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Viscount Cranborne: I support the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. It is clear that this group of amendments concern not only preserving the neutrality of the presiding officer of the Assembly and other office holders, but making sure that it is seen to be preserved. We are yet again in the vexed area of conflict of interest that has dogged this Bill from the beginning.

It is surely in the nature of a Minister to be partisan. It is his or her business to support the actions of the government of whom he or she is a member. Is it not, therefore, self-evident, merely taking Amendment No. 15, that it would be wholly incompatible for an Irish Minister, or indeed a British Minister, to become presiding officer of the Assembly and for the Minister concerned to be able to pretend that he or she could swap hats depending on which chair he or she was sitting in at the time?

We know, if only from the identity of the present presiding officer of the Assembly and his party, that perceived neutrality is particularly important. I suspect that he was selected as the nearest thing to the middle of the spectrum in Northern Ireland that could be found. It seems to me that, however unlikely this eventuality might be, it would be deeply reassuring, at least, if even the unlikely eventuality of an Irish Minister occupying any of the offices listed in these amendments were legislated against and enshrined as an impossibility.

Lord Laird: I join other noble Lords in supporting the amendments, particularly Amendment No. 33A, which refers to the Assembly Commission. It is not fully understood that the commission is a most important body within the Assembly, having overall control under Section 40 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for,

It is not widely appreciated, but the commission looks after the personnel and recruitment of staff for the Assembly, the Clerk of Bills, the Clerk of Committees, the Editor of Debates, the Keeper of the House and the research and library services, as well as having responsibility for the key issue of flags and whether or not they are flown over parliament buildings at Stormont. It is simply not possible that a Minister in the Irish Republic could be a member of the commission of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would bring discredit to the whole system and would make a laughing-stock of the Belfast agreement.

Recruitment of staff is possibly one of the key points. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, pointed to the Assembly Examiner of Statutory Rules. Candidates for the post are required to have experience of, and specialisation in, the preparation and interpretation of legislation. The Irish Republic has a written constitution; the preparation and interpretation of legislation in the Republic is completely different from that in the United Kingdom, where there is no such written constitution. It is, therefore, wholly inappropriate that an Irish Minister should be a

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member of the Assembly Commission, which is responsible for appointments to such sensitive posts as Examiner of Statutory Bills. I support the amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: These amendments seek to include the post of presiding officer, deputy presiding officer and members of the Assembly Commission among posts that may not be held by an Irish Minister, or, as proposed in other amendments, even a Member of the Irish legislature. Amendment No. 16 and the second part of Amendment No. 17 propose that someone cannot be a Member of the Irish Government and also a chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory or an ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As to the second group of amendments dealing with chairmen and deputy chairmen of statutory committees, the Government are broadly of the same mind as those proposing the amendments. There are later amendments on the Marshalled List that would have that effect.

The area where there is a difference of view between us relates to ad hoc committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as opposed to statutory committees. The Government's view is that there should not be a prohibition in relation to ad hoc committees because, unlike statutory committees, they have no role to play in the development of policy and no power to initiate legislation. Therefore, the appropriate level to include in the provision is chairman and deputy chairman of statutory committees.

As far as concerns the position of presiding officer and deputy presiding officer, they have no role either in policy development or in relation to the initiation of policy. So, again, we do not believe that any conflict of interest would arise in that respect. As to the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, I can tell the Committee that the commission is a body corporate and no commissioner has individual powers. Assembly commissioners are appointed in accordance with Assembly standing orders and the Assembly has power to determine this and to direct the commission. However, a powerful case was made in relation to Assembly commissioners. Therefore, although we stand by our position in relation to presiding officer and deputy presiding officer, perhaps I may take away the points made about the Assembly commissioners and consider them. In the light of my response, I respectfully ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

10 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: One must, of course, be grateful for small mercies. Since we tabled these amendments, I am grateful for the fact that the Government have tabled their own amendments, which, as the noble and learned Lord said, partially take the point. However, as he also made clear, they do not wholly take the point, especially as regards the presiding officer, the deputy presiding officer and the commission. I am sorry about that. But, nevertheless, we should be grateful for small mercies. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 18:

    Clause 2, page 1, line 16, leave out ("a Minister of the Government of Ireland") and insert ("the holder of a disqualifying office").

The noble Lord said: Noble Lords have been waiting for these amendments all evening; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to them a long while ago. These amendments come with another group of amendments that have been tabled in order to debate the whole issue. Government Amendments Nos. 18, 25, 30, 40 and 43 recognise that parliamentary and statutory committees of the Assembly all have the power to initiate legislation and, hence, have a role in policy development--a critical distinction. As currently drafted, the Bill prevents Irish Ministers from holding ministerial office in Northern Ireland because of the potential conflict of interest that that would involve.

The same potential for a conflict of interest would exist if an Irish Minister were to be appointed as the chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee of the Assembly, or the chairman or deputy chairman of the Irish Parliament were to be appointed as a Northern Ireland Minister or as the chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee of the Assembly. It is, therefore, appropriate to extend the Bill, as provided in these amendments. I commend them to the Committee.

Amendments Nos. 23 and 29 are, I believe, covered by the government amendments already tabled, with the exception that we do not believe it necessary to include ad hoc committees, which, as I believe my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer observed earlier, have no statutory role in the development of policy. Hence they have no power to initiate legislation. Again, therefore, the conflict of interest that we are seeking to prevent will not arise when a person holds office as an Irish Minister, or as chairman or deputy chairman of an Irish parliamentary committee; and, indeed, as chairman of an ad hoc committee.

Amendments Nos. 19 and 25A ask the Committee to extend the scope of Clause 2 to include a reference to a "Junior Minister" of the Government of Ireland, in addition to the existing reference to a,

    "Minister of the Government of Ireland".

Again, we believe this to be unnecessary, as the term "Junior Minister" is not used by the Irish Government. We consider that it is superfluous for that reason. As such, the reference to,

    "Minister of the Government of Ireland",

adequately covers Irish junior Ministers. Clause 2 refers explicitly to junior Ministers in Northern Ireland because the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for different methods of appointment for Northern Ireland Ministers and we consequently

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believe it necessary and right to refer to Northern Ireland junior Ministers explicitly to ensure that they are covered by the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 20, 22, 26, 28 and, I believe, 44 seek to extend the scope of Clause 2 to disqualify any Member of the Irish legislature from holding Northern Ireland ministerial office or serving as chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee of the Assembly. Amendment No. 44 is a consequential amendment to the Title.

These amendments go much further than we believe is necessary or required to prevent the conflict of interest that is of concern and, as such, are contrary to the purpose of the Bill which is, as we have explained on many occasions, to place Irish citizens in the same position as Commonwealth citizens in recognition of the close relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland which has been strengthened--as all in this Chamber have observed--since the coming into effect of the Belfast agreement and the resultant changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. I beg to move.

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