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17 May 2006 : Column 1018

‘(5) Standing orders may make further provision for the nomination and election referred to in subsections (3) and (4).'.

Amendment No. 27, in page 24, line 19 at end insert—


‘(d) he is dismissed by the nominating officer whose consent was required for his nomination under subsection (3) (or that officer's successor) and the Presiding Officer is notified of his dismissal.'.

Amendment No. 30, in page 24, line 25 at end insert—

‘(10A) Where—

(a) relevant Ministerial offices have been filled by applying sub-paragraph 10(b); and

(b) a relevant Ministerial office is filled by a member of a different political party

all Northern Ireland Ministers shall cease to hold office and their Ministerial offices shall be filled by applying subsections (2) to (6) of section 18 within a period specified by standing orders.

(12) But where—

(a) a relevant minister was dismissed by the nominating officer who nominated him (or his successor); and

(b) the nominating officer of that party refuses to consent to the nomination by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of every member of his party within a period specified in standing orders,

sub-paragraph (10A) shall not apply.'.

Government amendment No. 9

Amendment No. 15, in page 26, line 29 leave out from ‘passed' to end of line 33 and insert ‘with cross-community support'.

Government amendments Nos. 10 to 12.

Mr. Hanson: The Government new clause and amendments were tabled after our helpful discussions in Committee and on Second Reading and they deal with issues relating to the devolution of policing and justice functions. I shall speak first to new clause 3, then consider Government amendments Nos. 5, 6, 8,9 and 11, which make related and consequential changes.

It has always been the Government’s position that policing and justice can be devolved on a sustainable basis only with broad cross-community support. We have put in place a triple lock, as the Assembly must wish to have devolution, the Secretary of State must wish to agree it on behalf of the Government, and the House of Commons must approve it. Consistent with that position, it is our view that the support of the majority of sections of the community in Northern Ireland is essential if the devolution of policing and justice is to succeed. The amendments give legal effect to that position. New subsection (2A) inserted into section 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by new clause 3(3) accordingly provides that the Secretary of State shall not introduce an order to devolve policing and justice unless a number of caveats are in place.

First, the Assembly motion asking the Secretary of State to do that must be tabled by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly. Secondly, that motion should receive support in the Assembly from a majority of designated Unionists and a majority of designated nationalists. Having listened to the discussion, it is self-evident that unless the Assembly has that support it is not worth considering forcing devolution on it. The
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fact that under the amendments the First and Deputy First Ministers would have to introduce a proposal shows that a majority of community support is necessary. We want a majority of nationalists and designated Unionists to support it, too. New clause 5 (5) introduces a drafting change to that effect.

On Government amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 and 10, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made it clear during the passage of the Bill that it is the Government’s intention to ensure that the Assembly has the greatest possible flexibility to determine the departmental models to oversee policing and justice.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister clarify what precisely is meant by the triple lock? He referred to a cross-community vote in the Assembly, agreement by the Secretary of State and approval by Parliament. However, new clause 3 imposes another triple lock: the First and Deputy First Ministers act jointly, then a resolution is passed by the Assembly with cross-community support, then an order is laid before the House. What is the Secretary of State’s role in that arrangement? Is it part of the triple lock or is it redefined, so that he is substituted by the First and Deputy First Ministers?

1.45 pm

Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Lady wishes to be pedantic, perhaps it is a quadruple lock. The Secretary of State and I seek a situation in which devolution of policing and criminal justice takes place following a cross-community vote among nationalists and Unionists in the Assembly in support of the proposal, which is then considered by my right hon. Friend or his successor, who agrees to recommend it as Government policy to the House of Commons, which must support it before it can take place. That is a triple lock. The hon. Lady wishes to make it a quadruple lock because there is a two-part assessment when the Assembly reaches its decision. However, I put it in the following terms: the Assembly; the Secretary of State; the House of Commons.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): What happens if a designated Unionist does a back flip? Is he redesignated as another sort of Unionist, or does he remain a designated Unionist with his original label? I refer to current events.

Mr. Hanson: Current events are obviously extremely important and my esteemed colleague Eileen Bell, the Speaker of the Assembly, has sought legal advice on the matter. Lest I confuse any lawyers who are looking at the issue, it is best to allow that legal advice to be given so that Eileen Bell can make her judgment in due course.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Minister will know that I have long been concerned about triple and quadruple locks because they can be manipulated, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) suggested. The Minister assured us in previous proceedings on the Bill that he would consult the parties about their preferred mechanism of election. Has he done so?

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Mr. Hanson: Again, the purpose of the measure is quite simple. However we describe it, it is a simple process. The Assembly must submit a request to the Secretary of State asking for the devolution of policing. The Secretary of State must agree—presumably, that will involve discussion with Cabinet colleagues because he must make an assessment or political judgment as to whether he wishes to recommend it—and he must make a recommendation at the Dispatch Box to the House of Commons, which must support it before it can take place. That is a simple, straightforward process, as the Assembly, the Secretary of State and the House of Commons must secure approval for the proposal. I am certainly happy with our position, which I discussed with individuals when considering whether to table the amendments. I have tried to facilitate a procedure so that, should the Assembly wish to do so, it can advance the proposal in due course.

Mark Durkan: Does the Minister accept that talk of triple and quadruple locks involves double-speak? In the past, whenever the Democratic Unionist party referred to the triple lock that it says that it achieved in the comprehensive agreement, it meant that it could control whether or not there was movement on the devolution of justice and policing. It would be able to control the form of the Department and the appointment of Ministers. That triple lock is different from the triple lock outlined by the Minister.

Mr. Hanson: I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that we are at a stage where the Assembly does not formally constitute an Executive. There will not necessarily be movement towards that framework in the foreseeable future, so we will put in place such a framework. Neither he nor I know whether any movement towards devolved criminal justice and policing will take place before or after a further Assembly election. I cannot even envisage a situation in which I know who will be the First and Deputy First Ministers or which will be the majority parties in the Assembly when a decision is made to effect the devolution of criminal justice and policing.

Mark Durkan: Does that mean that further legislation on the matter might be needed?

Mr. Hanson: No. I am trying to put in place a framework so that when the Assembly wishes to do so, it can request devolution of criminal justice and policing. With due respect to my hon. Friend, he is over-complicating matters that are simple. I hope that, as ever, he will trust my judgment and relax.

Lady Hermon: May I convey to the Minister a point of reference? His colleague, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee almost exactly a week ago, in which he referred to the triple lock on the devolution of policing and justice. He stated:

that is precisely what he said. He went on to say that

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At no stage was there any reference to the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly. [Interruption.] With great respect to those who are making comments from a sedentary position, they will get their opportunity later. Will the Minister elaborate? Did the Secretary of State know last week, when he gave evidence live to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, that there was a fourth element, or has the definition been changed within the week? As usual, the Northern Ireland Office moves with great speed on these matters.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Lady will know that there was discussion of these matters in Committee and the Government have reflected on that. The new clause to allow the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to propose that change is important, but it does not change the balance of the argument. It would be strange if the Assembly voted to devolve criminal justice and policing, but the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were against it, as they will presumably be the leaders of the largest parties in the Assembly.

We have tabled the amendments and new clauses to support the wish of the Assembly for such devolution. I say again to all hon. Members that the Assembly must decide, the Secretary of State must agree and the House of Commons must support that process. That may happen at some point when the Assembly forms its Executive.

I shall make progress. During the passage of the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made clear the Government’s intention to make possible a range of departmental models for devolution of policing and criminal justice. Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 and 10 support that objective. We discussed the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in detail in Committee and we considered a range of models in the Act for the devolution of policing and criminal justice. Section 16 of the 1998 Act permits the Assembly to create various forms of departmental responsibility. We have sought to broaden that choice through consultation on the Bill.

As hon. Members may recall, during the debate in the Committee of the whole House on 20 April, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) suggested that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Bill, there was at least one further model that had not been considered—a department of policing and justice that might be in the charge of a single Minister elected on a cross-community resolution of the Assembly, rather than appointed under the d’Hondt process.

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that his words of wisdom have been listened to by the Government and we have tabled an amendment which, I hope, meets the objectives that he set in the debate on 20 April. He will know, therefore, that on occasion the Government act in a comradely fashion with his party. I cannot help him on every occasion, but when I can I am pleased to do so, and I will labour the point to keep him on his toes. Amendment No. 3 provides for the new model. Amendments Nos. 2, 10 and 7 reflect that addition.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 were tabled by the Liberal Democrats. In Committee, I undertook to reflect on the points made by the hon. Member for Solihull
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(Lorely Burt) at the time. The Government’s view is that a department of policing and justice with joint or rotating Ministers would bear a strong similarity to the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and correspondingly the requirement for cross-community support for those Ministers, set out in the Bill, reflects that for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

On reflection, I have concerns that that is a move away from the requirement for parallel consent from both sides of the community. Having considered the matter in detail, I have concluded that that support for any nomination for ministerial appointment to a department with devolved policing and justice functions that makes use of one of the models provided for in the Bill should continue to be required to secure parallel consent. This may disappoint the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), but it is important that we keep to the original principles.

As drafted, the Bill requires Ministers under the alternative models for the department of policing and justice to be nominated by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and for their nomination to be approved by the Assembly with the support of a majority of Members. The amendments give effect to that, on the basis of the 50:50:50 model.

The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle would remove the responsibility for nomination and subsequent dismissal from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and put it in the hands of party nominating officers. I do not believe that to be workable or consistent. I am sorry that I cannot help my hon. Friend on this occasion and I ask him to withdraw the amendments, given that I have been able to help him in other respects during consideration of the Bill.

I hope that Members in all parts of the House will recognise that the amendments are the result of amendments tabled but not debated, discussion in Committee and representations made to me from all parts of the House relating to the devolution of criminal justice and policing. I commend the Government new clauses and amendments to the House and ask Liberal Democrat and Social Democratic and Labour party Members to recognise that I have moved some way and to withdraw their amendments accordingly.

Lembit Öpik: I listened with interest to the Minister and accept that he has provided us with a clear exposition of where he stands. He rightly highlighted the issues that we address in our amendments Nos. 14 and 15. The amendments were tabled in Committee, and in his reply the Minister said that he would reflect on them and discuss with political parties whether they wanted some flexibility in the voting arrangements. We appreciate that there has not been much time between Committee and Report for such discussions, but we re-tabled the amendments to give the Minister an opportunity to update the House. He has given his view, but I infer that he has not explicitly spoken with the parties.

I remind the Minister of his words. He said in Committee:

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He is right about that. He continued:

It is a small gripe, but I believe that, the Government having imposed the timetable on us, the Minister was obliged to undertake some consultation, and I am disappointed that he has not done so.

Mr. Hanson: We have been in discussion with parties on various issues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that there is a range of issues before political parties in Northern Ireland. The Bill is not necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s mind, given the issues relating to the restoration of the Assembly. I am happy to discuss the matter with the parties, as I have said before. We have had some general consultations, I have reflected seriously on the matter and I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept my good faith.

Lembit Öpik: We differ on the judgment about the electoral system, but I shall not repeat the argument because the Minister has made it clear that he will not accept our suggestions, which is fair enough. We will not push our amendment to a vote on that issue, which simply involves a difference of view. My point concerns the process. The Minister knows about the frustrations when the Government impose and do not consult. Without being too heavy on him, I wish that the Government would be more assiduous in going through the consultation process after they have inferred in this Chamber that they will do so. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board, notwithstanding the difference of view on specific amendments.

2 pm

New clause 3 seems to insist that the devolution of policing and justice functions can occur only when the motion before the Assembly is laid jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That makes sense for the reasons that the Minister has outlined, as does the requirement that the motion should be approved by a majority within the Assembly as a whole.

The rest of the amendments seem to be largely technical. In his response to our brief debate, I hope that the Minister will clarify my concern about Government amendments Nos. 4 and 6. Does the consequence of those amendments limit the ability of the political parties to decide the shape of any department of policing and justice, and do those amendments mean that there can be only one department that incorporates policing and justice functions?

Mr. Hanson: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Assembly has full flexibility to determine which model it uses. All I am trying to do is provide the broadest possible menu, to which I have added one additional option with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle.

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