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Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I am dismayed and astonished by the observations of the Liberal Democrats. I am surprised that they cannot support the amendment as drafted by their own spokesman. Like Mr Hughes, I regard this issue as of considerable importance. He agreed with some of the points aired in another place in Committee. It is utterly wrong to suggest that there has been filibustering. We have had relatively short debates on the individual amendments. The Minister complained that we had taken 15 minutes for one amendment. If a filibuster was going
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
This group of amendments concerns the disqualifications for the officers of the Northern Ireland Assembly; namely, the presiding officer, the deputy presiding officer, the chairman and deputy chairman of Assembly committees and so forth. Amendment No. 33A, tabled in the name of certain noble Lords opposite, concerns the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission.
Many of these bodies are appointed by a complex d'Hondt procedure, invented by Professor d'Hondt. That means that the choice of those who come to hold the various offices is not always in the gift of any one individual. In the previous amendment we discussed Ministers of the UK Government, the choice of which is clearly in the gift of the Prime Minister of the day. In that case, he or she can be expected to look after the national interest, which makes it slightly less likely that the eventualities foreseen in those amendments would occur. However, so far as concerns this group of amendments, it is quite likely that eventualities could turn out in the way we are seeking to protect against.
Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, made the point in the earlier amendment by referring ahead to government amendments which cover Northern Ireland Ministers. The basic proposition behind the amendments in my name in this grouping is that the presiding officer or his deputy, and, for that matter, the chairmen of the various Assembly committees--they will be important people working in the Assembly--should be in a similar position to the Northern Ireland Ministers themselves. I beg to move.
Lord Rogan: I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 17, 24, 33A and 45. Amendment No. 17 has a clear purpose; namely, that of placing the presiding officer, the deputy presiding officer, committee chairmen and deputy chairmen within the same restrictions as those which apply to the First and Deputy First Minister and those which apply to Ministers and junior Ministers.
Just as Ministers, whether they be First, Deputy or junior, should not be Ministers in the Government of Ireland, neither should the presiding officer be capable of being a Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland. The presiding officer or any Speaker of any House has an implicit duty to act even-handedly towards all members of that assembly, irrespective of their political outlook.
That duty will be difficult enough with the Speaker being an elected Member of the Assembly, never mind being a member of the government of another country. How, then, could a Minister of the Government of Ireland conceivably be effective as a presiding officer? This aspect of Amendment No. 17 is perfectly logical, and even more so in the case of committee chairmen.
The committee chairmen aspect of Amendment No. 17 is more important than that of the presiding officer. As the Bill stands, it will always remain a possibility that the presiding officer is a member of the Government of Ireland. However, according to the Bill, it is more a probability that, by virtue of d'Hondt, a committee chairman will, at some point in time, be a Member of the Government of Ireland.
With d'Hondt being used as the procedure for appointing committee chairs, parties with a minor level of support are, via d'Hondt, able to appoint a chairman or deputy chairman. Indeed, d'Hondt empowers minority parties to select a chairman. It is not, therefore, beyond the realms of possibility that Sinn Fein could appoint someone who was a member of the Assembly and a member of the Government of Ireland to a committee chair. Even if the vast majority of the Assembly members opposed the appointment, even if it was cross-community, it would have no effect on the appointment.
It must be remembered that, via d'Hondt, the Progressive Unionist Party, with two seats in the Assembly--which is not even 2 per cent of the seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly--was able to nominate the chairman of the Audit Committee. The Alliance Party, with just six seats--just under
I have not addressed the issue of conflict of interests. However, I believe that what I have said already is sufficient for one to conclude that the presiding officer and committee chairmen should be in the same category as Ministers and junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Turning briefly to Amendment No. 24, it will be clear that the amendment has the same raison d'etre as Amendment No. 17 but concerns a slightly different scenario. Amendment No. 17 would apply to a situation where a person is a member of the Government of Ireland and then attempts to hold office in the Executive. Amendment No. 24 applies to the situation where a person is an office holder in Northern Ireland and then becomes a Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland. These two amendments are sides of the same coin.
Similarly, Amendments Nos. 33A and 45, although not sides of the same coin, concern the same point. These two amendments seek to exclude Ministers in the Republic of Ireland who are sitting in the Northern Ireland Assembly from becoming a commissioner in the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. The function of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, inter alia, is to provide the property, staff and services required for the Assembly to function.
However, I shall make two other points on roles that commissioners have undertaken. With respect to the issue of the flying of the flag, a member of the commission, acting as a commissioner, recently announced in the Assembly that the flag will be flown from parliament buildings on the stipulated 17 days until the Assembly can agree otherwise. How could we have a Minister of the Government of Ireland taking such a decision as a commissioner and yet retaining the confidence of the population of Northern Ireland?
A second point on the commission concerns the role of appointing staff. The commission makes appointments to positions such as the examiner of statutory rules for the Assembly. How can a Minister from the Government of Ireland judge such a key appointment within a legal system and legislative process which is alien to them, they having experience of a system based on a written constitution?
It is clear that the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission should not be ignored. It is an important body and the role of a commissioner is important. It is extremely unlikely that the commission could retain the confidence of the population of Northern Ireland if a Minister of the Government of Ireland were to be seen taking decisions such as those of a commissioner.
I hope that the Minister will consider these amendments and reflect on what has been said. We should try to improve draft legislation--even a piece of draft legislation as unnecessary and poorly justified as this.
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