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Commonwealth Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

3.2 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October be approved.

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, as your Lordships will have seen, there are three orders relating to Northern Ireland. It may be convenient if I deal with the first distinctly and with the second and third together.

The Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 contains a series of measures designed to give employees rights in terms of their employment. It includes the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave, either when the child is born or around the time when a child is placed for adoption; a new right to 26 weeks' paid and 26 weeks' unpaid adoption leave; amendments to existing rights during (and after) maternity leave; and a duty on employers to give serious consideration to requests from parents of young children to work flexible hours.

Extensive public consultation has taken place and there has been widespread public support. In another form, this measure was about to enter the penultimate stage of its passage through the Assembly. Before suspension the Northern Ireland Assembly voted on 7th October to approve all of its provisions. This order simply gives rights to those who are employed in Northern Ireland, and they are the same as those available in England and Wales.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing forward this order. It is sad that it has to be brought to this House and that it has not been dealt with in the way intended previously. I support the order.

Lord Laird: My Lords, on behalf of my Ulster Unionist colleagues, I am happy to give a broad welcome to the order before us today. As a Unionist, my reaction tends to be supportive when legislation from Great Britain is extended to Northern Ireland. However, my inclination is generally even more positive when the legislation appears to be beneficial to people in the Province.

As noble Lords may be aware, the Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 is almost identical to the Employment Bill which was being debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly prior to its unfortunate suspension. That Bill was considered by the Assembly Employment and Learning Committee that subsequently published a report on its findings. The committee's views were generally welcoming, particularly in light of the Bill's provisions on the extension of maternity leave, new rights on adoption and paternity leave and pay, and an obligation on employers to consider seriously requests from parents of young children to work flexible hours.

However, there were also some reservations about the Bill and, having been in touch with Dr Esmond Birnie, the Ulster Unionist chairman of the committee, I know that many of those reservations continue to exist now that the legislation is in the form of an order: for example, there is a concern with regard to the

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widening of eligibility under the terms of the order, which is a worry that I share. There seems to me to be little point in bringing forward positive legislation such as that before your Lordships this afternoon unless we can ensure that as many people as possible are enabled to benefit from it.

One suggestion put forward by some committee members in an effort to improve the situation was that the word "worker" should replace the word "employee" in the legislation. It was argued that this amendment could well have made an additional 5 per cent more people become eligible for the benefits. However, I see that that advice has been ignored in the order and I would be grateful if the noble and learned Lord could tell me the reasoning for that.

The committee also expressed concerns about the extension of the right to request flexible working to those with other caring responsibilities, such as elderly parents, as well as the removal of the age barrier of six years, above which working parents of children would not be permitted to request flexible working hours from their employers. Similarly, committee members also came to the view that the right to request flexible working by parents of disabled children should not be limited by the age restriction of 18.

On a final point, the Employment Bill was expected to come into operation in February 2003. However, there were concerns raised that a "gap period" potentially existed whereby mothers who are expected to give birth from the week beginning 6 April 2003 could actually give birth as soon as late-November 2002. In cases such as those, when a birth expected after 6 April 2003 occurs prior to the regulations coming into operation, the parents would be excluded from the statutory entitlements included in the legislation.

Having read the order before us today, I see that its provisions will come into operation on such day or days as the Government may by order appoint. Is the Minister yet in a position to indicate when that might be?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not in a position to deal with that last point. As soon as I am I shall write, as I hope I always do, to the noble Lord, placing a copy in the Library.

On his point about premature birth, that would obtain in most circumstances of employee protection. On the phraseology in the order, my understanding is that it mirrors the legislation that obtains in the rest of the United Kingdom and it certainly continues the phraseology that has been used, as far as I am aware, in the pre-existing legislation.

I am able to give the noble Lord more up-to-date information. We intend to make the necessary regulations as soon as possible after the Employment (Northern Ireland) Order receives Royal Assent. I believe that is a more satisfactory answer than the one I was able to give a moment ago.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002

3.9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 15th October be approved [38th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: I beg to move the second order standing in my name on the Order Paper. As I indicated a moment or two ago, there are two orders, which, for the convenience of the House, should be taken together.

The first order is the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order. Your Lordships will be aware that when I repeated Dr Reid's Statement we had a certain amount of discussion about the events that led to the suspension, and indeed the decision to suspend, the Assembly in Northern Ireland.

It was of course a matter of regret to all of us because the devolved institutions were making a significant difference to life in Northern Ireland. As I indicated, I think on 15th October, we concluded ultimately that suspension was the least bad alternative.

One of the significant problems, which your Lordships identified on the last occasion when we discussed this question, is a lack of trust on all sides of the community. There were concerns as to whether there was a proper commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods.

I want to reiterate that this is not a suspension of the agreement, simply a suspension of the Assembly. We felt obliged to suspend the devolved institutions, the Assembly and the Executive. We shall continue, as a government, to do our very best to implement the rest of the agreement. Plainly, we have to ensure that good government is available to those of our fellow citizens who live in Northern Ireland. Your Lordships know that two further members have been attached for the time being to the Northern Ireland Office ministerial team—my honourable friends Angela Smith and Ian Pearson. The Minister of State and the present Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State have taken on new responsibilities. There is a good deal of work to be done. The new Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Mr Murphy, is meeting the Irish Government today.

The order almost speaks for itself. It is dictated by the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2000. This means that the Assembly has lost its law-making powers, as we saw a moment or two ago; neither it nor its committees may meet; and Ministers in the devolved administration cease to hold office, although on restoration of devolved government they may resume them. Executive powers generally will be exercised by the Northern Ireland departments, subject to the direction and control of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. There is a power to legislate by Order in Council, as your Lordships noticed a few moments ago.

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These arrangements will be familiar to those of your Lordships who know Northern Ireland well. They do not significantly differ from the powers of direct rule that, regrettably, existed from 1974 to 1999.

There was a substantial legislative programme before the Assembly. Some of the legislation it was considering was quite urgent. We shall bring forward some Orders in Council reflecting such Assembly Bills.

During the earlier period of direct rule, it was frequently the practice to supplement the scrutiny given to draft Orders in Council by making them available, in advance of their being laid here, for public consultation. We propose, in so far as we possibly can, to continue that practice, which I hope your Lordships will agree is a sound and proper one. We shall aim to look to 12 weeks' consultation, which I hope your Lordships will agree is a reasonable period. There will need, as before, to be exceptions, such as technical financial orders and social security parity measures. There may be occasions of urgency, where such consultation will not be practical.

I know that your Lordships are anxiously concerned about these matters. I have trespassed a little on your Lordships' time to explain the background.

The next item is the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002. This is much more technical. It provides that during suspension of the devolved Assembly expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in exercising the functions of the Assembly Commission and in relation to members' remuneration and pensions is to be defrayed from the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland rather than from moneys provided by Parliament.

Under devolution, the Assembly Commission is funded from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. In a period of suspension the Northern Ireland Act 2000 provides that it should be funded by moneys provided by Parliament. That has the legal consequence of requiring such funds to come from the United Kingdom Consolidated Fund. During the period of suspension in 2000, it was found that the accounting arrangements which had to be put in place between the NIO and the Assembly to abide by that requirement were, first, administratively cumbersome and, secondly, wasteful of resource. Therefore, for this period of suspension, to simplify matters and to introduce this purely technical adjustment, your Lordship's assent is asked for.

I stress that no one loses from this. It simply means that Northern Ireland public expenditure remains exactly as it was. I hope that those explanations are helpful. I commend these orders to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 15th October be approved [38th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.15 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for setting out the terms of these orders before us today, in

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particular the second one, with which I have no argument. Indeed, I have little argument with what he said about the first one either.

Since devolution was established in 1999, this is sadly the fourth occasion on which we have had suspension. It takes away, once again, from the people of Northern Ireland their Executive, their Assembly and all the institutions that flow from the Belfast agreement.

This is deeply regrettable because I believe that, notwithstanding the interruptions that have taken place, the events of the past three years have once again underlined the benefits of devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. It is without doubt—as I have said before in this place—a far better alternative than direct rule from Westminster.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve an administration formed by local politicians and directly accountable to local politicians for the decisions they make. So devolution on a widely inclusive basis should remain our objective.

However, I should put on record that we, the Official Opposition, would not have started from here—as a Tipperary man once said. Faced with the circumstances that have led to his order, we would have preferred the Government to have delivered on their promise on 24th July and tabled an exclusion Motion before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Had that failed, they should not have hesitated to take the power here at Westminster to exclude any party in breach of its obligations from the Executive. That would have ensured that the guilty were punished. Instead, the Government took the decision to suspend and punished the innocent along with the guilty.

Of course having gone down that route, we shall support the Government's efforts to find a way through the current impasse provided that their approach is balanced. In that context, I welcome the new Secretary of State, Mr Paul Murphy, to his post and wish him the very best. We cannot afford a repetition of the policy of one-sided concessions to republicanism that has characterised the Government's approach since the agreement was made four-and-a-half years ago.

The key ingredient in all of this, and the ingredient that is in such short supply—as Mr Trimble has said on many occasions—is trust. The reasons for that are all too apparent and lie in the consistent refusal of republicans to fulfil their obligations under the agreement.

Most of us in your Lordships' House are all too aware of the charge sheet that has built up against republicans over the past year. However, none of these activities is compatible with the part of the Belfast agreement that calls for a commitment to,

    "exclusively democratic and peaceful means".

In fact, they are totally at odds with the definition of the ceasefire set out by the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign in May 1998.

These breaches come on top of other aspects of the process—for example, the Patten report, which, as Mr Trimble said in the other place, does not itself comply

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with the agreement, and the one-sided concessions to republicans—that have done so much to undermine mainstream, moderate unionist confidence in the agreement and the process. In short, people in Northern Ireland are acutely aware that, in implementing the agreement, the Government have been anything but even-handed. It is worth noting that when people say that the concessions are all one way, they are not necessarily always thinking of the agreement; many of them do not know the details of the agreement anyway. The resulting lack of trust between all parties to the agreement and the crisis that came to a head last month meant that the institutions were unsustainable.

I am the first to admit that a great deal of the violence of recent months has been caused by so-called loyalists. I condemn loyalist violence unequivocally and without reservation. It must be tackled with the full force of the law and its perpetrators put behind bars, where they belong. Your Lordships will be aware that this is not the first time I have said this from the Dispatch Box. Yet, unlike the republicans, none of the loyalist groups is attached to a political party that has been—or is likely to be—represented in the Northern Ireland Executive. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, had, until suspension, two Ministers in the Executive while remaining inextricably linked to an armed, active and fully capable terrorist organisation—PIRA. That is a crucial distinction.

The focus of our comments is fixed on republican transgressions of the agreement because it is republicans who have created the crisis in the institutions and in the political process in Northern Ireland. It is with republicans that the primary responsibility lies for getting the process back on track and creating the circumstances in which devolution can be restored.

One thing is certain: there can be no more fudges or taking republicans on trust. That has now happened three times, and three times that trust has been abused by the republican movement. Republicans cannot go on riding two horses. It is no good Martin McGuinness saying one day that his personal war is over, and, the following day, the IRA breaking off contact with General de Chastelain. Such behaviour simply does not wash. They must commit themselves unequivocally to exclusively democratic politics. That means IRA disbandment and IRA decommissioning, which, this time, must be done in a manner designed, in the IRA's words of 6th May, 2000, to "ensure maximum public confidence". It means that, for the republican movement—Sinn Fein and the IRA—the war must be over. It is worth noting that that has been clearly spelt out by all the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland, by the Dublin Government, by the Government of the United States of America and by the British Government. All concerned believe it to be the way, except for Sinn Fein, which is notably silent on the matter.

We enter another period of direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland today have no confidence in the ability of Her Majesty's Government to solve the crisis. The Government appear to have no clear plan

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or strategy for returning the Province to devolved administration. The Government must quickly regain the confidence of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland in the peace process if they are to succeed in their task and hold elections to Stormont on the due date. Primary responsibility for the impasse rests with republicans. But a great deal hangs on the Government too. Crucially, they must end the misguided and counter-productive policy of endless one-sided concessions to republicans, including the further reforms to policing that the Government plan to propose this autumn. Those reforms would allow convicted terrorists to sit as independent members of district policing partnerships. Ulster needs a police force that is capable of putting the terrorists on the run; not a police service that the terrorists themselves run.

We need real leadership from the Government, not just some strong words from the Prime Minister. We need to see determination to act—at long last—if republicans do not fulfil their obligations. That is how the Prime Minister's recent speech in Belfast will be judged: not by what he said, but by what he does. In their discussions with the parties, the Government must negotiate an overall package that deals with each of the outstanding elements of the agreement that still require implementation. It means that all parties must be aware of their obligations and what they must deliver, and it means clear sanctions and penalties for breaches and non-compliance.

As the fact of the order confirms, the process is in deep trouble. However, as my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear in Londonderry three weeks ago—I was there, with other noble Lords—we also have an opportunity to get it right. Crucially, if we are to stem the flow of confidence away from the agreement, we must return to the principles that the people of Northern Ireland voted for in the referendum of May 1998. Above all, violence and the cancer of paramilitarism throughout Northern Ireland must end. Otherwise, I fear, we will find that we are back here in six months' time to renew the order and that, once again, the temporary expedient of direct rule will assume a permanence that nobody—not least the people of Northern Ireland or myself—wants. I support the order.

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