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12.52 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I was first alerted to the imminence of the Bill when during the week before the recess, through the usual channels, I learnt that the Government intended to publish it on Monday 23 February, the day on which Parliament resumed. The House would be given one full day to read it, understand it and table amendments before proceeding to consider all stages on Wednesday 25 February.

It has always been our policy not to let party politics intrude on our deliberations on Northern Ireland. We have always striven to be a responsible Opposition, maintaining the broad bipartisan consensus that has brought the peace process so far. However, this proposal really did ask too much, as it gave us so little time in which to analyse a Bill that, although short, amends a number of earlier Acts. More negotiations followed, and I was pleased when the Government agreed to a further week, resulting in today’s business.

It is highly unsatisfactory that any Bill should be put through all its stages in the elected House in one day, when even the non-elected House is given two days. There have been times when emergency legislation on Northern Ireland has been put through in a day, and those circumstances have been understandable. However, although there is no such emergency on this occasion, I was given to understand that the Government had set a timetable so tight that it would allow the Assembly time to consider the Bill, with the result that criminal justice and policing would be devolved before the summer recess. I was therefore very surprised when, during our brief debate on the business of the House last Wednesday, the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who is present—the First Minister, no less—declared that no date for devolution had been agreed, and that time should be allowed for a full debate in the House.

That makes the position even more unsatisfactory. However, given the Government’s majority and ability to control the programme, I fear that further debate and voting on this motion would eat into the limited time available for Second Reading and the Bill’s remaining stages. I am strongly tempted to vote against the motion, but I should prefer my hon. Friends—I know that they have strong feelings on the issue, which are quite justified—not to press the motion to a Division if they can possibly restrain themselves from doing so, thus allowing us to proceed to the main business.

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12.55 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Let me say at the outset that, on behalf of my party, I oppose the programme motion.

The House has seen plenty of legislation that needed to be passed urgently, but here we have legislation being rushed through as if it were urgent when in reality there is no urgency whatsoever in terms of politics in Northern Ireland. Whether we like it or not, we still have no date for the devolution of justice—the Secretary of State has made that perfectly clear on many occasions—so why rush this legislation through now? Why should we not take a bit of time, not to delay it but to consider it properly? What harm could there be in that? In fact, it could only create better legislation. The other place is taking two days to consider the Bill, so why is this House being rushed and restricted to a single afternoon on a day that features a busy schedule?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bill is being rushed through not because of its urgency, but because of its defects. Perhaps that is why copies of the consolidated legislation on which the Bill is largely based were not supplied to political parties until 9.16 pm on Monday, when amendments had to be tabled by 10.30 pm. That constitutes indecent haste, and prevents parties and Members from doing their job properly in the House. Members were left to trawl through the spaghetti of seven different Acts in that short time: the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission Etc.) Act 2003, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, and the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2004.

Not only does the Bill amend those Acts; it confounds some of the explanations and assurances that were given in the House during their passage. It contradicts previous understandings of, in particular, the way in which the devolution of justice would work, and it is defective in a number of respects. It means that the 2011 Assembly elections can be followed by an indefinite period during which there will be a Department of Justice without a Minister. Worse, it means that unless by May 2012 the Assembly has agreed to a permanent model for the devolution of justice, or the Secretary of State intervenes, the position will be the other way around: we shall have a Minister for Justice without a Department.

That, of course, would be a very dangerous position. The absence of a Department of Justice would mean chaos in the sphere of justice and law in Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is why paragraph 5(2)(b) of schedule 1 allows the Secretary of State to introduce a fallback, although the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agreed that there would be no fallback. The fallback is the model of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act, which allows the DUP the very thing that Sinn Fein foolishly conceded in July 2008: a DUP veto over the appointment of a Minister for Justice “at all times”. That, of course, could lead to further rows about who the Minister for Justice will be after 2012, potentially leaving the Department without a Minister again.

All that might not matter if the future was in safe hands, but it is not. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have played the devolution of justice card time and again for
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their own advantage, not for the common good. Indeed, just last year, while the world economy was falling apart around us, they could not agree to let the Executive meet to discuss the issue.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McGrady: Not at the moment.

They could not agree to that as they were indulging in a partisan stand-off over the devolution of justice. If they are willing to allow that, we can safely assume that they will be willing to let a crisis build in 2011 or 2012—and perhaps the elections coming up this year and next year will be fought on that artificially created agenda. That is why it is all the more important that this legislation looks for positive ways out of crises, rather than pushing parties towards them, and that is what our amendments try to do. They avoid such opportunities for stunts, stand-offs and showdowns, and they promote positive politics in Northern Ireland. They help bring this Bill back into line with the Good Friday agreement, which the people supported. We deserve the time to consider these amendments properly.

Members of this House may, rightly, feel tired of all the legislation on the devolution of justice, but this Bill is more important than any other measure, as it stands a chance of being used in reality—and it is highly likely that it will be abused. Therefore, this House should use its powers. It should scrutinise Bills properly, rather than rubber-stamp them for the sake of some unknown expedient. For as long as this House legislates for Northern Ireland, it has a duty to ensure that it legislates well for Northern Ireland, and that it promotes solutions, not confusion. That is why this Bill deserves to be debated more fully.

I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds).

Mr. Dodds: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I am sure he will want to correct what he said when he put the blame for non-meetings of the Executive equally on the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein. Does he not accept that the First Minister and the DUP were at all times willing for the Executive to meet, and, indeed, suggested an open agenda so that the Executive could meet on any issue, but that Sinn Fein blocked the meetings, as was said in the Assembly by the hon. Gentleman’s Social Democratic and Labour party colleagues?

Mr. McGrady: The hon. Gentleman has intervened on the point of the political manoeuvring of last year. In my opinion, both parties were using the stand-off to create party political advantages for themselves. The general tenor of my remarks is that my party opposes the programme motion and has a mind to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone).

1.3 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I will not speak for long, but I want to make a couple of what I hope will be reasonably cogent and important points.

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This is not tremendously controversial legislation; it is necessary legislation, and I support it, and if I am fortunate enough to be called to speak in the substantive debate, I will explain why I support it briefly and, I hope, fairly persuasively. There is a difference between haste and indecent haste, however. There is a case, which the Secretary of State has made, for passing this Bill reasonably quickly, but I stress the word “reasonably” as there is no need for it to be rushed through this House this afternoon.

This is a further example of the Government’s disdain for the House of Commons. The Secretary of State has a good record on that issue, but his Government have a bad one. Time and again, timetables have not given adequate time to discuss measures, and today we have another example. We are constrained even as we speak in this debate, because we have four hours for the whole of the proceedings up to the conclusion of the Second Reading debate, including the time we are taking now, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) appealed to us not to vote. I understand the logic of that appeal, but it is very wrong that the business motion debate is eating into the time for Second Reading. We ought to have a period of, perhaps, an hour for this debate—it does not need to be a long time—and then we should have time for Second Reading on top of that. We then have two hours for the remaining stages. There is absolutely no indication in the amendments on today’s Order Paper of any desire by anyone of any party in Northern Ireland or anywhere else to filibuster. There are some amendments that deserve consideration, but there will not be enough time to debate them properly, and that is wrong.

I have a high regard for the Secretary of State, and I know he does not mean to insult either the House or the people of Northern Ireland, but the way in which this is being railroaded through does, in fact, insult them. It does not give us in this House time for adequate debate, and it does not say to the people of Northern Ireland, who will be following our deliberations with considerable interest, that we have scrutinised this very important measure adequately and properly.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is making excellent points. Would he like to reinforce them by acknowledging that the business of this House in the coming weeks and months does not seem over-onerous? We are not over-burdened with legislation, and there seems to me to be plenty of opportunity for this measure to be properly debated.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, to which I was going to allude. There has never been a thinner Queen’s Speech than the one we had in December. The legislative burden has never been lighter. I do not grumble at that, because I am one of those who have consistently argued for less legislation, not more, but the fact is that we do have adequate time. It would have been perfectly possible for us to have had two days—the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) does not ask for longer, as it makes a modest request—which would have given time for proper consideration of this short but important measure.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): My hon. Friend is cogently outlining the need for more time. Is not the nub of the point that there is little
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likelihood of the devolution of policing and justice occurring in the next year or several years, so why the need to proceed with such indecent haste?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not want to comment on the timetable for devolution; that is very much in the hands of the Assembly and the parties represented in it. I was very glad to see the declaration of 18 November, but it outlined a process and did not give a timetable. In my opinion, that was appropriate, but it is for my friends from Northern Ireland—I am referring to “my friends” in a wide generic sense, including the gentlemen on the Benches opposite—to decide exactly when this will happen. What is important is that, when it does happen, it should be permanent and not come unstuck. I agree with the substance of the intervention, because what the hon. Gentleman—who until recently was a very valuable member of my Select Committee—is saying is that there is not this urgency: we do have the opportunity to have a couple of days, and the general parliamentary timetable should permit it.

I must thank the Minister of State for helping to prevent the originally proposed absurdity of publication on 23 February and debate on the 25th. That would have been quite appalling, and when the Minister of State came before the Select Committee the week before the recess, we made it quite plain to him in no uncertain terms that that was something, in the immortal words of Churchill, up with which we would not put. The Minister of State was extremely helpful in trying to ensure that there was time for the Bill to be published and for people to study it before Second Reading. I just ask, far more in sorrow than in anger, that having done that, which was proper and much appreciated, why does he still stick to the one day’s consideration, especially in view of the fact that the other place has two days? I do not complain about its having two days, because that is entirely proper, but we should also have had two days. It is for those from Northern Ireland to determine whether time should be taken in the Division Lobby. I, personally, will not call a Division by shouting at the appropriate time, but I wish to make it plain that if there is one, I shall most certainly support the amendment and vote against this programme motion.

1.10 pm

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I always follow, with great respect, the contributions made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), because he is dedicated to making sure that this House’s proprieties and traditions are upheld, especially in its scrutiny of the Executive, and I salute him for that. However, I think it is important that this programme motion goes through—ideally, as the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary mentioned, there will not be a vote. I say that because, notwithstanding the understandable concern that there should be proper scrutiny—my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) always makes that point with great persuasiveness—we must look at the big picture. I think it is important that Parliament passes this motion and clears this Bill today.

This whole story goes back to what happened at St. Andrews in October 2006, when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The commitment from the
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Government to try to achieve the devolution of policing and justice by May last year was in that agreement. I concede absolutely the fact that my friends in the Democratic Unionist party did not sign up to that. The St. Andrews agreement was, as it were, the Government’s best call of where the consensus lay. Subsequently, we got the historic breakthrough when, early in 2007, Sinn Fein signed up to supporting fully the rule of law, and policing and justice in Northern Ireland—it had never done that before. Part of that agreement, which is crucial to the peace process and was crucial to the eventual settlement that we achieved, was on the understanding that policing and justice would be fully devolved to Northern Ireland. It is very important that Parliament upholds the spirit of the St. Andrews agreement; after all, the St. Andrews legislation, which was introduced shortly afterwards, was passed by Parliament and the objective then was set for May 2008—that date has passed, but it is essential that the momentum is kept in this process. I say to the House that having been right in the thick of the negotiations with Sinn Fein and the then leader of the DUP, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to try to get the agreement that produced the settlement and, ultimately, the devolution in May 2007, I know that the policing and justice issue was crucial, and the DUP was rightly insisting that Sinn Fein sign up to it.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that I admire the part that he played in achieving what was achieved in Northern Ireland—he played a very significant role—but he must appreciate that this is not a question of whether we have devolution. That is not at issue today, and there is broad agreement among the parties in Northern Ireland that they wish to move towards that. The Bill is not going to hold that process up or advance it; it is merely a necessary step. All that those of us who are arguing against the programme motion are saying is that the reputation that he and his successor have should not be spoiled by this indecent haste and undue pressure—there is no need for it.

Mr. Hain: I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I must respectfully disagree with him. Having been in the position of taking emergency Bills through this House as Secretary of State in order to keep momentum in the process, which produced the very settlement that occurred in 2007, I think that this is part of it. What we are doing here today is opening the door to the devolution of policing and justice—it is for the Assembly to decide when it walks into the room. As he says, every party agrees on the principle of the devolution of policing and justice—that is not controversial. Every party agrees that it has to happen according to the Assembly’s time of choosing—

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hain: I just want to make these points and then I shall give way, because I do not wish to speak for too long. Everybody agrees on the principles. This Bill opens the way to that devolution, and that is why it is important to get it through in a timely fashion, today.

Mr. Shepherd: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that he has taken emergency Bills on Northern Ireland through the House. Is he suggesting that this is an emergency Bill?

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Mr. Hain: I am not taking this Bill through, and I was talking about what I had had to do—I had had to test the patience of the House. Obviously, all of us like plenty —[Interruption.] This is not an emergency Bill in the same sense, but it is a Bill that is vital to keep momentum in the process. I wonder why there is opposition to this programme motion; if everybody agrees on the principle, as everybody tells me that they do, if everybody says that they want to see this devolution happen, as everybody says that they do, and if everybody wants to make sure that the dissidents in the republican movement do not gain any extra purchase and the mainstream republican movement, led by Sinn Fein, is able to keep on the path to the devolution of policing and justice, why would people stand in the way of this Bill going through the House today?

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): How can the right hon. Gentleman justify one day of debate in this House and two days of debate in another House? Surely this is the proper place where the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, who are voted in by the people of Northern Ireland, scrutinise legislation.

Mr. Hain: The House will have plenty of time to scrutinise this legislation —[Interruption.] This is a largely technical Bill. It comes from a process in which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agreed in November last year on a way forward. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee reported in January on its conclusions, and this Bill largely implements what the Assembly wants. It is for the Assembly to decide when it delivers on the principle, so I cannot see why there is any reason to oppose a Bill that everybody says they support and that reflects the Assembly’s wishes. This Parliament, in this House today, is merely giving effect to the Assembly’s wishes.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): One of the reasons we need more time to consider this Bill is that Members such as my right hon. Friend clearly do not understand some of the details of it. It is not good enough to say that it is merely technical, because it provides for the collapse and dissolution of a Department in a few years’ time, so it needs to be properly considered. He referred to legislation that he had pushed through this House. Does he recall the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, which was rushed through in exactly this way? He promised us that it would be the last measure like this and that it would be the last model for the devolution of justice and policing, and he dismissed those of us who contradicted him by saying otherwise—we have been proved correct today.

Mr. Hain: I do not agree with my hon. Friend on this matter. I am not going to repeat the points that I made, but I remind the House that it is for the Assembly to decide exactly the format of the new justice Department. We are facilitating a process, and unless we keep momentum in it, it could fall over. The need to keep momentum has been the lesson over the years in Northern Ireland. We were able to get momentum in the critical period in 2006 to 2007, which has brought us up to the point where the last bit of devolution now needs to be accomplished.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hain: I have to give way to a fellow Chelsea supporter.

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