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Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement that the Secretary of State made in another place. I also thank the Secretary of State and his staff for giving us early sight of it.
We welcome the progress made in the negotiations at St Andrews and the positive approach adopted by each of the parties. I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties on what is clearly a major step forward. But let us be absolutely clear that, for this to happen, Sinn Fein must deliver on policing. Power sharing in Northern Ireland will not work unless all Ministers in the Executive fully support the police, the courts and the rule of law.
In this context, I welcome the reports over the weekend that the Government are planning to amend the ministerial code of conduct to make this a requirement of taking office. Your Lordships may rememberand I gently remind the noble Lordthat the Opposition sought to do this earlier this year through amendments to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, but we were told that it was unnecessary. I am comforted that the Government have changed their mind and ask the Minister if he could be more specific aboutthe changes that he would like to see.
One piece of the jigsaw missing from the timetable set out in the St Andrews document is the date for the special Sinn Fein ard fheis, which is required to change that partys position on policing. Can the Minister give the House any indication when that is likely to take place? Does he agree that it is crucial to the process that there is clear movement on this issue before the parties give their responses to theSt Andrews document by 10 November? Will he further agree that support for policing means more than simply joining the Policing Board? It has to include encouraging people in republican communities to report crimes to the police and to co-operate fully with police investigations, as well as urging people from those communities to join the police force in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister confirm, too, that there will be no toleration whatever of individuals or parties seeking to use the community-based restorative justice schemes as a form of private justice or as an alternative to the legitimate authority of the PSNI?
The Secretary of State spoke about possible electoral endorsement of the St Andrews proposals. Will he make it clear that, whatever route the Republic of Ireland intends to follow in that respect, it would be constitutionally quite wrong for citizens of that country to vote on any matters that relate to the internal governance of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that the referendum in the Republic must be confined to any changes in its constitution or system of government?
The Opposition support the institutional changes set out in the St Andrews document, particularly those relating to ministerial accountability and collective responsibility. Subject to seeing the actual texts of the new legislation, we hope to be able to offer the Government our support. We also welcome the Governments change of policy on capping and additional relief for pensioners when the new rates system is introduced and the retention of academic selection. Will the Secretary of State bring forward a new Order in Council to repeal the complete ban on all academic selection that the Government imposed earlier this year?
I wish the Government well in the course that they have set. The ultimate prize on offer is greata peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland with a shared future for people from all traditions, based on democracy and the rule of law rather than on terrorism and the gun. That is an objective that should unite.
It is only fair to say that much praise should be given to the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the Secretary of State for their unremitting endeavours to see restoration of the devolved institutions and, with it, an enduring peace. Whatever else Mr Blairs legacy will be composed of, it will be only fair that he is acknowledged for the role that he has played since 1997 and his assiduous, painstaking and persistent attempts to bring about peace, which now may well materialise.
Some good progress was made in St Andrews last weekend. The paper published by the Government shows that there is now a real potential for achieving devolved government in Northern Ireland within the space of a few months. I am also pleased to see from Annexe B of the agreement that progress is to be made on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and on a single equality Bill.
I hope the Minister will be able to give some clarification on some further points. First, the published agreement seems to remove a step in the process of formulating an Executive: a cross-community vote to confirm the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers. We all know that this election has caused problems in the past, but nevertheless it is a fundamental principle of the Good Friday agreement. Paragraph 5 of strand 1 of the agreement states:
Key decisions requiring cross-community support will be designated in advance, including election of the Chair of the Assembly, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, standing orders and budget allocations.
Such a vote demonstrates that there will be joined-up government in Northern Ireland and that the First and Deputy First Ministers enjoy the confidence of the Assembly. Why will such an important vote be omitted in the future?
Secondly, will the Minister give the House an indication of how the structures for a department of justice will be agreed? Will that be a matter for the Executive, or for the Assembly as a whole? Finally, to reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked, what will happen to those orders currently in abeyance until 24 November, including the education order that deals with selection and the 11-plus? Logically, and to keep faith, these should not be implemented until Stormont is fully reassembled. It would be cynical if that were not the case.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am most grateful, as indeed everyone will be, for the warm welcome the Statement has received from the noble Lords, Lord
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The Secretary of State made it clear in the other place that the normal policing rules about recruitment will apply, including police and community support officers. The Statement I have just repeated makes it crystal clear that support for policing goes well beyond joining the policing board. I referred to paragraph 6 of the agreement, which is somewhat detailed; it has at least three or four bullet points.
The date for Sinn Fein to make its own decisions is a matter for it. It is an independent political party, and it knows what needs to be done. In some ways there is a new deadline; 24 November is in statute, and we are not planning to change that, but we have said that we need the endorsement and agreement of all the parties by 10 November to give us time to pass an emergency Bill before the 24th. Anyone can work out, looking at what has to happen, that time is incredibly short. If agreement is not secured by then, the normal process legislated for by Parliament will take place: dissolution will occur at, I think, midnight on the 24th. That is the top and bottom of it.
Regarding the Republic, I have nothing. I was not able to listen to all the comments in the other place, but, frankly, the elections and referendums referred to in our Statements relate to Northern Ireland. This is an issue for Northern Ireland. Obviously the Republic has its own views, but no one has discussed that. The point is that we need the parties to come back to us and talk about the best way of taking the peoples voice. Clearly there is a view to take the peoples voice, and there are only really two ways to do that: an election to a new Assembly, and everyone can see that there are pluses and minuses to that, or a referendum to get the agreement done. We need some discussion about that, and we do not want to foreclose any of the options.
On the code of conduct, I take the point made by the noble Lord about the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The code was not necessary in that Bill, but it is necessary now to look at it. We were always committed that if the parties came forward with an agreement about changes, it would be a matter for further discussion, and the preparation for Committee is the ideal place to do that. If there is common agreement on that, we said we would do the legislation required.
On academic selection, the 11-plus will still be around for a bit. I think it goes in 2008; it is not as though we legislated to abolish it this year or next. If there is agreement by 10 November and the Assembly is restored by 26 Marchthat is, the powers are devolveda decision to ban academic selection will be taken by the Assembly in a cross-community vote. If there is no agreement and no Assembly, the academic selection will remain banned, but it is up to the people of Northern Ireland. Our view is that we hope the 11-plus in its present form will go, but it is then up to the Assembly and local people to determine how best to have a transfer to secondary education. It is a matter for the parties.
As for other legislation, we referred to the capping on rates, and we will do that if the process takes a form. However, the other processes that are in beingindeed, this House will have a Grand Committee on four orders next week, I thinkwill proceed as normal, as we have always said. The Assembly can take that up at the relevant time.
It has consistently been made clear that there is absolutely no question of restorative justice being used as an alternative justice system. Once criminal justice and policing are devolved, the structure is a matter for discussion. I have nothing in my brief on that. I do not think any decisions have been taken, and there will have to be discussions. It is a matter for the parties to discuss and agree in the months ahead.
The St Andrews agreement is the first time we have given the date of May 2008, the date that is in the Secretary of States Statement. Parliament has a triple lock, if I remember rightly: a joint resolution by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, so there has to be agreement there; the Assembly; and Parliament has to agree as well. This cannot be done behind closed doors, nor just by one party. When we legislated in this House for the devolution of policing I remember saying there would have to be an assessment of how well the Assembly had been fulfilling its role and tasks. The view has been taken in the negotiations that if the Assembly is back by next March, we ought to be able to reach a decision by May 2008. That will be for the parties to discuss. If it is their view that it should have the same ministerial oversight as other departments, it will be for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to set up the arrangements under, I believe, Section 17 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If it is their view that it should have an alternative structure, it is a matter for the Assembly to legislate using the powers in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act that we passed earlier this year.
I appreciate the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, on the Prime Ministers activities. I am new to this, as people know, but by common consent he has devoted more hours and a greater proportion of his time as Prime Minister to this issue than any other. That is not to criticise any former Prime Minister. This has been a nightmare to deal with, and very difficult. As the Statement said, the Prime Minister has been involved in the detailed discussions at every stage of the process. The people around the table have understood that.
Lord Laird: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in another place and for the assurances, which I think we will all be glad to hear, about the undertakings for support for the police and the institutions of the state. We look to the Government to ensure that there is no watering down in that respect.
In view of the Secretary of States pledge given earlier this afternoon to the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party to consult further on the issue of water charges, would it not be prudent then to hold
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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I did not hear that exchange but, broadly speaking, I know what answer was given. There is not much I can say about the water charges as the consumer council is mounting a legal challenge to their introduction. The matter will go before the courts. Everyone understands the situation. Water charges were not included in this years budget and have not been for two years. I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Laird, to the fact that the Chancellor will discuss with the parties the financial structure and the consequences of theSt Andrews agreement for Northern Ireland. That will cover the matters that he has mentioned.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton in congratulating the Government and the Taoiseach on the work that they did at St Andrews. It was a marvellous piece of work and all parties to the agreement had a great input. The conclusion has to be one of hope although I do not at all underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead for all parties regarding a shared future for Northern Ireland. I am particularly interested in policing. I was pleased to see that May 2008 is now proposed for the devolution of policing and justice. That is something that everyone can work towards. A tremendous effort has been made by the PSNI and the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, to engage Sinn Fein in dialogue to make it a full member of the policing board. I hope that the Minister will ensure that members of Sinn Fein understand the remit of the policing board, which is clearly set out in Annexe E. As now, it will have the power to require the Chief Constable to report on any issue pertaining to his functions or to those of the police service. All aspects of policing will continue to be subject to the same scrutiny as now. The security service will participate in briefings to closed sessions of the policing board to provide appropriate intelligence background about national security related policing operations
If Sinn Fein joins the policing board, it will become part of that group which will hear all the concerns about policing and those of the security services as well. That has to be a great prize for the peace and security of Northern Ireland.
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