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Lord Molyneaux of Killead: When we finished our deliberations on Monday evening at around 11.30, I went home feeling somewhat depressed. It seemed to me that we were setting the standard for the remainder of the Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading, with the Minister, through no wish of his own, finding himself in the position of having to block every amendment tabled by the Official Opposition or other parties represented in your Lordships' House. That is not intended as a slight on the Minister. We have to remember that he is dealing with these matters at long range and he is burdened with the responsibility of speaking for four of his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office in addition to his own onerous duty. I am greatly encouraged by the willingness of the Minister not only to say that he will look at the amendments put forward by, in this instance, the Official Opposition, but to do his best to take them on board and implement them.
When I had the responsibility of leading a minority party at the other end of the building I always took the view that it was necessary for minority parties to align themselves as far as possible with the government of the day and Her Majesty's Official Opposition of the day, otherwise we would have a collection of isolated voices crying in the wilderness, and we would get nowhere.
I pay tribute to the Minister and to his opposite number, the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, who leads for Her Majesty's Official Opposition. While I would not want to raise expectations too high, I think we can rely upon the Minister to ensure that reasonable amendments put forward in a reasonable way will be given a fair hearing by Her Majesty's Government. In that way we may secure something like all-party agreement on the broad principles of the Bill on which your Lordships are now deliberating for a third day.
Lord Skelmersdale: I too welcome the opening statement by the Minister, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has just said, is evidence of an open-mindedness, certainly towards this part of the Bill. I, too, was going to make the same points as the noble
Any of us who have had any connection with Northern Ireland, whether as outsiders or those who live and work there, know that words matter tremendously in the context of Northern Ireland. One of the reasons for the failure of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the hate that it generated was the words used. I lend my very positive support to my noble friend Lord Cope in his Amendment No. 112B. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that we will be doing everybody a great disservice if we leave the word "authority" in the Bill. "Body" is a far, far better term. There may be others, but I am not a wordsmith.
As to Amendment No. 180 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, I also lend my support to that amendment. It is absolutely vital. The cross-border relationship has become a touchy subject over recent years, notwithstanding the signing of the Belfast Agreement by virtually everyone in the Province. It will continue to be a touchy subject. One way of avoiding such touchiness must be to get as much cross-party agreement about external relations as can possibly be achieved. I am sure that the Government will take that on board.
Lord Dubs: I am grateful for the supportive comments which have been made by various Members of the Committee. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, went home depressed on Monday night. I cannot guarantee that he will be utterly cheerful this evening, but certainly the Government are open-minded about many of the issues which your Lordships may wish to put forward. We shall reflect on all amendments, and where we can meet a point we shall do so, as I indicated a few moments ago.
Let me deal with some of the specific questions that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, made a point about the way in which parliamentary counsel attach sub-headings or headings to part of the Bill. This is not within the direct responsibility of the Government, but certainly I would like to reflect on the points made by the noble Lord to see what can be done by using our influence.
I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Holme, and other noble Lords for their helpful comments about whether Ministers, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, would have the power to authorise other Ministers to participate on their behalf. I should like to consider that point further in the light of the comments made this afternoon.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about the frequency of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council. Strand 2 of the agreement makes it clear that the North-South Ministerial Council should meet in plenary form twice a year, but it should also meet in sectoral formats on a regular and frequent basis as is appropriate. So, the exact frequency of such meetings, as the noble Lord anticipated, will be for the Northern Ireland administration and the Irish Government to agree, rather than having anything set down in the legislation.
The noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Holme, and other noble Lords asked about the basis for approval by the assembly of agreements made in the North-South Ministerial Council. I agree that Ministers must be accountable. Indeed, subsection (5) of Amendment No. 111 provides for a report to the assembly on each council meeting. I also agree that Ministers must act in accordance with decisions of the executive committee and assembly. That is set out in subsection (3) of Amendment No. 111. I also agree that where any agreement in the council requires legislative or financial approval from the assembly, such an agreement cannot come into effect without such specific approval. The Minister would have to go back to the assembly and secure the necessary legislative and financial authority. But beyond that there are all kinds of points on which agreement might be entered into by a Minister. One would not want unduly to trammel the freedom of action of the Minister, particularly if he is acting in accordance with stated policies. So where legislative or financial approval is not required, the agreement intends that the Minister should be able to act within his or her own defined authority. Of course, even in such instances the Minister will still be obliged to report to the assembly, and doubtless when members of the assembly make their views clear the Minister will take account of them.
What I am saying in brief is that there may be occasions when the Minister will be obliged to go to the assembly for authority but there will be other occasions when, by acting within existing policy and acting entirely within his authority and where legislative or financial approval is not necessary, it would be unduly restrictive to demand that the Minister goes back to the assembly for approval on each of those matters.
Lord Dubs: I would give the analogy of the way in which Ministers in this House and another place act in relation to being accountable. After all, Ministers have to make a large number of decisions. If Ministers reported to the House on each one of those and sought the House's approval, our proceedings might well come to a standstill. I shall give an example from the annex to the agreement, which indicates 12 headings for North-South co-operation and implementation. The first refers to agriculture and animal and plant health. As I am the agriculture Minister for Northern Ireland, I am aware of the authority I have to deal with a number of matters under animal and plant health. I do not need financial or legislative authority for those. Therefore, my successor--the agriculture Minister in the assembly--would have similar scope. He would be able to take action, as he would for matters that are exclusively matters for Northern Ireland which do not come into the North-South arrangements. We are simply indicating what would be normal ministerial practice in this House and in another place. There is nothing untoward about that. In the end, I suppose that one has to be specific in relation to particular examples, but I think the position is clear. Ministers are accountable but, subject to the way I have described it, they do not have to go back with every single decision that they make.
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