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What is much more important is that we need to ensure that the fragile institutions of the Assembly and the Executive are sustained: that is crucial now that they are about to take on the extra responsibility of policing and justice powers. They need good and firm friends in this House, and in the new Parliament, to ensure that they succeed. I entered the House when all the Ulster Unionists, who were virtually the entire representation of Northern Ireland, sat on the Conservative Benches and took the Conservative Whip. We have moved a very long way from there. We have had some extremely difficult and troubled times that I do not wish to go
back to-none of us does. We have to ensure that what has now been established is reinforced, built on and supported.
The most heartening feature over the past troubled decades in Northern Ireland has been the bipartisan nature of politics. As I have said before in Select Committee sittings and elsewhere, the Minister of State is an exemplary Minister who is highly regarded throughout the Province, and rightly so.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am speaking of the Minister of State. That is not to cast any aspersions on the Secretary of State; I am talking about the Minister of State because he is the Minister who is here today to reply to this debate.
The Minister has been exemplary in the way that he has fulfilled his duties. He would be the first to admit, however, that his job has been made easier by the constructive support that he has received from my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and, indeed, from the successive spokesmen for the Liberal Democrats. [ Interruption. ] Of course he has had support within Northern Ireland, but I am talking about this House, where he has had the support of the major UK parties. That must have made his task pleasanter and easier, and long may it continue. Whoever has responsibility for Northern Ireland in this House in the new Parliament-if it is a Secretary of State, they will be a Secretary of State shorn of many of the powers that the present one had when he first came to office-needs that cross-party, bipartisan support to ensure that we build on the achievements of recent years.
This is a modest Bill, but I think a good one. It is, rightly, permissive in giving Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly the right to decide how they will have their affairs regulated. There is one appeal that I would make to them. We have had a troubled year in the history of this Parliament; it has been the saddest year of my political career.
It has not been a good year. I do not want to make any criticisms of anyone in particular, but to a degree this House has been panicked into making certain decisions and setting up certain bodies. I am glad that our pay and allowances will be regulated and decided upon by an outside body, but the way in which we rushed to this means that I am not entirely convinced that those who are in charge of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority completely understand what it means to be a Member of Parliament. I would say this to our friends in Northern Ireland: you have time to avoid that problem, so if you are going to have an independent body, be it an offshoot of IPSA or a wholly different body based in and drawn entirely from the Province itself, for goodness' sake make sure that you take your time and that you are not bounced into a series of rules and regulations that could infringe upon the sovereignty of your Assembly just as I fear that some of the rules and regulations that are being drawn up will infringe upon the sovereignty of this Parliament. I will not be part of it, any more than the hon. Member
for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) or my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) will be. Nor, indeed, will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I can speak for all of us in saying that we will miss this place enormously, because we all love it, but it is passing into uncharted waters. It is terribly important that those who regulate our financial affairs do not do so in a way that deters those who are determined on public service and militates against the family man or woman of modest means. We are in danger of making those mistakes here, and I hope that those who represent their constituency in the Assembly in Northern Ireland will learn from our mistakes and take their time in deciding upon and setting up any independent institutions.
With those words of caution, which I hope are entirely relevant and which are meant to be entirely helpful and constructive, I commend the Minister and the Bill. I wish all those who will have to wrestle with these problems in Stormont every possible success in so doing.
I am grateful again for the support of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for devolution in general and for this particular Bill. He is right that we have discussions outside the Chamber, and I would encourage any Minister and Opposition Front Bencher to do that whenever possible. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, on a number of occasions when there is common ground between us, we should seek out that ground and occupy it together. I was pleased that his noble Friend Lord Glentoran was able to join us for some of our discussions, because he had fair, legitimate questions to ask about the Bill and other matters. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was initially a sense that the Assembly should perhaps be forced to take the action set out in the Bill, but the reassurances that we received from the Assembly's Speaker and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission helped persuade his noble Friend and others that the Assembly was serious about the matter and could be allowed to get on with exercising its legitimate choice.
The hon. Gentleman, and every other Member who spoke, referred to the dual mandate. There were a range of opinions on that, and through discussions the Government brought forward a change that I believe satisfied everybody, at least to some extent, by reducing to zero the salary of a Member of the Assembly in the given circumstances. We are all clear that we are in a period of transition in relation to dual mandates, and we have had a good airing of the discussion about that this afternoon. Importantly, we remembered that the core purpose behind the Bill was not to end dual mandates but to facilitate a choice for the Assembly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) referred to the fact that often Bills are promised and then delays occur, but I cannot envisage Members of the Assembly seeking re-election or fresh election without
the matter having been resolved beforehand. I am confident that it will have been dealt with before the next Assembly elections. He also made the important point that whichever legislature an individual is elected to, they should focus strongly and entirely on the matters before that particular legislature. As he said, it is perfectly legitimate for a Member of Parliament elected by constituents in Northern Ireland to come to this House and focus entirely on the matters that come before it. He himself takes a great interest in a range of issues, and there are matters from fiscal policy to foreign policy in which MPs from Northern Ireland should participate fully.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly made the point that the Bill does not tell the Assembly what it has to do but gives it a choice. I endorse his comments on dual mandates, about which he feels very strongly, and I am pleased that he had the chance to express his views. I entirely agree with him: the fact that dual mandates are beginning to come to an end in Northern Ireland is a sign of political maturity and we should all welcome it.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) clearly set out his party's view on the Bill and on dual mandates generally. He made a number of party political points, on which, as I am sure he will understand, I do not particularly want to comment. However, I recall one important phrase that he used on the need to nurture the pool of political talent. That is something that every political party in the United Kingdom needs to do, but it is particularly important in Northern Ireland. We want a new generation of politicians to come along and build on the tremendous achievements of this generation of Northern Ireland politicians. He is entirely right to say that that should focus the minds of all political parties.
We will all miss the contributions of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) to debates in this House on a range of issues, but particularly on Northern Ireland. He has always taken a great and serious interest in Northern Ireland. It has been great to see him exercise that interest in his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee over a long period. His contributions are at times robust and at times supportive, but they are always appropriate for the topic in hand. We will miss him, but I am sure that others will come to take up those interests, and it is important that they do so. He made his views on dual mandates very clear, and the House heard them. Again, the Committee's interest in a range of democratic
accountability issues, including the importance of devolution of the institutions and ensuring that they are as strong as can be, has been important. We will all reflect on the points he made.
In the hon. Gentleman's conclusion, he made the extremely important point that although we have seen tremendous achievements over recent months and even in recent weeks, we should not just assume that everything is now completed. He referred to the Assembly as a fragile institution. It is still early days, and the culture of governance needs to develop further in Northern Ireland. As welcome and as important as those developments are, Northern Ireland politicians, whether they represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House or in the Assembly, will still need friends in this place to take an interest, and to show support and solidarity with them. I believe he said that Northern Ireland will need good and firm friends, as indeed it will. However, we can look back over this week and recent months, and indeed the 12 years since the Good Friday agreement, with some satisfaction at what has been achieved.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about all-party support. Although the process has happened under this Government, it has happened with all-party support for what we have done. He asked rhetorically whether the current situation could have been achieved as it has been without all-party support, and he is right that it could not. Our achievements have required the all-party consensus that we have sought to achieve here. That is not to say that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury does not ask difficult questions in Committee or in debates on the Floor of the House-that is the purpose of scrutiny in this House-but we have retained a consensus when possible, which has been essential to the progress that we have seen in Northern Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [ Lords]:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on consideration and Third Reading
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be completed at one day's sitting.
3. Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
5. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee and on consideration and Third Reading.
6. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.- (Lyn Brown.)
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I rise to speak about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the impact it might well be having on Windsor fire services and their evolution. The Berkshire fire authority has been using a piece of software to calculate where it ought to have fire stations around Berkshire. This magical piece of software, so much cheaper than the democratic process, has decided that it ought to close Windsor fire service and perhaps relocate services to Wokingham, under the model that has been designed. More coverage seems to be needed in suburban developments in Wokingham and elsewhere in the county.
Far be it from us in the House of Commons to challenge the wisdom of magical software-even though I spent 20 years in the industry! Indeed, the day may come-although I hope not-when all of us in the House will be replaced by automated devices. And I am not just referring to the House of Commons-it might even happen in the European Commission.
There are obvious flaws, however, in the software's reckoning. Newly developed areas need more fire cover, that is for sure, but they also contain low-density housing. The main risk is from domestic fires and road incidents, and because such houses will be new, many of the more modern fire and safety regulations will be enforced in those properties, and potential victims will be limited to individual households or vehicles.
Windsor is much more vulnerable, in many ways. It is vulnerable to air traffic incidents. We are under the Heathrow flight path, and with the burgeoning number of flights from that airport-under this Government, it has risen to 480,000 a year-there is a danger of an air incident. The boundaries of my constituency are only yards from Heathrow's northern runway and the flight path crosses directly over the town. It is not the noise disturbance that is relevant but the danger of an incident occurring nearby-there have been many such incidents over the past couple of decades, which may have had an impact.
Windsor is also vulnerable to terrorist attack. The royal family are often resident, there are two army barracks in the town and the units within those barracks regularly rotate to Afghanistan, so there could be some tensions there making our area a particular target. We also have 12,000 domestic properties at risk of flooding from the Thames. The lower Thames works have taken place as far as the constituency, but do not protect areas in the lower part of the constituency and further on down to the Thames itself via Teddington. So there are risks of flooding that have not necessarily been mitigated by the previous works on the river.
Not only is Windsor more vulnerable to such incidents, but single incidents could be far more catastrophic because there are lots of people living close together. Windsor is full of multiple occupancy buildings. We have many hotels, boarding schools, guest houses and dwellings converted to multiple flats. Windsor has 8 million visitors, 750,000 of whom stay overnight in the town. Furthermore, the local economy sustains 7,000 registered businesses-twice as many as Reading, which has a footprint that is five times larger.
There are also irreplaceable elements of our national heritage. Windsor contains nine historic parks and gardens, 17 scheduled ancient monuments and no fewer than 941 listed buildings. One of those buildings is Windsor castle-but no one thought to programme the terrible fire in 1992 into this new piece of software. The Windsor castle fire may as well never have happened for all the impact it is having on the policy in Berkshire.
As I said before, it might be right to increase cover in other parts of the constituency and county, but it is not sensible to reduce Windsor fire cover further. A major incident is more likely there, and is more likely to be highly lethal-to say nothing of the disruption to the national heritage.
The software decided that Windsor could be covered from Slough's fire station, but there are three problems with that. First, Slough fire station is the busiest station in east Berkshire. Indeed, I would argue that Slough was already overburdened with incidents. The second problem is that even if the fire station in Slough is available, its response times will be three to 10 times longer than Windsor fire station's. The difference between three minutes to attend a fire and 10 or 12 minutes can be a matter of life and death. Thirdly, the calculations for attendance times from Slough apply to good conditions on the roads. The route from Slough fire station to Windsor passes through the junction 6 interchange on the M4. In bad traffic the roundabout and the roads on both sides become badly congested, as anyone who uses the M4 will testify. If a major incident occurred in Windsor during peak traffic-for instance, a collision between junctions 6 and 7 on a Friday evening-critical time, and possibly lives, could be lost.
Those are the reasons why my constituency has rallied behind the outstanding campaign run by Michael Rowley of the Windsor branch of the Fire Brigades Union. He has set up a website, windsorfirestation.co.uk, and I am pleased to say that even our party leader came down to visit Windsor fire station to meet red watch and green watch and show his support for keeping the fire station open 24 hours a day. As a result, the fire authority agreed not to shut our fire station completely, but to shut it for only 12 hours a day, which was a great victory for the campaign. However, the closure of the station overnight remains unacceptable to Windsor residents. The royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has a Conservative council-not that that is particularly relevant: the points I am making apply to all councils-but all parties on the council are united on this matter. We are not talking about a party political issue at all; in fact, there is an active local campaign, involving local activists, local residents, the political parties and councillors, to keep the fire station open 24 hours a day.
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