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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, my point was that the noble Lord said that the reason that this was reviewable was because the job was unique. As I pointed out, the committee knew that the job was unique when it put it to the SSRB in the first place.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, the House Committee is not unique in that sense. It put forward recommendations, but the House of Lords itself has the right to reject them, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I did in Committee. I do not accept the noble Baroness's case, but I am sure that she will make it again on another occasionalthough not in your Lordships' House, because she does not seem to want to do that.
Again, there is a simple issue here. Do we agree with the House Committee and the recommendation of the Chairman of Committees that we should pay a Cabinet Minister's salary? I personally believe that to be excessive and no case has seriously been made for it. Or do we go for my amendment, which many think is too high, but which I think is a reasonable compromise?
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It is understood that the Bill is being taken through the House at some speed mainly because it is important to give momentum to the political process in Northern Ireland. We cannot allow matters to drift indefinitely. I acknowledge, on behalf of the Government, that this presents difficulties to your Lordships. In recognition of this, we have already had several meetings with those who are interested. We are happy to help resolve any further doubts before next Monday. If any noble Lords wish to seek advice on possible amendments, we would be happy to give such help as we can.
This is a brief Bill, with two substantive clauses and three schedules. It is largely temporary in effect. The Assembly, in the form it is set up in this Bill, will in any event not sit beyond 24 November. The Bill opens the way for the Assembly to meet on 15 May, the first time in nearly four years. The key task is to select a new executive, opening the way to devolution in Northern Ireland. 24 November is the deadline in the Bill to restore devolution. It is fixed and unchangeable. We need politicians to take responsibility, engage with each other and show leadership to their communities. The Government will help, but there are limits to what we can do. The biggest obstacle is lack of trust on both sides.
For unionists to be willing to share power with republicans, they can reasonably ask to be confident that republicans have turned completely away from paramilitary activity and will not accept, either overtly or with a nod and a wink, criminal activity.
Unionists can properly also ask to know, before criminal justice and policing powers are devolved, that support for the criminal justice system and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is absolutely unequivocalbut that concerns the second phase of devolution, which is not for 24 November. However, republicans and nationalists also have understandable needs. They want to know that unionists are serious about sharing power with them and power-sharing must not be an ever-receding target. Reasonable-sounding arguments for testing things a little further before going into government can always be found by Members of this House, the other place and politicians in Northern Ireland. But republicanism has come an enormous distance. It has moved on massively since the IRA statement of July last year and the act of decommissioning later that year in September.
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The 10th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission was published last week. It confirms how far republicanism has come. The IMC had already made it clear that the IRA was no longer a terrorist threat. The new report says:
"It remains our absolutely clear view that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following a peaceful path. It is working to bring the whole organisation fully along with it . . . We are not aware of current terrorist, paramilitary or violent activity sanctioned by the leadership. We have no indications in the last three months of training, engineering activity, recent recruitment or targeting for the purposes of attack".
On criminality, which rightly causes a great deal of concern, the report says that the Provisional IRA continues to seek to stop criminal activity by its members. It welcomes Gerry Adams' comments that anybody involved in criminality should face the full rigours of the law. We all have views on the past conduct of the republican movement and all is not yet perfect, but we have to acknowledge that there has been, and continues to be, momentous progress. Representatives of unionist partiesincluding those from the Democratic Unionist Party, whose members I look forward to welcoming very soon in your Lordships' Househave acknowledged that. That is a very good sign.
That acknowledgment now needs to be built on, through engagement and dialogue. You do not have to agree with someone about everythingyou do not have to agree about anythingto be willing to talk to them. The Assembly is the place for dialogue. There is a strong record of people working together. The Assembly proved, when it met under devolution, that people could work seriously together, despite widely different outlooks. There is ample opportunity between 15 May and 24 November for them to take the helm of the Northern Ireland political process.
I now turn to the Bill. The framework is a simple one. Clause 1 brings back the Members of the Assembly in order to prepare for restoration of devolved governmentwhich means selecting an executive. Schedule 1 sets out how the Assembly will operate in this phase of its work. As I have said, the Bill sets a limit on achieving devolution of 24 November. Under Clause 2, if an executive has been selected by then, we move immediately into devolution, with Assembly elections postponed until May 2008. Schedule 2 to the Bill is concerned with the implementation of this phasethe success phase.
If the Assembly does not succeed, we have to move forward by other means and Schedule 3 comes into effect. The Assembly election scheduled for May 2007 will be postponed until a point at which it can fulfil its proper role. In more detail, the Assembly will meet under the Bill without its formal powers. The direct rule arrangements will continue in this phase.
The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to refer to the Assembly the selection, first, of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. If that is successful, he will use the running of the d'Hondt process to fill the other ministerial posts in the executive. He can also refer other matters to the Assembly as he thinks fit.
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This is a similar process to that which was followed when the Assembly was first elected in 1998. The Secretary of State can make directions about procedure, including the appointment of the presiding officer. He has already announced that he intends to appoint Mrs Eileen Bell as presiding officer. She has seen a good deal of Northern Ireland politics, and is well liked among the parties. I agree that the provisions of Schedule 1 appear highly directive, if indeed not dictatorial, but the Assembly has one key task, which is to select an executive. Selection of a presiding officer and the making of standing orders, both of which in ordinary circumstances require the Assembly to operate by cross-community support, could cause prolonged hang-ups, and we do not want the Assembly distracted from its main function by procedural wrangling.
We want to work by consensus, and we are consulting closely with the presiding officer and the political parties about the way the Assembly will operate and its standing orders, an illustrative draft of which we have sent to the parties and placed in the Printed Paper Office. We will welcome all comments, including any from your Lordships. Meetings have been taking place with the parties, both at the end of this week as this Bill passed through the other place and this week, discussing these issues and points of detail about the way the Assembly will operate.
We are ready to refer to the Assembly a range of matters that will feature among the key concerns of a devolved administration. These might include education reform, local government reform, water charges, rate rises or the rating system. As we have said, we would take account of the Assembly's views on such matters, especially if they had cross-community support.
We have been asked to undertake that we would always act on views expressed by the Assembly or hold matters back pending devolution. As the Government, we are accountable to Westminster for the good government of Northern Ireland pending the restoration of devolution. We cannot and will not hand over control to a body without responsibilities. They can take the responsibilities any time they want; we are not stopping them. All they have to do is elect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, run d'Hondt and set up an executive, and they can have the responsibilities by the end of this month if they so choose. But until they have those responsibilities it would be quite wrong for us to hand over the powers. As direct rule Ministers we have to be free to put forward proposals that we believe are in the public interest, but a cross-community view from the Assembly would have to be taken seriously by Ministers and Parliament. I repeat, the sooner devolution is restored, the sooner the Assembly will have complete authority over these issues.
Work on legislation is important, but the key purpose of the Assembly under this Bill is to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister and fill the other ministerial posts. If that happens, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to make an order restoring devolved government. The new executive
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would take office and all the Assembly's powers and responsibilities would be restored. The direct rule powers would come to an end; indeed, there would be repeal from the statue book.
If restoration is achieved, we have provided that the Assembly's life should be prolonged for a year beyond May 2007, when an election was due. We thought carefully about proposing that, because it is unusual, and one does not want to interfere in the democratic process. It is a difficult proposition to put forward. We think the alternatives are worse. After years of effort to bring the parties sufficiently close together to work in an executiveand we can get that up and running between 15 May and 24 Novemberwe really cannot sentence the members who take those responsibilities to an immediate attack of election fever when they have to go and fight an election next May. We thought that would be counterproductive and poisonous to the spirit of working together. If we are serious about devolution, we cannot do that.
Your Lordships will know that some parties are seeking changes to the arrangements in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 under which devolution would operate. That is quite legitimate, and indeed we have put forward some such changes in the comprehensive proposals of December 2004. We hope the parties in the Assembly will sort these issues out. As a government, we will do all we can to help.
I want to be clear about a point of detail in Schedule 2, because there were misapprehensions in the other place, if anyone reads the debate. I have to say that I read Thursday's debate from start to finish: the first time I have read a full debate from the other place in donkey's years. I am much reinforced that it is simply trueI repeat that it is truethat the quality of debate in your Lordships' House is far superior to that in the other place. I speak as a supporter of the other place, but heaven above, I had to go through that word for word. I was in Northern Ireland on Thursday so I was not able to tune into any of the debate.
I want to be clear about the misapprehension. Once the devolved institutions are restored, and I have said that they can be by the end of this month if they so choose, they will be free to act as they wish within the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That means that the Assembly, along with the executive, can repeal or change any of the things that we have done as direct rule Ministers. There are provisions in paragraph (3) of Schedule 2 that prevent the bottom dropping out of the laws passed under devolution, but they will not stop the Assembly from overturning the direct rule legislation. If the members want, for example, to spend more money in a certain area and legislative change is required for that, they can do it. However, because they have the responsibility, they will have to make the cuts elsewhere to fund the extra spending. That is the point; they can do it if they want to. In other words, they are not prevented from doing that; that is not the case with some of the misapprehensions raised in the other place.
When an Order in Council has gone through, it is like an Act of Parliament. I know that there are differences, but that can be amended, repealed or
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overturnedit is in the Assembly's prerogative to do soand carry on the business of government in Northern Ireland. So there is not any problem about that whatever. However, this is the success scenario towards which we are working. I repeat what I have said before and what other Ministers have said. The sooner they get back to exercise power the better, because the longer direct rule lasts the faster we will push the reform programme. We make that absolutely clear. There is a massive reform programme on in Northern Ireland at the moment and we will push it faster the longer we are there.
If we do not obtain an executive by 24 November, the Bill is clear and unconditional. The May 2007 elections will not take place, the Assembly Members will go home and from that date they will receive no pay or allowances. This is not covered in the Bill and does not need to be, because there are existing powers on the subject. It would not be right to pay Members of the Assembly any further allowances after three and a half years on generous pay without having to carry out their role. Many Members might understand and some of the MLAs might say that it is not their fault, but the public will not accept their receiving golden handshakes. This is not a threat and they will not see it as such; it is a reality and it is reasonable. It is a recognition of political reality.
If the process failed by 24 November as a government we would then take forward energetically the running of Northern Ireland. It is not something that we look forward to. All our efforts are aimed towards restoring devolution. Of course an Assembly and an executive could at some future date be restored, but it would not be on anyone's agenda for quite a while. The Bill enables an Assembly election to be called later subject to an affirmative vote here at Westminster. We do not want things to come to this. The Assembly was a success in the short period that it worked. It set up an enormous amount of work and set itself quite an agenda, which is being left to direct rule Ministers to continue. But it can do that again and it can have the joy of finishing off some of the work that it set in train all those years ago. If the Members are back they can do that, and if they are not we will finish it for them. We believe that the Bill offers the most promising framework in which success and devolution in Northern Ireland can happen. I beg to move.
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