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Lady Hermon: Can the Secretary of State point to one section of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that gives the Secretary of State the power, at a transitional period when the Assembly is in shadow mode, to amend or repeal any Act of Parliament and, if he so wishes, to decide that it is expedient to do so without even bringing an order before this House?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady will know better than I do, because she was there at the time, that I am proceeding much as we did in 1998 in terms of the appointment of a Presiding Officer, the drawing up of Standing Orders, and so on. We will discuss the other points that she raised later.

I believe that my powers in this regard are justifiable and necessary. However, we will stay faithful to the procedures of the 1998 Act in the devolved Assembly where we can. That, I hope, comes out in the draft standing orders that we have made available. In particular, the selection of the Executive will follow closely the pattern of the 1998 Act. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the House of Lords has looked at the powers in the Bill, including those that the hon. Member for North Down has questioned. It concluded that they are appropriate in the context of the Bill, but suggested that it would be helpful to have further explanations of the way in which they are to be used. I hope that the details that I am providing, particularly the draft standing orders that we have produced, will provide the necessary reassurance.

The thrust of the Bill is in line with the sense of amendments Nos. 7 and 8, which the hon. Member for Foyle tabled. The measure is precisely about restoring the institutions that the Good Friday agreement established. The principle of fidelity to what was agreed in 1998 is important to SDLP Members—I agree with them—but I hope that they agree that the amendment does not add anything of substance. I hope that, having made their points and got those reassurances from me, they will not press the amendments.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Foyle has strong concerns for good reasons and I therefore also stress that the talks will be all party and inclusive. I have made that point previously and I repeat it now. Whatever has or has not happened in the past, for whatever reason, it is not possible to proceed through side deals. Talks must be on an all-party basis.

Amendment No. 6, which my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle, for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) tabled, proposes that before restoration, the Assembly should be given a power of veto over legislation that is the preserve of the House. I do not believe that that is appropriate. As was said yesterday, during direct rule, which I do not want to continue for one day longer than necessary, we are accountable here for the good government of Northern Ireland and we should not tie ourselves to following the will of another body.
 
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Nothing would give me greater pleasure than the restoration of the Assembly, with its Members again taking responsibility for transferred matters. However, I repeat that when the Assembly, on a cross-community basis, expresses views about a specific order or policy, they will be taken into account. That is different from giving a suspended Assembly a power of veto over Parliament.

The hon. Member for Foyle asked about the Secretary of State being able to refer matters to a business committee. If there is a consensus on the business committee, it can proceed without my getting involved. The last thing I want to do is get involved in the Assembly's internal affairs. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for North Down about seating arrangements and so on. I am happy to leave such matters to the parties and the business committee. I do not want to get involved in where people will sit in the Assembly. It was a matter of contention in the past and, from what I can tell from discussions with all the parties so far, what needs to happen is pretty clear, and that will happen.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Secretary of State used the words "taken into account". What precisely do they mean? I revert to the review of public administration, on which the three elected participating parties are of one mind. They believe that the numbers will lead to what they call Balkanisation, polarisation and so on and that Northern Ireland should be differently configured for local government. The right hon. Gentleman says that if the Assembly takes that view, it will be "taken into account". Does that mean that it will be reflected in a change?

Mr. Hain: I answered that point in respect of water charges. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, whose contribution I greatly value, we are going around in circles, arguing the same point. If we had a fully restored body, which took responsibility for decisions, that is one matter. Taking account of views means exactly that. In the case of a unanimous or cross-party vote, I would pay careful attention to it. I have no interest as Secretary of State, with an Assembly on its way to restoring the institutions—as I believe is the case—in doing anything that will run counter to the Assembly's decisions. That is not my purpose. However, in the meantime we have to govern. That is our responsibility and we are accountable to the House for doing that.

On the Assembly's procedures, especially those for selecting Ministers, the Bill proposes that the procedure for carrying out the primary tasks will be in line with that for which the 1998 Act provides. I hope that the hon. Member for North Down, who tabled amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 24 to 26, and the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), who tabled amendment No. 4, have been reassured by the initial draft standing orders, which were made available to hon. Members before Second Reading, that, as the right hon. Member for North Antrim said, we are closely following the procedures. I hope that they will therefore not press the amendments.
 
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The hon. Member for North Down asked why I had put the standing orders in so early. I did it so that the parties could discuss them and the Business Committee could form a view of them. I will happily look at any suggestions for changing any of them.

4 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I have a general question on the point that the Secretary of State made to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). He said that there would be inclusive all-party talks. If, for example, Sinn Fein pulled out of the talks at some stage, would the talks continue with the main parties that were left?

Mr. Hain: The term "all-party talks" means exactly that. No party can exercise a veto, either by not appearing at the talks or by seeking to exercise a veto in some other way. If a party chooses to exclude itself, that is that party's decision.

On amendment No. 27, I understand the points that the hon. Member for North Down made about defamation and privilege, and I want to address them. I believe that it is right that the Bill should confer qualified privilege on proceedings in the Assembly in its present mode. As the hon. Member for Belfast, East quite properly pointed out to the hon. Lady, that arrangement mirrors the situation that applied in 1998. I hope that it will encourage debate that is free and frank, while discouraging accusations of a malicious nature.

I should like to go into this matter in some detail, in order to meet the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for North Down. She asked why the proceedings in the Assembly in the form envisaged to 24 November—or to restoration, if that takes place before then—were to be given a lesser degree of privilege in regard to defamation than those of the devolved Assembly. The proceedings of the old, fully fledged—as it were—Assembly enjoyed absolute privilege. In this Assembly, privilege is qualified, in a similar way to that in which it was qualified at the preliminary stage last time. That privilege will not protect the maker of defamatory statements if there is proof of malice on his or her part. The Bill gives the same degree of privilege as that accorded to the transitional Assembly in 1998—it follows exactly the same formula. That was our precedent. Indeed, it was the precedent for much of what we have put into the Bill.

Absolute privilege tends to be conferred only on fully functioning legislatures. Conferring qualified privilege under the Bill is therefore appropriate and reflects the fact that the Assembly has not been fully restored. At a time when there are serious party differences—although we are seeking to narrow them—it does not seem right to give freedom from malicious defamatory statements.

The Bill does not alter the position of the media in relation to privilege. It might assist the House if I point out that the Bill allows for statements in the Assembly to be privileged, excluding those made with malice, whether made by Assembly Members or by those who fairly and accurately report them in the media.

On the name of the Assembly, I cannot accept that it should be known as anything other than the Assembly. As the hon. Members for North Down and for Montgomeryshire have pointed out, the Assembly is
 
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composed of all those who have been elected to the full Assembly and who will constitute it on restoration. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East in that respect. One of the key functions of the Assembly is the selection of an Executive. Once that function has been discharged, the way will be open for the restoration of all the devolved institutions and the resumption of the full legislative and other powers of the fully restored Assembly. The proposals by the hon. Member for North Down in amendments Nos. 21 to 23 that it should be known as "the Forum" would be misleading, although I know that that is not her intention. I hope that she will not press her amendments to a vote.

To conclude, Mrs. Heal—I am proud, as a Welsh MP, that a proud Welsh woman is in the Chair, whose husband is a proud member of my local rugby club—[Laughter.] I think that we had better call it a day at that

I want to reassure right hon. and hon. Members who have raised important points that the new Assembly, which is a difficult task and a fragile flower, is on its way, I believe, to restoration of the institutions. We need to do that by consensus. We have put in the structures with a lot of care and thought, modelled in many respects on what happened in 1998, giving the Assembly the opportunity to take full charge of its affairs, to decide what it wants, to vote on what it wants and to discuss what it wants. In that transition, a default position remains in my hands as Secretary of State to make sure that it is able to proceed in that consensual way, which I hope that it does. I hope that the whole House will back the Bill, and that those who tabled the amendments will, on hearing my reassurances, withdraw them.


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