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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Hillier, Meg (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
Jones, Lynne (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Shaw, Jonathan (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
Spellar, Mr. John (Warley) (Lab)
Todd, Mr. Mark (South Derbyshire) (Lab)
Viggers, Peter (Gosport) (Con)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Wood, Mike (Batley and Spen) (Lab)
Mr. M Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 20 March 2007

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007

10.30 am
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) Order 2007.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, for what I hope will be the last opportunity for the House of Commons to debate a modification order. We hope that the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland will be restored on Monday next week, with the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) sharing power. I am acutely aware of the fact that debating the order today is an anomaly. I hope that you will bear with my croaky voice this morning.
The Chairman: As long as you will bear with mine.
Mr. Hanson: I shall do my best, Mr. Wilshire.
It is important that devolution is restored on26 March, and I know that the Committee will share my hope and aspiration that the deadline will be met. However, hon. Members will be aware of the need for an order to provide contingency planning. I hope that they will forgive me if I briefly outline its continued necessity. I need not do so for my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who in a previous capacity has taken through many similar orders. I look forward to his support for the order and to any interesting comments that he may wish to make on its details.
The main purpose of the order is to extend the power to legislate on Northern Ireland matters by Order in Council for a further six months. When the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in 2002, the provisions of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000 were invoked whereby the Government had the power to legislate on Northern Ireland matters by Order in Council. The power was initially limited to the first six months of suspension. Regrettably, on eight occasions since then, we have been required to putthe modification order in place for further periods of six months. This order will provide for a six-month extension from 15 April to 14 October 2007.
As I said at the outset, I very much hope that we will not need the modification order to be in place from April through October this year. We tabled it because of parliamentary timetabling considerations, but I hope that the devolution Executive will be back on26 March. Following restoration, it is set in statute that the Northern Ireland Act 2000 will be repealed, and, as a result, the power of the Government to legislatefor Northern Ireland by Order in Council will fall automatically.
There are now no obstacles in the way of the restoration of devolution on 26 March. In the election some two weeks ago, a large number of Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein members were elected. Those parties form the biggest unionist and nationalist blocs. Their leaders, the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster, are now in a position to be able to agree a programme for Government, and I look forward on Monday of next week to their taking the oath of office and forming an Administration. As a result, the order will not be required.
In the event of the process collapsing—I very much hope that it will not—it will still be unsatisfactory for Members to deal with legislation for Northern Ireland by way of Order in Council. I have given assurances to the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on regular occasions that we will review how we operate in the sad and unlikely event of devolution not being restored. On that basis, I hope that Members can support the order and ensure that we put in place the mechanism to legislate for Northern Ireland in the event of failure on 26 March.
However, I assure hon. Members that I am confident of success. I also assure them that 26 March is the day when the deal will be done. There will be no movement from the Government on the date. It is an opportunity, and I know that the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster are up to the challenge.
The Chairman: May I say to the Committee that this is a particularly narrow issue? I do not think that the debate can go beyond renewing the Order in Council. Therefore, I would be grateful if people did not feel tempted to talk about Northern Ireland issues in general.
10.34 am
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. I cannot share the sore throat with you and the Minister but I hope I can be excused for that. Even though I might have a Lancashire accent, I do not have a funny throat at the moment.
I am not happy with this procedure at all. I intend to listen to the debate but at the moment I am not minded to support this motion for a number of reasons. I did give notice of my intentions the last time we discussed this order in October when I said that, given that there was a deadline of 24 November for devolution being restored, that deadline was then moved to 26 March. We are now assured that that deadline again will not be moved but when we debated this last October I said I saw no reason to extend the period of government by statutory instrument. Again we had a deadline. That deadline would be observed. The Government had said at the time they were sticking to that deadline and that nothing could move them from it and therefore we should have been in the process of deciding how we would govern Northern Ireland thereafter if devolution was not restored by that deadline.
The Government have made noises about wanting to consider different ways of governing the Province. It was many, many months ago—if not a year ago—when that approach was made and when that discussion started to take place. As far as I know, we have made absolutely no progress at all towards an alternative. As far as I know, we will continue to govern Northern Ireland by statutory instrument if devolution is not restored on Monday. We are only talking about Monday, which is just a few days away.
Mr. Hanson: I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance, as I have done on previous occasions, that in the event of devolution not progressing, I will, through the usual channels, initiate discussions over the Easter recess to ensure that we operate Orders in Council in a much more effective way. He will know that we have not done that to date because I am very hopeful that the deadline on Monday will be met by the parties and that there will be no need for legislation in this form in future.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention but I would make a number of points from it. The first point is that he has reaffirmed that we will still carry out the procedure by Order in Council. I think that is what the Minister just said. That is unsatisfactory to start with. If we look around the Committee today there is no representative from the Liberal Democrats. In spite of the fact that they often protest about the Order in Council procedure, they are not here today to support my argument. We are not supported by any Member from Northern Ireland. In fact I think I am right in saying—I have had a quick look through the list of Members—there is only one Member from Northern Ireland on the team today, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), and he is not here.
Last week we discussed an issue called the all-Ireland energy market which is very important to consumers in Northern Ireland. We had no representation from Northern Ireland on that debate either. I do not accept that this is a proper way to go about governing1.7 million people in Northern Ireland. With the best will in the world, I travel there regularly and I know that the Minister is there an awful lot. I am told by his civil servants there that he goes there and that he is very assiduous, but none of us actually belong in Northern Ireland. None of us have a feel for the Province. Even if we were to change the style or the rules regarding Orders in Council, I still do not think that would be entirely satisfactory.
I realise the Government have not wanted to plan for failure and that considering changes to the way we govern the Province could be seen as a negative backdrop to the current negotiations. I would accept that if it were not for the fact that the Government has threatened the DUP and the Unionists with greater involvement from the Republic should they not sit down together. I find that unacceptable, especially when it could be argued that the people who have prevented that in the first place have been the republicans, who would be rewarded by the very thing that they want and for which they have campaignedfor many years, namely more involvement from the Republic.
I do not accept the argument that we could nothave made progress towards a better form of direct rule even though we hope the negotiations would have succeeded.
Looking back to 2006, we have had countless statutory instruments and a number of Northern Ireland Bills. Those statutory instruments could have been included in the Northern Ireland Bills, especially when we have had miscellaneous provisions Bills, which presumably means that they could consider anything. One miscellaneous provisions Bill considered both energy and policing, which have nothing to do with each other, and yet we cannot incorporate, for example, changes to the education system in primary legislation. Why not? Why have we not been able to do that?
Goodness knows how many SIs we have had already in 2007 and we have had one Bill. The Minister is right to say that we do need a different form of Order in Council; I would argue, even if the Minister would not, that that is because they are non-amendable and because the Committee dealing with them is appointed. However, as well as the education reforms, we have considered changes to the rating system, which is hugely important; we have introduced water charges; there has been the council reconfiguration; there have been changes regarding sexual orientation legislation; and there has been 50-50 recruitment in the police and community support officers, a recruitment policy that has been extended. As I have said, we have also had the all-Ireland energy market. These issues are major issues that have been considered by a handful of people in these Committees, sometimes with no representation at all from Northern Ireland. The Committees are appointed on a party basis; we cannot amend them, and the situation is totally unsatisfactory.
As I have said, we have had the prospect of a better form of government of the Province dangled over us, but without any specific proposals. I hope that the Assembly is up and running from 26 March, but that is less than a week away and there is a weekend between now and then. I think that progress is being made towards that end, but I am not convinced that matters will be settled by next Monday; I hope that they are settled by then, but I am not convinced that they will be. If they are not, it will leave the Government in a difficult position, because they have said—yet again—that that date cannot be moved.
As I understand it, it would require primary legislation in order to change that date, but we have had emergency primary legislation on Northern Ireland before; we have even been called back from recess in September, to have emergency primary legislation on Northern Ireland. So all things in Northern Ireland are possible and consequently I really do not know what will happen.
I am very unhappy indeed, however, that we are talking about extending this process, possibly until14 October. Even if we had to do something, why did the Government not bring the order in next week, for example next Tuesday? Monday is 26 March, which is the deadline. Why could we not discuss this measure next Tuesday? At least then we would know what is going to happen. I simply do not accept that we have to discuss this order today.
10.43 am
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am sorry that I am late, Mr. Wilshire. Had I been on time, the one point that I would have made is exactly the point about the timing of this measure that was made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson).
Mr. Hanson: First, I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury again for his contribution; he is assiduous in raising his concerns and he fulfils his shadow duties in an exemplary manner. However, may I disabuse him of the notion that 26 March is a deadline that will be moved? He has quite rightly noted the fact that primary legislation would be required to move that deadline. It is now Tuesday morning. Even if the Government were minded to bring it forward, that primary legislation would have to be completed in both Houses of Parliament by Thursday at 6 pm or Friday at 2.30 pm. That is not going to happen.
The Government will not bring forward primary legislation to move the deadline by Monday of next week. That is because we have taken the view—I know that it is a debateable view—that it is now nine years since the Good Friday agreement. We have had numerous attempts to get the power-sharing Executive back up and running, and we have had an election two weeks ago that returned the two majority parties with increased majorities, when those two parties were fighting the election against parties and individual candidates who were saying “Do not do the deal”, and yet they increased their vote on the basis of potentially doing the deal. The deadline is not going to move—the deadline of 26 March is the deadline.
If the deadline is not met, the Government will close down the Assembly—we will close it down on Monday evening if the deadline is not met. If the Assembly is closed down on Monday, it will be on the basis that it will not reopen for some considerable period of time. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, and the Irish Government, have not brought the Government of Northern Ireland to this stage only to have to move the deadline, go into a period of uncertainty and put it back several weeks’ hence. Monday is the day to decide, and on that basis we have to bring forward contingency plans so that if the parties in Northern Ireland do not agree to devolution we have the potential to run Northern Ireland by Order in Council procedure until the next modification order in October.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury made the valid point that we could have introduced the order on Tuesday next week, but Parliamentary timetables in this and the other place make that difficult. It is being brought forward this week as a contingency in the fervent hope that we do not have to proceed with it, as I said in my introductory remarks. If devolution returns, the order and the legislation on which it is predicated will fall and the process, which would start from next Monday, will not be operational. As a Minister, I am dealing with matters that are the proper responsibility of the Members of the local Assembly who were elected two and a half weeks ago.
I very much hope that the order will not be necessary, that the deadline remains the deadline, that the Assembly returns on 26 March, that the Members of that Assembly exercise their responsibilities and that the difficulties that direct-rule Ministers would face in legislating without the Assembly will not come about.
Mr. Robertson: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way and for treating the matter sympathetically. He referred to business in this and another place preventing the order from being brought forward next Tuesday. The Budget is tomorrow and there are votes on the Budget on Tuesday, but there would still be time for the order to be considered by both Houses of Parliament before the Easter recess, unless there is some business in the House of Lords that I am not aware of that would prevent that from happening.
We have spent half the debate discussing the prospects of the Assembly being up and running by Monday; if the order had not been brought forward until Tuesday that discussion would not have been necessary as we would have known exactly what was happening and we may have been more sympathetic to the order. Why can it not be considered next week?
Mr. Hanson: I gave the hon. Gentleman my assurances that because of parliamentary timetables we had to introduce the order this week. However, the basic tenor of the debate will not change because either there is devolution on Monday or there is legislation by Order in Council. If the hon. Gentleman votes against the order today and my hon. and right hon. Friends support him, in the event of devolution not progressing direct rule Ministers will have no mechanism of legislating for Northern Ireland other than primary legislation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, on many of the matters we have debated to date, primary legislation would be difficult.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned all the orders that have been introduced in the past 12 months and since the modification order was passed. They are matters that would normally go through the Northern Ireland Assembly, with proper scrutiny involving Northern Ireland Members. They are undertaken by means of the Order in Council procedure because of the failure of the Assembly to establish itself, so I am exercising the powers on behalf of the Assembly.
We have this debate every time an order is considered in the Committee and the hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), knows that none of us finds this method of organising parliamentary activity in Northern Ireland satisfactory. Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire arrived, I gave the hon. Member for Tewkesbury the assurance that if the Assembly is not reconstituted on Monday, I will discuss with him, with the Liberal Democrats,the Ulster Unionists, the DUP, the SDLP and other parties through the usual channels, how to improve discussions, and our input, on the Order in Council procedure.
We have had correspondence on the subject with the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Montgomeryshire but I am not progressing these matters yet because my first choice is for the democratically elected Assembly to be in place on Monday. If that does not happen we will have the Easter recess to discuss things. I will not stand up in a future Order in Council discussion with the same procedure that we have now; we will discuss how we can improve it. But that is my secondary option.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury also asked why we cannot legislate for Northern Ireland in primary legislation in the House. We have before the House several Bills dealing with matters that will be transferred to the Assembly, and we have introduced primary legislation for the House to consider.
Three Bills are before Parliament on reserved matters that are being extended partially or completely to Northern Ireland: the Serious Crime Bill, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill and the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill. We try to do that whenever possible, but for day-to-day, bread-and-butter matters affecting people in Northern Ireland it is not possible to find a legislative vehicle in primary legislation that is before the House of Commons or another place. That is why we have brought forward Orders in Council on a range of issues.
Mr. Robertson: I may not have the exact figure, but there have been around half a dozen Northern Ireland Bills during the past 12 months, and the Orders in Council could have been tagged on to those. Instead, secondary legislation on rates, water rates, education reform and so on has been discussed by a Committee that is unable to amend any part of it. That is not the way to do it.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s strictures about parliamentary time and that it might be better to do this next week, but the next few days will be very busy and we are making contingency plans in the event of failure. Over the next week, my job and that of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister is to ensure that those two key figures in the Unionist movement and the Republican movement share power on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
Question put—
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 3.
Division No. 1 ]
Griffith, Nia
Hanson, Mr. David
Hillier, Meg
Jones, Lynne
Norris, Dan
Salter, Martin
Shaw, Jonathan
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Todd, Mr. Mark
Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Öpik, Lembit
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007.
Committee rose at s ix minutes to Eleven o’clock .

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