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On a serious point, I am aware that this Bill, like many other measures introduced over the past few years, has generated unhappiness among my friends and comrades in the Social Democratic and Labour party. I sincerely hope that history will record the absolutely central role played by the SDLP in getting us to this point. When I was coming into politics, John Hume was a personal hero of mine and he inspired
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much of my approach. Although the realpolitik can be brutal—the electoral reality in Northern Ireland means that the Government have to deal with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party—that does not mean that we should have less respect for what the SDLP has achieved.

Given the time, I shall restrict my comments to the issues of devolution and ministerial portfolios. As I said, this Bill is a small but very important step in the right direction. At the risk of provoking a rerun of the arguments held on the programme motion, I point out that the proposals in it are largely technical. That is not to diminish them or suggest that they are not complicated, but they are not prescriptive. The House is not setting out to tell members of the Stormont Assembly how they must proceed, but the Bill gives them another option in their general toolkit of options for facilitating what is a very important step in devolution.

For a short while, I had a role in our constitution that I think was unique. At one and the same time, I was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office under direct rule, and also a Minister in the Scotland Office, where devolution was fully functioning. That allowed me to see both sides of the Government’s work in relation to the nations and regions of the UK.

When I was a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, I always said that the form of government that we were able to provide there was not the second or even third best option, but that it was by a long way sub-optimal. I was looking after the Departments with responsibility for agriculture and for the environment, and I see that my esteemed successor in the latter is in his place this afternoon. I was also in charge of the Department for Regional Development, and I am very pleased that the strategic road improvement programme is opening today, after many years of the traffic jams that I inflicted on Belfast. However, the amount of time that we were able to give to such matters was, with the best will in the world, simply nowhere near as much as a local Minister can give to them. That is why I think that devolution will, in principle, result in greater confidence and better government.

That is not to say that I always agree with everything that local Ministers do. The devolved Minister with responsibility for criminal justice and policing in Scotland, Kenny MacAskill, is a man with whom I rarely agree on anything. Many of the things that he does as a Minister are wrong-headed, and many of the policies that he pursues are flat-out disastrous, but I would still rather that he was in post, having put a mandate before the people of Scotland and having been elected, albeit that he is making what I regard as mistakes, than that we did not have devolution at all. It is better that we proceed with devolution of criminal justice, albeit at a snail’s pace, with all the caveats, inconsistencies and unintended—or intended—consequences that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle outlined. That is still better than direct rule.

Obviously, because of the separate nature of its criminal justice system, Scotland has an absolutely central aspect of devolution in place. Devolution in Scotland without devolution of policing and criminal justice is unthinkable. The situation is slightly different in Wales, because there has never been a separate Welsh judiciary. Devolution in Northern Ireland will not be complete until policing and criminal justice matters have been devolved. I hope that that happens within my political lifetime—

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Sir Patrick Cormack: It depends how long that is.

David Cairns —and I hope that we do not hear a repetition of the phrase that it will not happen within our political lifetime, because that would leave an important, fairly disastrous hole in the middle of the devolutionary principle. I do not regard my political lifetime as over, contrary to any obituaries that have been written. It is important that we do not regard the current situation as in any way satisfactory until we complete that journey.

I understand the political processes that have to be gone through. I very much understand the political sensitivities, having spent a brief time in Northern Ireland, thankfully long after the troubles had ended. My only experience of such matters was meeting relatives of people killed or badly injured during that time. I was immensely privileged to attend the commemoration of the anniversary of the Omagh bombing. I will take with me for the rest of my life the extraordinary dignity of the families who lost loved ones in that most awful tragedy. We must not do anything crass and insensitive to their feelings and the memories that they carry with them, but the process has to move on. No one is arguing against that, but we have to will the means as well as the end. Everyone says, “We want criminal justice to be devolved”, but then for ever expresses caveats about the means, often as a way of delaying the day when criminal justice is devolved. We cannot use as a means of obfuscation the processes available in the toolkit that the Government are providing. They have to be used as a means of bringing about that devolution by the most equitable and fair means possible.

I want to speak on an issue that is slightly to one side of the thrust of today’s debate, but given that the Bill amends legislation on ministerial functions in Northern Ireland Departments, I hope that it is in order to do so; it may be the only opportunity that I get to say this. Obviously, if Northern Ireland is to proceed to a greater degree of normality, and to devolution akin to that in Scotland, issues to do with the enforced nature of the coalition will have to be dealt with. I believe strongly that the way in which ministerial Departments are configured in Northern Ireland militates against good government and good decision making. I understand why they are configured in that way, and why responsibilities have been separated as they have been, but it does not lead to good government.

It makes no sense that one Department has responsibility for the Northern Ireland Planning Service, while another has responsibility for planning policy. That simply makes no sense, and it does not lead to good decision making and good government. I happened to be the Minister with responsibility for both Departments, and it was months before I realised that those things were in separate Departments. It took me a while to figure out why there were two different cast lists of officials, and why, when I said, “In the meeting the other day, we spoke about planning policy statement 12” or whatever, officials looked at me blankly and said, “Minister, we are the Planning service; we have nothing to do with planning policy.” That sort of anomaly is replicated throughout government in Northern Ireland. This clearly is not the Bill nor the time to address such anomalies, but perhaps in 2012, when we are considering the new shape of the Justice Department, if a modicum of trust exists between the parties, it will be the time to do so.

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It has been difficult enough in Northern Ireland to attract significant inward investment, such as John Lewis in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), who is not in his place. It was difficult enough under direct rule—whether or not we had to deal with the same people, although in different Departments, who were able to speak to colleagues—to compete with other parts of the United Kingdom, let alone other parts of Europe, and to move quickly, as Governments must, but I fear for Northern Ireland if these anomalies are not addressed in a proper review of Government. That is a bigger issue than is before us today, but it is relevant because we are talking about ministerial portfolios.

I conclude by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The issue of Northern Ireland has fallen out of the headlines here and that might lead some to conclude that it has been resolved, that it is all sorted and that there is no major heavy lifting to be done. But a lot of work has gone on under my right hon. Friend’s watch in the last couple of years, and he has gone about it in a quiet and dignified way, seeking not to inflame the positions, but to resolve them. That is the spirit in which he has approached the legislation today. I commend him for it and I commend the legislation to the House.

4.6 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Members for Inverclyde (David Cairns) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for truncating their remarks to allow me the opportunity to speak. I am not sure whether it will be of great value to them, because on the British Midland flight this morning I put my scribbled notes on the centre seat while I talked to the man beside me and the steward came along and said, “Can I take that rubbish away?” I can only say that it is a pity that he was not the steward on the flight taken by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). We might all have had more of an opportunity to speak in this debate.

I welcome the introduction of the Bill. It represents a significant step in introducing new propositions that will significantly grow confidence in Northern Ireland in policing and justice. It allows for a methodology whereby the people of Northern Ireland can have confidence, despite the long-held concern that most within the Unionist community felt about the prospect of a Sinn Fein Minister or Sinn Fein being in control of policing and justice.

I can easily recognise that Sinn Fein has taken considerable steps, given where it started from, in giving support to the police and encouraging people to give information to the police, and that must all be welcome, but it does not amount to its having gained sufficient confidence within the community to allow it to hold that office. I have no doubt that the prospect of any of my colleagues being Justice Minister will not enthral those who support Sinn Fein. That is the nub of the issue: the requirement that whoever holds that position has support across the community, especially given the kind of post that we are talking about. In the fullness of time, as normality in political terms gains hold in Northern Ireland, no doubt the DUP can look to that post, and there will be many very capable of holding it.

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It is regrettable that my colleagues do not have sufficient opportunity to speak on Second Reading, but I hope that there will be some flexibility during the Committee stage to allow them to make their remarks. Politics is the worse for the debate being reduced to one day. I cannot understand how the business managers of this House think that it is more important that those in another place have two days to debate the Bill while we have only one day.

Those who follow Northern Ireland affairs closely will be aware of the agreement that laid the foundation for this Bill. It took many months of negotiations to reach it, and it is important to understand the background to this measure—not just what it does, but what it does not do. That affects the wider question of the devolution of policing and justice functions in Northern Ireland.

The history of devolving policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland is encouraging to Unionists. Unionists fought to have those powers involved in the original settlement when Stormont was set up, and Carson and Craigavon rightly ensured that that Parliament had them. That was the Unionist thing to do. Some people out there would make out that having policing and justice powers was some fillip to Sinn Fein. The reality is that another Unionist Prime Minister refused to continue with devolution when those powers were taken away, saying that a Parliament without them was not worth having. Those powers are no big deal—or “no big move”, as I have been quoted as saying—for Unionists. The control over those issues should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Ministers.

The big issue—the big deal—has always been about who would have the powers under their control. My party made its position clear. I do not want to take up too much time, but the Democratic Unionist party manifesto is always worth reading. We made three specific commitments in it. First, we said that

and what we are doing today is consistent with that. Secondly, we said that

I shall come back to that vital issue in a moment. Thirdly, we said:

We stood on those points in the Assembly election, during which we brought out a policy document on policing and justice. Some of its wording has been mangled by some of our opponents, so it is proper that it should be placed on the record. It states that

Importantly, we went on to say:

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the hon. Member for Inverclyde wondered whether that term would come up—

Therefore it was very clear that it was in the context of Sinn Fein’s having “a ministerial role” in policing or justice that a political lifetime could be involved. I am glad that, under the Bill, a cross-community vote will allow Unionist representatives to ensure that the person who holds the position is someone whom they believe fit to do so and someone with the confidence of the community. Equally, the nationalist community can have that confidence as well.

The hon. Member for Foyle has made much by stretching beyond credulity the issue of the arrangements in this Bill. I do not recognise the features to which he referred. Let me tell him why the d’Hondt issue came to a head with this Bill. If that system had been used, it might have helped the hon. Gentleman on this occasion, but it could have helped anybody else on a future occasion. As I said earlier, the important aspect of the position of Justice Minister is that the person who holds it should be able to gain cross-community support and the respect of the whole community in Northern Ireland. That is why d’Hondt was dumped, and it was a good precedent.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to tear down the rusty scaffolding of the Belfast agreement and get back more towards normality; the hon. Member for Inverclyde, a former Northern Ireland Minister, made that very point. We must continually reform the way in which we operate in Northern Ireland, not satisfy ourselves with what was effectively a cobbled-together version to deal with the specific difficulties that we faced. We must democratise Northern Ireland’s institutions, daily if we can. I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle will join us in attempting to make those changes to move from the unusual structures set up by the Belfast agreement, but happily much reformed by the St. Andrews agreement, which brought real accountability to the process of government in Northern Ireland.

In 2007, we made our position clear in our manifesto and policy document. By contrast, the Ulster Unionists’ position has moved considerably from where they were. I want to put on record the fact that there is no doubt that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) would have been here today—she always takes a great interest in policing matters and often speaks on them—but she is attending the funeral of a former colleague. I am sure that the House will understand her absence in those circumstances. The position of the Ulster Unionists—I do not blame the hon. Member for North Down for this—is that they signed a deal that involved Sinn Fein and would have automatically devolved policing and justice in October 2005. Even while the arms were still being held, while violence was continuing, while criminality was going on, they signed up to a deal whereby at the end of the 2005 we would have had the devolution of policing and justice powers.

More than that, when we prepared for the setting up of the Assembly we had what was called the Preparation for Government Committee, although it changed its name at some point, in which we dealt with the issue of policing and justice. The Ulster Unionist party’s
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representatives chided my party—I was deputy leader at the time—for not moving fast enough. Now we find—the Conservatives and Unionists’ new farce is killing us—that we are moving too fast. Let me be clear: our speed on this matter will be based entirely on the electoral commitments; there is no other basis on which we will move. Nobody else will add to or take away from the conditions that are laid down.

I welcome the Bill. We will perhaps get the opportunity to correct some of the misunderstandings that people might still have about certain aspects of it during the Committee stage.

I want to allow my good friend, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the opportunity to make a contribution, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but first I should mention the appointment of judges. We rightly took the view that judges should be appointed by a completely independent body so that they are not political appointees and therefore there is credibility to their independence. That model could be followed by others. It is a good move and, irrespective of the circumstances that brought it about, it is the right move for Northern Ireland.

This is not the end of the legislative process. Legislation has to be passed in the Assembly, which is a process that we will soon have to begin. After that, there are the stages where we will have to be satisfied that there is support for these measures, although I honestly believe that that is growing. Since we managed to negotiate that Sinn Fein would not hold the justice ministry, I have not heard anywhere in my constituency the kinds of concerns that there had been previously. However—people do not want to hear this, but it still has to be said—confidence is about more than who will operate these structures; it is also about the funding of policing and justice. That is a very important matter. I have discussed it with the Secretary of State and will no doubt do so many more times. There is no sense in Northern Ireland’s Assembly having responsibility for policing and justice if it does not have the resources to do the job. It is therefore vital that the Government divvy up in this regard.

When we entered into devolution in the first place, the Government gave us a financial commitment, about which there is some talk. I do not believe that the Prime Minister will go back on his word, and therefore I am sure that the rumours from the Treasury will be quashed at some later stage. But even though we had a deal for devolution, in which we were told that we could keep all the efficiencies made in Northern Ireland, there is talk in the Treasury that some of them will be pulled back. If people want us to have confidence in any deal that we do on finances for policing and justice, it will not set a very good example or give us confidence if the Treasury takes something back from the budget that was agreed to in the deal at the time of devolution.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish the Bill well. Like any Bill, it could be improved and my colleagues and I are happy to listen to any amendments and to take decisions based on the merit of the case presented.

4.20 pm

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