Petitions of concern

‘(1) In section 42 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Petitions of concern), omit subsection (3) and insert—

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1020

“(3) When a petition of concern is lodged against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

(4) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 (Strand 1) of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under subsection (3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.

(5) A committee appointed under this section—

(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and

(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.

(6) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.

(7) Standing Orders shall provide for—

(a) decisions on the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee; and

(b) procedure(s) to allow for subsection (8).

(8) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (4), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (3) and (5) shall not apply.”.’.—(Mark Durkan.)

This Clause would amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to reflect the terms and intent of paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement. It would qualify the exercise of veto powers, via petitions of concern in the Assembly, through the consideration of possible equality or human rights implications.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mark Durkan: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 3,  clause 6, page 6, line 37, at end add—

‘7B The alteration of the number of members of the Assembly required to express their concern about a matter which is to be voted on by the Assembly, such concern requiring that the vote on that matter shall require cross-community support. This paragraph does not include the alteration of that number to a number exceeding 30.”.’.

Amendment 4,  clause 22, page 16, line 3, at end insert—

‘(1) After subsection (2) of the section 75 (Statutory duty on public authorities) of that Act insert—

(2A) A public authority shall not interpret its obligations under subsection (2) in a way that is incompatible with measures taken on the basis of objective need.”

(1B) In subsection (5) of section 75 of that Act insert ““good relations” shall be interpreted in line with international obligations and, in particular, with regard to—

(a) tackling prejudice, and

(b) promoting understanding.”.’.

This amendment would apply to Northern Ireland, the clarification provided in the Equality Act 2010 to restrict the good relation duty being cited against fulfilling equality obligations based on objective need.

Mark Durkan: The new clause and amendments are intended to return the position to what was intended in the Good Friday, or Belfast, agreement of 1998. New clause 2 seeks to reflect properly what was in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the strand 1 paper, which provide for a

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1021

petition of concern in respect of a measure or a proposal in the Assembly. Those paragraphs make it clear that the petition of concern was not meant to be used as an open veto to be played like a joker at any time.

The position relating to the petition is qualified in the agreement, but unfortunately that was not reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In the initial Bill, there was no reflection whatsoever of the true provisions of paragraphs 11 to 13. When some of us pointed that out, the Northern Ireland Office “scrambled in” a measure stating that the Assembly’s Standing Orders should make provision for the procedures outlined in those paragraphs, but unfortunately the Standing Orders never did make that provision. They ended up providing for a petition of concern which could be signed by 30 Members, and that automatically became a dead-end veto: end of story.

This new clause seeks to remind people that the Good Friday agreement said that those issuing a petition of concern would have the opportunity to prove they had a legitimate concern on grounds either of equality or human rights and that those grounds would be tested by a special committee that would be established in the Assembly to report on the matter. We worked that out very painstakingly during the negotiations because people were concerned that a petition of concern might simply become a drive-by veto, as it were, on any issue going forward or even being tabled, which could lead to gridlock with tit-for-tat vetoes and petitions of concern. The then leader of the Alliance party, now Lord Alderdice, spoke very strongly in the negotiations about his concern that we should not have just an open-ended free-for-all system of vetoes.

The notion of having petitions of concern is rightly in the agreement, not least because having protections around decision-making mechanisms was a key part of the rules in the negotiations that led to the agreement, and, therefore, if it was essential in the rules that led to the agreement, it would be essential in the agreement itself. The particular model of protections had to be carefully balanced and calibrated, however.

The balance we came up with was that there could be a petition of concern, but it would not of itself be a veto. Unfortunately, the system as it is now practised does turn the petition of concern into a veto. That has meant that many matters in Northern Ireland end up not progressing, and some are not even tabled at the Executive or in the Assembly because the veto is now also used as a predictive veto, to prevent issues from being tabled and to hold things up in discussion within the bowels of government somewhere.

Mr Dodds: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and his interpretation of the Belfast agreement, and if I have the opportunity to speak I will deal with that in more detail, but it is an interpretation. As we had the agreement of his party, which was the main nationalist party at the time, and the agreement of the Ulster Unionist party, which was the main Unionist party at that time, and the wholehearted agreement of the then Government led by Tony Blair and the wholehearted support of the then Opposition in this House, how did this major issue that the hon. Gentleman is so exercised about not get translated into legislation? How did that happen?

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1022

Mark Durkan: It happened precisely for the reasons I have suggested. First, the NIO draftspeople who drafted the Bill neglected to deal with that part of the agreement, and there were a few other provisions like that as well, which just goes to prove that, contrary to what we read in a lot of memoirs, the agreement was not drafted by the British Government, the Irish Government or the American Government; instead, it was broadly drafted by the Northern Ireland politicians.

Mr Dodds: It is not good enough to blame the draftsmen and say, “Oh, the draftsmen left it out.” Surely in all the hours of consideration in this House and in Committee and the massive debates that took place at home, here and everywhere else on the legislation that became the Northern Ireland Act 1998, someone—not least the hon. Gentleman himself—could have prompted a Member of the House to say, “An amendment might be in order. This is such a glaring gap that it needs to be filled”? Why was that not done?

Mark Durkan: I actually think an amendment may well have been tabled because, although I was not a Member of this House, I remember drafting an amendment —but I am not sure whether it was subsequently tabled.

I should stress that when we pointed out that this was not provided for in the agreement, the NIO response was to provide for it by way of a stipulation that the Assembly Standing Orders would provide for that procedure. That turned out not to be robust enough. The right hon. Gentleman might say, “Well, did we not address that in Assembly Standing Orders?” He will find that the record of the Assembly shows, in the very first Standing Orders report, that I did address the fact that it was not there. The then Presiding Officer, Lord Alderdice, acknowledged my attention to detail, in so far as he could without being drawn into the debate; that obviously went very much back to his own participation in the negotiations.

Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a more cynical interpretation of why those concerned neglected to deal with this at that stage is that the UUP and the SDLP were then the largest parties, and they were hoping that they might be able to use the veto? Perhaps the reason for the concern now about the petition of concern is that the SDLP is not in a position to use it—as was originally intended, which is the reason why the legislation did not reflect what he is now saying that he wants.

Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman might have some basis for saying that if there was any truth in it, which, of course, there is not, not least because we deliberately set the petition of concern threshold at 30 because at that time we thought there was no chance of a party reaching the 30s. That was one of the reasons why the 30 threshold was there; there were concerns about how freely this could be used and that it might block things up.

The need for the petition of concern to be significant was emphasised not just by the threshold but by the special committee procedure to show whether there was a prima facie case on either equality or human rights grounds. The petition of concern was not to be used just for the convenience of a party that wanted to stop

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1023

something. The fact is, however, that petitions of concern have been used to veto Bills that addressed the question of dual mandates between local government and the Assembly, which is a completely undue use. A petition of concern was also used to veto any question of a binding or significant vote in relation to censure of a Minister; it was never meant to be used in that sort of way.

The fact of a petition of concern being used, or being threatened to be used, by different parties prevents issues from being tabled. The whole point of the petition of concern was not to stop things being tabled, but to ensure that when they were tabled they were duly frisked and tested in respect of sensitive considerations such as human rights and equality. New clause 2 simply tries to get the Assembly out of the rut it is currently in, where vetoes are used far too often in a way that not only negates outcomes but prevents debate.

Amendment 4 seeks to ensure consistency with what was intended and envisaged in the Good Friday agreement and in the provisions that became section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which provides for equality duties and duties of public bodies in respect of good relations. On a number of occasions in recent years there has been a move to say that the good relations duty could sometimes trump the equality duty, so that a public body might not come through with a measure on equality grounds based on objective need because somebody else might feel it would upset good relations. We have seen that arise in relation to the Irish language, and there have been suggestions of its arising in relation to the provision and siting of social housing as well. The amendment seeks to clarify the balance and relationship between the good relations duty and the equality duty.

Naomi Long: But surely what the amendment does is not clarify the balance between the two, but in fact give one supremacy over the other? The reality is that in a divided society where there are competing rights and tensions in respect of those rights it is essential to strike a balance. Instead of simply giving equality the upper hand on all occasions, we must ensure that equality and good relations are balanced in decision-making processes.

Mark Durkan: That is why the amendment seeks to translate into Northern Ireland legislation something that the House legislated on for Great Britain in the Equality Act 2010, by specifying the relationship between good relations and equality based on objective need. We cannot use the question of good relations to justify a decision that fails to exercise an equality duty based on objective need.

When we discussed this matter upstairs in the Bill Committee, I pointed out that my proposal would not have the converse effect that a public body could not introduce a measure with an eye to good relations unless it also met the requirement of equality based on objective need. The new clause would not, for example, prevent the sort of thing that happened in my constituency in relation to the Fountain estate. There was widespread support for creating a new school there, even though it would not have fulfilled any of the criteria on the Department of Education’s lists relating to qualifying for capital spending on a new school. Similar issues

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1024

arose there over school transport. Because of the particular circumstances of the estate and the community, however, and because of the ambition to uphold the ethos of a shared city, it was agreed that it should happen for reasons of good relations and community support, even though the proposals did not fulfil any of the Department’s investment criteria relating to need.

The new clause would not prevent such a project from going ahead in the future. It would, however, prevent someone from using concerns about good relations or agitating to advertise tensions in relations as a way of preventing a measure from going forward on the basis of equality based on objective need, whether in relation to language or to any other public programme or investment, such as in social housing.

I am simply trying to correct the confusion that is now building up, and to remove the undue tension that is being created by the two important aspects represented in section 75 and that relate to the commitments in the Good Friday agreement. On that basis, I commend new clause 2 and amendment 4 to the House.

Mr Dodds: Thank you for calling me to speak in this short debate on new clause 2, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should also like to speak to amendment 3, which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

In new clause 2, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is proposing to introduce new provisions relating to petitions of concern. I understand that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is dealing with this matter, among others, and I believe that that is the right and proper place for the issue to be decided on. It is for the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree or disagree to such matters relating to petitions of concern. I understand that 40% of the petitions of concern tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been tabled by the nationalist parties, so this is not a question of one party tabling petitions in a way that abuses the process. This has happened right across the board.

New clause 2 could create the potential for gridlock in the Assembly. Let us remember that a petition of concern is lodged after a matter has been debated in the Assembly and is about to be voted on. Let us imagine how it would play out in this Chamber if such a process had to be undergone after a debate and before a vote could be taken. Under the new clause, a committee would have to be set up. As soon as we hear the word “committee”, we know that we are not going to be in for a quick decision-making process—certainly not in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The new clause goes on to propose that a committee appointed for this purpose

“shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration”.

Not only that, but it “shall take evidence”—that would not be discretionary— from

“the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.”

This would no doubt have to happen when diaries had been sorted out and all the necessary people had been brought in to be cross-examined and to give their evidence. Then, after the committee had listened to all the evidence, sifted it and debated it, voted on it and produced a report—in addition to all the other committee and legislative work that those Assembly Members do—the Assembly would have to

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1025

“consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.”

Only then could the Assembly have its vote.

I respectfully suggest that that is not a recipe for quick governance or quick decision making. The Northern Ireland Assembly is already criticised in relation to processing matters quickly and efficiently, and I submit that the new clause would add greatly to the problems.

Sammy Wilson rose—

Mr Dodds: I give way to a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly who knows only too well the problems that arise there.

Sammy Wilson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as a petition of concern is likely to have been issued because there is concern and a lack of cross-community support, the requirement in subsection (6) could never be met? If the reason for lodging the petition of concern in the first place was a lack of cross-community support, how could a report from a committee ever get through the Assembly to allow a vote to take place?

Mr Dodds: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those of us who have served in the Northern Ireland Assembly know that that is exactly what would happen. The new clause is misconceived. It would simply bung up the works of the Assembly and make no advances in getting things done.

In an intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Foyle why the provisions in his new clause had not been in the original Northern Ireland Act. First, he blamed the draftsmen. I then asked whether no one in the then Government or Opposition or in any of the Northern Ireland parties was in any way culpable for not having spotted this massive gap in the legislation. I asked whether an amendment had been tabled to rectify the omission. I have no doubt that, if it had been part of the Belfast agreement, the then Government would happily have acceded to the change.

The only opposition that was coming in from any quarter came from those of us in the DUP and allied Unionists who pointed out that we could not found an agreement without support for the police, the courts and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. I am glad that we finally managed to achieve that objective at the St Andrew’s agreement and elsewhere. That is why we now have stable devolution. I do not want to go into that debate now, however. The point is that the hon. Gentleman said that he thought he might have drafted an amendment, but he did not know whether it had even been tabled.

I want to try to explain why this matter might have been left out of the original legislation. I have looked at paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Belfast agreement, and I submit that the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of them is open to question. The provisions relating to petitions of concern were set out in paragraph 5(d) of strand 1 of the agreement. That agreement was drafted by his party as well as the other parties that agreed with its terms. That provision contains no qualifications whatever: there is no reference to equality or to the circumstances in which petitions of concern may be lodged.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1026

The section of the agreement that deals with “Operation of the Assembly” covers Chairs and Deputy Chairs of the Assembly, and the role of the Committees and Standing Committees. Then we get to paragraph 11, which states:

“The Assembly may appoint a special Committee to examine and report on whether a measure or proposal for legislation is in conformity with equality requirements, including the ECHR/Bill of Rights. The Committee shall have the power to call people and papers to assist in its consideration of the matter.”

Paragraph 12 states:

“The above special procedure shall be followed when requested by the Executive Committee, or by the relevant Departmental Committee, voting on a cross-community basis.”

7.30 pm

Paragraph 13 then refers to “a petition of concern” in relation to whether or not that special procedure is involved. But the special procedure—the committee that is set up—is about an investigation at the behest of a departmental Committee or the Executive into a measure or legislation which they consider worthy of consideration under those terms. It is not about whether or not we have a petition of concern.

Mark Durkan: Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I was there negotiating the agreement and I know what was understood and agreed. Clearly, those paragraphs provide for a committee to be appointed not only in response to a petition of concern, but at the request of the Executive or departmental Committee, because we were saying that a petition of concern should not be the only way of triggering the establishment of a special committee. That was to reflect the fact that there may be concerns about human rights and about equality.

Mr Dodds: But the agreement certainly does not talk about setting up the procedure that the hon. Gentleman has alluded to today relating to petitions of concern. Saying, “I was there, so I know what it was about” is not going to wash. We have to deal with the written text—what is there. Saying, “I was there and I know what it meant, and we should legislate on that basis” is not a good way forward.

Mark Durkan: The right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks failed to address the fact that I had made it clear that whenever the omission in the earlier Bill was pointed out, Northern Ireland Office Ministers moved to deal with that omission by putting a provision in the Bill. The provision relies on Standing Orders, but it actually says that the Assembly’s Standing Orders shall provide for the procedure provided for in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Good Friday agreement.

Mr Dodds: I have absolutely no difficulty with the Assembly’s Standing Orders providing for that, because I have already referred to my interpretation of what those paragraphs relate to. All I am saying is that the massively cumbersome, clumsy, convoluted, time-consuming, time-wasting process set out in new clause 2 on petitions of concern will be a disaster for the Northern Ireland Assembly if this House is ever so unwise as to pass it.

Lady Hermon: May I take the liberty of trying to summarise what the right hon. Gentleman has said? I understand that he and his colleagues disagree vehemently with the content and detail of new clause 2, but am

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1027

I right in understanding that they support the Assembly parties looking at the excessive use of petitions of concern? Does he accept that they are used excessively in the Assembly, that we have stalemate on too many occasions and that it is simply left for the Assembly to deal with this issue?

Mr Dodds: I do not accept that. I do not accept that we have an excessive use of petitions of concern. I would need to look at all the evidence and, as I have said, 40% of the petitions are put down by nationalists. I do not subscribe to any gridlock being entirely down to these petitions, but the new clause would add to the problems if it were passed. Let us consider the example of welfare reform, which is currently held up in the Assembly. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has now moved on, was in Northern Ireland the other day warning about the consequences of welfare reform delays for the block grant. That has nothing to do with petitions of concern; that is a political hold-up because Sinn Fein will not grasp and deal with the issue, and it is going to cost the entire Northern Ireland electorate, ratepayers and taxpayers a lot of money if it does not. So I do not think that petitions of concern are primarily the issue here.

What seems to be at the root of the proposal by the hon. Member for Foyle is that some kind of abuse is happening. He spoke about when petitions of concern should be used and so on, although that is not qualified in the Belfast agreement. What happens when we consider other elements, such as cross-community voting? He has not in any way sought to amend that—indeed, no party has. If proposals were to be made about that, they should be discussed within the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and the parties in Northern Ireland should come up with their own suggestions, solutions and proposals.

I recall a famous day when I was in the Assembly and those processes of cross-community voting were abused—a horse and carriage was driven through the powers of designation. The Alliance party previously had been designated as “other”—neither Unionist nor nationalist—and has remained “other” for every other vote and occasion since. However, on this occasion it was persuaded to become, in the words of its now leader,

“the back end of a pantomime horse”—

that is how he described it—by designating the party as “Unionist”. Why was that done? It was done to ensure that then deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Gentleman’s party, could remain as Deputy First Minister when he had actually resigned. The proposal was introduced whereby the Assembly had to accept the resignation for it to become valid. There was a total abuse of the rules and of the purposes for which they were introduced. This has never been done since because people were appalled by it, yet reference is never made to it.

Dr McCrea: Is it not strange that, yet again, we are hearing from the revisionists? Whenever 40% is republican, we are told, “No, there is no abuse of petitions of concern.” But, then, when the Unionists use 60%, we are told, “Yes, that is abuse.” So, once again, we have, “Unionists at fault. Nationalists and republicans not

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1028

at all.” My right hon. Friend mentioned that Seamus Mallon resigned and then did not resign. Well, Bobby Ewing came out of the shower and he was dead—and then he was not dead, after all.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks.

In conclusion, new clause 2 is a misconceived proposal, but I commend amendment 3. It is a technical amendment saying that if we are giving the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly—as we are proposing to do in this Bill, because that is right and proper, and that should be a matter for the Assembly—the Assembly should also have the power to consider the number of people required for a petition of concern to be valid. For it to remain at 30 would be completely wrong, as that number was regarded as proportionate for 108 MLAs. If the Assembly were reduced to 90 MLAs or fewer, as would be my preference, it would clearly be right, proper and sensible to reduce the number required to sign a petition of concern. Amendment 3 is a technical and sensible amendment, and I hope the Government will take it on board.

Mr Robathan: We are considering two issues of vital importance to the political settlement in Northern Ireland that are embodied in the Belfast agreement of 1998, a copy of which we have seen on the other side of the Chamber. Petitions of concern are intended to ensure that on sensitive issues, the views of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland must be taken into account. That is fundamental to the power-sharing arrangements that now exist in Stormont. The requirement that 30 MLAs sign a petition was part of the Belfast agreement and it has not been amended since that time. I believe that petitions of concern have been used 61 times since 1998, but there have been many more cases when the possibility of such a petition being used has led to policies being rejected or amended before reaching that stage.

At times, that has resulted in deadlock and important decisions being delayed. A failure to take into account the views of both communities would be far more damaging and could affect the stability of the settlement as a whole. As has been made clear, not all parties are content with how petitions are used at present, and I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).

Given the concern in Northern Ireland about the way in which the petitions are used, greater scrutiny of the impact of such decisions would seem appropriate, but there is already provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for scrutiny of the kind the hon. Member for Foyle has proposed. The question is whether it would be appropriate for the UK Government to dictate to the Northern Ireland Assembly that such scrutiny must take place. I do not believe it appropriate for us so to do.

Turning to the amendment moved by the right hon. Gentleman, it is a valid question whether the number of Members needed to trigger a petition of concern should remain the same if the Assembly is reduced substantially in size. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made clear in Committee, amending the threshold of support required for a petition of concern would require cross-community

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1029

support before the Government could back it. Cross-community support is particularly important for this measure, which is a fundamental building block of the 1998 agreement and is specifically intended to protect minority interests. We have heard today of the different views that exist on the use of petitions of concern, and let me be clear to the House that no consensus currently exists on the matter. If such consensus emerged—for example, from the review process under way in the Northern Ireland Assembly—the Government would certainly be ready to consider giving effect to the conclusions when a legislative vehicle was assembled. However, I fear we are not yet at that point.

Turning to the amendment to clause 22, proposed by the hon. Member for Foyle, I know that the debate about objective need and equality is a live one in Northern Ireland and is a subject a new Minister should engage with delicately. I appreciate the force of and feeling behind what the hon. Gentleman said, and his comments will of course be noted in Northern Ireland. There are many who argue that the interpretation of “good relations” is the appropriate reading of section 75 as it stands. In its guidance for public authorities on promoting good relations, the Equality Commission Northern Ireland states:

“Equality of opportunity and good relations are inextricably linked and interdependent, and both must be addressed by designated public authorities. A failure to achieve one impacts on the ability to achieve the other.”

It adds:

“Promoting equality of opportunity sometimes requires the use of positive action measures in order to address existing inequalities with a view to achieving a level playing field for all. In such circumstances, public authorities must have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations both within and between communities, on the grounds of race, religious belief and political opinion, and consider what steps need to be taken to gain the confidence, trust and acceptance of all parts of the community. Communication of the reasons for the positive action is essential in this situation.”

Even if the clarification in the amendment suggested by the hon. Member for Foyle is necessary, it is difficult territory for Parliament to enter into without prior consultation with the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland, which would try to find the broadest possible measure of agreement.

Much of equality law is devolved, and it would be wrong for us to legislate unilaterally here. The Executive have announced their strategy document on a shared future, entitled “Together: Building a United Community”, which proposes changes in the law, including the establishment of an equality and good relations commission. It seems that that is the context in which such steps should be considered. We would prefer, therefore, that the amendment be not pressed in the House, but I am sure the debate will go on and on. For the moment, I ask the hon. Member for Foyle and the right hon. Member for Belfast North to withdraw the new clause and the amendments.

Mark Durkan: I assure the House that I stand fully by both amendments and the case for them, but that will not run to the extent of troubling the House with a Division on them, not least out of respect to other business both on the Bill and on other matters yet to come.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1030

As I have already said, I can refute all the arguments that have been made against both of my new clauses. I can also correct the mistaken reference to the Alliance redesignating to help elect Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister. At the time the Alliance redesignated, it was to elect David Trimble and me as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As I understood it, the whole point about Seamus Mallon being deemed not to have resigned was precisely to avoid a vote. I want to correct that in case anybody thinks that I have been economical with the truth as it relates to me. At the time, I made it very clear to the then Secretary of State, John Reid, that I would have preferred an Assembly election than to be elected on that basis and on those terms. That clear view was expressed to both the Secretary of State and to Downing street at the time.

7.45 pm

The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) claimed that the procedures proposed would lead to indefinite delay. They would not, because any Committee would be subject to a time scale; Standing Order 35 of the Assembly partially provides for that, albeit, again, not correctly. This is about properly joining up provisions to form the agreement. We have real delay and ongoing gridlock in Northern Ireland when a petition of concern is exercised as an open-ended veto—it ends matters so that nothing goes forward. The new clause would create a procedure whereby people had to put up or shut up on an equality or human rights issue, otherwise the measure concerned would proceed. To that extent, it would be an aid to better governance and a more responsible use of petitions of concern as well.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking for his other crimes and misdemeanours to be taken into account, which were actually worse than I remembered—they were to get him elected.

Mark Durkan: I had no part in that.

Mr Dodds: Again, the hon. Gentleman makes his own defence. He says that it was not him and that he had argued for an election. Nevertheless, he benefited. I am grateful to him for that clarification, although it does not aid his cause.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the role of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, of which we are apprised. If the threshold for petitions of concern is not addressed, it is bound to have an effect on the thinking of parties and their desire to implement change with regard to the numbers in the Assembly. The matter has to be addressed at some point, but given what the Minister has said, and in deference to other business, I will not press our amendment to a vote tonight.

Mark Durkan: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1


Mr Robathan: I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 37, leave out “October” and insert “January”.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1031

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment 2.

Mr Robathan: These are relatively minor changes, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will be able to support them. There has been support on both sides of the House for the provisions in clause 1, which will protect permanently the identities of those who have made donations to Northern Ireland political parties in the past.

In the past, donors gave money in the understanding that their identities would not be revealed, and it would be unfair to change that position without their consent retrospectively. However, there has been some debate about the date on which the guarantee of anonymity should end. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who is in her place, proposed amendments that would reduce the length of time for which donors would continue to benefit from these provisions. It is important that all donors are fully aware that the rules have changed at the point at which they make a donation.

The Bill as drafted refers to 1 October next year because the Government believed that that would ensure the clearest framework for political parties. It is a date that is already familiar to parties and their financial supporters as the date on which the prescribed period will end if the Bill does not come into force. All donors are already on notice that permanent anonymity will come to an end at that point. However, it has never been the Government’s policy to stand in the way of changes that might help to increase transparency, provided that the change to an earlier date can be implemented.

In view of the support for the change from all Northern Ireland parties represented in the House, whose donors are those affected, and from the Electoral Commission, which regulates party finance, the Government are willing to support a change to an earlier date.

Mr Dodds: Will the Minister confirm that if the amendment is passed tonight and the Bill receives Royal Assent all donations up to 1 January will be permanently excluded from being revealed? Is that the Government’s understanding of the position?

Mr Robathan: That was my understanding. I have just taken advice from those in the Box and they agree, so I think we are pretty sure that that is the case.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister kindly give me some advice? A large number of delightful gentlemen and ladies in my constituency are members of the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Should they follow this Bill, which applies only to Northern Ireland, or should they follow the example set by the Conservative party in the rest of the United Kingdom and make all their large donors and donations transparent, open and public, rather than keeping them secret?

Mr Robathan: I am not entirely clear what the hon. Lady is suggesting. The Bill will bring things in Northern Ireland to the same level as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Lady Hermon: I am very pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box this evening, but if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had been here she would,

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1032

of course, have quite rightly reminded the House that Northern Ireland has become such a normal place that it could host the G8 summit in Fermanagh successfully and could host the world police and fire games. No matter how normal Northern Ireland has become, however, for some reason this Bill will preserve the anonymity of and secrecy about donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. That, of course, is not the policy in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the Conservative party supports transparency. Will the Minister take this opportunity to urge his sisters and brothers in the Northern Ireland Conservative party to make their donations public?

Mr Robathan: As of the end of January, they will all be public, as no anonymity will go beyond that—

Mr Ivan Lewis: No, you have the discretion to change it.

Mr Robathan: Oh, I see. It is because it is discretionary. I am sorry, I had missed the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Having the discretion gives us the opportunity to do it, if I can put it that way. I think that she will understand what I am saying, but given that the Secretary of State is not here I think that it would be unwise of me to go any further down that road. I am sorry that I did not understand what she was saying the first time around.

Let me now turn to amendment 2. Clauses 14, 15 and 16 introduce minor changes to the requirements for voter registration for Northern Ireland, the requirements for obtaining an overseas vote and the requirements for absent voting. Hon. Members will be aware that European parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on 22 May 2014. We look forward to them. It is also the Government’s intention that local elections in Northern Ireland be held on that date.

Amendment 2 is a technical amendment that changes the commencement date for clauses 14, 15 and 16 to avoid their coming into force during or immediately before the election period, which would be not only inconvenient but very difficult. It would avoid a situation in which electoral administrators in Northern Ireland were expected to make changes to registration and application processes at a time when they were busy with electoral preparations. It would also help to avoid public confusion about voter entitlements. It remains the Government’s intention to commence the provisions as soon as possible and in good time for elections to this House in 2015. As we say in government, the provisions will commence “soon” after the elections in 2014.

Naomi Long: I support the amendment, and I particularly welcome the fact that following our debate in the Committee of the whole House the Government have listened to the representations I made, as well as those made by the “Who Pulls the Strings” campaign in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

It is not often that those of us on the Opposition Benches see the matters that we would like a Bill to deal with being addressed. It is even rarer for those of us who sit as solitary Members to see such concerns taken on board. I am particularly pleased that a compelling argument has been made for the amendment. I must qualify that, however, with my slight disappointment

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1033

that we have been unable to go further to remove the exemptions and rules in Northern Ireland to allow us to move into line with the rest of the UK. There is evidence of huge public demand for that in Northern Ireland. Like in every other part of the UK, and, I suspect, in almost every other part of the democratic world, there is suspicion and a perception in the minds of the public that politics operates for the benefit of the few not the many and that those who have money and influence can wield that to their own advantage.

To rebuild trust and confidence in the political system, it is hugely important that people have transparency about donations and can scrutinise whether donations made to political parties influence policy and decision making at a government level. That is not possible currently because even though donations are declared to the Electoral Commission, they cannot be published. I believe that the time has come for the veil of secrecy to be lifted.

The amendment is a good step in that direction in that it clarifies the position for donors. Those who donate up until the January date will know that their anonymity will be permanent. There was a question mark over that as the powers of the Secretary of State would have allowed those donations to be published retrospectively. I believe that people gave that money on the understanding that it would be handled with confidentiality and privacy, and that expectation should be met by the Government. That is very important.

The amendment also means that those who donate after January will know that those donations will eventually be published. They will not be published right away. It will be for the Secretary of State to decide at the next point of review, which is due, I think, in October 2014, whether the security situation, in her view, would allow her to publish them.

The amendment makes it very clear to anybody making a donation from January onwards that at some point in the future that donation will be open to public scrutiny. It clarifies the situation in their minds so that they know when they make the donation the risk and the public scrutiny that will be involved. They will be able to make an informed decision.

Sir Christopher Kelly gave evidence on the subject to the Committee. He was very clear that he was not convinced by the argument that security should automatically outweigh the right of the public to scrutinise donations that are made to political parties. I share his view and do not believe that security should outweigh that right. Indeed, despite everything that has been said in the House about intimidation and threats against my own party, we continue voluntarily to publish the details of those people who make donations of more than £7,500 to the Alliance party so that people are fully aware of and can scrutinise our policy decisions.

Perhaps I can take this opportunity to encourage the Minister, which I think my colleague the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) sought to do, to encourage his colleagues in the Conservative party in Northern Ireland to join us in voluntarily publishing their donors. Indeed, I urge other parties in this House in Northern Ireland to do likewise. I think that it would help to build trust and confidence in the political system, to ventilate what has become quite a toxic issue in Northern Ireland, not least in recent months, and to move forward on a clearer footing.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1034

My disappointment is that we are not in a position at this point to make more progress on bringing us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the amendment is a good step forward. It will provide clarity for the public and reassurance that the direction of travel is towards openness and transparency. I thank the Government for taking this on board. The assurances given by the Electoral Commission that they can prepare parties and donors to be ready for the change that is about to take place by January has been helpful in enabling things to move forward. I thank the Government and fully support what they are proposing.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Before I discuss the amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may pay tribute briefly to the late Eddie McGrady, who served in this House for many years. It was a pleasure to work with him. He was indeed a decent man with a sharp and ready sense of humour and I know that he will be sadly missed in Northern Ireland.

I join others in condemning the attacks on the office of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who is a very valuable member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Having worked with her on that Committee for three years, I know that she will not be put off by the attacks; she will continue to show great determination, and to carry out the work that she has been doing with great distinction.

8 pm

The Select Committee was keen for a move towards transparency as regards donations in Northern Ireland, partly, as has been said, to move the Province towards what might be termed more normal politics. It was interesting; we took evidence from all the political parties—not just the main ones, but the smaller ones in Northern Ireland—and I think that I am right in saying that there was unanimous agreement that we should move towards greater transparency on donations. There were some question marks about how quickly that should happen, and about the security situation, but it was generally accepted that people who stand for office in Northern Ireland, and those who sign nomination papers, put up posters or go canvassing, take the same risks as people who make donations to political parties in Northern Ireland; why would they be any different? For me, that was the convincing argument.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, clause 1 allows the Secretary of State the discretion to make the decision. The Select Committee suggested that there be a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the appropriate security authorities with regard to taking that decision, but overwhelmingly, we felt that we should move towards greater transparency regarding donations in Northern Ireland. Like the hon. Member for Belfast East, I am grateful to the Government for listening to the points that the Select Committee made on not only this issue, but others.

Mr Dodds: When the matter was debated and voted on in the Committee of the whole House, we voted for the proposal. The Government have had consultations, and the measure has been brought forward because it has widespread support in Northern Ireland, and so fulfils one of the criteria for changes to which the Minister has alluded previously. It is because there is cross-party consensus that the amendment has been put

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1035

forward, and we welcome that move. We have absolutely no difficulty with moving towards greater transparency from 1 January —mindful, of course, that as the Minister says, there is no change to the fundamental point that the decision will be made only when the security situation allows. If it is made, however, it can be retrospective and apply back to 1 January.

We remain concerned that the amendment, and the Bill, will not close the massive loophole that allows parties from outside the United Kingdom to be bankrolled to a fairly considerable degree by donations made outside—indeed, very far from—the jurisdiction. In that context, I refer to a report of 11 November in the Belfast Telegraph that revealed that Sinn Fein was being bankrolled by donations from American companies

“that have been embroiled in racism”,

discrimination and


Sinn Fein took in £245,000 in the period up to May this year, and almost £31,000 of that

“was used to pay printing expenses in Northern Ireland and to purchase a vehicle.”

A political party that operates and seeks votes in part of the United Kingdom, and is elected to this House and to the Assembly, is allowed, through the special provisions of electoral donation law, to raise such funds and channel them to Northern Ireland, and basically to skew the electoral process through massive donations from abroad.

Unfortunately, the Government have not, so far, seen fit to close that loophole, which should not be available to any party. When the decision was made to bring in regulations and legislation on the funding of, and donations and loans to, political parties, it was rightly decided that, in principle and fact, parties should be able to receive donations only from registered electors in the United Kingdom. That is a solid, sound principle, but an exception has been made in relation to Northern Ireland. Nationalist parties—primarily Sinn Fein—can raise all this money outside the jurisdiction. That money is used to influence the political and electoral process. It is a scandal, and it is wrong, morally, politically and constitutionally. Something needs to be done about it; a party has openly admitted, through records filed in the United States, that it is using foreign money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from other parties if a Unionist party, or the Conservative, Labour or Social Democratic and Labour parties, used foreign money that had been donated secretly to fund their electoral campaigns, with no accountability.

Sammy Wilson: Sleazy money.

Mr Dodds: Sleazy money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from sanctimonious people in Sinn Fein about that, yet we are talking about a party that is receiving individual sums of up to $20,000. Documents filed with the US Department of Justice indicate that a New York-based company called MarJam Supply Company contributed $5,000. A Government employment equality agency in the United States found that staff at that company were subjected to racial abuse. Another company that gives money to Sinn Fein hit the headlines after its former boss was sentenced to three years in jail for embezzling pension

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1036

money. The former chairman of another company that donated $1,000 to Sinn Fein pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges. How do we know all that? It is because the US authorities require that information to be registered in the United States—it is no thanks to legislation passed in this House.

I say to the Government that this is intolerable. It is a scandalous abuse of the electoral system in Northern Ireland. No wonder the IRA and Sinn Fein do not have to rob banks any more, when they can get that sort of money flowing into their coffers from abroad, with no accountability whatever. I urge the Government to listen, to take this argument on board, and to create a level playing field for all the other parties.

This is not an appeal made on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party. We will fight our campaigns and get our votes; I am confident that we will do well. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said in an earlier debate that he never foresaw any party in Northern Ireland getting more than 30 seats and being able to trigger a petition of concern. He did not envisage it; I am sure that if he had envisaged it, the trigger figure would have been higher. We have 38 Members. Things can happen in Northern Ireland, and we will fight our battle. When it comes to donations and loans, all that I am calling for is a level playing field for everybody. The Government need to act on that. Frankly, it would be a disgrace if, in this Parliament, a Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister—and a Government comprised of right hon. and hon. Gentleman who have sought to reform the parliamentary system to create greater fairness and transparency—continued to allow this outrageous situation to continue.

Mark Durkan: I welcome Government amendments 1 and 2. I want to acknowledge the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who championed amendment 1 at an earlier stage of the Bill. I recall that at one point on that day, she thought she would not be able to divide the House, because she did not have Tellers; we guaranteed her Tellers if the amendment went to a Division. I also want to acknowledge the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), who put his name to the amendment and took an active part in the discussion, as a conscientious legislator and a person of consistency. I recall that on that day, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was very strident in pressing the Government to see the sense of the amendment, and in rejecting their arguments against it.

I am glad that the Government have found that there was consensus on the issue, but it was a new, revised consensus, induced by the fact that we had Divisions on the subject in Committee of the whole House. Clearly, very different messages were being given before that, including in evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It is one of the occasions on which debate in the House brought about change, not just in Government thinking but in how parties responded and saw those issues by understanding how they were regarded by others. The public are vexed about the lack of transparency and the readiness of too many parties constantly to use security considerations to deny scrutiny, which is treated as a matter of course elsewhere.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has looked more widely at the issue of political donations, and we need to look at anything else that needs to be

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1037

tightened up at any other level. I am particularly alert to the need to allow an active and positive interest by members of the wider Irish diaspora and by democrats throughout the island of Ireland, but that should never allow for any dubious corporate donations or anything else. It is quite clear that the ambit of measures in relation to donations to Northern Ireland has been cynically abused, and it does not match funding that would be allowed elsewhere. Again, for the sake of consistency, without transgressing any legitimate interest of the wider Irish diaspora, including the very recent diaspora, I would point out the need for balance.

Government amendment 2 is a sensible measure, as the provisions of clause 28 would impose quite a scramble and some difficulty on local electoral officers, so it makes sense to kick forward the commencement date.

Mr Robathan: I had forgotten what a vexed issue donations are—perhaps I should have remembered—whether from Michael Brown or one or two Labour donors. I can name them if the House wants. Indeed, we have had the odd one in our own party.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Asil Nadir.

Mr Robathan: Funnily enough, his name crossed my mind, but let us go on to Lord Levy. Did he not give a lot of money?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We will stick with what is before us.

Mr Robathan: Right. I had simply forgotten what a vexed issue donations are, and I think we would all agree that we wish to move to the greatest transparency possible.

Mr Ivan Lewis: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not want to bracket Lord Levy with Michael Brown and Asil Nadir who, as I understand it, are convicted criminals.

Mr Robathan: I did not bracket them at all, except to say that there have been vexed issues over donations to each major party. The hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. We are going to move on. The point has been made on both sides of the House, and we do not want to get bogged down. I am sure that the Members from Northern Ireland want to get to the meat of the issue.

Mr Robathan: I meant no disrespect to any Member of the House of Lords on that matter, although one or two of them have had a few problems. [Interruption.] I will if you want.

The vexed issue of donations stretches across the Irish sea and, indeed, across the Atlantic, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We would all wish to move to greater transparency. We have moved in Great Britain to increased transparency, which is absolutely right. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about people declaring their donations quite happily to the Alliance party. There is a special situation in Northern Ireland—we know that, which is why we are discussing the Bill—but we want to

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1038

move forward with consensus to normality above all else. That has to be done slowly—we know why—and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that it should be a case of one step forward. I think that that is the right way to go.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North wants to go further. Donations from America, as I understand it, must be made either by Irish citizens or by an Irish company carrying on one or more principal activities on the island of Ireland. [Interruption.] I have been told to lay off anyone going to jail, but I could name another one who is in the news today.

Finally, may I tell the hon. Member for Belfast East that I did not serve on the Bill Committee, but I understand that her amendment was resisted at the time? I hope that she realises as the single member of a single-Member party in the House that the Government listens. We have listened to her, and essentially we have accepted her amendment.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Clause 28


Amendment made: 2, page 18, leave out lines 1 to 3. —(Mr Robathan.)

Third Reading

8.15 pm

Mr Robathan: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I should like to begin by thanking my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who was in the Chamber earlier, for his work in preparing this Bill and steering it through the House. My task today has been greatly eased by the work that he has done in explaining the contents of the Bill to the House. I should also like to thank speakers from all parts of the House—from the four parties of Northern Ireland represented in the Chamber today—for their constructive contributions to debates on the Bill. [Interruption.] Three parties and an independent, I am sorry. I have looked carefully at the earlier debates, and I think the House has done an excellent job on the Bill. While we have not always agreed on amendments, there has been a great deal of consensus on much of its contents.

As many hon. Members have noted, this is not a Bill that makes radical changes to the architecture of government in Northern Ireland. It has been described variously as a “tapas Bill”, a “portmanteau Bill”, and a “bouillabaisse Bill”. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in his inimitable way, has even suggested that some would see it as a “bits and pieces” Bill. I welcome that sort of Bill, because I would describe it as a Bill for more normal times. In the past, Northern Ireland Bills have made fundamental changes to government in Northern Ireland, or have been introduced in response to political crises. This Bill supports the development of the devolved institutions. The emphasis now has to be not on further radical institutional departures, but on delivery—chiefly delivery by the institutions in Northern Ireland, but with our support—on reducing community division and on economic renewal. That is the keystone of our approach to Northern Ireland.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1039

If I may be allowed a personal note, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am newly arrived back in Northern Ireland, although as some hon. Members will know, I spent time in an earlier incarnation there. Indeed, I spent the best part of a year in west Belfast, defending, as I saw it, people of the community of Northern Ireland, whether they were from a nationalist, Unionist, Protestant or Catholic background—I was defending them all—against the scourge of terrorism, and I am proud of having done so.

In my view of the past, and in my hopes for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, I, too, have a past, shaped by my experience, which has shaped my views. For now, my aim is to work with all the politicians in the Northern Ireland Executive to help them to deliver the benefits to which the agreements have opened the way. The Bill is consistent with that approach. It clears the decks of a number of relatively small, but important, matters, to smooth the way for better delivery aimed at Northern Ireland’s future peace and prosperity. The changes that the Bill makes are not radical, but they are important. Northern Ireland is now moving in the right direction.

Lady Hermon: I am very flattered indeed that the Minister should regard me as a party in my own right. I am an independent Member but it is always lovely to be unanimous with myself.

The Minister will know that a key provision of the Bill is to move the scheduled election date for the Northern Ireland Assembly. By statute, the Assembly should be elected every four years, but that term has been extended. Will he kindly give a guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland that the House regards that as a rarity? In fact, when there is a statutory lifetime of a devolved Assembly that should be changed very rarely indeed.

Mr Robathan: I am delighted that the hon. Lady is unanimous with herself. I did not mean to portray her as a party, but rather as an individual independent.

On the substantive issue, as an historian I remember the Septennial Act 1715, which extended the life of the Westminster Parliament and was rightly disparaged over the years. Extending the life of any assembly or Parliament should be done with great care and only in exceptional circumstances. I, like the hon. Lady, am a democrat and I do not think we should go that way, but on this occasion there is general consensus that that is probably the right way forward.

It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to consider hosting world leaders in Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I remember that when the Prime Minister announced it, some people said, “That’s a bit dodgy,” but it worked extremely well and I pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland, who made it such a successful G8 summit. It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to present the Turner prize in Northern Ireland. It would have been inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of visitors would travel to Northern Ireland for events like the world police and fire games this summer.

The passing of this Bill through the House marks a further step towards normalisation for Northern Ireland. This is the first Bill since the imposition of direct rule in 1972 which has not been enacted in haste, as a result of

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1040

a political crisis or to implement a political agreement. Instead, it has been subject to public consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and thorough scrutiny following the usual timetable in this House. It is something to celebrate that we are now able to consider matters thoroughly and without the urgency that has been a feature of previous Bills, and although I have attended only this sitting on the Bill, I might say that we have been able to discuss it with good humour, which is also important. I commend the Bill to the House.

8.21 pm

Stephen Pound: I reiterate the comments made by the Minister of State about the good spirit in which the debate has been conducted. We have been considering matters of great moment—matters of state, matters of considerable importance, but it has been done overall, I hope, in a good and positive atmosphere.

May I trespass upon your good nature, which is legendary, Mr Deputy Speaker, by adding my own tribute to the late Eddie McGrady? When I attended his funeral in Downpatrick last Thursday, as I went up past McGrady’s estate agents, turned round at McGrady’s accountants, arrived at the cathedral to meet Father Fergal McGrady, son of Malachy McGrady, it occurred to me that possibly there was somebody in Downpatrick who was not a McGrady, but I did not find them. I was privileged to sit with Arlene Foster, who represented the DUP very well. Between the Secretary of State and Arlene Foster was none other than the present hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who is not, as I know it, a McGrady, though she was considered and referred to as a protégée of the great McGrady.

May I, once more trespassing on your legendary good nature and good will, Mr Deputy Speaker, add my sympathies to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for the occurrence that took place over the weekend, which she has typically and characteristically responded to with enormous courage? She is here tonight to support what may be Government amendment 1, but is in fact the hon. Lady’s amendment 1. She has done that extremely well and successfully. For somebody who considered the matter in a Statutory Instrument Committee, to see it come to fruition on the Floor of the House is a great tribute not just to the good sense and good will of the House, but particularly to the driving force of the hon. Lady.

We heard from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). He could have spoken more—I recommend to any Member the Committee’s full report on the draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It should not be forgotten that a great deal of the business that is affected by this legislation has not been discussed on the Floor of the House tonight and has not been amended. Although the expression “a bits and pieces Bill” may seem a trifle crude, the Bill is a glorious melange, a coming together of so many different aspects, all overseen with a golden thread of positivity.

Let us not forget that the Bill deals with political donations, dual mandates, the position of the Justice Minister, electoral registration, equality duties and even the regulation of biometric data. We have considered so many of these—the fixed terms, the length of the current Assembly term—and we have arrived at the end with, I like to think, a strong degree of consensus, which is

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1041

again a tribute to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, its present Chairman and its members, who I see are well represented in the House tonight.

On the first group of amendments, new clauses 1 and 2, we heard from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I have immense sympathy with the points that he makes. The hardest task that any of us who is involved even peripherally with the affairs of Northern Ireland must face is the legacy issue—the issue of dealing with the past. It overhangs everything we do. All our deliberations must be seen in that context. Just to listen to some of the names and some of the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman mentioned reminded us—those of us who needed reminding, and I rather doubt that any of us do need reminding—that we will always have to be aware of the full horror, the monstrosity of the past, which lurks over our shoulder at all times.

However, tonight we have heard a little bit of good news which points us in the direction of consensus. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), as ever, spoke from the heart and spoke with great emotion. None of us in the House could ever have anything less than utter respect, regard and understanding of the pain and the agony that he and his family and many members of his community have suffered, yet we are here today in a democratic House, undertaking democratic legislation to make life better for a group of people who have not been well served in the past.

If there is one thing that we must recognise as binding together everything that we have done tonight, it is, as the Minister said, that the Bill is an indication of progression. We are moving forward into a safer, more inclusive and shared future. It may seem that much of the content of Bills is minutiae—a minor matter. There is nothing of minor matter in the politics of Northern Ireland. Every single aspect of the Bill is crucial and has great significance beyond this House. I like to think that what has emerged here this evening is at the very least a signpost on the way to a better and a shared future. All Members of the House should take some credit for that achievement here tonight.

There is important Back-Bench business to be taken. My natural loquacity will be limited, if not choked, on this occasion. I would like to say more and there is probably more to be said, but I shall end by saying that the House has done Parliament, democracy and above all the people of Northern Ireland a great service tonight. I am proud to be a Member of the House that agreed this Bill this evening.

8.28 pm

Mr Dodds: I would like to say it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), but it is very difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman. Once again, I welcome what he said and the way that he said it, with his customary humour and good grace.

I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well. We look forward to working with him. I formally put on record our condolences to the SDLP and to the people of South Down on the sad loss of Eddie McGrady, who was a very decent and honourable representative for all the people of South Down. I have expressed my sentiments privately and I have written to the SDLP, but I want to put that formally on the record. He was a true outstanding example of what a Member of Parliament and an elected representative should be.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1042

I also want to put on record our condemnation of the attack on the offices of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). I note that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has tabled a motion for debate today in the Northern Ireland Assembly condemning that and other attacks. He made the point that whether these evil acts have a loyalist or republican label, they are equally wrong, regardless of who is responsible. I think that all hon. Members will endorse that. We as democrats must stand up against attacks. Members of my party and of the SDLP, and members of other parties and of no party, have had their person, their offices and their property attacked previously, simply because they stood up and expressed a point of view in a democratic way. It is scandalous that anyone should be targeted for doing that.

We welcome the Bill. It is limited in scope, but nevertheless it deals with some important matters. We wish it had gone further in relation to party donations and the point that I raised in relation to a glaring loophole, but no doubt we will return to that at some point. I welcome the fact that the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly has been brought into line with those for Scotland and Wales. We now have an equal situation for the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The Government have been sensible and right to do that. There are the new arrangements for the Minister of Justice and the Assembly’s power to reduce the number of MLAs, which we certainly want to see. There are far too many Assembly Members in Northern Ireland, and the number needs to be reduced.

We recognise that other more substantive issues need to be debated and for which provision needs to be made. We hope that after the Haass talks and further consideration in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee we will be in a position to come forward with some kind of consensus on major issues and debate them further and, if necessary, legislate for them in this House.

8.31 pm

Ms Ritchie: I welcome the opportunity to speak on Third Reading. We had a good debate on Second Reading and during part of the Committee stage in this Chamber in June, and my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) took the Bill forward in Committee. Tonight we discussed further amendments on Report and now we have the Third Reading debate.

As Member of Parliament for South Down I want to thank all Members on the Front and Back Benches and across various parties for the tribute that they have paid tonight to the former hon. Member for South Down, Eddie McGrady, who passed away last Monday afternoon in Down hospital. I worked for and with Eddie for many years, and I, like other hon. Members here tonight, always found him a man of considerable integrity, hard work, dedication and commitment to all his constituents without fear or favour. He represented the true hallmarks of what a Member of Parliament should be, at a time in Northern Ireland when it was difficult to engage in that particular role because of ongoing violence, ongoing deaths, ongoing threats and the ongoing murder of many of his constituents, some of whom I have already referred to in this debate. He condemned all of those unequivocally, because he always believed that the principle of democracy must reign. He, along with my hon.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1043

Friend the Member for Foyle and many other party members, participated faithfully in the negotiations on the Good Friday agreement, because we firmly believed that that was the pathway and the direction of travel to the resolution of our conflict, bringing about a final political settlement on the island of Ireland, espousing the relationships between Unionists and nationalists in the north, between the north and south of the island and between Britain and Ireland, which were characterised by the political institutions that were established as a result of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

On behalf of my party and my SDLP colleagues in this House, I condemn the terrible and horrendous attack yet again on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and on her constituency office. Such attacks are an affront to the democratic process and to democracy. Again, I emphasise that this House and all Members adhere to the principle of democracy, and we want that to reign supreme. Those who carry out such acts of violence are reprehensible, and their deeds are reprehensible.

The Bill, with its 29 clauses, is being debated at a time, as the Minister said, when there has been no particular crisis in Northern Ireland. It simply reflects a movement in the democratic process in Northern Ireland. We in the SDLP—my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle, for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and me—would like to have enhanced the Bill with the inclusion of clauses to deal with the past, which is currently the subject of the Haass talks, bringing back the whole issue of petitions of concern to what they were meant to be under the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and the whole area of statutory duties with regard to good relations. We welcome the greater level of transparency in relation to donations and the Government’s further commitment tonight on that, which was originally brought forward by the hon. Member for Belfast East.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and I raised the issues to do with dual mandate. We asked for that area of the dual mandate to be extended to the Lords and Seanad Eireann in the Republic of Ireland, because that would be more comprehensive and would deal with the issue in a much fuller way.

In Committee, I tabled amendments on the length of the Assembly mandate, which has been referred to tonight by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). We believe that the extension of the Assembly term from four to five years is undemocratic, because Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who fought the election in May 2011, those Members who were elected, and those people who voted for all candidates in that election, did so for a four-year term, not a five-year term. I understand the Government’s wish for synchronisation, so that matters concur with what is happening in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but we in the SDLP are clear that that is a disruption to the democratic process and to the principle of democracy. On Second Reading, I referred to the mystery tour, and why that decision had been taken. When the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and other organs of political activity in Northern Ireland were supporting a four-year term, why was it automatically changed to a five-year term?

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1044

So far I have not received a sufficiently adequate answer to that mystery or puzzle. Perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate that tonight.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the pros and cons of the delay of the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, whether or not it is delayed for a year could hardly be categorised as an issue of burning interest among the people in Northern Ireland?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The people of Northern Ireland fully subscribe to the principles of democracy and, I think, contrary to what he says, would be concerned about that.

In conclusion, although the political process in Northern Ireland has moved on and there is now a concentration on the social, health and economic agenda, we want to see those processes built on. We want to see total delivery for the people of Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to see an Assembly and an Executive that are actually working for the people on all the issues that matter, rather than some of the sterile debates and decisions that have taken place in recent months.

We want the British and Irish Governments to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive on energy, economic development, urban regeneration, jobs and the economy, because we all—I am sure that this applies to all parties from Northern Ireland represented here—want to see delivery for the people in relation to Treasury and fiscal matters. We want to see our tourism protected. In that regard, and in advance of the autumn statement, there is a need for VAT on tourism to complement the level it is at in the Republic of Ireland, because we do not want our tourism industry, our jobs and our economy—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order.

Ms Ritchie: In conclusion, after that slight detour— I am back on track, Mr Deputy Speaker—and in relation to the general principles of the Bill, we look forward to a positive solution from the Haass talks on issues relating to flags, emblems, the past and victims, some of which we would have liked to have been addressed by new clauses in the Bill, but I am pleased to have been able to participate this evening.

8.42 pm

Naomi Long: I will take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to his new post. It has been an experience getting to know him slightly better this evening. It is good that we have been able to make some progress during what I think has been, with regard to outcomes, quite a positive evening.

I also want to express my personal sympathy, and that of my party, to the SDLP and the McGrady family on the passing of Eddie McGrady. He was a gentleman, someone with integrity, and he served his whole community without fear or favour. I know how closely the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) worked with Eddie McGrady and so particularly want to pass on my personal condolences to her at what must be a very difficult time. He was very highly thought of right across the community in Northern Ireland, and that

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1045

cannot be claimed of many people. He was distinguished by that and by many other things he did while a Member of this House.

There is much to commend in the Bill. However, in line with the convention that we should save the best until last, I will focus first on some of the matters about which I am still discontent. As I stated earlier, I am disappointed that donations were not addressed more fully at this stage in the Bill’s progress, with regard to both moving towards full transparency and addressing the issue that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) raised on overseas donors and the lack of transparency. The time has come for us to build on the progress we have made in Northern Ireland and show confidence in that progress, and I believe that in order to do that we must be courageous in the decisions we make as politicians. Part of that has to be about taking on responsibility for transparency and accountability and the normal standards of public life that apply everywhere else. It would be a huge step forward if progress could be made on that.

I am also disappointed that we have been unable to address as fully as I had wished the issue of dual mandates between the Assembly and Seanad Eireann and between the Assembly and the House of Lords. I have had some success this evening, so I will chance my arm and ask for some more. One of the reasons for not addressing the issue in relation to Seanad Eireann in Committee of the whole House was that there was soon to be a referendum on abolishing it. The referendum failed to abolish the Seanad, so it is an ongoing concern that people can still be Members of the Assembly and the Seanad. I ask the Government, in the light of that development, to consider revisiting the matter when the Bill moves to another place.

I want to welcome progress made in the Bill on four matters. First, I welcome the progress in addressing the anomaly of the appointment of the Justice Minister, which currently advantages my party but would advantage any party that found itself in receipt of that post. It is unfair and, we believe, unbalances the situation. That is something we have raised and worked with other parties to find a solution to, so we are pleased to see it resolved in the Bill.

I also welcome the legislative footing for the end to dual mandates. It is a matter on which a number of parties made commitments before the last Westminster elections, but only now are we slowly beginning to see some progress. I believe that the Bill’s passage through the House has concentrated minds on the issue. I believe

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1046

that putting that on a legislative footing will ensure that those commitments will be met by all the parties that made them, which I welcome.

I also welcome the regularising of the Assembly’s terms to avoid future clashes with Westminster elections. I regret that that could not be done before the last Assembly elections so that the public would have known that they were electing an Assembly for a five-year term. However, I think that on balance it is better that we regularise it now, rather than having the kinds of ad hoc changes to Assembly dates that we had previously, when people were never quite sure when Assembly elections would take place. It almost appeared as though our elections in Northern Ireland were not as valuable or important as elections in other places. It is important that that has been regularised. It will allow people to focus properly on Westminster issues for Westminster elections and Assembly issues for Assembly elections.

I also welcome the move to remove permanent anonymity for donors from January. I want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for his support for the amendments we tabled in Committee. He ensured that mine was not a lone voice on the matter and that at least there would have been two of us to act as Tellers, even if there was no one to count. I was pleased that he was willing to do that and thank him for it.

I am pleased about those matters not just because they are ones on which I have campaigned, but because I believe they mark an improvement in the democratic process for the people of Northern Ireland and the people I represent in east Belfast. Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland—Members have reflected on that this evening—but we still have a long way to go to achieve the normality we wish to see. Indeed, the events of recent days and weeks suggest that there are still those, both loyalist and republican, who would seek to deflect us from doing that. It is our duty as elected representatives to make politics work, to aspire to the highest standards in public life and to restore the relationship between us as elected representatives and those we represent, to engender their trust and confidence and to demonstrate that politics is the only way forward and that it is a practical and effective way to make our views known and heard. I believe that the Bill will move politics forward in Northern Ireland and improve the working of the system there. I am pleased to be able to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1047

Energy Bill (Carry-Over Extension)

8.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I beg to move,

That the period on the expiry of which proceedings on the Energy Bill shall lapse in pursuance of paragraph (13) of Standing Order No. 80A shall be extended by 13 weeks until 27 February 2014.

The Energy Bill, which is due its Third Reading in the other place tomorrow, was introduced in this House on 29 November 2012. As set out in Standing Order No. 80A, as a carry-over Bill it will fall if it does not receive Royal Assent within 12 months of its First Reading, and that date is now approaching. Given the strong support for the Bill on Third Reading in this House, when 396 hon. Members voted in favour and only eight opposed it, it is only right for us to safeguard against this.

The Bill is a large and significant one that has properly received a great deal of scrutiny in this House and in the other place. Fundamentally, it is vital for securing the United Kingdom’s energy future and ensuring that the crucial investment in energy infrastructure that we need over the next decade comes forward. That investment will be incentivised by the provisions in the Bill to reform the electricity market—the most significant reform since electricity privatisation. The Bill contains a number of other important provisions, including putting people on the cheapest tariff, tougher consumer redress, tackling fuel poverty, and strengthening nuclear regulation.

The Government remain committed to securing Royal Assent by the end of the year. The extension to the end of February simply allows for a sensible contingency. Let me assure Members across the House that extending the time for considering the Bill will not have a detrimental effect on the timetable for electricity market reform. We remain on track for publishing the final electricity market reform delivery plan and for contracts for difference to be available from next year.

This Bill is vital for investment and for security of supply. Of course it is right that we should allow its parliamentary passage to continue, and I look forward to the House’s co-operation in this matter.

8.51 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to be able to address the House on this brief but significant piece of business. I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation of the Government’s reasons for seeking to extend the time available for consideration of the Energy Bill, and for his making it clear that they still intend that it should receive Royal Assent by the end of the calendar year. He was not in post at the time, as he will recall, but I am sure he was familiar with our deliberations in Committee, where it was made clear that that was the Government’s intention after the Bill had been subject to some delay.

May I press the Minister on whether he intends that the amendments made in another place, where the Bill will have its Third Reading tomorrow, will be debated before or after the Chancellor’s autumn statement on 5 December? Of course, the Minister is not part of the Government’s business management team, but it is important for the House to know which will be the case.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1048

Some significant issues were raised during the debates on the important amendments made in the Lords, most notably on the amendment from the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Teverson, which I understand involved a licensed rebellion against the Government by Liberal Democrats. Not for the first time, the Energy Secretary was non-committal when asked about this recently. Will the Minister therefore update the House on the Government’s attitude to the Lords amendment? If he cannot tell us that, perhaps he could give us his own opinion on the matter.

The Minister may be aware that last week the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh undertook to provide an emergency statement on electricity market reform in relation to Government Lords amendment 66. The Westminster Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), is not in his place this evening, but the Edinburgh SNP energy spokesman suggested that it was a constitutional outrage that there had been no prior discussion with the devolved Government. There is currently a predilection towards creating grievance and diversion in Edinburgh that I hope we will be rid of in less than a year’s time. Nevertheless, will the Minister explain whether there has been any discussion with the devolved Administrations about the closure of the renewables obligation? He is well aware, as I am, that about a third of the financial support for renewable energy in the UK goes to Scotland, which has less than 10% of the consumer base. It is spread across the board in Britain, which works in all our interests—we share the risks and rewards. The Scottish National party asserts that that will continue post separation if those of us in Scotland vote that way, for reasons I still fail to understand, next September. Will the Minister be clear on discussions with devolved Administrations? Powers relating to the promotion of renewable energy currently exist in the Scottish Parliament.

This is an important Bill which, as the Minister said, we supported on Third Reading. We expressed reservations on some areas of energy policy that have not been addressed, but it is an important, much-delayed and much-needed Bill. We do not intend to oppose the motion and hope the Government do everything they can to ensure that its passage is complete before the end of the calendar year, as the Minister indicated. Industry and the investment community need to get on with the urgent work of renewing our energy infrastructure and capacity in a low carbon, sustainable way for the future.

8.55 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): As someone who voted against the Bill on Third Reading, I will not oppose the time extension. The later the Bill is put on the statute book—if it is put on the statute book—the more grateful I will be. It is significant that on Second Reading in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Lawson made one of the finest speeches in any debate in recent times. He was absolutely dismissive of much of the content of the Bill.

This evening’s short debate presents me with the opportunity to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister what, if anything, will be done to respond to Japan’s recently announced initiative to abandon its climate change targets? That follows the decision by the Australian Government and, earlier, by the Canadians. What does my right hon. Friend think are the implications for the

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1049

assumed international consensus? Has it been altered by those recent decisions? Where will that leave us if we are justifying imposing significant increases in the price of electricity for consumers on the basis that we are setting an example and leading the world in our opposition to global warming and in our determination to reduce carbon emissions? That leadership does not seem to have resulted in anything significant. Indeed, it seems to be going in the opposite direction.

I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend gave some indication of how the Government will respond to what has happened in Japan. Japan is where the Kyoto agreement was negotiated. The consequence of the Japanese redefinition of its targets will probably be more carbon dioxide emissions, and we will not be able do anything about that. If we turned off all the lights, closed down all our heating systems and did not use any energy at all, we would still not be able to counter the consequences of the recent Japanese decision. Does that not show that, far from being able to lead the world, the political climate in the rest of the world is changing and we are slow to react to that?

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I assume the thrust of my hon. Friend’s argument is that an extension will allow more time for that to be debated.

Mr Chope: I hope so, yes. I am enthusiastically supporting the extension in the hope that wiser counsel will ultimately prevail and the Bill will be revised significantly before it reaches the statute book.

8.59 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), I, too, as one of those who voted against the Energy Bill, hope that the extension will give the Government the opportunity to look again at the targets set in it and at the policy they seem to be following, which appear to be at odds with the Prime Minister’s commitments and the concerns expressed by the Opposition about fuel poverty, the cost of energy and the increasing difficulties that people in this country have, week to week, in meeting their energy bills.

Just this week, there have been discussions in Poland about climate change policy, but the Polish Government have made it clear that they intend to keep on burning coal. As the hon. Member for Christchurch said, the targets in the Bill, for which an extension is now sought, seem to be at odds not only with what has been said by other European nations, including Poland and Germany, but with what is happening in other parts of the world. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity afforded by the extension to consider the direction of energy policy—the commitments the Government are now making to look at the cost of energy, and the Opposition’s attempts to pillory the Government over that issue—so that we do not go down such a route. There is a certain irony that the Opposition, who have been complaining the most about energy prices, support such an energy policy in debates in the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The motion is very narrow and I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to run a little, but I do not want to get down into Opposition policy, because we are not discussing that. I am sure that he is now coming to the end.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1050

Sammy Wilson: I will not be roaming, I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker—I would be in trouble when I go back home if I get too close to Rome.

The point I am emphasising is that we have an opportunity for reconsideration. In the light of comments made in debates in this House and the other place, and the concerns we know people across the United Kingdom have about the cost of energy, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves whether the policy in the Bill to rely increasingly on renewables, which is the most expensive form of electricity generation, while turning our backs on some of the cheaper forms of electricity generation, which is not being done—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I think—[Interruption.] No, Mr Wilson, you will sit down for a moment. The bottom line is that the motion relates to an extension of time. I have allowed a little leeway, of which you have now taken complete advantage, but I am sure that you have now finished.

9.2 pm

Michael Fallon: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me say to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) that I am grateful to him for supporting the Bill, particularly on the grounds that, as I think he said, the investment it brings forward is urgently needed. Why would that be? Because the years of neglect mean that we have rapidly had to address the missing investment in our infrastructure. I am, none the less, grateful for his support.

The hon. Gentleman asked me three specific questions. First, he asked when the amendments made in another place are likely to be considered. I cannot confirm the exact date. That is a matter for the usual channels, and it will be announced shortly. I can, however, tell him that we are absolutely determined—I know he shares that determination—to make sure that the Bill reaches the statute book by our original deadline of Christmas.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the amendment passed in the other place on the application of the emissions performance standards to coal-fired plant. He described that as a “licensed rebellion” but I do not recognise that term. Indeed, I am not sure what that is, as I have not heard of it in this place or, indeed, in the other place, so he needs to look into that in a little more detail. We will set out our position on all the amendments made in the other place when we come to consider them shortly.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the Scottish Minister’s remarks about the back-stop to end the renewables obligation in Scotland, along with its ending in England, by March 2017. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to make it clear that that point had been discussed at length with the Scottish Government before that Minister’s remarks in the Scottish Parliament this week. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Scottish Government about it. It has been discussed with them and there is nothing new in the amendment we have tabled.

Finally, let me respond to the two substantive points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), both of whom opposed the Bill on Third Reading, as they were entitled to do. The change

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1051

in the position of the Japanese Government on climate change will of course be discussed at the annual review meeting in Warsaw next week, which will be attended by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Governments do adapt their positions on these matters from time to time. I assure my hon. Friend that this country will play a leading part in those negotiations.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman spoke about the price that our constituents are paying. They will of course welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to examine the green levies that are applied on top of the price of electricity to ensure that the burden is no greater than is necessary, that the levies are being spread fairly across the population and that the recent increases in electricity bills will not be repeated.

With those reassurances, I hope that the House will pass the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


Rural Fair Share Campaign

9.6 pm

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I would like to hand in a Rural Fair Share campaign petition for my constituency of Mid Norfolk.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Mid Norfolk,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Local Government Finance Settlement is unfair to rural communities; notes that the Rural Penalty sees urban areas receive 50% more support per head than rural areas despite higher costs in rural service delivery; and opposes the planned freezing of this inequity in the 2013–14 settlement for six years until 2020.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to reduce the Rural Penalty in staged steps by at least 10% by 2020.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


9.7 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I have the honour to present the petition of the residents of Penrith and the Border on the local government finance settlement.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of residents of Penrith and the Border,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Local Government Finance Settlement is unfair to rural communities; notes that the Rural Penalty sees urban areas receive 50% more support per head than rural areas despite higher costs in rural service delivery; and opposes the planned freezing of this inequity in the 2013–14 settlement for six years until 2020.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to reduce the Rural Penalty in staged steps by at least 10% by 2020.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


18 Nov 2013 : Column 1052

Wellingborough Prison Site

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

9.8 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the proposed sale of the Wellingborough prison site and for being granted this Adjournment debate so early on by Mr Speaker. I am pleased to be joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). I thank Eliza Richardson, my researcher, for all her efforts in preparing this speech and for the extra hours she has put in.

I thank the prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), for taking the time to be present this evening. As was said recently in the House of Commons, and as was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Justice,

“we have a most excellent prisons Minister who has many superb qualities… One of the best of his qualities is that when he has made a decision and new facts are put to him, he has the courage to reconsider and change his decision.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 799.]

I agree totally with that endorsement.

I shall start by talking about the sorry history of how we have got to this situation. When the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was Secretary of State for Justice, he had the kindness and respect for Parliament to phone me from Downing street one day at 6 am to state that Wellingborough prison was going to be put out for market testing and that he would be making a statement in the House of Commons later that day. He answered my questions privately and I was in a position to ask a sensible question when he made his statement.

I worked with prison officers, management and members of the public to improve Wellingborough prison and to put in an excellent public sector bid. I would particularly praise the prison officers for going against union advice and co-operating with the project. Wellingborough was so improved that it was the third-cheapest prison in the country and the Ministry of Justice decided not to privatise it. So all was well; the prison operated efficiently and with the support of the local community.

But then, without warning, on 17 July 2012, the last sitting day of Parliament before the summer recess, the then Secretary of State for Justice announced the proposed closure of Wellingborough prison. I was given no warning of the decision and found out about it only during a live BBC radio interview. In my opinion, that was a totally unacceptable divergence from parliamentary protocol and utterly disrespectful to me as a local Member of Parliament, but more importantly it was disrespectful to my constituents.

I immediately applied for an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24. In turning down my request, Mr Speaker made it clear that it would not be possible to grant it as the House was going into recess the next day. The then Secretary of State kindly wrote me a handwritten letter apologising for what had happened and saying that it should never have occurred. That was followed by a debate in Westminster Hall on 5 September 2012—I think it was the prisons Minister’s

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1053

first debate—in which I made clear my displeasure at the appalling handling of the situation. He said:

“The way in which he heard about the announcement of the closure is, as he said, profoundly unacceptable. It should not have happened, and I apologise to him for that.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 125WH.]

He was also kind enough to visit the prison and see its potential for growth.

I also presented a petition on 4 September 2012 from many residents of Wellingborough and the surrounding area against the closure of the prison. On 13 March 2013, a press notice from the Cabinet Office announced that HMP Wellingborough had been sold, but after an emergency question the prisons Minister said the site had not been sold and that it had been a clerical error. There were also a number of private meetings with him and the Secretary of State.

Given this history, one would have thought that the Ministry of Justice would be extremely sensitive about making any changes to the Wellingborough prison site without contacting and discussing the matter with me, the local MP. One would have thought there would be huge red flags on both the file and computers saying, “Make sure the local MP knows what’s happening”. That makes the events of the last few weeks completely baffling.

On 3 September, I wrote to the prisons Minister requesting a meeting. I was going to bring along a local prison officer who had some radical ideas on how Wellingborough prison could be reopened. Apparently, that letter was lost in transit. In any event, I received no reply. Next, the Minister told me privately that he was writing to me to say the site of Wellingborough prison was to be sold. At the beginning of November, I received that letter, which was short and gave no indication of why the site was surplus to requirements.

So yet again a decision about Wellingborough prison had been taken without consulting the local Member of Parliament. If the Department was considering selling the site, it should have discussed it with me in private so that at least I could have put my concerns and those of my constituents before a decision was reached. It is also unacceptable that this was done at a time when a request for a meeting was outstanding. In my view, this was yet again disrespectful not only to me, but to Parliament and my constituents.

Tonight’s debate is not a party political matter, but one that directly affects the lives of many of my constituents. However, it is a debate about something that has national consequences. I will be arguing strongly for the Secretary of State for Justice’s policy on prisons. He recently said:

“My intention is to have more adult male prison capacity available than we had in 2010 but at a much lower unit and overall cost. Our strategy for achieving this is to replace accommodation which is old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value with cheaper modern capacity which is designed to better meet the demand for prison places and supports our aim to drive down stubbornly high reoffending rates.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 22WS.]

I could not agree with that policy more: keep open and develop low-cost prisons and close expensive, Victorian prisons. What a splendid policy—one that any Conservative should be able to support, and a significant shift from the previous Secretary of State, whose policy seemed to be: “Close prisons and let’s hope the prison population falls.”

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1054

As the Member of Parliament for Wellingborough, I could not be happier, as Wellingborough has the third cheapest prison in the country and the second cheapest in its category. Official Ministry of Justice figures show that the cost of a prison place in 2011-12 at Wellingborough was £17,894—the second cheapest out of all male category C prisons. Not only that, but the prison has significant room for expansion, a local population that supports it and a council that wants to encourage its development. It has a superb location as an overspill prison from London, yet is an easy location for people from the rest of the country to reach. Wellingborough prison absolutely fits the Government’s policy. Terrific: another success story for the Conservative-led coalition. Er, well, no, I am afraid not. Instead of developing Wellingborough prison, the Justice Department first closes it and then, this month, decides to sell it. It flies completely in the face of the Department’s stated policy.

Wellingborough prison lies midway between Bedford and Leicester prisons, 22 miles from Bedford and 45 miles from Leicester. The cost of a prison place in Bedford is £33,679 per person, while in Leicester it is £41,855. Let us compare that with the cost in Wellingborough, at £17,894. It does not take a rocket scientist to say that we should close Bedford and Leicester prisons and keep Wellingborough open. That is what should happen, if the Government policy was implemented. After all, the Secretary of State said we should

“replace accommodation which is old, inefficient…with cheaper modern capacity”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 22WS.]

I do not understand why the prisons Minister does not want to support the Secretary of State in implementing this sensible Government policy—it is surely in his career interests to do so, if for no other reason.

We will hear the argument tonight that Wellingborough prison is somehow located in the east midlands, where there is no shortage of prison places, and miles from London, where there is a huge lack of prison capacity. When that was suggested to me, I am sure I saw a fleet of flying pigs doing somersaults and belly laughing. Wellingborough prison has for a long time been an overflow prison for London. It is located 50 minutes from central London by train and has superb road links from the M1. However, it is just over an arbitrary line drawn by the Prison Service to say that it is in the east midlands. Wellingborough looks to London and is the ideal location to take surplus London prisoners.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing this debate but on the way he is delivering his excellent speech. I do not think any Member of Parliament could have mounted a better campaign in defence of their local prison than he has. I can confirm exactly what he has just said about the population of the prison largely coming from London. When I visited Wellingborough prison, it was fairly obvious that most of the inmates were from London, and many of his constituents will work in London. Wellingborough is only 70 miles from London, and if anyone goes down the high street in Wellingborough and says, “Where do you live?”, they will be told, “Wellingborough.” People will not say, “The east midlands”.

Mr Bone: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and his support. He is absolutely right: this “east midlands” thing in Wellingborough is a sort of invention.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1055

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making a good speech. He will know that in my Daventry constituency, we have two prisons: Onley and Rye Hill. If we were to draw a line from London as the crow flies, both would be further away than Wellingborough prison, and they, too, are pretty much full of prisoners who originate from the London region.

Mr Bone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that, which is an issue I shall develop a little later in my speech.

Wellingborough prison also has the huge advantage of being a very cheap area in which to build and develop. If that were not enough, the Wellingborough prison site has a massive amount of land for development, a proposed new road link to the A45, a community that supports and wants the prison, a council that is keen to see the prison develop and many prison officers living just minutes from the site.

In addition, there is another difficulty for the Ministry of Justice in trying to sell the site. If the sale of land were to go ahead, there would be serious questions about whether the Government would remain financially responsible for the prison-owned sewerage system on the site, which is used by the local housing estate. We could end up having to fork out more money for a site of which we are not even making use. I cannot see how that is cost-effective on any level. Much more than that, most of the prison is very modern and has, in fact, won prizes for its design. In the five-year period from 2004-05, an incredible £22.4 million was spent on the prison—all to be thrown away if the site is to be sold.

Clearly, we have a golden opportunity to knock down the 1960s old prison blocks, to extend the existing modern blocks and facilities and to build new blocks within the existing boundaries. We should then implement new prison operational procedures, mix both state and private employees on the same site, allow prison officers to do the essential running of the prison, while allowing private contractors to carry out other functions. We would then have the cheapest prison in the country per prisoner place and a model new prison, which could be the basis for the rest of the prison estate and provide additional overflow capacity for London.

Mr Hollobone: Would my hon. Friend advise us on how many prisoners there were in Wellingborough prison?

Mr Bone: At the time, it had a capacity of 600, of which the overwhelming majority were from London.

Mr Hollobone: What, then, is my hon. Friend’s understanding of the extra investment that the Ministry said it needed to bring the prison up to what it regards as modern standards?

Mr Bone: That is a very good question. The figure of £50 million has been bandied around; I always think that when something is around the sum of £50 million, it cannot really be based on anything. That was for revamping the existing prison, but I am arguing for something different. I say we should knock down the old bit, which is the minority of the prison, and build new blocks to make a much bigger, cheaper prison, with a capacity of more like 1,000 prisoners.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1056

Mr Hollobone: I am very interested to hear my hon. Friend’s answers. Earlier today, in the statement from the Secretary of State for Wales, it was confirmed that the Ministry of Justice is about to build a new prison in Wales for 1,000 prisoners at a capital cost of £250 million. My hon. Friend is telling us tonight, however, that the Government could have provided modern accommodation for 600 prisoners at a fraction of that cost.

Mr Bone: I thank my hon. Friend again. I would argue even further that for that investment, we could actually get 1,000 prisoners accommodated. Let me correct my hon. Friend on one issue, because I believe that the proposed prison in Wrexham is going to be for 2,000 prisoners. I shall comment on that later in my speech.

Just for a moment, let us look at the London problem. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures say that it needs 18,000 prison places and has capacity for 11,000. The prisons Minister will say that he is going to build a 2,500-place prison at Feltham. Well, even if that is possible, there will still be a shortage of 4,500 prison places. The prisons Minister may say that he is going to extend other London prisons, but—hand on heart—he knows that thousands of prisoners from London will have to be imprisoned outside London. That is why the Wellingborough solution is such a sensible option. I hope that some of the extremely expensive Victorian London prisons will be closed, because that would make Wellingborough even more important.

The Minister may have been sold the idea of super-duper prisons with places for 2,500 prisoners. That may be the whizz-bang new policy at the moment, but I believe that the strategy involves a great deal of risk. I think that there will be considerable management diseconomies of scale which would make such huge establishments exceptionally difficult to run. I also think it extremely unlikely that they would be opened on time. Indeed, I think that there would be much opposition to them, and that they might never be built.

My argument, in a nutshell, is that Wellingborough prison is the right size for future development because of its location, because expanding it would be cheap, and because its running costs are very low. The Minister may say that his other plans render it surplus to requirements, but can he be sure of that? I do not think that he can, and I suggest that the prison site should remain on the Ministry of Justice estate for at least another 12 months. If by then the Minister is sure that all his plans are working and there is no need for the site to be retained, then let him go ahead and sell it; but if, as I believe, there are likely to be significant problems, let us look again at the possibility of opening and expanding Wellingborough.

In short, keeping the Wellingborough option open is simply a sensible insurance policy.

9.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on securing the debate. Let me also congratulate him—as others have—on working so vigorously to secure the reopening of Her Majesty’s Prison Wellingborough, and, indeed, on representing his constituents as actively and effectively as he always does.

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1057

I well remember debating the closure of the prison with my hon. Friend some 14 months ago. That was not just my first debate as prisons Minister, but my first day in the job. I put on record at that time, and I do so again today, the Government’s appreciation of the efforts of all who worked at Wellingborough. As I said then, any decision to close a prison is not made lightly, and is never easy. The decision to close this prison was not a reflection on either the work or the performance of the staff. As my hon. Friend pointed out, I said then—and I am happy to repeat—that the way in which he found out about the closure was profoundly unacceptable. He was entitled to an apology. As he knows, I gave him one on that occasion, but I am happy to repeat it.

It is regrettable that the letter to which my hon. Friend referred, dated 3 September, was not received in my Department. We checked again after he spoke to me about it, but there is still no record of its having arrived. I regret that, because I think he knows me well enough to know that had I received it, and had it included—as it did—a request for a meeting, we would have had such a meeting. He also knows that I have taken every opportunity to speak to him and to give him what information I can about progress in relation to Wellingborough prison.

The decision to close the prison followed an evaluation of every establishment on the prison estate, based on age and economic factors such as operating costs, outstanding maintenance issues and their proximity, and an operational assessment of the geographic and strategic function that the prisons performed. That included consideration of whether it would be difficult to replicate such functions elsewhere. According to those criteria, Wellingborough was chosen for closure.

The fact is that parts of the site were in a poor state of repair. Its physical fabric, like that of other facilities that were built in the 1960s, had deteriorated over the years. It was not simply the accommodation that needed to be brought up to standard; many other improvements were required. It was increasingly unsafe, with poor services and infrastructure, poor electrics, and inadequate water pressure which failed to meet the required standards for the fighting of fires. It was in need of a substantial further investment of about £50 million. I know that my hon. Friend does not like round figures, so I shall give him the precise figure: it was £49.7 million, and that was for the full refurbishment that it needed in order to remain viable.

As I said last September, the proximity and size of the financial liability forced the prison management to decide whether to proceed with the outstanding and necessary refurbishments—at a time when there was sufficient prison accommodation on the rest of the estate, and there were many other pressures on the Department’s budget—or to close the prison and use the capital to better effect elsewhere.

On 4 September this year, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary updated the House on our plans to modernise the prison estate so that we always have enough places for those sent to prison by the courts, but at much lower cost and in the right places, and on our plans to deliver on our ambition of reducing stubbornly high reoffending rates, and to do so in a way that gives taxpayers the best possible value for money.

Mr Hollobone: I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, in particular in respect of the figures. What is the Department’s assumption of capital

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1058

cost per new prison place and how does the refurbishment of Wellingborough prison stack up in terms of that criterion?

Jeremy Wright: As I have already said, the cost of £50 million—or £49.7 million if we want to be precise—is the cost of bringing part of Wellingborough prison up to standard, so that is not a directly comparable figure in this regard. My hon. Friend may also know, as he may have heard this figure mentioned in the House earlier today, that we estimate that the cost of a new prison in Wrexham—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough pointed out, will provide some 2,100 places, not 1,000—will be about £250 million. My maths is not good enough for me to do that sum, although perhaps the maths of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is, but there is a clear problem with Wellingborough, which is that substantial capital investment would be required to bring it up to standard. This also has to be seen against the backdrop of what was a strategic consideration as to where those prison places would best be provided, and I will come on to that subject.

Mr Hollobone rose—

Jeremy Wright: I sense that my hon. Friend wants me to give way again, and I am happy to do so.

Mr Hollobone: We have a lot of time this evening, so we can explore this subject in some detail, with Mr Speaker’s permission.

It would seem from the figures my hon. Friend has just given the House that the cost for the refurbishment of Wellingborough prison is in the same ballpark as would be needed in new spend on a new prison, but the advantage of Wellingborough is that it is a prison that works and the community accepts it. One of the big difficulties about new prisons is getting the communities where they are to be built to accept all these prisoners in their midst.

Jeremy Wright: I can tell my hon. Friend that there is very considerable enthusiasm among the local authorities in the Wrexham area to have a new prison, and that is one of the reasons why we considered that to be a sensible site for the building of a new prison. Again, if my hon. Friend will be a little patient I will come on to why we consider that Wellingborough would not be the right site for the development of what would in effect be a substantially new prison.

I was talking about the comments my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary made on 4 September. As I said, the intention is to deliver reduced reoffending rates in a way that delivers the best possible value for money for the taxpayer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, we are replacing accommodation that is old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value. Reshaping the rest of the prison estate will enable us to release offenders closer to home, which we know improves their resettlement and helps prevent reoffending. Linked intrinsically to this, a nationwide through-the-prison-gate resettlement service will be put in place, meaning that most offenders are given continuous support by one provider from custody into the community. We will support this by ensuring that most offenders are held in a prison designated

18 Nov 2013 : Column 1059

to their area for at least three months before release. To achieve that we must have the best fit between custodial capacity and demand.

We will open an additional 1,260 places in four new house blocks at HMPs Parc, Peterborough, the Mount and Thameside. The first of these at HMP the Mount is on track to accept prisoners in September 2014. The construction of the new prison in Wrexham, subject to planning approval, will offer 2,100 places when it is fully operational from late 2017. In addition, we are looking into replacing the existing Feltham young offenders site with a large new adult prison and a discrete new youth facility. It is our aim that we will have more adult male prison capacity in May 2015 than there was at the start of this Parliament. As a result of this new capacity coming on stream, we were able to announce the closure of a further four prisons, removing 1,400 uneconomic places from the prison estate, in addition to those closed earlier this year.

It remains the Government’s intention to ensure that the prison system retains sufficient capacity and resilience to manage all those who are committed to custody by the courts. It is equally clear that the Government have a duty to their citizens to ensure that we make the best use of public funds. As I said in the earlier debate, the prison system is necessarily complex and it must be able to meet a variety of needs. That includes being able to receive new prisoners direct from courts throughout England and Wales, providing health care and education, tackling deep-rooted, dangerous and harmful behaviour and providing specialist interventions for particular groups of prisoners.

Maintaining a wide geographical spread of prisons and a functional balance that meets the changing needs of the prison population is essential. By doing that, we remain able to carry out the punishments set by the courts, to maintain strong security to protect the public and to provide opportunities for different types of offenders in order to reduce the likelihood of their committing further crimes. Accordingly, individual prisons are robustly assessed to determine whether their closure is operationally viable before a recommendation is made. Such a recommendation was made in relation to Wellingborough, and the decision to close it was subsequently taken. That was because Wellingborough prison is located in a region with too many places and it did not perform a function that could not be replicated at other prisons. Furthermore, there were enough other prisons located nearby to allow us to avoid compulsory redundancies by redeploying staff.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough disagrees with much of that. We met today to discuss the matter in more detail, and he argued that I should have considered Wellingborough as a London prison rather than an east midlands one. He has made that point again tonight. He suggested that Wellingborough might provide a better solution to meeting the shortfall of London places than the other options we are considering, which include the redevelopment of Feltham that was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 4 September.