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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. These investigations are about fraud. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and other noble Lords will be fully aware that the nub of the matter is to ensure that we bring to justice those who have defrauded us.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how much this has cost so far and what will be the projected costs of this debacle?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the department has spent 273 million on the programme. As noble Lords will know, there was a very high take-up of individual learning accounts. Indeed, the satisfaction rates for those involved are extremely high—independent research would suggest 91 per cent. The overspend on the programme is 74 million and our forecast for the final overspend for the two years is 93.6 million. Based on the estimates and extrapolations, the fraud and serious irregularities may be up to some 67 million, a figure I have given before in your Lordships' House.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister accept that I hold no brief for the people who have been fraudulent in this case but that I do hold a brief for the genuine recipients of the courses and the genuine providers of the courses? The way in which the department set up the scheme allowed not only for fraudulent activity to take place but for it to take place over such a long period that millions of pounds have been lost to the taxpayer. That precious money could have gone to our schools, which are badly in need of it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Baroness holds no brief. I am sure that she would join me in wholeheartedly condemning those who have defrauded the system. I accept that entirely. The timescale of events shows that in May 2001 we recognised that we had met our commitment to get into the system the number of learners we wanted. We recognised that there were severe issues by the end of October and the scheme closed down in November. With the information we received, I believe that we acted with all possible speed.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the principle behind the scheme, which was to provide a means of helping adult learners into courses on a part-time basis, was a good one? At

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one point there was a proposal that such a scheme should be resumed. Can the Minister inform the House as to when we are likely to see a scheme introduced by the department which, it is to be hoped, will be totally fraud free?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, on the last occasion that such a question was asked my noble friend Lord Davies stated that we intend to come forward around June with new proposals for a scheme which will indeed meet the worthy objectives outlined by the noble Baroness.

Cholera Outbreak, Basra

2.59 p.m.

Baroness Northover asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What actions they are taking in the light of the cholera outbreak in Basra, Iraq.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Baroness Amos): My Lords, The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed 18 cases of cholera in Basra in the past 15 days. No deaths have yet been reported. A cholera task force has been established in Basra consisting of the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation, the UN Children's Fund and NGOs. DfID has cholera kits sufficient to treat 11,000 people on standby in Kuwait in case any are needed.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she recall the warning from the UN and the WHO that if Iraq was attacked there would be a great danger of a cholera epidemic, especially among children? Is she aware that most of the cholera cases she mentioned are among children under five? Surely, unless all the stops are pulled out, cholera could rapidly become not endemic but epidemic. Can she tell the House what preparations were made in advance to repair the water and sanitation systems that had previously been badly damaged and which were damaged again in this conflict? Furthermore, how soon will it be before the people of Basra have access to safe water and sanitation systems?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am aware that there were concerns about the possibility of a cholera outbreak. The noble Baroness will be aware from the Answers I gave to Questions yesterday that cholera is normally endemic in Iraq at this time of year. The problems that we have seen with water and sanitation systems are increasing the risk of further outbreaks. We are very conscious of that. That is why repair of the water and sanitation systems has been a priority.

The noble Baroness will also be aware that over many years in Basra Saddam Hussein's regime did not repair the water systems. So this is an inherited problem with which our forces in the area are dealing.

Lord Rea: My Lords, with regard to the health of the people in and around Basra, will the Government back

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an independent investigation—preferably carried out by the World Health Organisation—into the apparent increase of cases of cancer and congenital abnormalities ascribed by many to the use of depleted uranium during the first Gulf war?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, that issue is somewhat wide of the Question.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, will my noble friend relay to our troops in the Basra enclave area the appreciation of many Members of the House of Lords for the exemplary work they did in the early stages following the conflict to bring in vital supplies of water to the area?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I would be perfectly happy to do that. This House has expressed its appreciation on many occasions. We cannot overestimate the very good job our troops have done.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, at what point will the coalition authorities, or the civil authorities who replace them, be in a position to let contracts for the revitalisation of the water systems in southern Iraq? Will whoever does that bear in mind that there are many Iraqi engineers living in exile who would be delighted and honoured to play a part in the reconstruction process?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will know that there is an ongoing political process to lead to the establishment of the interim Iraqi authority which will, over a period of time, take over responsibility for the administration of Iraq. I am afraid that I cannot give a timescale with respect to the letting of contracts, but I am sure that the IIA, once it is up and running, will be well aware that there are qualified and professional people in Iraq who can carry out some of the work.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell us something about the situation in Baghdad? That would appear to many of us to be much more susceptible to a great increase in cholera than Basra, where it appears to be reasonably under control.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the situation in Baghdad is improving. The noble Lord will be pleased to know that there are now some 200 UN workers in and around Baghdad from outside Iraq and some 3,000 Iraqis, who have worked with the UN in the past, engaged, for example, in food distribution. So the picture is improving, although the security situation remains fragile. There is ongoing fighting, so we must be very careful. The UN agencies and NGOs are all very conscious of that.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, can the Secretary of State take the matter further? How many NGOs are involved in helping and with what success?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Baroness about the number because it changes daily. I

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shall be very happy to do that. I think we can report some success. There is clearly an issue with respect to co-ordination. As I said in response to previous questions, the security situation remains a matter of some concern. That limits what some of the NGOs can do. I shall be happy to write to the noble Baroness and give her further information on this issue and to put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill

3.5 p.m.

Brought from the Commons on Monday last and printed pursuant to Standing Order 51, and read a first time.

Then, Standing Order 47 having been dispensed with:

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill, as your Lordships will know, provides for the deferment of elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to be held on 29th May. We believe that deferring elections should be done only in exceptional circumstances. However, it is clear that this is the course of action most likely to sustain the Belfast agreement and to restore the devolved institutions.

On 6th May I set out the advances that we, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, have made over the six months following the suspension of devolved government in October last year. We arrived at a comprehensive set of proposals for full implementation of the agreement, which were published on 1st May in the form of a joint declaration, together with two further texts on monitoring and on the question of on-the-run terrorist suspects. Paragraph 13 of that joint declaration states:

    "We need to see an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots. Moreover, the practice of exiling must come to an end and the exiled must feel free to return in safety. Similarly, sectarian attacks and intimidation directed at vulnerable communities must cease".

The IRA published statements last week. The clarifications offered by the President of Sinn Fein were significant developments, but were not sufficient. They did not give the clarity needed in response to the single crucial question: will there be an immediate end to all paramilitary activity? We judge that lack of clarity to be a fundamental obstacle to the operation of the Good Friday agreement.

In order for Northern Ireland institutions to work there must be a widespread willingness to participate. That is itself dependent on trust. That trust was fractured last October. Until there is clarity that trust will not fully be rebuilt or regained.

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Without that trust an election would not be an election to the institutions prescribed by the agreement because those institutions would not work. It would have been an election to a set of non-functioning institutions. There would have been administrative chaos and early further elections.

I turn briefly to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 provides for the setting of a new election date. We hope that it will be possible to hold an election by the autumn. A number of noble Lords and speakers in the Commons yesterday have expressed concerns that the Bill sets no fixed date for an election and that the power for the Secretary of State to set a further date is not limited in time.

In our view, which I have expressed to your Lordships on earlier occasions, to set an election date now would not advance the process. It would risk impaling it on a hook. We believe that is more likely to lead to polarisation rather than a willingness to make accommodations and reach compromises.

I am grateful to the Delegated Powers Committee and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, for the speed with which it was able to consider the Bill and also to deliver its report.

There were two aspects about which the committee were troubled. The first was that there was no time limit—what might be described as a quasi-sunrise clause. The Secretary of State and I obviously listened carefully to what the report stated and what was said in the House of Commons. We think that those are legitimate concerns.

Accordingly, I shall propose an amendment—which I hope, will commend itself to your Lordships—by way of a new clause. It will provide—I think that I paraphrase fairly—that the power to call an election shall fall if not exercised before 31st December this year. That period can be extended only for a period of up to six months and those renewals would have to be by affirmative order in both Houses. I hope that we have honourably met the concerns referred to in the House of Commons and also particularised in the report of as the Delegated Powers Committee. I should add that I am especially grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, for our helpful private discussions, which enabled us to arrive at what I hope is a reasonable outcome.

A further question, which is also mentioned in the committee's report, is that of the mechanism by which the Secretary of State's power to call elections should be operated. I approach the matter in this way: one understands the concerns about Henry VIII powers of any sort. On one analysis, that would not be removing a right from the citizen—which is the real vice of Henry VIII clauses. In fact, it would be restoring to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland their democratic right to have an election to the Assembly.

So on one basis, our first view is sustainable. However, I think that your Lordships know that there has not been an occasion on which I have had anything to do with a Bill when I have wanted to go against the recommendations of the committee. Accordingly, the second amendment that I have proposed for

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consideration in Committee tomorrow is to the effect that there should be a draft affirmative procedure whereby the Secretary of State could make the order but, if it were not approved within 28 days—fewer than the usual 40; I hope that my judgment is right on that—the order would fall.

I therefore hope that we have now been able to meet your Lordships' concerns as I anticipated them, and as they have been expressed to me in conversation by a number of your Lordships. The amendments have now been tabled—I think that they were tabled about three minutes ago—so your Lordships will be able to read them in ample time for consideration before Committee tomorrow, but I think that I have paraphrased them accurately.

Having set out my intention to meet those concerns, perhaps I may continue. Clause 2 annuls steps taken towards the 29th May elections and provides for return of deposits. Clause 3 provides for reimbursement of money spent both by political parties and individual candidates in preparation for the scheduled elections.

A widely expressed view, not least within your Lordships' House, has been that Northern Ireland political parties and individuals ought to be reimbursed for genuine expenditure related to the election campaign. The Secretary of State therefore has power to make such payments. He intends to do so in line with a scheme to be developed by the Electoral Commission.

There have also been difficult questions about those who operated the institutions in Northern Ireland and often worked extremely hard for the successes of devolved government that we saw for a period of two years. Again, I know that your Lordships—in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain—raised that in earlier discussions. We cannot avoid the fact that the Assembly is dissolved, but we hope that those who have been Members, many of them, gratifyingly, new to public life in Northern Ireland and who have often made great sacrifices in order to take part in the political process, will want to remain in democratic politics and to continue to represent the interests of those who were their constituents.

We therefore believe that it is right to pay a continuing salary, rather than a resettlement allowance. But it would not be acceptable either for the salary to be at the rate payable before the election, or for it to last indefinitely. Clause 4 therefore gives the Secretary of State power to fix salaries and allowances. We intend to consult on the detail during the next week or so, but in the light of our belief that the previous rates would not be appropriate in the new circumstances. We intend to review those levels in six months.

We also intend to pay a limited office cost allowance, to enable some degree of presence to be retained in constituency offices. I also acknowledge the need for the parties, with a return to devolution in prospect, to maintain a modest core of support officials at Stormont. Clause 5(6) therefore allows the Secretary of State to continue to pay party allowances. Again, we intend to consult during the next week on those. The rest of Clause 5 contains technical provision.

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Clause 6 is designed to permit changes in electoral law necessary to ensure the successful running of the election. That power could be exercised only in line with the Bill's provisions. To take an example, an autumn election would coincide with the annual canvass. At present, the Chief Electoral Officer, who, with his staff, has discharged his duties with great professionalism, is required to publish the new register on 1st December. It is sensible to make provision to delay that slightly if it proves necessary.

Obviously, that is not a step that the Government have taken lightly, but it is the only proper course if we are to remove violence from Northern Ireland's society for good and move forward on the basis of inclusive, democratic government.

I hope that I have summarised the Bill to your Lordships' satisfaction. It was a difficult decision for the Secretary of State to make, which was not entirely without controversy. I know that your Lordships have previously expressed concerns, and I hope that the form of the Bill, but especially that of the proposed amendments, meets those legitimate concerns. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.16 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for explaining to the House the provisions of the Bill in his customary, clear style; but perhaps more so for his courtesy and openness in the discussions that colleagues and I have held with him during the past week or so about Northern Ireland matters, and the Bill in particular.

Sadly, that stands in contrast to the total discourtesy with which the Government treated the House of Commons yesterday. In railroading the Bill through on a guillotine, the Government ensured that there was no Committee stage, no Report stage and no Third Reading. No time at all was allowed to discuss amendments to the Bill in another place. All I can say is: thank God for your Lordships' House.

That is an outrageous way for the Government to treat Parliament but, regrettably, as some of us know only too well, typical of the arrogance and highhandedness—I go so far as to say contempt for Parliament—that we saw yesterday in another place. Let us hope that there will soon be change. I suggest that your Lordships would not tolerate that once, let alone regularly.

As the noble and learned Lord made clear, the Bill is straightforward. Its purpose is to postpone indefinitely the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to take place on 29th May. Of course, that follows the legislation in March postponing the original date for elections, 1st May, as prescribed by Section 31 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Before I comment on the Bill and my party's attitude towards it, it is worth reminding the House exactly why we are here at all. The noble and learned Lord has covered some of this ground. At the beginning of

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March, intensive discussions took place at Hillsborough Castle between the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland, along with the United Kingdom and Irish Governments. The purpose was, of course, to try to find a basis for restoring the devolved institutions that the then Secretary of State had been forced to suspend last October as a result of the activities of Sinn Fein/IRA, which have become known as Stormontgate. Stormontgate was the culmination of a series of breaches that included Florida gun-running, Colombia, Castlereagh and ongoing paramilitary activities such as shootings, beatings and so on.

When the Hillsborough talks concluded, the Government were optimistic that a "shared understanding" had been reached on a number of issues, such as the future stability of the devolved institutions, policing, security normalisation, human rights, so-called "on-the-runs" and, of course, future IRA activity.

It was then envisaged that after a short period of internal discussion and consideration within the parties, the British and Irish Governments would publish their joint declaration setting out how they intended to implement all the outstanding elements of the Belfast agreement. Crucially, at around the same time, the IRA was to issue a statement in which it was widely anticipated—I shared some of that optimism from this Dispatch Box at that time—that it would commit to completing decommissioning and ending paramilitary activity and would declare that the so-called "war" was over. It was, of course, to facilitate that process that Parliament agreed to the first suspension of the elections in March.

However, as we approached the deadline for the dissolution of the Assembly it became clear that the IRA statement, which was shown privately to the British and Irish Governments, fell way short of what is required. I have to tell your Lordships that subsequent publication of that statement, and the attempted clarifications by Gerry Adams, have totally vindicated that judgment.

For all the IRA-speak about not engaging in activities that are inconsistent with the peace process and the Belfast agreement, there is still no commitment to end the shootings, the beatings, the exiling of people from their homes and other forms of paramilitary activity. There is not even an acknowledgement that the full implementation of the agreement means the closure of the conflict. As Mr Adams's response to the Prime Minister revealingly stated, full implementation of the agreement will provide only a basis for the closure of the conflict.

That inevitably begs the question: just when will closure occur? The suspicion has to be, judging by Mr Adams's answers to the Prime Minister's questions, that closure will occur only when all republican objectives have been achieved, up to and including a united Ireland. I hope that I am wrong because if that is the case the process will be condemned to lurch from crisis to crisis.

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Once again, all of us have been let down by the republican movement. It still refuses to end the ambiguity over the commitment to what the agreement calls exclusively democratic and peaceful means.

Five years after the agreement was made in Belfast there can simply be no justification for being what the Prime Minister described as,

    "half in and half out",

of the process. We need to be certain that decommissioning is going to be completed. We need to be certain that all paramilitary activity will cease. And we need to be certain that the conflict is once and for all at an end. Until all of those things happen, it is difficult to see how the executive can be re-established on the same inclusive basis as before.

That does not, however, mean that we agree entirely with what the Government are doing today. At the time of that first suspension, we made it clear that we regarded it as a one-off and not as something that we could support a second time. I said that myself from this Dispatch Box. It is not my intention to go over all the arguments again but that fundamentally remains our position.

We do not sit comfortably with Bills to postpone elections in a part of the United Kingdom. In our view, the Government should have held elections, called the Assembly and seen if an executive could be formed. At the same time, they should have taken the power—as we have been urging for two years—here at Westminster to enable the Secretary of State to exclude from the executive any party that is in default of the agreement or the ceasefire. That would enable an executive to be formed without Sinn Fein until such time as the IRA actually does what is required and engages in what the Government call "acts of completion".

That said, we will not oppose the Bill today. Given the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves, if we were to defeat the Bill it would plunge Northern Ireland into further chaos by forcing an election in a little over two weeks' time for which nominations have closed and for which the parties are not prepared. It is not the function of your Lordships' House deliberately to go around creating chaos and I do not intend to go down that path.

However, I listened with interest to what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal said about the amendments that the Government have tabled for tomorrow's Committee stage. They seem to go quite a long way towards helping our problems with the Bill. As he knows, one of our chief concerns has been the open-ended nature of the Bill and the arbitrary powers it hands to the Secretary of State. Those concerns are obviously shared by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, as the noble and learned Lord said. I sincerely hope that the two amendments will satisfy members of that committee and those in my party—and perhaps those in the Liberal Democrat Party.

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The Lord Privy Seal has now suggested that if an election has not been held by 31st December the legislation will fall and that if the Government want to extend it they must come back to Parliament with an affirmative resolution. That is a very sound proposition.

This is obviously a Bill that none of us wanted and do not pass with any pleasure. Yet, as I have set out, the circumstances that have brought it about are entirely the fault of the republicans, who still seem to think that democracy is compatible with the retention of a private army. It is not. Until they understand that, there should be no place for them in ministerial offices in Northern Ireland. On that point, I hope that the Government and the Opposition are totally at one.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for his explanation of the Bill but I must say that it is a wretched and quite unnecessary measure. It is true that the failure of Sinn Fein to answer the Prime Minister's third question unambiguously was and remains a major problem. But it should not have been used as the excuse by the Government to call off the Assembly elections that were due on the 29th of this month.

Whatever the intense frustration and exasperation provoked by Sinn Fein's lack of candour, shared by all people of good will, that should not have been allowed to trigger the precipitous decision to cancel the elections. The decision is one that no party on the island of Ireland has endorsed, save for the UUP, and, to judge from last night's debate in another place, even its ranks are divided. That debate, frankly, was shambolic, acrimonious and severely truncated; it was not a good parliamentary occasion.

Even the Taoiseach disagreed and publicly expressed the view that the elections should have proceeded as planned. The truth is that the speed with which the decision was made and the abrupt change of direction caught almost everyone by surprise, including, I suggest, key members of the Cabinet. It was utterly baffling in view of the Government's repeated assurances that elections would be held at the end of May at the latest. There must be a better reason for this volte face than has so far been given. There appears to have been a sudden rush of blood to the head for the Government to abandon their undertaking in that unilateral manner. One cannot avoid the suspicion that an element of what might be called "Baghdad bounce" had suddenly penetrated the collective psyche of No. 10.

It is amazing that no other option appears to have been considered or even given a moment's thought. Instead, the Government borrowed yet again from the repertoire of Thatcherism: they deployed the TINA tactic. Stating that there is no alternative is simply government by assertion. It is the direct antithesis of democratic dialogue, still less does it encourage the maintenance of bipartisanship. Miss Clare Short's strictures on the style and stance of the Government are amply validated by the Government's inconsistency over the Assembly elections.

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As I said a week ago, there was at least one other option that should have been explored and, preferably, adopted. The elections should have gone ahead, not least to renew the mandate of the Assembly and its Members. If, say, after a month, the parties in the Assembly could not agree to form the executive, the Assembly would be given the task of reviewing the workings of the Belfast agreement. Such a review—to include the two governments—is, in any case, due by December. There are three precedents for adopting such a deliberative process: the Constitutional Convention of 1975, the Northern Ireland Forum of 1996 and the discussions over many months by the first Assembly prior to the formation of the executive.

As it is, we are where we are: left with this wretched Bill. As almost everyone from all parts of Westminster noted when the Bill appeared, it contained an extremely serious flaw: the calling of any future elections was left completely open-ended. There must be a specific end-date for the governments and parties to work towards. As I said last week, a mannana policy is totally inappropriate for the circumstances of Northern Ireland. The momentum must be quickly restored and then maintained.

As accurately reported in last Saturday's Financial Times, I have every intention of tabling a sunset clause amendment to the Bill, first, to hasten the call of elections, and, secondly, to ensure regular parliamentary monitoring of the process. We cannot give a blank cheque to the Secretary of State, which, in reality, means leaving it to No. 10 to call the shots. In that regard the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and I are as one.

I was very relieved, therefore, to hear from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal that the Government have reconsidered their policy, and that he is to table amendments to that effect. I notice that, when the Secretary of State said that he hoped that elections would be held in the autumn, he was careful not to specify the year. It is to be hoped that the proposed amendment will increase the chances of elections taking place this year. If it proves necessary to review the election provisions in the Bill by affirmative order, can the Minister give an assurance that it will be done on the Floor of the Chamber in another place and not in Standing Committee? That is an essential requirement in our view.

A further cause of concern arises from an article in last Thursday's Irish Independent. David Trimble is reported as saying that, in his view, it may not be possible to revive the devolved institutions later in the year because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness might not be able to "muster sufficient authority" to persuade the IRA to move. Such observations are not helpful at this time; they simply up the ante. Does that not reveal an attitude that poses the question whether any future assurance from Sinn Fein, whatever it said, would prove acceptable to the UUP leader? I should like an assurance from the noble and learned Lord that, if the two governments found acceptable a future statement on all acts of completion, they would disallow any UUP veto.

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On other features of the Bill, Clause 3 provides for the reimbursement of expenses already incurred by political parties and individual candidates in anticipation of a May election. That is right and proper, but I advise a very strict invigilation of claims. Quick reimbursement, which is also needed, may not be easily compatible with the need to closely audit claims. What is the timescale for the Electoral Commission to deal with the matter, and when will it be expected to report?

Clause 4 concerns the very difficult issue of continuing payments to Members of the Assembly. That is especially difficult as MLAs now have no mandate. Last October, when Stormont was suspended, a small reduction of salaries was made. The Secretary of State undertook to review the matter before last Christmas. Apparently, he did, but it was not reported to the House that he had decided against any further reduction. I have heard him say that it is necessary to sustain the political class in Northern Ireland. I suppose that some sort of case can be made for that; but it is highly debatable at what rate and for how long that can happen.

The noble and learned Lord said today, and the Secretary of State said last night, that they intend to consult the Northern Ireland parties on the issue. With the best will in the world, they will not be the most objective contributors to any such negotiations. Can the noble and learned Lord say whether the parties in Westminster will also be consulted before a decision is made? In that regard, I commend the wise words of David Ford, the Alliance Party leader, who said last week:

    "It appears that the Government is proposing to keep former MLAs in suspended animation and pay them a salary. This could only be justified if it were for a short time until an election date is defined in law . . . If not, the Government should make payments in line with a redundancy package. There is no justification for extended payments if devolution is not on the way back."

I conclude by reiterating that bipartisanship—or should I say tripartisanship?—on Northern Ireland can work only if is nurtured by consultation before decisions are taken. Issues of national security apart, there should be no case for precipitate, unilateral decisions of the kind that led to this wretched Bill.

Let us hope for a quick resumption of the electoral process, which is the only democratic way forward. I fear that, if elections do not take place this year, the devolved institutions will, to all intents and purposes, be dead in the water. With a very heavy heart, Liberal Democrats will support the passage of the Bill if it is satisfactorily amended on the lines outlined by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, the Government will find my verdict on the Bill more charitable than that of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. We must be grateful that the Asquith government in 1914 postponed further consideration of Home Rule developments and legislation until the Great War was over. I speak as a member of the Select

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Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, which published its 20th report of this Session on this Bill, to which all speakers have already referred.

I wish to carry out some small pieces of ground-clearing. I read the whole report of the Commons debate yesterday. As is characteristic of debates on Northern Ireland affairs, it was both vigorous and wide-ranging. As my noble friend Lord Glentoran intimated, I, too, regret that, under the new Commons procedure there was no time for remaining stages after Second Reading, especially a Committee stage.

Chronologically earlier, in Manchester last year and in Kilkenny at the end of March this year, I attended the plenary sessions of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. On both occasions, we debated the political situation at the time with our Irish colleagues. Having consistently believed that the elections should be postponed if Sinn Fein's attitude to the use of violence was not clarified beyond peradventure, my own position has been steady throughout. I have followed the conspiratorial arguments about the potential results of the elections, and why people might change the dates because of them. I was not convinced by those arguments—and I said so in Manchester—on the grounds that, at some stage in Northern Ireland's evolution, the DUP and Sinn Fein could become the dominant parties in the Assembly. It would be better to face that dilemma as soon as it arrived, however early that might be, not least since it might well be unexpectedly productive.

Returning briefly to the 1998 referendum, Labour Back-Bench Members of Parliament taking part in the referendum campaign—obviously, in support of a "Yes" vote—signalled to No. 10 that unless the Prime Minister became directly involved in the campaign it was conceivable that, among Unionists at any rate, the referendum would not be carried. The Belfast agreement was founded on non-violent agreement. But the road map for securing that, whether with or without Ordnance Survey churches, which are always important in the Northern Irish landscape, was a little less explicit on how transition and de-escalation would occur. It was therefore no surprise to some of us that the Prime Minister was unable to deliver on one of his five hand-written points—the one on decommissioning—that were issued at the time of the referendum, because the agreement did not afford him adequate leverage to achieve that.

There have been intelligence rumours in the past five years—I have not been in receipt of official intelligence for more than a decade—about the discussion going on between the IRA and Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness. The implication of those rumours was that the IRA army council was prepared to allow Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness to conduct their political initiatives and experiments, provided that decommissioning was not pressed in the council itself. Of course, there was external pressure on Sinn Fein concerning decommissioning, and there was that important episode a year or two back, when even the Boston Herald withdrew its support from Sinn Fein because it was

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behaving so obdurately about decommissioning. In turn, that made the IRA realise that it had to change its position, at least to some degree.

There was, however, less pressure, other than that mounted by individual Members of your Lordships' House and of another place—I cite particularly my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth and Mr Harry Barnes from another place—on the issue of paramilitary beatings and exilings. In the previous Parliament, a report on the subject was published by a Select Committee in another place, which I chaired. We published that report on paramilitaries sending fellow citizens into exile, but the fact remains that it has been a relatively low-key issue in the past four or five years, other than the work done by the two parliamentary champions whom I mentioned. I acknowledge that paramilitary activity of that sort happens on both sides of the community, but I have heard a Sinn Fein spokesman say that the issue is one for the community at large, even though the legal process by which people are sent into exile takes the form of kangaroo courts.

I can remember one of our earlier debates on the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and I discussed his belief that the gun had disappeared from Northern Ireland affairs. I had to disabuse him by referring to the statistics. The valuable and timeous document that has been produced by the Commons Library to accompany the Bill gives evidence of growing activity in the past five years, even by comparison with the previous five years, during not all of which a ceasefire applied in Northern Ireland. The issue remains a live one.

I have not seen the final verdict on who was responsible for the break-in at Castlereagh police station—there is an irony that that police station shares its name with the Irish peer who provided the political leadership to get through Metternich's statesmanlike constitutional proposals at the Congress of Vienna, which effectively provided Europe with a hundred years of peace—but, before that event and before Stormontgate, to which my noble friend Lord Glentoran referred, there was no clear sign that a line in the sand would be drawn with regard to the commitment of Sinn Fein/IRA to non-violence. A new situation was created by those episodes.

As I said at a late hour in your Lordships' House last Tuesday, the position of both Governments, in insisting on a comprehensive commitment, was a good product to arise from a bad business. I supported the principle of the Bill, although I am, of course, conscious that the question of the on-the-runs still lies ahead of us.

The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, at whose deliberations I was present, raised the two issues set out and explained in its report. The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House indicated the Government's attitude to those recommendations. I applaud the Government's reaction to the first recommendation, to which the Minister spoke and which my noble friend Lord Glentoran welcomed. I am, at this juncture, more uneasy about the response to the second recommendation. We will have to see the detail and the rationale in Committee tomorrow.

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As one who once held office in the Northern Ireland Office, I realise that the two observations by the Select Committee were liable to make the Government's life and tasks more difficult. I am not insensitive to how difficult their life and tasks already were in such matters. However, Parliament has a role in the constitutional evolution of the case. The significance of the rule of law and of parliamentary scrutiny has been rendered more salient by the Stevens report, to which there was reference at Starred Questions an hour or so ago. Whatever additional inconvenience the Select Committee has created for the Government was justified, in the interests of transparency.

In my time as a Northern Ireland Minister, the cruces of public immunity certificates with security implications always required and warranted close attention and scrutiny. Those hours of internal debate were just as necessary to the rule of law and its application to human rights as the extra hurdles that the Select Committee put down yesterday. I look forward to the remaining stages of the Bill, for which my general support in principle is unstinting.

My noble friend Lord Glentoran was not wholly precise about the Official Opposition's attitude to the Government's second concession on the Select Committee's report. As I say, I remain uneasy about the detail of the latter concession, but that is tomorrow's business.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, it is with great regret that we find ourselves in this position today. We are debating a further postponement of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Although not personally seeking office, I was very much looking forward to the buzz and excitement of an election campaign and to canvassing across Northern Ireland with my party colleagues. The Government, however, had adequate warning that this situation would arise, yet they chose to make a decision at the latest possible moment, causing tremendous confusion among candidates and the electorate in Northern Ireland at large.

The crucial point to remember in all of this is that we have been denied the opportunity for one reason and one reason only: the continued refusal of the IRA to declare that its war is over and to stand down as an active paramilitary organisation. I shall put it another way. We face the continued refusal of Sinn Fein/IRA to turn their back on terrorism once and for all—to lay down their weapons, to stop sanctioning punishment beatings, issuing threats, intelligence gathering and all forms of paramilitary activity—and enter fully into the democratic process. The Government asked for a clear and unambiguous statement from the IRA to that effect. They had to go back repeatedly and ask for clarity. None, however, was forthcoming. That is why we are here today and not in the throes of an election campaign in Northern Ireland.

The Assembly was suspended on 15th October 2002. Again, I remind noble Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, did, that that suspension followed

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the discovery of an IRA spy-ring at the centre of the Northern Ireland Office. The institution, therefore, technically does not exist at present. To hold elections to the suspended Assembly, is, as my party leader David Trimble spelt out in another place yesterday, to do the work of Sinn Fein/IRA.

Electing representatives to the Assembly would, in the event of its restoration, allow Sinn Fein to take their seats once again with little or no incentive to put pressure on Sinn Fein/IRA to deliver the necessary acts of completion. Without such acts, there would be no prospect of an executive being re-constituted and, in all likelihood, devolution in Northern Ireland would effectively be at an end. The work of the Government and their Irish counterparts—of all the parties involved in the negotiations over the past six months—would have been in vain. That is how grave the current situation is.

I, and my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues, would, of course, prefer to see the political process in Northern Ireland functioning. We want to see the Belfast agreement implemented in full and the institutions up and running and fully operational. But we want to see all this achieved by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. We simply cannot have a situation where one party, Sinn Fein/IRA, is able to hold the democratic process to ransom, as it has done for far too long. I regret the fact that this legislation has been deemed necessary, but without it I fear that the consequences might well have been worse.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for responding so quickly to the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, of which I declare that I am a member, and also for taking the trouble to send to those of us whom he could reach copies of the draft amendments. I am not sure that I am able to curtail what I had thought I might impose upon your Lordships in this speech in consequence of the amendment that deals with the subordinate legislation by which the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State shall be able to specify the renewed date for the elections.

That is because I am not sure—I would welcome the earliest opportunity to learn from the noble and learned Lord—whether this actually permits the Secretary of State to make an order which would take effect and be able to be acted upon so that an election would take place before Parliament would have an opportunity to decide whether to give its approval. I shall come to that in a moment, but I do not think that it is improper to deal with this, although we shall be dealing with it tomorrow, because it is fairly crucial.

By way of introduction, I warmly agree with the attitude taken by the Government to the inadequate response of the IRA to the questions that were put. Simplicity and unambiguity are certainly required. At least on one of the three questions—perhaps the most important—which the Prime Minister has put, that is

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wholly lacking. Therefore, I entirely agree that the Government have been justified in the course that they have taken in seeking to bypass or nullify the statutory requirement for an election on 29th May.

The original suspension was rightly done by way of primary legislation. When I looked at the Bill I was therefore particularly perturbed to see that the Government were proposing, not just by secondary legislation or delegated legislation but by delegated legislation with no parliamentary control over it whatever, to enable the Secretary of State to restore the elections, restore the institutions and fix the date for the elections. It was that which motivated the report of the Select Committee yesterday.

I had at first thought when the noble and learned Lord was explaining the amendments half an hour ago that the mischief which the Select Committee perceived would be wholly remedied by the draft amendment. That mischief was this: that Parliament would not be able to express its opinion and would not be able to test the political development upon which the Secretary of State would have relied in order to reach the conclusion that elections could now be held. There would have had to be a reversal of the attitude of the IRA. It would have to have provided not only words but, as the Secretary of State said in his Statement on 6th May, deeds as well.

I believe that Parliament rightly would expect—certainly should expect—to test the Government's interpretation and assessment of those words and deeds to establish whether they justified and gave rise to the confidence among the people of Northern Ireland that is rightly said to be the test. I also think that it might look fairly odd to quite a large number of people in Northern Ireland if the Westminster Parliament was to wash its hands of the issue of whether devolved government was to be restored to Northern Ireland by agreeing to deprive itself of any control over the relevant order.

I am concerned about the text of the draft amendment. It seems to me—I am indeed open to correction of course, as always, on matters of procedure—that it would be open to the Secretary of State to make his order on, say, 28th July, when we are in Recess, to specify a date for an election—say, 20 or 24 days or whatever it might be—before the House returns on 8th September with an opportunity to give or withhold its approval. If that were the case, of course the mischief would not be remedied at all.

I am hoping that the noble and learned Lord can give either an explanation that shows I have been completely wrong—which would not surprise me—or, in the alternative, that he can give an undertaking that the Government would not act in such a manner as to deprive both Houses of the ability to express their view before the campaign for elections were to commence. That is the point. I am fortified in this by going back to the 2002 Act whereby the restorative orders had to be by affirmative resolution before they could take effect. Perhaps that is not a particularly coherent speech but I hope that I have made clear the character of my anxieties.

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3.56 p.m.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, when the Northern Ireland Executive was suspended and we realised that we were going to have legislation such as this before this House, it was known that it would be a very acrimonious debate. It was known that there were very bitter feelings among the political parties in Northern Ireland. On realising this, one would have thought that the Government would have done whatever they could to pour oil on troubled water and make the situation a little more acceptable. But yesterday they did exactly the opposite.

In the House of Commons yesterday, the Government took a decision to limit the debate by way of a guillotine Motion whereby the elected representatives from Northern Ireland were limited to a debate of three or four hours. We, the unelected House, were given today and tomorrow to debate the ramifications of this Bill.

Anyone who knows anything about politics in Northern Ireland would and should have known that this would cause tremendous difficulty in Northern Ireland. The Government were very foolish. There was no need for a Statement on Iraq yesterday. That took up quite a lot of time. I left this House yesterday and watched the proceedings of another place on the Parliamentary Channel. I thought that possibly I could see the debate as it took place through the eyes of people in the United Kingdom, who are not very involved with Northern Ireland. As I watched the debate, I became very depressed, as I am sure did anyone else watching in the United Kingdom.

During the debate, it became very evident that aside from the debate taking place between nationalism and unionism—between Seamus Mallon of the SDLP and the various sections of unionism—that there was a war going on between the forces of unionism—between the DUP and the UUP. They are fighting tenaciously for every single vote at any future election. On the nationalist side, although the Sinn Fein Members were not there in person to put forward their case, the SDLP put it forward for them.

Two questions were hurled across the Floor repeatedly yesterday by the SDLP and the Unionist parties. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP asked Jeffrey Donaldson, the Member for Lagan Valley, whether the Unionist Party would be prepared to sit with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland if, for example, the IRA issued a statement saying that it was prepared to comply with paragraph 13, wherein the Government were demanding that it cease all violent activities. There was no answer to that question. The answer should have been a resounding "Yes".

Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking for the mainstream of the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland—although I do not know whether he really does so—then asked Seamus Mallon the following: "If we did have a power sharing arrangement and the IRA still maintained its violent activities, would you then vote for its suspension from the executive?". Seamus Mallon could not answer that question either, although again there should have been a

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resounding "Yes". If those two questions had been answered with a "Yes", then perhaps the Assembly would not have been abolished.

I can understand the dilemma in which the Government find themselves. The questions are all about trust, but from what we heard in the House of Commons debate yesterday, anything but trust was being discussed. In fact it was made quite clear that at present there is no possibility of trust existing between the political parties.

In justification of the abolition of the Assembly and the suspension of the elections, the Government said that they did it to save the Good Friday agreement. Let us take a moment to analyse that statement. The Government suspended the Assembly and the political parties in Northern Ireland, saying that it was necessary to do so in order to save the Good Friday agreement. Does it mean that, if elections had been held in Northern Ireland and the outcome of those elections had resulted in a majority for Sinn Fein and a majority for the Democratic Unionist Party, that that would have meant the end of the agreement? Possibly it would have meant that, although I cannot be sure. It may be that the majority nationalist party, in the form of Sinn Fein, and the majority unionist party, in the form of the DUP, could have reached an accommodation that the existing political parties have been unable to achieve.

Should we now have an election to an Assembly, wherein there is no executive, and after the elections to that Assembly, could we reach an accommodation that would lead to the installation of an executive? Again I shall repeat what I heard yesterday: I am not optimistic that that could be done.

There is talk once again of a political vacuum and how dangerous the situation is when there is a vacuum in Northern Ireland. We have to have an election and people must be brought back into the Assembly at all costs. I have been in this place long enough to recall the debates held in the House of Commons. When Northern Ireland was set up it was given Stormont. In the Stormont parliament, there were 52 seats, along with 12 parliamentary seats here in Westminster. When Stormont was abolished in 1972, it was felt that since there was no longer a local parliament or executive, the number of Westminster seats would have to be increased. A Speaker's Conference was held, at which I took a view that did not agree with that held by everyone else; namely, that an increase in the number of parliamentary seats at Westminster would not decrease the problems of Northern Ireland. By the conclusion of the convention in 1976, the seats had increased to 18.

Was that a political vacuum? At the time, people did not believe that there was any kind of political vacuum, because they had secured an increase from 12 seats to 18 seats at Westminster, while Stormont with its 52 seats was no longer in place. At this point I am going to say something that will probably get me into deep, deep trouble in Northern Ireland. When the legislation was being debated in this House, I was in my place beside the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, a former

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Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He asked me, "How many seats are they going to have in the new Assembly?". I said that there would be 108 seats. "How did they arrive at that figure?", he asked. "When you were there, the chamber had only 52 seats". I replied, "It has all changed over there, with 18 constituencies, each having six MLAs". "By the time they're all in there", he said, "it'll take all the Semtex in the IRA's armoury to get them out". There is some truth in that.

Out of all the political parties, including the SDLP, the DUP and the UUP, Sinn Fein most desperately wants to get back into the executive, because it will aid its claim that it is acting as a legislator and playing its part in the effort to lead to a united Ireland.

How can Sinn Fein get back? As I have recently commented in private to a number of noble Lords, in paragraph 13 the Government have made it clear that there are certain conditions that Sinn Fein must fulfil: an end to violence, an end to shootings and an end to targeting. If Sinn Fein wants to get back into the legislative Assembly, one would have thought that it would not find it too difficult to comply with paragraph 13. I said then and I say again now: I hope that the Government will not back down from paragraph 13. Along with thousands of people in Northern Ireland, I remember listening with great hope to the Prime Minister's speech made last October in the Custom House in Belfast. He said that there had to be acts of completion. Sinn Fein will have to comply with paragraph 13.

Turning to the Policing Board, there are further ramifications in regard to the agreement. The Government have made every attempt to force or cajole Sinn Fein into taking up its seats on the board. I do not think that that will be an easy undertaking. I recall saying a few months ago in this House that Sinn Fein is in control of certain areas of Northern Ireland, such as Ballymurphy, Turf Lodge in Belfast and South Down. Once Sinn Fein takes up its seats on the Policing Board, it would in effect be giving up control of those areas, which at the moment are in its grip. Are the Government insisting on that demand before Sinn Fein can join the executive? If so, it will result in a long-drawn-out argument.

Sinn Fein is the only party in Northern Ireland that says it does not want sanctions. It does not want to be told, via a committee set up to monitor levels of violence, that it could be thrown out if the IRA decides to engage in a campaign of violence. If such a monitoring committee is established, then it will be made up from the Irish Government, the British Government, the Assembly and possibly someone from America. However, we shall have to be careful about the political allegiances of those serving on the committee. If a member of that committee has any kind of allegiance to the SDLP, then under no circumstances will he vote for the exclusion of Sinn Fein, even if it has been engaged in violence. That is because Sinn Fein and the SDLP are in the nationalist camp. If the committee has a member from the

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unionist majority, then he will probably want to go hell for leather to exclude any Sinn Fein representatives. Thus there are many obstacles to be overcome.

As soon as the Government suspended the Assembly, Sinn Fein issued a statement to say that it would call off its discussions with General de Chastelain; in other words, it would not carry on with decommissioning. What does that mean? It means that Sinn Fein is going to hold on to its arms for some future date and circumstance in which those arms may have to be used. In any language, that is a threat. Sinn Fein is threatening that it will hold on to its arms in order to defeat the government.

I do not know whether the Government will engage in discussions with Sinn Fein between now and the autumn. As someone suggested in another place yesterday, it will not be autumn; it has already been extended until the end of the year. Some people think that it will be July/August or August/September, but it is now not until the end of the year.

I desperately want to see a resurrection of a democratic Assembly in which all the political parties are represented—but only by democratically elected politicians without private armies to bolster them if they do not get their own way. I am not optimistic that that will happen, but I desperately hope that it will.

I understand why the Government suspended the Assembly. From what I saw on television yesterday and from what I hear when I go to Belfast at weekends, the existing atmosphere will not allow the two major communities to come together. I will not vote against the Government on this. They were right to do what they did in very difficult circumstances—but I regret that they had to do so.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, as ever, one learns more about Northern Ireland from listening to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, than one does from many other sources.

I underline what has been said already by other noble Lords, particularly in regard to the regrets that many of us have over the manner in which the legislation was handled in another place. When Clare Short read in Hansard yesterday's proceedings in the House of Commons on the Northern Ireland Bill, she must have looked back to what she said in her resignation statement about the growing authoritarianism and the contempt in which the Prime Minister holds the House of Commons and reckoned that she had been well and truly borne out in a matter of a few hours.

I noticed that the Secretary of State spoke for 52 minutes and the spokesman for the Opposition for, I think, 46 minutes. That contrasts rather well with our experience here. But I do not think that the shortness of the speeches in your Lordships' House indicates any lessening of content compared with those made in another place.

When the noble and learned Lord announced the amendments that he hopes to bring forward tomorrow, he was conceding with grace what should have been conceded with grace yesterday in another

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place. It is most regrettable that the concessions were not made there. Fine, it underlines that, as the House of Commons seems to get worse in its consideration of such matters, we manage to maintain some standards, but overall in the reputation of Parliament it is regrettable that those decisions were not announced yesterday.

I welcome the sunrise clause. I am still puzzled about the affirmative order and the 28 days, as I am about one other aspect of Clause 6. I hope that this is not too much of a Committee point and that the noble and learned Lord will be able to comment on it. I notice that according to subsection (1), the Secretary of State may by order make—and there is there a misprint in the Bill—by statutory instrument such modifications of other Acts as he needs. Subsection (5) states:

    "An order under subsection (1) may not be made unless a draft of the order has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament".

Subsection (6) states:

    "Subsection (5) does not apply to an order under subsection (1) if the order declares that the Secretary of State considers it to be expedient for the order to be made without the approval mentioned in that subsection".

What exactly are the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might consider it expedient not to comply with subsection (1)? What will be the implications of that? In particular, how will it relate to the ability of the Government to call an election during the period before an order has been approved by the House? This is the point to which my noble and learned friend Lord Howe referred.

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