generous about giving way. He made a passing reference a few minutes ago to the creation of a business committee. Would he care to elaborate on the construction of that committee? Will it be a revamped and resurrected version of the one that sat in the real Northern Ireland Assembly, or will it be a creation under his direction?
Over the past week or so, I have discussed the idea of the business committee with all the parties involved, and it has received unanimous support. The
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committee will be made up of representatives of the major parties, in the proportions that the hon. Lady would expect, and I expect it to operate by consensus. Its first meeting is due to be held early next week and, as part of the preparatory process, the Presiding Officer is to meet the party Whips tomorrow. I want to allow the parties in the Assembly to take charge of running it, but I do not want it to implode right away, because there is the possibility that factionalisation will occur immediately if the matter is not handled carefully. I am encouraged by the response from the parties, all of which want to establish the Assembly with dignity and certainty in its early days.
Lady Hermon: I have a broad smile on my face because the Secretary of State has confirmed that the Presiding Officer will be able to bring together in the same room the Whips from the DUP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and other parties in the Assembly.
On the themes raised by the hon. Member for North Down, the Assembly that will sit on 15 May will have different powers from those of the Assembly under devolution. As she has said, I will have wide discretion about how the Assembly will operate, which is entirely defensibleit would not be defensible in any permanent arrangement, but this is not a permanent arrangement. The Assembly will not operate in the manner set out in the Bill after 24 November, but we hope that it will have moved on well before that.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was kind enough to pay tribute to our working relationship in this House, and I value his counsel greatly. He suggested that the arrangements give priority to Sinn Fein, but that is expressly not the case. We are trying to square a circle between nationalists and republicanswho did not want a shadow Assembly and who made it emphatically clear that they would not turn up in those circumstancesand Unionistswho wanted oneand this particular mongrel is a product of those circumstances.
As a default position, I have powers as Secretary of State over the choice of Speaker and what matters are referred to the Assembly. However, nothing would delight me more than acting not as a commissar, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has jocularly suggestedby the way, I was mortally wounded by that suggestionbut as a facilitator with a default power to make sure that things move forward.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has asked whether the Assembly could replace my appointee as Presiding Officer, and the Bill makes express provision for that eventuality in paragraph 3(1)(b) and paragraph 3(2) of schedule 1. I have suggested to the parties that we should not turn to that question for the present, because the last thing that the Assembly needs is some kind of squabble, although I have not seen any
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evidence that there would be any disagreement with Eileen Bell's appointment. I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it would not be sensible to argue about that matter at the outset, and the same procedure was followed last time. If there is a widespread wish after the summer either to confirm Eileen Bell's appointment or make a different decision, it will be possible to provide for that. After devolution, which I hope will come before the summer, the Assembly will be master of the question and will be free to elect another Presiding Officer. I mean no disrespect to Eileen Bell in raising that matter, and I am sure that the same is true of the hon. Gentleman.
It is widely accepted that there are few alternatives. We need the Assembly to select an Executive in order to pave the way for stable devolved Government. If we had reintroduced the Assembly by ending direct rule under the Northern Ireland Act 2000, and so ending the authority of Ministers and the special legislative powers, we might have created chaos. Ministers would have been selected by the d'Hondt procedure, but it is far from guaranteed that all parties would have put forward Ministers in the present circumstancesin fact, we all know that they would not have done. Consequently, we would have risked having a serious community imbalance. At the very first opportunity for more than three and a half years, we would have marched ourselves straight into a crisis. That would not be a sensible way in which to begin the difficult task of restoring trust as the basis for the restoration of the institutions.
Although we hope that an election to the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be possible within six weeks, there must be doubt about that, and if it did not happen, under the scheme of simple restoration, there would necessarily have been an Assembly election, which few people would think a good idea in itself and which would be most unlikely to advance matters. I make no apology for our having brought the Assembly back without its formal powers so that it can discuss in a calmer and more focused atmosphere the way forward to selecting an Executive, and people who will not have worked together for nearly four years can begin to experience it again and to build the necessary trust.
As to the breadth of the discretion that I am given under the Bill, it is wideI make no secret of thatin the same way as it was in 1998 when the Assembly first met. In an ideal world, no doubt all the issues coveredthe election of the Presiding Officer, times and places of meetings, the preparation of a set of Standing Orders to meet the needs of the Assembly in its current phase, where the parties sat, and so onwould have been resolved by the parties themselves. However, everybody knows that in present circumstances that could have been extraordinarily protracted, and we do not have the time. It would not be the proper way in which to start off this very important phase of getting devolved Government going again in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly must come back and concentrate on its core task of moving us towards devolution. At that stage, of course, all these arrangements fall back into the hands of the Assembly. Under the scheme of the Bill, the Standing Orders that applied in 2002 at the moment of suspension will come back into effect, displacing those
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that I have made. It will control its own business and it can elect its own presiding officer, as I have made clear. At that stage, there will necessarily be a greater degree of common purpose among the parties, because they will have succeeded in agreeing the means of returning to devolution, and that is the point at which they can most profitably look at these questions.
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