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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Marshall
Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire (Crosby) (Lab)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Jones, Lynne (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
Khabra, Mr. Piara S. (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Murphy, Mr. Denis (Wansbeck) (Lab)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 19 July 2006

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2006

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office(Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Marshall, for this, the eighth modification order Committee. I hope that you will find it of interest in terms of Northern Ireland politics.
The main purpose of the order is to extend for a further six months the power of the House of Commons to legislate on Northern Ireland matters by Order in Council. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were suspended in October 2002 and provisions of the schedule to the Northern IrelandAct 2000 were invoked, whereby the Government have the power to legislate for Northern Ireland by Order in Council. The power was initially limited to the first six months of the suspension, because the Government wished the Assembly to return. Sadly, that has not happened, there have been seven previous orders every six months, and the seventh expires on 14 October.
Before us, we have the eighth modification order, which provides for an extension of a further six months from 14 October for a period that expires on 14 April 2007, or as I very much hope, earlier, and at the latest on 24 November if devolved government is restored.
The order is being taken today, although the six months of the previous order are not yet up, because there will be no time following the return of Parliament after the recess to take the order through the House of Commons and the House of Lords before it expires on 14 October. We all agree that the Order-in-Council procedure is neither a satisfactory nor an efficient way for the House of Commons to legislate on matters that properly relate to the Northern Ireland Assembly as set out by the 2000 Act.
The Order-in-Council procedure is a poor second to Assembly scrutiny of such matters. We have hadthat debate, and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury(Mr. Robertson) and for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) have raised those matters on every occasion of an Order in Council. This is the third Order in Council modification order that I have taken through Committee, and on each of those occasions, concerns have been raised, too. I accept that the procedure is not satisfactory, and I have said that we will consider those concerns in due course.
My right hon. Friend has agreed that between now and 24 November our focus is to restore the Assembly, and thereby to do away with the Order-in-Council procedure completely, as hon. Members wish. If, however, it does not prove possible for whatever reason, and the Assembly is not restored by 24 November, the Government will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable, including provisions that will enable the amendment of Orders in Council in light of views expressed by Members of both Houses of Parliament. I hope that that reflects the spirit of the amendment made in another place last Thursday. In effect, the opportunity, agreed through the usual channels, for an amendability stage in parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council will be considered. We will also ensure that we legislate for Northern Ireland by Bill, wherever appropriate.
As I have said, I hope that this process will be discontinued soon. The clock is ticking towards24 November—the deadline by which we can, we hope, recall the Assembly, and select the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and the Executive. I want to remain focused on the prize of the restoration of full devolution
Last month, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach visited Belfast, and are in discussions with relevant parties, as is the Secretary of State, to ensure that the Assembly is restored by the deadline on 24 November. We plan to hold further talks with the political parties, and both the Irish and British Governments want to do everything possible to support the process in order to get the Assembly back up and running by November.
Ultimately, that is a matter for hon. Membersfrom political parties representing Northern Ireland constituencies. I want Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist party and other parties to work together to ensure that they take up office to deal with the matters of housing, transport, health, education and agriculture, with which I and my colleagues now deal.
Over the coming months, the reactions of Members of the Legislative Assembly will be crucial to Northern Ireland’s future. The Prime Minister said that we must move the progress on or else
“close the chapter or close the book”.
The latter would be a poor second best, and I sincerely hope that the Order in Council before us will be the last modification order that I bring before the House of Commons. At the moment, however, such orders area regrettable necessity. I appreciate the practical difficulties that they might cause and hope that they will soon be a thing of the past. A focus on the objective of the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and of a stable, inclusive and lasting Government, would be far preferable to the way in which we introduce orders under these measures.
In the meantime, I hope that I have assuredhon. Members, particularly the hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Argyll and Bute, who have expressed concerns here and in another place on behalf of their respective parties, that, if the deadline passes and restoration fails, we will consider a means by which to make the Order-in-Council procedure—should we have to fall back on it—a more amendable task for the Committee and Members of this place. With that, I commend the order to the Committee.
2.37 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I also welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Marshall. As the Minister said, it is with some sadness that we have to consider this order yet again. I understand fully the reasons for considering it earlier than normal—because of the parliamentary recess—but it is sad that the Assembly in Northern Ireland is not up and running again.
Over the past few months, we have considered some very important matters in this Committee—the Minister knows that because he was responsible for introducing most of them—such as the initial consideration of water rates, the rating system and the education system. Tomorrow, we will have a lively debate on smoking in Northern Ireland, which also is important, although I do not think that the Minister is taking that one through. So some important legislation has been passed, and it is unsatisfactory that we must consider them in Committee. Not only can we not amend statutory instruments, but of course only a limited number of Members can join the Committee to consider the issues. That is of some regret.
No matter how many times I go to Northern Ireland, I feel rather inadequate in my role. I take a deep interest in the Province—I always have done—and have visited it many times, and continue to do so regularly. However, with the best will in the world, I cannot know the intricacies and details nor have the same feel as those—particularly hon. Members—who live in Northern Ireland.
So the current process is deeply unsatisfactory, as the Minister said. That is so much the case that I wondered whether we should support yet another measure to extend this a way of governing, but was persuaded otherwise. I know that the Secretary of State has been in close contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the shadow Secretary of State, in order to find a better way forward. The House of Lords has considered the matter, and no doubt we will look at it again next Tuesday. So because of that movement, I shall not object to the proposal today.
I sincerely hope that the Assembly will be up and running by November. However, I would like the Government to concentrate more on the people who in my view are making it difficult for the Assembly to get together—the Minister will say that they are doing that anyway. I can understand the reluctance of members of the Democratic Unionist party to go into Government with people who still will not recognise the legitimacy of the police in Northern Ireland and, indeed, will not recognise the legitimacy of the state. That is a difficult position to be in. I can well understand why constitutional politicians do not want to share government with people who take that stance.
As I have said many times on the Floor of the House, the last time that I visited south Armagh I was told by the police, who had no political axe to grind, that the local Sinn Fein MP will not even speak to them. Not even speaking to or engaging with the police is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. What sort of example does that set the communities that such Members represent? If Sinn Fein-IRA hope to persuade their people to recognise the legitimacy of the police, co-operate with the police and join the police boards they must start giving the lead themselves. I am sure the Minister will say that they are doing this anyway, but I really want to see the pressure put on the people whom I believe are to blame for the fact thatthe Assembly is not up and running yet. Only when that happens and it becomes acceptable to the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland will the Assembly get up and running.
It is not only the DUP. I had a meeting recently with Sir Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, who may well be seen to be taking a slightly more moderate line. He has some disagreements with the DUP and I asked him whether, if he had the opportunity now, he would go into government with Sinn Fein. He said no and that there would have to be some more movement on the policing issue. Even Sir Reg has his doubts and his concerns. It is not only one party holding things up: it is also the people who are not legitimate and who are not involved in constitutional politics or, even if they are, are involved in other activities too. I would like to see more pressure brought to bear on them because I do not want to sit in another Committee like this one.
Although I have not discussed it with my colleagues, if we got to April next year I would be reluctant to go along with a motion like this again. I do not think that we will be in that position. I hope that the Assembly will be up and running. That is somewhat optimistic and so I urge the Government to continue considering how else we might govern Northern Ireland. There are proposals on the table. I hope that those proposals can be developed so that we do not have to consider another Order in Council like this because I, for one, would be reluctant to go along with it. Having made those few remarks, I will not seek to divide the Committee today.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,Mr. Marshall.
Since the order was last discussed in Committee, things have moved on. The Assembly has been recalled and the Secretary of State has set a firm deadline—24 November—by which either the Assembly must elect a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and an Executive, allowing power to be restored, or Assembly Members’ salaries and allowances must be stopped and all elections postponed for the foreseeable future. Clearly, we all hope that the first of those two scenarios will come to pass. However, given the difficulties facing the Restoration of Government Committee, it seems that little progress is being made. I was, therefore, pleased to hear the Minister announce that the Secretary of State plans further all-party talks. Such talks are essential if progress is to be made, and we hope that they will be successful.
Given that the staff of the Assembly risk losing their jobs on 24 November, we have to consider the questions of redundancy and statutory notice. Given also that the Members of the Legislative Assembly are the employers rather than the Government, will the Government be advising them that they will have to issue precautionary redundancy notices on 24 August to all their staff? Like the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, I put on record once again our frustration at the practice of governing Northern Ireland by Orders in Council.
The Minister has agreed that that procedure is unsatisfactory.
Last autumn, the Secretary of State wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) to ask for suggestions on how to improve scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation. My hon. Friend responded on 2 November with a number of ideas about how we could more adequately scrutinise such legislation and involve elected representatives and organisations in Northern Ireland more closely in the consultation and scrutiny process.
The Secretary of State replied to my hon. Friend on 25 March:
“I will review the situation again later this year when we should have a clearer idea as to the chances of success. If there appears to be little prospect for a successful restoration of the devolved institutions at that juncture, I will want to talk to you and the other parties to discuss the necessary changes.”
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the present procedures are not satisfactory and that he was prepared to consider a number of measures to modify the Order-in-Council procedure. I hope that if the Assembly is not up and running by 24 November, the Government will quickly introduce measures to improve scrutiny.
As was already mentioned, an amendment was passed in another place on 13 July to allow Orders in Council to be considered with amendments. That was a genuine attempt by Opposition parties to reform the process by which Parliament legislates for Northern Ireland, but it is not right that all legislation must come before us on a “take it or leave it” basis.
The ability to amend legislation is important. It is not only about the obvious benefits of making changes to legislation; it also allows Parliament to hold a clear, focused debate on particular aspects of a piece of legislation. Often, because we hold only a general debate, we cannot focus on controversial points. Also, a piece of legislation such as the one that we considered a fortnight ago on miscellaneous provisions, often consists of two completely separate parts, of which we might favour one but not the other.
I hope that the Assembly and the Executive will be up and running by 24 November, and that we will never again need to consider an order like this one. However, we must prepare for the fact that it might not happen, and I hope that discussions would be held quickly about introducing improved ways of legislating for Northern Ireland.
I share the reservations of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about the order, but like him I shall not oppose it, as there would be no way to put alternative provisions in place by 15 October. I shall not seek to divide the Committee, but if we debate a similar order again next March, I hope that by then the Government will have introduced alternative methods of scrutinising Northern Ireland legislation, rather than the present “take it or leave it” method. I was encouraged by the Minister’s remarks.
2.51 pm
Mr. Hanson: I shall try to respond to the points made by Opposition Members. I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about Assembly Members and their staff. As he knows, in the event that the Assembly is not reconstituted on 24 November, the Northern Ireland miscellaneous provisions measure, whose details we are dealing with today, will ensure that Assembly salaries are stopped. It is the hon. Gentleman’s intention to ensure that the Government write to Assembly Members—an official will do so shortly—to offer advice respecting their staff in the event that that occurs. As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute knows, the Government wish that event not to occur.
The hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Argyll and Bute have said that they are not minded to deal with such matters in future in the way that they have been dealt with today. I agree with that. They know I agree, and that I want the Assembly back. In the event that it does not come back, we shall examine the alternative arrangements and discuss those with them in the spirit of the amendment that was passed in another place last Thursday. I hope that that reassures them.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury mentioned how we will get to restoration, and he also rightly mentioned the big issue of policing—one of the potential obstacles to restoration. I say clearly to the Committee that I wish members of Sinn Fein to play their full role on the policing board. I wish members of Sinn Fein, and supporters of that community and constituency, to work with the police in Northern Ireland on the ground to deal with everything from antisocial behaviour through to the normal matters of state, in the same way that we would expect to deal with the police as local Members of Parliament—and indeed as members of the public—in our constituencies. I want that to happen, and I am encouraging it. I hope that those in office in Sinn Fein will work towards it, and I know that they are considering how best to deal with it. It is one of the big obstacles. The Unionist parties feel strongly about it.
I do not see it as a precondition for further entry into the Assembly by political parties, however, because there are the issues of crime and criminality, although I hope that the Independent Monitoring Commission report that is due in October will resolve the position on those issues for the political parties.
There are a number of difficulties that must be faced before the Assembly is brought back in November. We are aware of what they are, as are all Members of the House. The Government are trying to resolve them to the best of our ability through discussion, through the Preparation for Government Committee that we have established, through working with the political parties, through working with Assembly Members and through setting an end date for the Assembly in case things are not sorted out.
I regret that I have to bring this order to Committee today, but Members know why I have done so. On that basis I commend it to them and look for their support for an alternative future mechanism. In the meantime I shall work for restoration.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Northern IrelandAct 2000 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2006.
Committee rose at eight minutes to Three o’clock.

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