Increase of Limit

Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 9:39 pm on 4th December 1985.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

The clause as drafted is, indeed, the Bill. I take it that observations which relate to the Bill are pertinent to the Question which you have proposed to the Committee, Sir Paul.

Any hon. Members who are accidentally remaining in the Chamber, washed up after the Division of a few moments ago like flotsam upon the beach, might be surprised to learn that these proceedings, if they pause for a moment to listen to them, are of no practical effect to the House. If the Bill had not been introduced, or if the Bill failed to pass through the House, not one penny less, not one penny more, whether for capital or current purposes, would be expended in Northern Ireland. Such an atrocious misuse of the time of the House might well excite their curiousity. Lest they should go away unsatisfied, I might explain, perhaps briefly on the Question that you have proposed, Sir Paul, how it comes about. It is not without its historical interest and its current importance.

Once upon a time —now quite a long time ago —there was a Parliament and a Government in Northern Ireland established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. That home rule Government of Northern Ireland, thus established, was fitted up with all the appurtenances and furniture of a Parliament and Government to which we are accustomed, including the pieces of furniture relative to the conduct and control of financial affairs.

Accordingly, there was a Consolidated Fund for Northern Ireland and a loans fund for Northern Ireland. The purpose of the loans fund for Northern Ireland was analogous to that of the public works loans fund in Great Britain, which subsequently became the national loans fund, namely, to borrow money on public credit and re-lend it to certain bodies for purposes which would be self-financing in the sense that when the capital works in question were carried out they might be expected to yield revenue or a rent which would in due course go towards the satisfaction of the interest and the repayment of the capital which had been advanced out of the Consolidated Fund after it had been received from the Loans Fund.

Things went on in that way in Northern Ireland until in 1972 the constitution was suspended and in 1973 abolished. Since that time, responsibility for the Government of Northern Ireland and for the financing of the Government of Northern Ireland, and of all matters pertaining thereto, has fallen upon the House and is discharged through the financial mechanisms of the House. Therefore, it may be inquired why this venerable relic not only has been preserved by the Northern Ireland (Loans) Act 1975, renewed by an Order in Council in the meantime, but is to be warmed up again to a renewed lease of life by the Bill which is at present in Committee of the whole House.

Before I answer that question, perhaps I might draw attention to a curious consequence of its survival after the demise of the Government and Parliament established under the Government of Ireland Act. I have already explained to the Committee that the concept was that only capital purposes which were self-financing would be the recipients of onward loans from the loans fund, it being the general notion that a loans fund might be able to borrow at more advantageous rates of interest and conditions than those at which individual undertakings might borrow.

Of course, when everything was dealt with by Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom that distinction ceased to hold good. Consequently, the purposes to which the proceeds from the Northern Ireland loans fund are now devoted are those of any expenditure which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, is of a capital nature. Those are the material words.

9.45 pm

The Minister of State has, as he did before Second Reading, refreshed his memory of the debate that took place on 28 November 1984. He will know that a question was asked then to which an answer is still outstanding, as answers usually are to unanswerable questions, namely, how the Secretary of State determines, for this purpose, expenditure which is of a capital nature.

In a sense, all Government expenditure is current expenditure. It is a transfer of resources from within the economy for current use. For different purposes we find it convenient, by way of analogy with non-Government expenditure, to treat certain matters as capital —such as housebuilding or the erection of factories, which would be capital expenditure if it were privately commenced.

There is no longer a distinction in Northern Ireland between enterprises which are, in the sense that I previously defined, self-financing, and other enterprises. The margin of expenditure in Northern Ireland is not deemed to be met out of taxation, which of necessity must be met by borrowing out of the public sector. That forms part of the public sector borrowing of the United Kingdom.

The consequence is that the notion of issues out of the fund going to expenditure which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, is of a capital nature is sheer nonsense which has had to be maintained in order to justify the continued existence of the fund. The initial and practical purposes of the fund have no relationship whatsoever with the present financing of public expenditure in Northern Ireland.

The Minister has been candid about the reasons for preserving the antiquity which is the fund. Indeed, some of the Minister's predecessors were equally as candid when the corresponding question was put to them, usually at a much later hour of night than this. The Minister says that the fund is kept hanging around because one day, one never knows, there might once again be a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. It would then be splendid if, besides all the other legislation which would be necessary to bring that regime into existence, there was already a Consolidated Fund and a Loans Fund. That is an untenable explanation.

It would be a considerable legislative achievement if such a regime ever came about, and it is not likely to come about in the circumstances that I can at present envisage. To reinstate and re-elect a devolved Administration for Northern Ireland would be a fairly large legislative undertaking, which I do not expect or hope to live to see. It would be such a large achievement that merely to insert in it the creation of a Consolidated Fund and a Loans Fund would be a negligible addition to the bulk of such an Act.

The Minister is trifling with the Committee when he says that such things are kept in existence because it would be highly convenient, in an extremely improbable contingency, not to have to put an additional clause or subsection of a clause into a hypothetical Bill.

The fund is maintained as a declaration of intent by the Government to keep up the pretence that they still look forward to a time when there can be an effective Government in Northern Ireland. That would be a Government, not on the lines of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, but on lines on which no Government could possibly carry on, namely, that the minority and majority in their Parliament have exactly the same political effect and bear exactly the same responsibility.

The House is being put to all this trouble to maintain erect a mere totem which no longer brings any satisfaction or cause for comfort to anyone in Northern Ireland and has no practical effect whatever. It is an affront to the intelligence of the House and to those who believe that the time of the House should be spent as rationally as possible.

My final observation relates to the Second Reading debate on 27 November, and I put it before the Committee as an illustration of the unwisdom of intervening in a debate to make critical remarks about other Members when one is ill acquainted with the subject at large. 11 had assumed that the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who participated in the Second Reading debate, would have continued his interest to the Committee stage. I had also hoped that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), who made such a distinguished contribution to that debate, might have been persuaded to continue in the Committee. However, that was not to be. The hon. Member for Grantham will therefore forgive my being obliged to refer in his absence to the intervention that he made on that occasion.

The Minister had referred, as I have, to the fact that there had been a national loans fund under the Northern Ireland Act 1920. The hon. Member for Grantham intervened as follows: Does not the fact that a separate fund has existed since 1921 show conclusively that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is wholly wrong when he says that its purpose is to enable the Government to hive off the Province."—[Official Report, 27 November 1985; Vol. 87, c. 990.] Having delivered himself of that, the hon. Member for Grantham sat down with the self-satisfaction that one can almost hear exuding from the words that I have just quoted. In fact, of course, it shows that the right hon. Member for South Down was wholly right. Anyone who takes the trouble to peruse the Government of Ireland Act 1920 will discover that that legislation was specially devised to further the creation of an all-Ireland state, providing for a Council of Ireland and a built-in mechanism whereby the two home rule Irelands —Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland —could coalesce without further action on the part of this House.

It was for that very reason that the Northern Ireland devolved Administration was set up. It was part of the operation which has been going on between the Government and Dublin in the past few months, a part of the process —as abortive as all subsequent parts have proved to be —of hiving off Northern Ireland to a place to which its inhabitants have no intention of going. In his way, the hon. Member for Grantham did the House a service by reminding those who care to be reminded that the British state has been working away since the end of the first world war at the thankless and self-destructive task of attempting to disembarrass the United Kingdom of an integral part, namely, Northern Ireland.

We shall not contribute to that end —malevolent or otherwise, ill fated or otherwise —by wasting the time of the House with measures of this kind. I hope that I have not wasted the time of the Committee by pointing out to it that it is wasting its time.

Sir John Biggs Davison:

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) spoke of wasting time. On Second Reading he described the Northern Ireland Loans Fund and the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund as fictional and suggested that legislation in respect thereof was unnecessary. He reiterated that point today.

When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replied to the Second Reading debate he founded the need for this legislation on the wearisome assumption, if I may so describe it, of successive Governments that Northern Ireland's special needs and problems can best be met by a devolved system of Government. He kindly added: I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) does not agree".—[Official Report, 27 November 1985; Vol. 87, c. 990.] The hon. Member for Epping Forest certainly does not agree. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister, who is intelligent and down to earth, who understands Catholic and Protestant Ulster people, and who gives them his affection and service, agrees either.

My hon. Friend said that there had been a separate consolidated fund in Northern Ireland since 1921, and that it was established with a view to devolution. The right hon. Member for South Down referred to the history of that time, and the Government of Ireland Act 1920, but it was then that the fundamental mistake was made. There was some excuse for it because the new authority in southern Ireland was under the Crown and was part of the empire. Perhaps it was understandable that there should be a wish to establish a devolved system of government in the north, and to bring the north and the south together through parliamentary representatives sitting in a Council of Ireland, to which Northern Ireland appointed represen-tatives, but Dublin did not. It may have been excusable, but it was a fundamental mistake, from which Northern Ireland has suffered ever since. It denied the minority the protection of this Parliament.

In 1972 that subordinate Government and Parliament were abolished, and it seems to have been the purpose of every Government since then to restore Stormont. They have perversely and vainly pursued a form of devolved Government which, to satisfy them, must reconcile the insistence of the majority on majority rule with the insistence of the minority on a devolved Government. That is despite the evident popularity in Northern Ireland of government from Westminster.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell , Middlesbrough

Will the hon. Gentleman be more precise in his definition of Stormont? It was self-government in Northern Ireland. The devolution that is now being sought is completely different. Stormont had its own Cabinet, Prime Minister and Upper Assembly, and was entirely set apart from this Chamber. In 60 years not one question was asked in this Chamber by a Northern Ireland Member. Does he accept that we are discussing not that sort of Stormont, but devolved Government?

The Second Deputy Chairman:

Order. Discussions about how the clause came about are in order, but we cannot have a general debate.

Photo of John Taylor John Taylor , Strangford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

I am not sure if I may give way. Perhaps if I utter a few more words, I shall then be permitted to give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

I thought that I had pointed out that that was what was wrong. This Parliament did not concern itself with the problems of the minority of Northern Ireland. That is the tragedy, and that was the great mistake. However, I must not be drawn too far along that track.

Photo of John Taylor John Taylor , Strangford

The hon. Gentleman made a tremendously important point, which is beginning to dawn on all the people of Northern Ireland. During the period to which he referred, we had majority rule in Northern Ireland, as the term is generally understood throughout the free nations in western Europe. From 1972 onwards we then had what was called direct rule. Since last week we now have minority rule, and the majority is ignored.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

Order. We must not stray from the clause which we are discussing.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) has made an important point —that we are now reaching a position in which part of the United Kingdom is being governed without the consent of the governed. For that reason, I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down that it would do something to help in a very difficult situation if we were to do away with this method of legislating for and financing Northern Ireland.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said when he opened the Second Reading debate, it is a technical financial measure, but whether it be a question of borrowing from the National Loans Fund, which Northern Ireland repays with interest—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.