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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Before the noble Minister sits down, could he say whether there has been consultation with all the Northern Ireland parties on this particular matter of the discretion of proposal being solely in the hands of the First Minister and his Deputy?

Lord Dubs: I understand that there has been such consultation. I am not saying that every one of the parties agreed that that was the best way of doing it, in their eyes, but there has been such consultation.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 16 [The Executive Committee]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 48:

Page 9, line 20, leave out ("the") and insert ("each").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 48.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: I think it has been suggested that we should also discuss with this amendment

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Amendments Nos. 49, 68, 76 and 78. That being so, I should like to make just a few remarks on Amendment No. 49. This is the one which proposes that Ministers of the Crown should not serve on the Executive Committee. It is a read-across from the other devolution Bills, and I must confess at once that it is unlikely that this provision will be required. Ministers of the Crown are, in the nature of things, unlikely to find themselves in a position to serve on the Executive Committee, at least as things stand now. However, we are designing this Bill and making these provisions in an attempt to make them last for many years. I think it is sensible therefore for us to look at all the possibilities that might arise and to read this across, as it were, from the other devolution Bills.

The other amendment which occurs in this group standing in my name which I want to mention is Amendment No. 70. This suggests that it should be a rule that the chairman of the relevant committee should not be of the same party as the Minister responsible for that department. This seems to me to be a sensible way to try to achieve a cross-party outlook on behalf of the Assembly. Clearly, the various committees will play a big part, just as they do in all parliaments, in monitoring the activities of the individual Ministers and the departments they are in charge of.

This Assembly will be in one sense extremely rare, if not unique, among assemblies in that it will have no opposition. Everybody in a sense will be in government--that is part of the point of it. But it means that it is in a very odd situation: every party will be in government all the time, although perhaps in different proportions as elections go one way or the other; but every party will be part of the government for ever and ever all the time. That is very rare.

I think that parliaments function well if there is an opposition and if there is somebody to question what is being proposed--in a constructive way of course, as I and my colleagues always try to do. It is difficult to see ways in which, in an assembly which is set up as this one is, one can provide for this role of opposition. One way in which it might be done is suggested by Amendment No. 70 and so I commend that to the Committee. I should very much like to know the Minister's view of that proposition.

10 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I am very taken by Amendment No. 70 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cope. It sounds sensible and practical. I shall be interested to see what reaction the Minister has to it.

I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 72 and 75 which stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Lester. We have a potential discrepancy between the standing orders of the Assembly itself and what the Government are proposing in the Bill. That is what these amendments are intended to deal with. Paragraph 5 of the agreement asserts that allocations of committee chairs, Ministers and committee memberships shall be in proportion to party strengths. Are all the fruits of office, all those prizes in the sense that Lewis Carroll said, "All shall have prizes"--that the new Assembly

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will be one in which as many people as possible should have prizes is probably rather a good thing at this point--to be taken as a whole or is there to be proportionality within each of those three categories--within committee chairs, within ministries and within committee memberships? Using d'Hondt, you could come to quite different outcomes according to how you did it. If you used proportionality within ministries and within committeeships, you would tend to weight the final disposition to the larger parties. You could even quite easily have an outcome in which there would be no role, whether committee chairmanships or ministries, for the Alliance, for the Women's Coalition or for the PUP, which would tend to make the appointments exclusive.

As the Minister will know, the standing orders of the Assembly have taken the other interpretation--the one represented by this amendment--that the ministries are to be first allocated according to d'Hondt, because they are the most sought after, but that the other positions, when they are allocated subsequently, should be so operated that the d'Hondt rules should be applied, including the first tranche of ministerial appointments. Minor parties would get some appointments although the major parties would clearly get the lion's share. I think that the amendment is far more in tune with the standing orders adopted by the Assembly and is also more politically adept in that it gives a role for others than the major parties to play.

Lord Dubs: This grouping contains a series of government amendments which parallel amendments already made to the clause on appointing Ministers. These include adjustments to the d'Hondt formula, the definition of "S" in the d'Hondt formula, and other technical provisions.

Perhaps the most significant amendment is Amendment No. 69, which sets out on the face of the Bill the requirement for standing orders to ensure that committees have the powers set out in paragraph 9 of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement.

The Bill always gave committees of the Assembly a key role but this amendment addresses the concerns expressed by some parties during the consultation exercise that the Bill did not go as far as provided for in the Belfast agreement. I believe that the amendment puts the matter beyond doubt.

There is also one, entirely drafting, amendment to the provisions on the executive committee of the Assembly. The grouping also includes a number of other amendments tabled by noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has put forward an amendment which would prevent Ministers of the Crown also serving on the executive committee of the Assembly. The issue may seem academic in the Northern Ireland context, although one can never entirely rule these things out. The noble Lord's amendment echoes similar ones laid during debate in another place and extensive discussions during the course of the Government of Wales Act and the Scotland Bill. I can only repeat the points made by my

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colleagues in those debates and say that the Government see no difficulty in principle with people holding offices in both Westminster and the devolved administrations, and urge the Committee not to support the amendment.

The noble Lord also seeks to prevent committee chairmen coming from the same party as the relevant Minister. We are clear that subsection (6)(b) already achieves this. Nominating officers are obliged to select any other committee post except one in which they have a party interest, if at all possible. But there may be circumstances in which they have no choice; for example, if all other posts are already taken. I believe it would be wrong to deprive them of their right to a post in those circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, has put down two amendments which seek to adjust the d'Hondt formula for the purpose of allocating committee chairmanships and deputy chairmanships. The effect of these amendments would be to skew committee chairmanships heavily towards smaller parties. Instead of a party's number of assembly seats being related to its number of committee chairmanships alone, the amendment would require the number to be divided by the sum of the number of chairmanships and ministerial posts that the party already has. The effect would be to make it much more difficult for a party with posts already to gain more.

The formula we have at present is broadly mutual and proportionate. The Bill already provides for a considerable degree of proportionality and inclusiveness in the devolved structures. I can see no case for seeking to create an uneven playing field purely to benefit smaller parties over larger ones.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: The Minister did not expand on Amendment No. 74 which is in this group. It provides for the d'Hondt formula to run on the day on which the Assembly first meets following its election, with the party balance as it is at that time.

As the Minister said, earlier we agreed an equivalent provision with respect to the ministerial posts. But in the case of chairmanships we should just ponder for a few moments on whether that is the right way to go about it because the party allegiances of individual members of the Assembly can change. Indeed, there is some suggestion that some already have changed, even at this early stage.

If that happens, it seems to me that the chairmanships at least should be rethought at that point. Perhaps there should be a minimum below which it is not necessary. But merely to limit it, as Amendment No. 74 does, to the beginning of the Assembly immediately after an election and the particular split between the parties at that point seems to me to be rather inflexible if the political situation should change between one election and the next over a period of years. I appreciate that there may be difficulties in providing how it works but there is a genuine point underlying the matter. I am not happy about Amendment No. 74 in that context.

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