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Lord Glentoran: I thank the Minister for bringing this order. I support it, as it is clearly simplifying the situation as it is today before the order. Anything that creates more clarity and simplification and facilitates correct prosecutions must be right. I support the order.
Lord Smith of Clifton: We agree with the passing of the order.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
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Lord Rooker rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2005.
The noble Lord said: This order was laid before the House on 16 June. First, I shall provide some background to this simple order. The UK-wide Civil Partnership Act 2004, from where this order derives, enables same-sex couples to obtain legal recognition by forming a civil partnership. They may do so by registering as civil partners of each other. The Act also sets out the legal consequences of forming a civil partnership, including the rights and responsibilities of civil partners. The order simply brings existing Northern Ireland local election legislation into line with the provisions of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. It amends Northern Ireland local election legislation in the light of the provisions made by the Act. The amendments made by this order give civil partners the same status as a spouse in matters connected with the conduct of local elections in Northern Ireland. It also amends the definition of "relative" in the context of local elections to include civil partners.
Article 2 amends the local election rules in the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, and Article 3 amends the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. In each case, the words "civil partner" have been added. The order is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and it has been made by the powers confirmed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is a simple order. Before anyone asks the question, "Why does it not apply to parliamentary elections?", it may help if I say that the order does not need to because the original Civil Partnership Act covered all other elections, so the Assembly and all other elections are covered. It is just that this aspect was not covered by the original legislation. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2005.(Lord Rooker.)
Lord Glentoran: I thank the Minister for bringing the order forward. It is a tidying-up order. We had the debate about civil partnerships, in which I argued against the Government and lost. Of course, I accept that decision of the Government. We are where we are, and to bring this order to tidy up local elections is absolutely right, and I support it.
Lord Smith of Clifton: We, too, on this side of the Committee support this order, and we welcome that the civil partnership legislation which we supported in the 2004 Act as it went through Parliament is being extended to Northern Ireland.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
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Lord Rooker rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2005.
The noble Lord said: This order was laid before the House on 25 May. The effect of the order is to extend the power to legislate on Northern Ireland matters by Order in Council for a further six months; that is, until 14 April 2006. Noble Lords have already agreed to the extension of this power, originally set out in the Northern Ireland Act 2000, five times since the suspension of devolution in October 2002. I do not have to add to what I said in previous debates in this Room on Monday. This is not a completely satisfactory process. It is one into which we shall try to inject a bit more input in terms of legislating by order as I explained. We are working on that and we shall discuss that with colleagues as soon as possible.
It is a distasteful process, and I regret, as does everyone else, that it is necessary at this time. We are committed, as indeed are the Government of the Republic, to the restoration of a fully inclusive devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. We are operating at the moment a second-best system. Neither the people of Northern Ireland nor the Government want direct rule to continue. Restoring devolution will enable democratically elected politicians to take local decisionssome of which are quite tough by the way. At the moment they do not have to do it; it is done for them. The electorate should be able to hold them accountable; because we are not accountable to the electorate. As direct-rule Ministers we are accountable to this House and to the other place. We are not accountable to local politicians in Northern Ireland, whether they are Members of the Assembly or not. It is this House and the other place to which we are accountable. That is unsatisfactory, but that is the state of the matter at the moment.
It is of course essential that we restore trust and confidence in the political process. Everybody knows what is required for that. We expect and hope that the forthcoming response from the IRA to the statement made by the president of Sinn Fein in April will provide credible and verifiable commitments on this issue. If so, we would expect to see a Unionist willingness to participate in inclusive power-sharing government.
A number of proposals have been put to us to increase democratic accountability in the mean time. Obviously my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will listen to thisand he has certainly discussed the issue and listened to recent representations from your Lordshipsbut the fact remains that any interim solution, pending full restoration of the agreement, must be acceptable to all parties. At the moment there is no consensus. As I have said, we hope to restore devolution at the earliest possible opportunity, but because of how the dates have worked out, with the
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Summer Recess and no September sitting, it is necessary for this order to be approved now before the Summer Recess. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2005.(Lord Rooker.)
Lord Glentoran: I thank the Minister for bringing the order again, although I know he brings it with regret. I welcome his opening remarks about the way weI emphasise the word "we"in this House and in the other place attempt to carry out the democratic processes on behalf of those living in Northern Ireland. We will continue to do our best and to work with Her Majesty's Government in how they want to go down this road. Regarding where we are in relation to reinstating Stormont, I had a number of fairly aggressive comments to make, but I am afraid that today was rather too much for me and déjà vu from 1972. I think that we can leave that for another day. The point has been well made. I support the order.
Lord Smith of Clifton: This is the sixth renewal of this wretched piece of legislation. I deplore it. We all seek a swift return to devolution. I do not think that that is on the cards although I hope that I am proved wrong. We must ensure that it is made absolutely clear that all illegal activity by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland must come to an end. We look not just at the criteria established in paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration but also at any role that the paramilitaries have in criminal activity in Northern Ireland.
We believe that our colleagues in the Alliance Party provided a very useful set of benchmarks by which the two governments, the political parties and indeed the people of Northern Ireland can use to assess any IRA statement. These benchmarks are based on the premise that all who engage in politics should clearly demonstrate that they have no connection with ongoing paramilitary or criminal activity and that they have put the past behind them. It is now absolutely crucial that the Government commit to their own series of benchmarks for assessing any new commitments from the IRA if the wider community is to have any confidence that any future political process is based on integrity and is sustainable.
The specifics of what is required need to be spelled out, as there should not be any misunderstanding of what is now required. Seven years on from the Good Friday agreement, the time for any turning of blind eyes or constructive ambiguity has long since passed. If any meaningful progress is to be achieved, it must be on the solid foundation of a shared respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
I shall turn to the order more specifically. As the Minister said, there is currently an extreme democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Elections to the Assembly occurred in November 2003, and since then no local politician from Northern Ireland has taken responsibility for the day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues that affect the people by whom they were elected. The current
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situation of legislating for Northern Ireland by order, covering significant and substantial pieces of legislation that are passed in a couple of hours or less, is not sustainable, as the Minister acknowledges. When might we expect his proposals for improving the situation, because there is a lot of manana? The Government have been looking at the matter for some time, but he has offered us only hints. I accept that they were better than the manana statements of his predecessors, but we would like to know when we will have new procedures for dealing with orders.
More frustrating is that there is no comprehensive way of gauging the views of people in Northern Ireland before we debate legislation. We may be told in the Explanatory Notes that there were 15 or so responses to a consultation, but those responses are not published on any of the departmental websites. Occasionally the Government might publish a summary of the responses, along the lines of "Three responses agreed with this proposal and one did not", but there is no opportunity to see who agreed and disagreed and the reasons for their positions. Seemingly, there is also no obligation on political parties in Northern Ireland to respond to such consultations. Again, we have no way of knowing what the political class thinks on a particular issue.
I shall return to a familiar theme of mine. We are paying Members of the legislative Assembly, and they should be more attentive and respond to consultations at the very minimum. For how much longer will we pay MLAs? It is always another six months. The Prime Minister and the former Secretary of State came round to my way of thinking and said that they could not go on paying the salaries. However, I have heard a deafening silence since those utterances, and it seems that we are to continue to pay a considerable sum to keep those politicians in the way to which they have grown accustomed, and they cannot even respond to consultation on orders.
It is difficult that the Government do not provide more notice for such orders. We have had very brief notice of these three orders, and it is extremely difficult to apply one's mind to them in any satisfactory or profound way. We discussed the Budget earlier in the week; many matters such as that should be primary legislation but are being treated through secondary legislation. We look forward not only to tinkering with the procedures, but perhaps to having an ad hoc committee. The noble Lord referred to the Northern Ireland Committee in another place, but it does not perform the function that we have to perform here. Hastily calling Grand Committees in this House is not the systematic way in which we should go about matters. I therefore hope that I can get some comfort from the Minister that we shall not only tinker with the present procedure, but justifiably work it out in a proper way so that we can take account of what we are dealing with. I also hope that he will encourage the political parties to respond to consultations when they occur. Other than that, we support the order, rather reluctantly.
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