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2.45 pm

I am pleased that we might be beginning to treat Northern Ireland people with the same respect and to accord them the same rights as we give to people in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK. If my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in England and their constituents were treated in the way that Northern Ireland Members—I include my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) who is in his place behind me—and their constituents are treated, they would find it disgraceful.

If the new Assembly does not get up and running, I have real doubts about what might happen under some new procedure, because Sinn Fein has wanted to get rid of grammar schools since day one. If Sinn Fein can do anything to stop that Assembly coming back on 24 November, just in order to get rid of academic selection, that is what it will do. If Sinn Fein manages to stop the Assembly until just after 24 November, I hope that this House will find some way forward. I also hope that the Liberal Democrats would see how Sinn Fein had exploited the issue.

To go back to the nub of the matter, we must find a way of ensuring that the democratically elected MPs from Northern Ireland can take the necessary decisions. Where are they in all this? Why are they not accorded much more power? They have been elected and taken their seats in this place. They should be listened to much more, but because the Government do not seek a single vote in Northern Ireland, they refuse to organise there and refuse to give those people of the UK the opportunity to vote Labour or join the Labour party in any meaningful sense. It is so frustrating.

The Minister may not think so, but I have a lot of time for him and I believe that he has tried hard in very difficult circumstances— [Interruption.] I am probably ruining his remaining career in saying that. Seriously, though, he has tried hard and it can be extremely difficult to be the front-person when the Secretary of State has not been there, yet is pulling the strings. I am pleased that we are moving forward, but it must happen soon over the summer. If the Assembly does not return, we must ensure that the legislation goes through as quickly as possible. Let us do all that we can—the Government must do all that they can—over the summer to help the democratically elected parties in Northern Ireland to form an Assembly so that the people of Northern Ireland can have true democracy.

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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—and never more so than today. I completely endorse her comments, particularly those tangentially related to the education order, but I also welcome the general principles that she has enunciated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) from the early 1970s and myself from the later ‘70s have consistently championed the cause of ending the Order in Council procedure. As Northern Ireland elected representatives, we were capable of speaking on Second Readings of legislation relating entirely to England and Wales. We could table amendments and speak to them in Committee—at great length, if we uncharacteristically wanted to do so—and we could speak on Report and Third Reading. However, we could not do the same in respect of legislation that applied to our own part of the United Kingdom. It was irrational that we should have a greater say in the affairs of England and Wales than in those of the constituents who had sent us here from Northern Ireland. It was an absurdity—one that, regrettably, the Conservative Government did not attempt to rectify at the time; nor have the Labour Government done so, except that it appears that they have accepted that there is a case to be answered.

Perhaps I am just a sceptic, but I rather suspect that the Government making this concession had something to do with the strength of opinion of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Cross Benchers in the House of Lords. The Government recognised that it might be in the interests of the Bill to make this concession, rather than the Minister having a Damascus road experience on the issue. However it may have come about, we are glad that the Government are moving in that direction, although, like the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we would have preferred it to be done now.

Important legislation will be dealt with between now and whenever the Government rectify the situation, and particularly because issues such as water charging will come before the House. Those issues are of immense importance to our constituents and, unfortunately, they will be dealt with under the procedure, whereby only a few of our Members may get the opportunity on some delegated legislation Committee upstairs to speak on the issue for a few minutes. That is unsatisfactory when dealing with such important issues.

The Minister has not spoken about the process by which he would improve the Order in Council procedure. The Lords indicated that it wanted to make Orders in Council amendable and to introduce a procedure by which the Government could withdraw the order to consider the decision of the House and return with an amended order if necessary, or if the Lords did not amend it, the proposal would be adopted by the House. So the Lords made very specific proposals in its amendment, but the Minister has not said whether he would allow Orders in Council to be amended in such circumstances as may come about. The Government still have not told us about that.

All we know is that they would attempt to get greater democracy into the system. At some later stage, they could decide that we would have two hours instead of an hour and a half to debate an order, or three hours upstairs instead of two and a half, and they might
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trumpet that as being a great blow for democracy. The Minister needs to give us a clear indication of the nature and scope of his intention in relation to any change to make the process more democratic.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the essential element that we are looking for is amendability?

Mr. Robinson: Absolutely—that is the very point that I am making. The House must be capable of amending an Order in Council. It is ludicrous that if one reads an Order in Council and notices a glaring, obvious mistake—one that every hon. Member might accept is an error—it still cannot be changed. There is no method to change it; the Government must withdraw it and come back at a later stage. It is right that the House should be able to amend that Order in Council. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is his intention.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Given the consensus that appears to have broken out on both sides of the House about the need to move quickly on the issue and to introduce changes quickly if the deadline for devolution is not met, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea now for the Government to enter into discussions with the parties in the House? Discussions are going on in Northern Ireland—some are more fruitful than others—but such a discussion would be extremely fruitful, so that the ideas that my hon. Friend is suggesting could be gone into in more detail.

Mr. Robinson: Yes, and in fact the Government already accept the principle that they should do so in this very Bill. The Bill is centrally designed by the Government to introduce proposals for the devolution of criminal justice and policing matters, which can only be devolved to an Assembly that does not exist, so the Government recognise the need to look ahead on these matters. They recognise that preparatory work needs to be done and that legislation needs to be passed.

If it is right, even before the change in legislation that will be necessary for an Assembly to exist in Northern Ireland, that the Minister should be looking ahead to policing and justice powers being devolved, I am sure that the same Minister would be very content to open up discussions on those matters in the circumstance that many of us do not want—devolution not occurring in Northern Ireland. Although devolution in Northern Ireland might be the Minister’s priority, he should not close his eyes to the possibility that it might not happen. We want it to happen and the Minister knows the circumstances in which it can happen.

I am sure that the Minister was as disappointed as we were when he read the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that indicated the ongoing criminality that still exists not just with ordinary paramilitaries from the loyalist side and from the dissidents, but from those who, according to the Minister, are suitable to be in government. Of course, that information will militate against our getting devolution up and running. I hope that the Minister will look at the alternative.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but as a general rule I have always found in the House that the
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more consideration given to a Bill and the more scrutiny of legislation that goes on, the better the end product. If that is generally accepted as a rule, the Minister must introduce legislation to change the Order in Council procedure, so that we might get better legislation in Northern Ireland. I welcome the move that the Minister has made.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): With regard to amending Orders in Council, does the hon. Gentleman recall that a miscellaneous provisions order, which covered two completely different subjects, was considered just two or three weeks ago? Does that not demonstrate how very difficult it is to govern any part of the United Kingdom in that way?

Mr. Robinson: Over the 27 or 28 years that I have been a Member, I have seen the House pass some legislation in an hour and a half, sometimes at 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, with barely any Members present, except for Northern Ireland Members. That is no way to deal with legislation. Some of these orders, even though they have might have two different elements, can be very important to the lives of people in Northern Ireland. Our business should not be treated in that way and I trust that the Minister’s undertaking, which I hope will be strengthened in his response, will soon be put in place if devolution does not occur in November.

Mr. Hanson: I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for welcoming the proposals that the Government announced both in Committee and in another place last week and that I have confirmed to the whole House today. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. They are aware from the discussions that we have had on this matter that, as I have said previously, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly—I emphasise the word “quickly”—introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable, including the opportunity for an amendability stage in the parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council. It is my intention—we can discuss this matter on the return of the House—to initiate discussions on those matters with the usual channels, to consider how we can examine the procedure in the event of devolution failing to occur on 24 November.

Again, I reconfirm to the House that I intend to focus my time and that of my officials on ensuring that we get the Assembly back for the 24 November deadline, because that is the key element where the decisions that we deal with by Order in Council should be made. I remind hon. Members that I have said that the Order in Council procedure is not satisfactory on every occasion that I have moved the motion on such an order during the 15 months that I have held my position. It is not a satisfactory way to proceed.

Kate Hoey: I appreciate what the Minister says about you the procedure not being satisfactory. Will you then explain why you used Order in Council procedures to push through an education order when the same Labour Members were being urged to go through the Lobby to keep selection in England three weeks earlier? You used the Order in Council procedure to put that education order through in two and a half hours.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady is experienced enough to know that she should not say “you”, because that means me.

Mr. Hanson: The Government have taken this decision on policy issues relating to this matter, and a key point for my hon. Friend and all hon. Members is that although the Order in Council procedure was unsatisfactory, there was a debate and a vote on the education order upstairs in Committee. The Opposition prayed against the education order in Committee. There was a vote, of all Members who wished to participate in that vote, on the Floor of the House, and the Government were supported and the proposals were agreed to. So although the Order in Council procedure is unsatisfactory, there was even in that controversial case an ability for all Members, if they so wished, to vote on that matter in the House today.

3 pm

We have had a degree of consensus on the matters under discussion. It is not for me to break that consensus, but I wish simply to state that although I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) who speaks for the official Opposition, after 10 years of a Labour Government we have brought forward proposals to amend the Order in Council, but in the previous 20 years of Conservative government—from 1972, and up until today—no changes were made. As I do not wish to break the consensus because that would add a sour note to the proceedings, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I thank him for his support for the measures and I commend the Government proposal to the House.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Clause 12

Extension of categories of permissible donors

Lords amendment: No. 1.

Mr. Hanson: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendment No. 2. I call Mr. Peter Hain—or, rather, David Hanson.

Mr. Hanson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As somebody once said, “They all look alike after a while.”

The impact of these amendments on Northern Ireland politics would be serious. They would remove clauses 12 and 13—the permissible donors clauses would be entirely removed, which would have the effect of barring Irish citizens and bodies from donating to parties and regulated donees in Northern Ireland from November 2007. The Government firmly believe that Northern Ireland parties and regulated donees should continue to be able to accept donations from Irish citizens and other Irish bodies who can currently donate to Irish parties—as well as accepting donations from those who can donate in the UK, of course—following the end of the “final disapplication period” in October 2007.

That policy is consistent with the Good Friday agreement. It reflects our belief that Irish citizens should be allowed to make such donations to take account of the special
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role Ireland—including the Republic of Ireland—has in relation to Northern Ireland’s political culture. That would still represent a significant step forward from the current position in Northern Ireland, under which donations may come from anywhere and anyone in the world and there is no obligation on anybody or any party to disclose such donations.

Mr. Dodds: The Minister is trying to put a gloss on what is clearly a discriminatory provision, against Unionist parties and Unionist people in Northern Ireland in particular. How can the Minister justify a special provision that allows Irish citizens and organisations to donate to parties in Northern Ireland, when he knows full well that those donations will be completely one-sided and will have no benefit whatever for Unionist parties or the Unionist population? If the Good Friday agreement or the Belfast agreement is supposed to be about equality, this clearly flies in the face of equality.

Mr. Hanson: I genuinely say to the hon. Gentleman that I cannot estimate who or what or when or where any of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland might wish to donate in respect of parties in the north during any election. I expect that potentially there will be significant donations to the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein and other parties, but it is perfectly possible that there are individuals who live in the Republic of Ireland who wish to donate to any party that represents individuals and stands for election in Northern Ireland elections for the Assembly or any other body.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I simply put it to him that, in this context, if we were to speculate upon percentages and try to arrive at a view as to the proportion of any donations that would go to Unionist parties, there would be several noughts after the decimal point before a positive figure were reached?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but it is not for me to determine the what, who, where and when of any donations to any parties from citizens of the Irish Republic or businesses that operate in the Irish Republic. It is for me to be consistent with the Good Friday agreement, which recognises that there is a significant step forward in these measures and that the potential for donations from citizens of the Republic of Ireland to political parties to the north is a part of that.

I know that concerns exist both in this House and in another place about how the permissible donors clauses would operate in practice—in particular, in relation to the conditions that Irish citizens and bodies who can donate in Ireland would have to meet in order to be able to donate to Northern Ireland parties, and how those donations would be checked and verified in the future by the Electoral Commission. I, and my noble Friend Lord Rooker in dealing with this in another place, have recognised those concerns and have sought to address them when they have been raised, both here and in another place. As I have explained to the House on a number of occasions, the detail of how the permissible donors clauses would work will be set out in UK secondary legislation, following
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consultation with the Electoral Commission—it is important that the commission has a key role in this matter. This detail, which would include the criteria on how we check individual Irish donors and Republic of Ireland companies that wish to donate to parties in the north, will then be specified by an order that will have to be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The Lords and Members of this House would therefore have an opportunity fully and publicly to debate these issues further when an order was made.

Therefore, for a range of reasons I oppose Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 as they are not compatible with the Good Friday agreement to preclude Irish citizens and bodies from making political donations to Northern Ireland political parties or regulated donees.

I am conscious that this debate finishes at 3.25 pm, and I know that many Members wish to participate, but may I make one final point? Today is a day for retirements, and the Clerk of the House has recently retired. Today is also the final day that a Northern Ireland Minister has received advice from Jonathan Margetts. He is a member of the Northern Ireland Office staff, and he has been acting as head of parliamentary legislation and has been involved in that in the NIO since 1972, after working for the Home Office for nine years previously. If this is my last opportunity to speak in this debate, I wish him and his family every success in his retirement, and I thank him for his long service to 15 Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland during that time.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I echo the Minister’s words of congratulations to the retiring adviser. I do not wish to speak for long, as a number of other Members wish to contribute on this issue and there are two more amendments to consider in not many minutes.

The Minister referred to the fact that the Republic plays an important role in the politics of Northern Ireland. That is undoubtedly the case. When this Bill was before us a few weeks ago, we tabled an amendment suggesting a five-year limit to the continuation of donations from the Republic. One of our concerns was that it was having a disproportionate effect on the politics in Northern Ireland. We did not seek to end it immediately; we put in the five-year limit to allow parties to re-establish. Our concern was not entirely to do with the amount of money or the sources of the money from the Republic. We were also concerned about money coming from America, because there is no doubt that in the past, not only has the Republic had a role in the politics of Northern Ireland, but NORAID—for example—has played an unfortunate role, too. We discussed that matter at great length at that time and I do not intend to speak any longer now, but I wish to hear what is about to be said by Members of Northern Ireland parties.

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