Northern Ireland (Ministerial Accountability)

– in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 21st June 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. David Davis.]

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann 2:33 pm, 21st June 1991

The question of accountability lies at the heart of the functions of the House and was established by our predecessor but one, the English Parliament, which had a clear tradition of refusing to grant supply to the monarch until there had been redress of grievances, thus eventually helping to establish the principle that Ministers were accountable to the House.

Accountability has three different aspects: the accountability of the Administration as a whole, of the entire Government, which has to command a majority within the House; the accountability of individual Ministers to the House and their relationship with hon. Members; and Ministers' accountability to their colleagues in government, which could also be regarded as an aspect of collective responsibility.

1 intend not to discuss the position of the Government as a whole, but to concentrate on the accountability of Ministers. I shall mention four aspects of accountability and of Ministers' relationship with hon. Members and the House. One may approach Ministers or raise issues with them through correspondence and in oral and written questions. Ministers are also accountable to the Committees of the House.

I am sure that the House is aware that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland have a serious grievance with regard to that latter aspect of Ministers' accountability—the absence of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland. Select Committees were introduced comparatively recently in the life of Parliament. The present Select Committees stem from 1979. They were established to strengthen the function of the House and its role with regard to accountability. They were established for all Government Departments but one. There is one major Government Department for which there is no Select Committee—the Northern Ireland Office. Every other major Government Department has a Select Committee. There are Select Committees for Home Affairs, Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, Health, and Social Security. The other two territorial Departments have Select Committees; the Welsh Office has a Select Committee, and there is provision for a Select Committee for the Scottish Office. I say "provision" because, due to difficulties over membership, it has not proved possible to constitute it during this Parliament. However, there is no Northern Ireland Select Committee.

To remedy that gap, other Select Committees have tried to cover Northern Ireland matters by including them within their remit, but it has not been a happy experience. I do not intend to discuss that at any great length because it is covered fairly adequately by the recent report of the Select Committee on Procedure on Select Committees and I assume that at some time in the not-too-distant future there will be an opportunity for the House to discuss that report and such issues can then be touched upon.

I direct the attention of hon. Members to a few passages from that report. In paragraph 46 the Procedure Committee said: very few Committees made any specific mention of this aspect"— Northern Ireland matters— in their orders of reference. The Energy Committee has made some attempt to cover the affairs of the Province with one visit and evidence and Reports on the Gas Industry and on Electricity Supply in Northern Ireland. The Chairman of the Committee acknowledged however, that it had 'only occasionally fulfilled its duties to examine Northern Ireland matters', and he added ' I do not believe that Committees with Great Britain members alone will ever do justice to Northern Ireland issues'. Other Committees have not even attempted to cover Northern Ireland matters. Paragraph 47 of the report of the Select Committee on Procedure refers to the views of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, who reveals that he has not attempted even to cover Northern Ireland issues. He appears to think that he should not do so. As the report says, there has been a fragmentary coverage of Northern Ireland affairs. A few Committees have tried—recently, the Select Committee on Health.

The fragmentary coverage means that the Northern Ireland Office escapes scrutiny. Some of its functions and matters within its purview might occasionally be covered by other Select Committees, but attention is inconsistent and one cannot expect each Select Committee to adopt the same approach. For that reason, the Procedure Select Committee concluded that there was a case—in my view, a strong case— for bringing the Northern Ireland Office formally within the system of scrutiny by Select Committees. It is interesting that the Government accepted that case in their response to the report. The key sentence is: The Government accepts that, in principle, a select committee concerned solely with the work of the NIO and Northern Ireland Departments may be desirable in order to ensure that Northern Ireland matters receive the parliamentary scrutiny they deserve. That is a significant concession from the Government, and it must be regarded as such. If they concede that, why have steps not been taken to establish such a Committee? The Procedure Select Committee considered it to be desirable, there is considerable evidence to show that it is desirable, and the Government have acknowledged that it is desirable. Why, then, has it not been done? It is not because of difficulties such as those encountered by the Scottish Office in setting up a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

We in Northern Ireland are perhaps more tolerant than the Scots and even the Welsh. We have said that we are prepared to allow hon. Members who represent constituencies outside Northern Ireland to be part of our Select Committee. Not only that, we are even prepared to allow them to be in the majority. We are so anxious to see such a Select Committee established that we are prepared to accept a minority role on it. That shows our anxiety to establish this important Committee and to reinforce the important function of the House to bring the Executive to account and to scrutinise the functions of government. There is a clear need for that scrutiny.

I have said that contacts with Ministers come not only through the House and its Committees, but through questions and correspondence. I do not intend to refer to oral questions and Question Time, which is a rather special, almost gladiatorial exercise. One does not expect and one rarely sees any significant result from it. In passing, however, it is noticeable—other hon. Members have noticed this with regard to other oral question proceedings—how the Government seem to try to pack the Order Paper. I feel keenly about that.

I tabled a question for each of the past four Northern Ireland Question Times, but only once did my question even get on the Order Paper. I had the chagrin of seeing that the early questions on the Order Paper were tabled by Members who were not only not from Northern Ireland —that is not so bad—but who had not displayed any particular interest in Northern Ireland. One suspects that they were encouraged to table their questions to give Ministers the opportunity to have a breather or to spin out the time and prevent other hon. Members from raising important issues.

The matters that I want to raise about the conduct of individual Ministers relate to written questions and correspondence. Those are issues about which one expects Ministers to be accountable to hon. Members, and I am not happy with the situation. The problem with correspondence is the regrettable delay between writing and receiving replies from some Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office.

I asked my consituency secretary to go through my files of corespondence, and I confess that I asked for the correspondence with the Minister who is the slowest to respond, who I regret to say is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), and I will give an example of the problem concerning him.

There was outside Portadown in my constituency an issue of considerable importance to the local community concerning a tip or dump on an old quarry that was being used as a landfill site for domestic waste. A fly-by-night cowboy operator from Dundalk—in the Irish Republic; where else?—had somehow managed to erect on that tip a number of storage tanks for industrial waste. They were on a tip for domestic waste from which methane gas was escaping and regularly being ignited. There was much concern about it in the locality and I raised the issue at Government level.

The first time I wrote to the Minister on the subject was on 10 December 1990. I received holding replies on 17 December and 3 January and a substantive reply on 21 January, an interval of six weeks. I wrote again on 23 January. I received holding replies on 25 January and 5 February and a substantive reply on 28 February, a five-week interval. Prior to receiving that reply I had written another substantive letter, on 26 February, and I received holding replies on 28 February and 12 March and finally a substantive reply on 18 April, an interval of seven weeks.

It was not as if the replies required important research on detailed technical matters. It was a straightforward issue, but there were intervals of six, five and seven weeks, and that was not unusual. On other issues I have experienced intervals of four, 10, five, four, nine and seven weeks. If the Minister would like the details, I will furnish him with the list. It is not a satisfactory record.

I am reminded of a comment from the time of the Kilbrandon commission many years ago when the question of devolution was under consideration. That commission referred, in regard to local accountability, to a person who had given evidence before the commission and who said that Government officers and Ministers should be located in relation to the individual citizen in such a way that an angry farmer could take a bus, visit the relevant Minister, horsewhip him and get back home before nightfall. That may not be altogether possible in the present security position back home, but sometimes it might be thought to be appropriate.

I have been dealing with the problems that hon. Members face when letters are sent to the Northern Ireland Office. The situation is not happy when it comes to written questions, and in that connection I shall cite some exchanges that I have had with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who will reply to this debate.

I tabled questions about new health boards that had been established in Northern Ireland. I raised the issue because, like many others, I was concerned about the quality of the persons who had been nominated. As for the nomination of non-experts, non-professional staff, there was no element, so far as one could see, of a representative character or balance, but we have become accustomed to that from the Northern Ireland Office, which rarely makes an effort to be representative and fair in its distribution of appointments.

As I was as much concerned with quality as with representation, I tabled a written question asking the Minister if he will list the members of the …boards …indicating in respect of each the original nominating person or body; and whether there was consultation at any stage in respect of each such member with the Government of the Irish Republic".—[Official Report, I May 1991; Vol. 190, c. 199.] I received from the Minister an answer referring me to earlier answers he had given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) in which the names had been listed, but there was no reference to the other matters that I had raised about the original nominating person or body.

So I tabled a further question, which the Minister answered on 20 May 1991. I asked the Minister whether he has anything to add to his reply of 1 May in respect of the original nominating person or body of those appointed to serve on health and social security boards".—[Official Report, 20 May 1991; Vol. 191, c. 379.] The Minister said that he had nothing to add. That was particularly unsatisfactory given that I had framed my question in that way because I had seen an answer dated 25 March 1991, given by a Minister responsible for Scotland. He had been asked to give the original nominating body of each member who had been appointed to those boards. He complied with that request and listed all the members, giving their occupations and the original nominating person or body. The Minister was happy to acknowledge that the first appointment on the list was the Scottish Conservative party. The list also includes local health councils, the CBI, cancer research committees, local authorities, Conservative constituency associations, Conservative Members, Ministers, persons connected with the Conservative party and other bodies such as universities, the Red Cross Society, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and other such bodies.

If the Scottish Minister had no hesitation in revealing the original nominating bodies, why is there a difference with regard to Northern Ireland matters? If that information can be made available for Scotland, why cannot it be made available for Northern Ireland'? 'What is the difference'? Why is there such secrecy'? What is the Minister trying to hide?

A question tabled for Northern Ireland questions about a week ago by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) appeared briefly on the Order Paper and was then withdrawn. It asked the Secretary of State to make a statement in response to the report on the Irish sea of the environment education and culture committee of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. At Northern Ireland questions last Thursday, that question had been withdrawn and we can guess why—the report is secret, like so many other matters connected with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That, one suspects, is the reason behind the secrecy in this case. The Minister is reluctant to reveal matters relating to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

I said at the outset that, as well as being accountable to individual hon. Members, Ministers are also accountable to the Government of which they form part. That is partly why my original question referred to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However, Northern Ireland Office Ministers are in a slightly different position from others because they are accountable not only to the Government but to a Government of another country—the Irish Republic, which has been given the right to propose and nominate persons. Perhaps that is what the Minister was concealing—

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wishes an answer from the Minister, he must draw his remarks to a close. Time is short and the debate must end at 3.3 pm.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

Thank you for reminding me of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Once again, I have been more long-winded than I intended, but I shall draw the matter to a close.

I suspect that the Minister is concealing the extent to which the Northern Ireland Office has compromised the sovereignty of the House. We saw another example of that last night when the Secretary of State referred to the difficulties that he is now creating for himself with regard to the inter-party talks in Northern Ireland. The subject may be raised at meetings to be held later today. I hope that when the Secretary of State meets both his masters he will entreat them to get him out of the difficulties in which he found himself last night.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 2:54 pm, 21st June 1991

When I saw the subject of today's debate I wondered what heinous error of omission or commission I or one of my ministerial colleagues might have committed. Since I was appointed to this post by the Prime Minister, I have worked long hours, late into the night, as have my colleagues, to answer as speedily but as fully as possible any letter or question posed by hon. Members and their constituents, either through correspondence or in the House.

Why should the accountability of Northern Ireland Office Ministers require special debate? What makes us different from Ministers of other Departments? Are we any the less accountable to Parliament or the public for what we do? As hon. Members will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is in no different position from any other Cabinet Minister as far as accountability to the House goes. He faces questions in the House; he has to deal with parliamentary debates and motions in the same way as his colleagues.

Yesterday, a debate in Committee was dealt with by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), and yesterday evening there were six and a half hours of debate in the Chamber exclusively on Northern Ireland business. Therefore, all Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are called to account, which I suppose is exactly what the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) is doing today. He is using his rights to call us to account.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann did not deal specifically with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, but it is important. We have a special way of legislating for Northern Ireland in this House—we use an Order in Council procedure. That is, in some ways, unsatisfactory and is regarded as such by most people, but it is the least bad way of legislating for the Province at present. The fact that hon. Members cannot amend Orders in Council in the same way as they can amend Bills is far from ideal. As the hon. Member well knows, however, exceptional measures are taken to enable consultation on proposed draft orders, including the publication in advance of the actual text of the proposed legislation. That enables hon. Members and other interested parties to discuss the proposals in the full knowledge of what is entailed and to comment on the detailed wording of the proposed legislation. The Government are, of course, pleased to be able to discuss and take account of, as far as possible, comments that may be offered. The Northern Ireland Committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has just been brought back into use—at the request of the hon. Gentleman's party. I am happy to say that it provides a parliamentary forum in which issues relating exclusively to Northern Ireland can be debated. As the hon. Member knows, that Committee is a purely considerative body, but I am sure that it can provide another useful opportunity for Northern Ireland Members to seek explanations of ministerial policies and legislative proposals and for Northern Ireland Ministers to provide them. Of course, once a draft order is laid, Ministers must come to the House to debate it before it can be put to the Privy Council. Therefore, even if accountability on this sort of legislation is not of the same type as in the case of Bills, it still exists and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and all my colleagues take seriously—as I do—their responsibilities to ensure that legislation for Northern Ireland is properly prepared, properly explained and properly delivered to Parliament and to the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the question of ministerial accountability to Parliament through the Select Committee system. There is no provision in the House's Standing Orders for a territorial Select Committee. There is no shadow for the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland Departments. Whatever comfort we might derive from that is, of course, tempered by the knowledge that the Secretary of State, other Ministers, myself and our civil servants can be called before any of the departmental Select Committees. The hon. Gentleman said that that system was not satisfactory, but the Select Committee on Trade and Industry can look into the work of the Department of Economic Development and the Industrial Development Board; the Agriculture Committee can look at the work of the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland—I have been summoned before the Committee next week, on the subject of fallen animals. The Public Accounts Committee has the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland Departments within its remit, as it showed this week when it investigated and took evidence from the chief executive of the health service on the subject of trust status and the other reforms. The Select Committee on Energy intends to undertake an inquiry into the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. Therefore, the absence of a territorial Select Committee does not mean that the Northern Ireland Office Ministers are immune from accountability to the Select Committee system.

I appreciate that a Select Committee, based on territorial grounds specifically for Northern Ireland, might give a keener focus to the scrutiny of Northern Ireland matters in Parliament. The Government said as much in their reply, published in May, to the relevant comments in the Procedure Committee's report on the working of the Select Committee system. However, in line with the Procedure Committee, we do not feel that this is the right time to agree to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee. We should need to be satisfied that the establishment of such a Committee would be supported by elected representatives from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. That is exactly what we are discussing, to an extent, in the talks that are under way. The issue is under review. It may well be raised in the talks at Stormont, or further afield.

The hon. Gentleman said that the British-Irish Parliamentary Body is a creature of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I must disabuse him of that fact. The British-Irish Parliamentary Body was established well in advance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That is why the hon. Gentleman's party was invited to join. I regret that it has not done so. I believe that the British-Irish Parliamentary Body is doing a lot of good work.

If I may refer briefly to parliamentary questions, the hon. Gentleman referred to my fellow Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), and also to questions that the hon. Gentleman put to me. I shall certainly look into these specific cases with care and write to him about them.

As for the health boards, I had not appreciated until today that an answer had been given by the Scottish Office. I shall therefore have a look at it. We try as hard as possible to make sure that our answers are very full. One of the features of Northern Ireland questions, though not those asked by the hon. Gentleman, is that many of them are tabled as priority written questions. That gives us little time in which to make available a great deal of detailed information. However, the hon. Gentleman is right when he says that Members of Parliament deserve full answers within the time scale, if that is possible. I shall therefore look into that matter. That is a pledge.

I should like to deal with another issue that was raised last night by the hon. Gentleman. I have little time in which to do so, but he may like to know that since he raised the subject of the international covenant on civil and political rights—in particular, article 25—in last night's debate, I have looked into the issue. It may be of assistance to him, as this is part of the subject of accountability, to know that the people of Northern Ireland have the right, without unreasonable restrictions, to take part in the conduct of public affairs. They have the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections, both at district council and national level. They have access to that public service on general terms of equality.

Direct rule is not the ideal method to conduct the affairs of Northern Ireland. It is precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his predecessors made repeated attempts to bring about a situation in which direct rule would no longer be necessary. That is why my right hon. Friend has spent, and is spending, so much time and effort on the present political talks. In these circumstances, rather than concentrate on the perceived deficiencies of the present arrangement, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will bend all their efforts towards finding a way to help the present talks forward to a successful conclusion. The Government are committed to fair government until an alternative form of government is agreed by all the parties concerned. Until that day, I hope that we shall remain accountable to the hon. Gentleman and Parliament as a whole, that we shall produce the very best service that Northern Ireland not only needs but deserves and that our accountability will be seen to be as good as any Government could produce.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his good fortune in having secured this debate and I thank him for the courteous way in which he made his comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Three o'clock.