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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for presenting the order. When the elections took place on 26th November, a majority of those who were elected were in favour of proceeding with the Belfast agreement. That is absolutely clearapproximately 70 per cent of those elected were in favour of pursuing the Belfast agreement. The order is about paying the people who were elected on that day. I well understand the concerns about whether the Assembly sits or not and whether people should be paid if it does not.
As the Minister indicated, there is the representative role. I am not clear about the extent to which the MLAs will be taking up that representative role. It seems to me that they could be encouraged to do so and I shall be interested to hear her view on that. The constituents of the MLAs will have all kinds of concerns and I want to be certain that the MLAs, although not sitting in an Assembly, have access to government as representatives of the people. It seems to me that they ought to have. It may well be that being involved in the real lives of their constituents may lead to people being concerned that the Assembly is not sitting and that it should do so and should work.
I, too, hope that the talks process will now work well and that we can get the Assembly sitting. It is important that the review takes place, not least as regards the designation of people and the silly position which the alliance had to take in allying itself with one group in order that the Assembly could sit on an earlier occasion. But if, in effect, the Assembly does not sit, how long should the order last and what further mechanisms will there be? The Assembly is supposedly to run for four years. I should hate to think that four years would elapse and that, in effect, the order would remain in place.
However, we are in uncharted territory because the election was called on the basis that there would be a devolved Assembly. I do not believe that any of us quite understands why it did not work, but the choreography was such that there was supposed to be a devolved Assembly and that is why the election was called. Let us hope that no one can now say that this group is not representative of the Northern Ireland people. The Members were elected a week or so ago under a fairly decent electoral system and therefore it should be possible for them to be seen as the people who need to get on with that job.
Lord Laird: My Lords, it is with a measure of frustration that we find ourselves debating such an order once again. As I said earlier, 13 months have now passed since the suspension of the Assembly and, despite the recent election, we are, frankly, no further on.
When a candidate is elected to a democratic institutionto which many in this Chamber can personally relatehe enters into a contract with the electorate. Salaries are dispensed in return for a genuine and steadfast commitment to constituency matters. A Member's salary is as much a part of the democratic infrastructure as the elections themselves.
However, it will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that the doors to Northern Ireland's democratic infrastructurein the form of a workable Assemblyremain closed. We have had an election; we now have Assembly Members; yet, the other side of the bargainthe debating Chamber, the committees and even the corridor conversationsis not available. Your Lordships may well be aware that the Assembly door remains closed because, despite thirteen-and-a-half months of negotiations, republicans have yet to deliver the Prime Minister's "acts of completion"the end of their so-called war.
Now, I do not wish to detract from the good work that many Members do from their respective offices, dealing with constituency matters. Yet, without the framework of the Assembly and its institutions, such work effectively falls on deaf ears. No Assembly Member has the authority to change legislation, to make or achieve concessions on issues of concern to the electorate or even to question others. It remains
The current Assembly Members certainly deserve our support and, indeed, a salary, but the Government cannot ignore the growing public disquiet over what may be regarded as an unnecessary perk. People find it increasingly difficult to accept that Members of a suspended Assembly can still enjoy their salaries, and I therefore urge the Lord President of the Council to consider that such a situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. We must have some kind of time-limit on how long salaries, albeit at a reduced rate, will be paid. Such a limit may even provide the necessary incentive for Members and parties to work swiftly to achieve the desired restoration of the Assembly. Is the Lord President of the Council in a position to tell us how long the Government expect Members to be entitled to remuneration under the current circumstances and whether they are now prepared to consider implementing a time-limit?
As I said while debating another Northern Ireland order a few weeks ago, there is great potential that we shall see another election to the Assembly in a few months' time. If so, we shall effectively have allowed Members to receive salaries for, say, six months, only to stop the payments while we go to the polls once again. A further election will undoubtedly bring additional changes to the list of Members. Thus, we may well see a situation where Members who have been paid not to sit in the Assembly then lose their seatsa first for a democratic process.
One effect of the suspension of the Assembly is that, once again, we in this building are responsible for scrutinising the Government's activities in Northern Ireland. One method of doing so is by tabling parliamentary Questions. I must express dissatisfaction with many of the replies which, in my view, verge on being incorrect or misleading or simply not answered. I cite the example of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as being guilty of such crimes. I ask the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council to look into those matters.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, it seems that the order is largely technical and, therefore, acceptable. I hope that I shall be in order if I range slightly further afield than its text. The results of the election in Northern Ireland can hardly have been surprising to many people. It is clear to me that negotiations are likely to be quite long and arduous before any devolved government are restored.
I considered it encouraging that the Democratic Unionist Party, as currently the largest party, is reported to be talking both to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and, I believe, also to Her Majesty's Government. However, can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House give us an indication, however vague, of when, in her view, the Assembly might sit? I suggest that it could fulfil a
I very much hope that it will be possible for the Government, by means of various confidence-building measures, both to decrease the distrust which the noble Lord on the Opposition Bench mentioned and to show that practical ways can be devised of power-sharing within the existing institutions that are not suspended. I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State on this matter and I should be grateful for whatever response the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can give us.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, on the subject of the order, I was not sure from the account given by the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council of the precise chronology and why 5th December was the date substituted, although I entirely understood why a date had to be substituted. I thought I had heard the noble Baroness sayof course, I may have misheardthat 6th December was the last date on which the Assembly would have needed to meet. Therefore, my question is why 5th December, in particular, was chosen. I infer from the fact that it was the last date that there could have been an earlier date subsequent to the election result being declared.
I have a mild personal interest in this matter in an academic sense. In July 1989, on the Monday of a particular week, my appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was announced. But it so happened that the late Lord Younger, who was the Secretary of State for Defence, was obliged to remain in that post for the whole of that week in order to take the Russian Minister of Defencethe first visit ever to this country by a Russian Minister of Defencearound the country and for the office not to be delegated to his successor, my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time. I hasten to say that I did not check my own salary over the four days but I did not kiss hands with the Secretary of State until the Friday. I assume I was paid at the lower rate during the four days. Four days is not much and only eight days, by my calculation, is the relevant gap in this particular instance. However, I am interested in the answer to this small query as to why 5th December was chosen unless, as I say, I misheard what the Minister said originally.
As regards the background to the order, I share the concerns of my noble friend Lord Glentoran. I do not want in any way to carp and I understand the path that events take in Northern Ireland. However, we may be paying a high retrospective price for the hand-written commitments that the Prime Minister gave during the 1998 referendum, a facsimile of which I continue to carry
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