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None of the present Clerks ever had the opportunity of putting me out of the House, but other Clerks had. Once, I was sitting just above where I stand now, at a time when the Tory party was in power, when all three Democratic Unionist party Members were put out. I remember with gratitude the Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party who shielded me. One of the officials said, “If we touch you, you will go out for six months.” He said, “You’ll never touch him,” and put his arms round me—it was the first time that I was embraced by a Labour Whip. He was a fine man, and I think that he is enjoying his retirement at the moment. He was a member of the Salvation Army, and he did a good salvation job on me that day. The interesting thing was that there was no car to take me away, and the Prime Minister’s car was borrowed to get rid of me. I left the
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House that day, was not touched, and got the Prime Minister’s car to take me to the airport. That is democracy in action.

I am grateful to Sir Roger for the courtesy that he has shown to Members from the smaller parties in the House. He has always been willing to listen to us, help us and say, “This is the best way to do it.” On behalf of all my colleagues, I pay tribute to him and wish him a happy retirement. We trust that he will run harder and faster with those things that will occupy his heart and mind in retirement. I endorse all that my colleagues have said about him today.

Mr. Speaker: Before I put the question, I should like to add my own tribute to Sir Roger Sands. As my principal adviser on procedural and management responsibilities, he has always offered me wise counsel, tempering his advice with good humour, patience and common sense. For that, I owe him a great personal debt, and I think of him as one of the most intelligently dutiful individuals whom I have ever met. It should also not be forgotten that Sir Roger was the first Clerk to be selected as Chief Executive of the House of Commons Service, and he has done much to enhance the efficiency from which we all benefit. I know that on 30 September, the 41st anniversary of his first joining the House, Sir Roger and Lady Sands will take into retirement the thanks and best wishes of all Members past and present.

Question put and agreed to.



Motion made and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Lords amendments considered.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 3

2.25 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

In all parts of the House, there has long been awareness of some of the real concerns about the way in which Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with through the Order in Council procedure. We have had many debates about such matters with Members on both sides of the House in the past 15 months during which I have had the privilege of holding this office. We have had discussions in Committee, which have sometimes spilled over into discussions on the Floor of the House. The Government have been considering how to improve the procedure, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the official Opposition spokesman and other parties last year. As it happens, the other place has helpfully tabled an amendment to deal with those matters, on which we are focusing today.

My noble Friend Lord Rooker and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have considered the procedures in the House, and we have concluded that we need to examine how the Order in Council procedure is to be changed. Following last week’s Lords amendments, the Government have given an undertaking that, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable. Our intention is for the restoration of the devolved Assembly by 24 November. Many of the matters dealt with under the Order in Council procedure are properly dealt with by the Assembly, should it be reconstituted. In the event of the Assembly not being reconstituted—of course, I hope that it will be—we will consider how to make those measures more accountable, agreed through the usual channels, if I may say so, with a stage of parliamentary consideration at which Northern Ireland Orders in Council can be amended. We will also ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through Bills.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so clear that the Government have finally listened to this request. Will he assure us, however, that in the unfortunate circumstance that the Assembly does not recommence by 24 November, we will not wait for months or years for the changes to take place? Can he assure us that the timetable will be a matter of days or weeks, not months or years?

Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions on these issues. Obviously, the Government’s first priority is to get the Assembly up and running, with the co-operation of colleagues on both sides of the House, by 24 November. In the unhappy event that the
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Assembly is not reconstituted, we will take an early opportunity to examine how to make the Order in Council procedure more appropriate, as has been discussed in another place and here. Although that will be considered as a matter of urgency, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that the first priority of officials and Ministers is to get the Assembly back up and running.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Of course, we are sorry that the provision is not going through now, as Members on both sides of the House have campaigned for it for a long time. I was just looking at Hansard from long ago, when the majority of Northern Ireland Members wanted that to be done. Success rests with the Government. If the Government put down the IRA and the so-called Protestant paramilitary—if they put an end to all the terrorism, cleaning of banknotes and so forth—we will have what we want: ideal democracy. If we can have that, however, let us have the same democracy that we have in legislation on this side of the water.

2.30 pm

Mr. Hanson: The right hon. Gentleman’s support is always welcome, and I am grateful for the support that he has given to our objectives today. Let me say to the House, and to the right hon. Gentleman in particular, that the Government’s prime objective is to get the Assembly up and running again. The matters dealt with by Order in Council are dealt with in that way because the Assembly is not sitting. I understand that the Government have responsibilities in regard to the restoration of the Assembly, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman with due respect that responsibilities also lie with all the political parties that are elected in Northern Ireland to ensure that the Assembly is reconstituted.

I ask the House to disagree with the amendment because in my opinion—and I hope that this is acceptable to Opposition Members—what it proposes is unnecessary in view of the Government’s undertaking to consider further parliamentary scrutiny of Orders in Council. I hope that Members will not oppose the motion, but if they do, I hope that they will understand where the Government are coming from.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory remarks, and in particular for the significant concession that the Government have announced today in response to repeated arguments from my right hon. and hon. Friends here and in the House of Lords, and from the Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist parties, about the unacceptable and undemocratic nature of our present system for Orders in Council affecting Northern Ireland.

Let me say at the outset that I share the Minister’s hope that devolution can be restored in Northern Ireland by 24 November, and I hope that the Government succeed in that objective. It will come as no surprise to the Minister if I repeat what I have said on many previous occasions—that in my view restoration of devolution will be possible only if the republican movement is finally willing both to recognise the legitimacy of the police service and the courts in Northern Ireland, and to give its full and active support to those institutions.
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But if for whatever reason devolution cannot be restored by 24 November, Conservative Members will look to the Government to move quickly—I use their own word—to introduce new legislation to change the way in which Orders in Council are dealt with here.

It is intolerable that legislation which, if it concerned England, would be dealt with by a Bill, and which would be amenable to amendment and detailed debate by all parties and by Back Benchers in all parts of the House, should, in respect of Northern Ireland, be the subject of a time-limited debate on a single Order in Council, almost always taking place in a Committee Room upstairs. Worse, the Committees allow only perhaps four Northern Ireland Members to participate in discussions of measures relating to education, local government reform and health which directly and significantly affect the lives of the people whom those Members are sent here to represent. Insult is added to injury by the fact that in the case of Orders in Council as in that of any secondary legislation, Parliament must either accept or reject what the Government put before it. It has no power to amend an Order in Council.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that since the announcement that this move would be made, some people in Northern Ireland are describing it as a concession of a political nature? What the hon. Gentleman is describing, however, is something that should have been done years ago. It is something that stands in its own right, irrespective of deadlines, the restoration of devolution or anything else. It is something that ought to have been done already, and ought now to be done as quickly as possible.

Mr. Lidington: I agree. I described it earlier as a concession by the Government, but I would also describe it as a concession to democracy and common sense.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Given that it is a concession to democracy and not to a particular party, and given that between now and the time when devolution is restored in Northern Ireland—if it is restored—there is still a large amount of controversial legislation in the pipeline, is it not appropriate for the concession to be implemented now, rather than the Minister’s making a promise for the future as he has today?

Mr. Lidington: I would have preferred the concession to have been introduced much earlier, but I think that when it comes to measures that affect the way in which Parliament collectively deals with legislation it is best, if at all possible, to achieve reform by means of consensus across the House of Commons rather than by making procedural moves a subject of party political dispute.

In view of the firm assurances that the Government have given today, we shall not oppose the motion, but if devolution is not restored in November, we shall hold Ministers to account and expect them to deliver what they have promised to the House.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister and the House know how strongly I have felt about this matter over the past two years. Indeed, on some occasions during Statutory
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Instrument Committees I have been almost angry with the Government for failing to make the change. The Minister knows, but I warn him again, that he would not like me when I am angry. Nevertheless, I am relieved to know that he and the Government have seen the sense of a change for which the Liberal Democrats have called for more than two years.

I recall outrageous occasions on which the will of Northern Ireland politicians, speaking in unison, has been ignored in preference to the dogma of the Government. For example, the Government lost a vote on tuition fees in a Grand Committee in which they had a majority because Northern Ireland Members and others felt so strongly that that was the wrong move for Northern Ireland. Of course, we had no opportunity to amend the legislation, and Northern Ireland had imposed on it a piece of legislation developed entirely by the Government, with scant regard for the wishes of the people there.

In that context, I thank the Minister for placing on record the Government’s intention to address the way in which we legislate for Northern Ireland in Westminster. That has been a long time coming. The Liberal Democrats, together with Conservative and indeed Northern Ireland Members, have expressed concerns on many occasions. We are grateful that the Government have now responded and are prepared to act.

We also appreciate the Minister’s important observation that this is nothing to do with planning for failure. We are firmly committed to devolution, and we hope that the continuing priority of the Government and, indeed, politicians speaking for Northern Ireland constituencies is the re-establishment of the devolved Assembly. However, if the devolved Assembly is not restored by that date—and, as I have said, we sincerely hope that it is—we must move quickly to ensure that whatever processes are implemented in this place in the interests of legislation for the Province are implemented speedily.

I asked the Minister to confirm that the Government’s timetable for change would be days or weeks rather than months or years, but I noticed that he declined to be that specific. I will be specific. In my judgment, the Government need to move on that change by the end of December 2006, because the situation has gone on long enough. Even December 2006 will provide the Government with four or five weeks to initiate a dialogue and produce plans to change the methodology for Northern Ireland legislation, thereby enabling it to be amended.

We also very much welcome the intention to legislate for Northern Ireland by means of primary legislation, wherever possible, but will the Minister clarify precisely what that means? Will we see more Bills like this one, where a number of measures that are not related to each other are all scrutinised at once, or will it mean that Northern Ireland measures will be included in legislation for England and Wales that is proceeding on the same subject areas at the same time? Given that we have debated anonymous registration in the Bill, it would have been much better if Northern Ireland provisions had been included by the latter means. I simply cannot understand why we separate Northern Ireland legislation from legislation intended for England and Wales where it is perfectly obvious that the same rules apply.

However, we appreciate that that would require discussions between various Departments, so I rhetorically
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ask the Minister whether such a feat would be possible. I sincerely hope— [Interruption.] I hear an equivocal response from the Minister so I will take the positive part of it. Silo thinking has to some extent made it difficult for the Northern Ireland Office to work with other Departments, where doing so would offer economies of scale and might lead to more consistent legislation. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be better co-operation and co-ordination between the various Northern Ireland departments and Departments in Whitehall?

Finally, this is an occasion when the Government are asking us to trust them without their having made specific legislative proposals or any specific modifications that could, through amendment, initiate the process that we are discussing in the Bill. I do not always trust the Government, but on this occasion I do, and I sincerely believe that the Minister is sincere and that his word is good. For that reason— [Interruption.]

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The Minister is laughing.

Lembit Öpik: He is laughing with surprise and relief that on this one occasion we trust him —[Interruption.] I sense from mutterings not many Benches behind me that others may be somewhat more distrustful. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats accept the Government’s promise on trust and we assume that we are talking about movement within a five-week period after 25 November. We also assume that changes will be implemented through statute by the end of February. On that basis, we thank the Minister for listening to our views on this important issue and we will not oppose the Government.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I would have supported the Lords amendments today, but given that the Minister has proposed what we all accept is a necessary step forward for securing democracy in Northern Ireland, I am happy to go along with it. I strongly urge that the work is done over the summer, so that we are ready to put these measures through as soon as the House returns after the recess.

I, too, hope that the Assembly will be back by 24 November. In the last few months, we have seen the Order in Council procedure used in a totally undemocratic way. Quite frankly, the Government are not seeking votes in Northern Ireland and they do not care about the people of Northern Ireland in the same sense that they care about the people of London, for example. If every single London Member said that they did not want something to happen, it would not happen. That was the case quite recently when London MPs were very angry about health issues and primary care trusts, and proposals were changed. On many Northern Ireland issues, however, all the parties from the nationalists to the Unionists support certain measures, but the Government have still railroaded their own policies through by the ridiculous Order in Council procedure.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of selection in Northern Ireland—I happen to think that the education system in Northern Ireland is a good system, even though, like every education system, it can be made better—forcing through a measure in two and a half hours in a Committee is not good enough. One Labour Member was taken off
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the Committee because he had said that he would vote against the Government. I, of course, would not even be considered for that Committee. The Government seem to think that it is all right to put me on European Standing Committees or Statutory Instrument Committees, but not on a Northern Ireland Committee.

Disgracefully, that education measure was forced through. That was using education as a form of blackmail against the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians, when we all know that the vast majority of people there, although they may have wanted to change the way in which the 11-plus worked, did not want to stop academic selection. Minister after Minister stood up and said, “Oh, we are not getting rid of grammar schools; we are just getting rid of academic selection”. Come on, really!

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