Northern Ireland (Ministerial Accountability)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 21st June 1991.

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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—