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Lord Hylton: This amendment is on the right lines. It deals with the relationship between the European Union and its regions. Your Lordships will be aware that special arrangements are already working for such regions as Catalonia in Spain and Alto Adige or the South Tyrol on the Austrian/Italian border. I presume that Northern Ireland may already be represented in the Committee of the Regions or, if not, soon will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, was right to mention the vexed question of BSE, where in the early stages Northern Ireland undoubtedly lost out compared with the Republic. Now, thankfully, no doubt due to the efforts of the noble Lord the Minister, the position has been more or less recovered, and about time too. I welcome this amendment.
Lord Renton: It seems to me that my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley, in drawing attention to the difference between the fairly elaborate arrangements in the Scotland Bill for dealing with matters concerning the European Union and the absence of such arrangements in this Bill, confirmed them as being very temporary. It is a stark contrast.
I support subsection (1) of my noble friend's amendment. It is right that there should be such consultation with the Secretary of State about matters in which he will be representing the United Kingdom. However, I am not so sure about subsection (2). That goes at least as far as what is to be found in the Scotland Bill.
Perhaps I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I have some doubt as to whether it is possible for any representative other than the Secretary of State who represents the United Kingdom to speak at or attend the Council of Ministers. I should welcome clarification of that point. Broadly, I warmly support my noble friend's amendment.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I too support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, it is important that the agriculture Minister representing the United Kingdom should be aware of the detailed differences in the Northern Ireland region just as he would be aware of the views of a Minister from the Scottish parliament. There will undoubtedly be a Minister responsible for agriculture in the Assembly. It would be an easy matter in a time of emergency or in the event of something cropping up suddenly for that Minister to join his UK colleague in Brussels in a matter of hours to give first-hand advice. That is important.
Returning to the difference between Northern Ireland on the one hand and Scotland on the other, while it may appear that they have equal claim, the problem for Northern Ireland agriculture since 1920 has been that we are the only part of the United Kingdom with a long frontier with another nation, albeit that other nation is within the European Union. It would therefore be optimistic to believe that the Irish agriculture Minister would line up with his opposite number in Belfast and fight their corner jointly. The Irish Minister, with a large, powerful agricultural constituency behind him in the south of Ireland, may well differ from his Northern Ireland counterpart and from the interests of Northern Ireland.
It is interesting that under the previous government and now under the present Government we made some small headway in recognising Northern Ireland's special case--not based on any political or geographical grounds, but because we are the only part of the entire British Isles with a mechanism for recording animal health. That is unique and, oddly enough, we owe that to the Irish Republic. I can remember that in my schooldays there was a tendency for people to smuggle cattle across the frontier--I believe they still do, though the inducements are perhaps rather less now. In those days, the animal health provisions in the south of Ireland were practically non-existent. I remember whole herds of cattle in my locality being wiped out--this happened to my father--because of infection by imported cattle. At that time TB was a real threat to animals in the south of Ireland. Following that we had brucellosis and then we had the BSE problem as well.
While I would hope that the Irish and Northern Ireland Ministers could in the context of Europe make common cause, I fear that on many occasions on very important matters they would be looking after their own; and who would blame them?
Lord Dubs: I do not think there is very much between what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, wants to achieve and what the Government want to achieve, except that we believe it is unnecessary to put it on the face of the Bill. It is certainly the Government's intention that the Northern Ireland authorities shall be fully involved in domestic discussions about the formulation of the UK's policy position in European Union matters, but it is essential that the United Kingdom can negotiate with a single voice in the Council of Ministers. That goes without saying.
The arrangements proposed in the new clause would require the Secretary of State to consult Northern Ireland Ministers and seek their views before any UK Minister attends a meeting of the Council of Ministers. Statutory requirements of the kind set out in the new clause would in this context prove over cumbersome and inadequate to ensure that the Government are able to respond quickly, sensitively and with one voice to any points raised, possibly at short notice, in meetings of the Council of Ministers. The Government are wholly committed to involving Northern Ireland Ministers fully in the formulation of the United Kingdom's policy position. Our proposal is continuing involvement of Northern Ireland Ministers as negotiations proceed but that arrangements will be covered in a non-statutory concordat. Providing assistance to Ministers of the Crown in international relations is incidental to the various statutory powers and functions of a Northern Ireland ministerial post. That makes specific provision to replicate the Scotland Bill in this area superfluous.
I was asked a number of specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, mentioned the Official Secrets Act. If he cares to turn to paragraph 4 of Schedule 13 he will see that there is a reference to the Official Secrets Act. It states:
I was asked about parity of treatment with Scotland. Yes, that is the intention so far as the different responsibilities of the two administrations permit. But there are some differences, and that accounts for the fact that we have to approach these matters slightly differently. So far as concerns the different responsibilities of the two systems, we intend that Scotland and Northern Ireland shall have equal participation in the affairs of the European Union. Here, as elsewhere, the Scotland Bill and our Bill take a different approach because they are set against different legal backgrounds. But we are committed to equal treatment. We have great sympathy with the spirit of the amendment but it is not necessary to achieve the effect that the noble Lord seeks.
As I said at the outset, there is nothing between us in what we want to happen but I believe it is unnecessary to put this on the face of the Bill. The intention can be achieved without such a cumbersome procedure.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: I am grateful to the Minister for that positive response to the thinking behind my amendment, even if he suggests that it will be best achieved outside the terms of the Bill. I accept that view. As long as we can rely, as I am sure we can, on the statement of the intentions of the Government in this respect, then I suppose it is not necessary to have a clause of this kind in the Bill entirely.
I am also grateful to the Minister, for drawing my attention to Schedule 13, paragraph 4, in respect of the Official Secrets Act, particularly as it seems to be the only part of the Bill where he has not yet put down an amendment to tidy up the definition of Ministers. No doubt he will be able to achieve that during the course of our deliberations.
A number of points have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, referred to the co-operation of the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in negotiations within the European Union, and I accept his correction of the nomenclature. My experience, when I had some responsibility in these matters, was that it was sometimes quite difficult to get the Republic of Ireland on the same side as ourselves in arguments within the Community. In those days there were 12 members: one could summarise them as the Big Four, the Little Four and the Poor Four. The Republic of Ireland was among the Poor Four and we were among the Big Four and that was the way the split usually went. So it is not always easy to achieve co-operation because interests are different. The Republic of Ireland has after all achieved very considerable financial transfers to its own economy in different ways over the years by pursuing this policy. I do not say that is unjustified, but it is more difficult to justify it in the context of Northern Ireland than it is for the United Kingdom as a whole--
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. My point was not that it is easy but that the Belfast agreement explicitly envisages in Strand Two and Strand Three that one of the objectives is more co-operation apropos the affairs of Northern Ireland between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. I do not think we should let them off the hook; they should be encouraged.
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