Northern Ireland (Ministerial Accountability)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:54 pm on 21st June 1991.

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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.