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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, before the Bill was introduced there were discussions with the usual
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channels about whether there should be pre-legislative scrutiny. The Official Opposition party and my party agreed that there should not be pre-legislative scrutiny, even though the Government explained that there would be a particular problem about Northern Ireland. They explained to us, all cards face up on the tables, that it would take them a little longer to get the amendments on Northern Ireland into the Bill, partly through consultation and the need to do the careful work.
I then discussed the matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. We both agreed that the argument in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny was not well founded, and that the sooner we got the Bill into and through the House and enacted by Parliament, the better.
It is therefore unfair to the Government, our two parties having taken this approach, for noble Lords to seek to suggest, as I think was suggested, that in some way the Government have acted improperly in producing a lot of amendments in Grand Committee on Northern Ireland after the original Bill was introduced. We knew that perfectly well in advance. When those amendments were introduced, in order to achieve clarity of intelligence on all our parts, a special procedure was adopted at my suggestion whereby the whole Bill in an amended form would be provided to us informally with all the explanatory notes that Ministers had.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, historically in Ireland one of the great political problems has been the perception of England imposing laws in that island and, since 1921, in Northern Ireland. Let us not repeat the error again today. It is a matter not of human rights but of democracy and devolution. Either the Liberal Democrats support devolution or they do not, but they cannot have it both ways. If you accept the policy of devolution for Wales, for Scotland and for Northern Ireland, and since you agree that Scotland can make its own decisions in its own Parliament on this issue, then logically you should also accept the right of the people of Northern Ireland through their elected Assembly to make their own decisions. They will not be ones of discrimination against marriages for people of the same sex.
There is a common understanding among the vast majority of people in Northern IrelandPresbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholicon this particular issue. There is this common feeling in Northern Ireland and people such as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others should respect it and not try to override or impose their opinion on the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, of which I am a Member, is suspended temporarily. However, tomorrow at Lancaster House the Prime Minister Tony Blair will sponsor and host an all-party round table discussion on the issue of restoring devolution to Stormont in
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Northern Ireland. I think we should wait for the Assembly to be brought back into operation in Northern Ireland; and supporters of devolution should leave it to that Northern Ireland Assembly to make its decision for the people of Northern Ireland and not to impose a decision from outside.
Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words, although I doubt whether they will have much effect, having heard the Government's new constitutional doctrine that they do not respond to amendments on Bills that are Lords' starters so that they can deal with them much more easily in another place.
I make a few remarks in support of the amendment of my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. I offer the apologies of my noble friend Lord Glentoran. He hoped to be here to deal with the amendment but very much regrets that for business reasons he is unable to be here today. However, he wants to underline the point my noble friend made that when the consultation process took place in Northern Ireland some 86 per cent of the responses were in favour of not making a change and were opposed to the proposed changes to be imposed on Northern Ireland by the Bill.
I think that it must be rare indeed in such a divided community for such clear breadth of opinion to be behind the sense of the kind of amendment put forward by my noble friend. How odd is it in this age of devolution for the Westminster Parliament to take a piece of legislation and impose it on the people of Northern Ireland, whose government may be at the moment in suspension but where, none the less, devolution is the norm?
As we are in the presence of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, perhaps I may remind her that it was only on Tuesday when we discussed the Higher Education Bill that we debated amendments where concerns were raised on all sides of the House about the effects of academic freedom in Wales for certain matters to be devolved fully to the National Assembly for Wales. Despite the warnings from various noble Lords on the Government Back Benches, the House none the less resolved not to obstruct the will of Welsh Ministers and the Welsh Assembly, because these matters were devolved. In replying to that debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, will remember that she said that the Government are satisfied that the Assembly is best placed to make the judgment about how it wishes to take this forward.
All that this amendment asks is that the people of Northern Ireland, who have a far longer tradition of devolution going right back to the 1920s, should have the same degree of respect. Therefore, I hope that the Ministerwhichever Minister is replying, perhaps it will be the noble Baroness the Leader of the Housewill give some sort of response.
Since the Leader of the House will respond, I wonder whether I could take her on to amendments slightly beyond this one. We have heard from one of
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her Ministers, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, that the Government do not intend to move any of their amendments this afternoon. Therefore, we presume that when they seek to overturn the decision taken earlier on today they will put their amendments in the Commons, they will then come back to this House, and we will have no chance whatever to discuss them. It would therefore be legitimate of me to ask the noble Baroness how she expects us to deal with those amendments when they come back to this House.
I will start by looking briefly, if I mayalthough I appreciate that I might be slightly out of orderat the first group of government amendments that we were going to deal with before the Government announced this new and peculiar policythat is government Amendments Nos. 13, 15, 17, 20, 24, 25, 34, 36 and 37. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, helpfully and kindly wrote a couple of letters to us earlier in the month setting out what was happening with those amendments and with some other amendments. She did not help her cause, or perhaps the Home Office did not help her cause, in that both letters were undated. That was just the first sign of the incompetence that my noble friend Lord Tebbit has talked about
Lord Alli: My Lords, I am finding this difficult to follow. We were discussing Amendment No. 6, put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, about Northern Ireland. Perhaps the noble Lord can explain why he seems to have moved on to a different group of amendments. We should try to finish one group of amendments before we move on to another. Many of us have been through Grand Committee, and we have dealt with this Bill line by line. We want to consider things in the right order and in the right place. The noble Lord is in danger of going off into a conversation that no one will follow except him and the Minister. With due respect, this is Report stage, and we have been through Grand Committee. Can the noble Lord deal with Amendment No. 6? If he wishes to, after that he can perhaps find some other procedural measure to cover the other amendments.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I suggest to noble Lords that we stick to the grouping of the amendments as proposed. We are dealing with Amendment No. 6, which is grouped with Amendment No. 196. If the noble Lord has points to make on other amendments, perhaps he can make them at the appropriate place.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, was most helpful to his Government, and no doubt they will take note of that. In due course, I look forward to seeing him on the Front Bench in the weeks or months to come.
I accept that I was out of order. I was dealing with amendments that were beyond those in the group. I was doing that purely because the noble Baroness the Leader of the House is here, and she will be responding to Amendment No. 6. She might therefore be able to advise the House as to how we will be able to discuss
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those amendments that will go to the Commons, be moved in the Commons, probably not be discussed in the Commons, and we will have virtually no chance of discussing them here. It might be that we will have to seek changes to our procedures in this House when those amendments come back. I merely make that suggestion. If I decide not to detain the House too long, perhaps the noble Baroness will take some trouble to answer those points on those amendments that we are advised by her colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, the Government have no intention of moving later this afternoon.
Having said that, I offer my support to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain for her Amendments Nos. 6 and 196. If she does not move the amendments today, I hope that she will consider doing so on another occasion.
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