Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill
Laurence Robertson (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland; Tewkesbury, Conservative)
I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Atkinson. I apologise for arriving slightly late for this afternoon’s sitting. I do not want to speak for long on the clause, but I am slightly concerned about the power that it gives to the Secretary of State. I was wondering whether the Minister would explain why it is necessary. As one or two hon. Members have commented to me, we spend time on a Bill and then we reach clause 18, which shows that it can all change by order.
Clause 18(2) states:
“The provision that may be made under subsection (1) includes provision amending or modifying—
(a) any provision of the 2000 Act;
(b) Schedule 2A to the 1983 Act”.
Conservative Members feel that if issues are important enough they should be in the Bill. We can then see what we are considering passing or rejecting, and have the opportunity to debate the issues, not just in statutory instrument Committees, which inevitably contain only a limited number of hon. Members. If things are in the Bill, the whole House has the opportunity to discuss them. So, will the Minister explain why clause 18 is necessary?
Alan Reid (Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland Affairs; Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)
It isa pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,Mr. Atkinson. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). We spend time scrutinising legislation, and we reach this clause, which gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers to amend Acts of Parliament. We are creating a culture of the Secretary of State being given sweeping powers, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland business.
I do not understand why such powers are necessary in this case. The Secretary of State has powers under the previous clauses that we have debated. I do not see why we need this sweeping clause, which gives him the power to do more or less anything he likes to various Acts of Parliament.
David Hanson (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office; Delyn, Labour)
I am grateful for the points that have been made. The simple fact is that we have proposed that the Secretary of State have this power because we hope that the situation will improve and that we can introduce the regulations before 2010. The provisions give the power for the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission and by order before the House of Commons and another place, to change the provisions in clause 17.
I have said all along that the disapplication period in clause 17 applies until 2010, and we have given the Secretary of State powers to extend that if the situation is worse. The provision in clause 18 allows him to amend the previous clauses by order confirmed by this House, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, if we feel that the provisions of the legislation need to apply at an earlier date.
I hope, as I am sure other hon. Members present do, that the situation will arise whereby we are able to bring normality to the funding situation in Northern Ireland earlier than 2010. The provision simply gives the Secretary of State the power to do that. I hope that offers an explanation. Hon. Members might remain concerned about the matter. I must repeat that the Secretary of State cannot just exercise the power. It will be exercised in consultation with the Electoral Commission. If hon. Members know Mr. Younger, its current chairman, they would know that the Electoral Commission would have strong views should the Secretary of State exercise the power in an inappropriate way.
If the Secretary of State were to determine that the scheme should be brought forward or ended because the situation had improved, he would need both Houses of Parliament to endorse his decision. That is the reason why the clause is included in the Bill. Given that explanation, I hope that hon. Members will allow it to stand part of the Bill, as drafted.