Clause 1 — Election of Next Assembly

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 14th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Lords amendment: No. 1.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 7:18 pm, 14th May 2003

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Bill that we debated on Monday attracted a wide range of comment in the House. The time scale, which was dictated by circumstances, meant that there was little or no time for earlier consultation, but we have looked again at some of the provisions in the light of comments made here and in another place. I might say that the other place debated all parts of the Bill without any programme motion in, if my arithmetic is correct, less than two hours and thirty minutes. In consequence of those considerations, earlier today we tabled in another place two amendments, which I hope may meet a number of the concerns expressed here and in the debates in the other place.

We continue to believe, of course, that the Bill is in itself right, although the need for it is highly regrettable. The Government were heartened by the number of reflections of that view from senior figures on the Opposition Benches here and in another place. We are, however, aware of and sympathise with the feelings that have been widely expressed that a decision of this sort should not simply pass out of Parliament's hands without further provision for scrutiny once the Bill is through. Indeed, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee reported in that sense on clause 1. Accordingly, the amendment subjects the calling of an election by the Secretary of State to the affirmative procedure. The House will have to vote to approve any election date set by the Government. Because, however, we believe that, following a political accommodation that made an election possible, there would be a general wish to proceed swiftly to the holding of an election, the amendment will make it possible for the order to be considered after making.

We have some experience of the need to move quickly in Northern Ireland. For example, the suspension and restoration powers in the Northern Ireland Act 2000 are exercisable, and have been exercised, with votes taking place after making. Concern was expressed in another place that Parliament should have an opportunity to debate any such order as soon as possible. I am happy to give this House an undertaking on behalf of the Government that the method of debate and where it takes place will be subject to consultation at the time.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

The Minister says that the debate will be subject to consultation, but surely Parliament should be in a position to do the debating, rather than doing it in Committee.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I made my observations about the amendment in appreciation of the very point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He can be assured that the Government would take such an order as an extremely important step in the process of the exercise of the franchise in Northern Ireland, and that we would, in consultation, adopt such a posture.

We have no wish to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. We see the 28-day period within which Parliament would be required to debate and vote on the order very much as a maximum. In the event that we did make an order for an election in this way, I give the House the Government's assurance that we would bring it before Parliament for debate as soon as was practicable.

The amendment gives the House an opportunity to debate any calling of an election to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will be of comfort to hon. Members, and I invite the House to approve the amendment.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the officials who have contributed assiduously over a concentrated period to ensure that the work that was needed to get the Bill to its present stage was done expeditiously and efficiently.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We have had a great deal of discussion about this matter over the past few days in the House and in another place, and the Government are well aware of our views about elections. We believe that electoral dates should be respected and that electoral laws should be regarded as being above political convenience or the intervention of Governments. These are very important matters.

The Government are also well aware of our view that we must do nothing to prevent a review from happening in accordance with the Belfast agreement on 1 December or to make it impossible for the Belfast agreement to be implemented in its entirety. Conservative Members feel strongly about that. We are worried that the Government who produced the Belfast agreement—I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for that achievement—are taking measures that make its implementation impossible.

Much discussion has taken place between the Under-Secretary, the Liberal Democrats and me in the past few days. It is right to make it clear to hon. Members that we decided not to oppose the amendments on the basis of two assurances. The first was that the date of 31 December should be changed to 13 November. I expect that the Under-Secretary will claim that the officials made an honest mistake, but he and I specifically discussed whether the date was 13 or 15 November on the telephone this morning. We agreed that it was 13 November. The point is significant because 15 November is a Saturday and there is a justified suspicion that if nothing happens by the Saturday, matters will be held over until the following week. The urgency is created by the date of 1 December.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I hate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but we spoke this afternoon, although I tried to contact him this morning. I had a conversation with him about the date. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to speak to him, an agreement had already been reached in another place between Conservative representatives and the Lord Privy Seal. On the basis of that agreement, which was made in the hon. Gentleman's absence because nobody could contact him, the amendment was printed. I tried to contact him subsequently to explain what had happened, and I have been looking for him around the building for some time. I noticed that he came in as the debate started. He was not contactable. Perhaps he could explain the reason for that.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I had a conversation with the Under-Secretary and we reached an agreement. It should not be necessary to have a subsequent conversation after one has reached an agreement. Moreover, he knows that I took action on the basis of our conversation early this afternoon. It involved people in another place doing things that they would not otherwise have done. It was therefore a decisive conversation.

It is perhaps useful for the public and those who listen to our debates to appreciate that there are, rightly, two sides to the conduct of legislation in this place. There is public debate and sometimes there is a need for compromise and understanding between parties. Conversations sometimes occur outside this place, as they should in any democratic assembly. However, they must be based on full trust and understanding. We had an agreement and one party took action in good faith on that basis. It does not matter whether the Under-Secretary was trying to contact me or whether I was on Mars. The agreement should have stood, because we withdrew an amendment in another place.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I greatly regret that I did not have the opportunity for a private conversation with the hon. Gentleman this afternoon or this evening about the matter. That happened because he was not contactable, not because I was trying to avoid that conversation. However, the Conservative party in another place had already reached an agreement and taken the steps that, according to him, were conditional on his intervention. That is why I wanted to speak to him to explain what had happened. He appears to be making a mountain out of a molehill about whether elections will be held on 13 or 15 November. Frankly, that has nothing to do with the amendment that we are considering—it relates to amendment No. 2. However, since he is making such a song and dance about it, he should understand what happened.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I wanted to deal in the same breath with the two agreements that we reached. They determined the Opposition's action on the amendments, and both hang together. One is the declaration, which the Under-Secretary undertook to make, that if the Government—I see from his gestures that he intends to fulfil that undertaking, and I shall not anticipate the statement to which we are looking forward. The other was the matter of the date.

This is not an ideal situation. What has emerged is a compromise, and it is right that there should be compromises in a democratic country. Sometimes, I think that there should be more compromises, and more consultation. I hope that, when there is a change of Government in two years' time, we shall abide by that aspiration and that principle—indeed, I am sure that we shall. I also hope that we shall not regard ourselves as having a monopoly of wisdom, and that there will be occasions on which we shall be prepared to come to reasonable agreements. I am glad to say that the Government have done that on this occasion, and I pay tribute to them for that. It must be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we can have a frank exchange of views, that different points of view can be put strongly, and that, at the end of the day, all those points of view can be accommodated to some extent—although not, inevitably, 100 per cent.—in the agreements that are reached.

I shall give the House and the Government the assurance that they are waiting for: on the basis of the assurances that I have received, we shall not oppose the amendment further. I look forward to hearing the comments of the representatives of the other parties and, on the subsequent amendment, to the promised declaration by the Minister.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 7:30 pm, 14th May 2003

The Liberal Democrats will likewise not oppose the amendments further. I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to reflect on the representations that were made to them here and in another place, and in particular to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place, which produced an excellent piece of work at very short notice and was quite trenchant in its criticism of the Government. It made it quite clear that the proposal that was originally in clause 1, as it was when the Bill was before this House, was not an acceptable way of doing business. Indeed, I think that "unacceptable" was the term that the Committee used.

I was intrigued by the Minister's reference to the relative brevity of the debate in the other place, and by his remark that it has lasted just in excess of two hours. I am sure that that would not be an implied criticism of the Secretary of State, who spoke on Second Reading in this place for the best part of an hour, as I recall.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

He did indeed take a goodly number of interventions, as the Minister says. However, if that is an argument against the use of timetable motions, I can assure the Minister that he would have our wholehearted support if he should choose to pursue that argument with his colleagues in the Government Whips Office. I remain of the view that the limiting of the debate in this Chamber on Monday night to a Second Reading only—with no opportunity for the House to vote on the amendments that would have been considered in Committee—was, frankly, a disgrace. I have said that this is a mess of the Government's own making, and I remain of that view. What they have done, having gone to the other place, is to come back with the least bad option. On that basis, and in the interests of pragmatism, we are prepared to support the proposal.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I join Mr. Carmichael in condemning the Government for the procedure that they adopted in this House for this very important measure. There can be no more crucial issue in any democratic society than maintaining the purity of the electoral process, and there is no more serious constitutional matter than a Government stepping in to abort a democratic election.

The Minister must recognise that the fact that some of his colleagues in the other place entered into a self-denying ordinance and therefore managed to complete their business in two or three hours without the kind of guillotine that we had does not take away from the fact that there were Members of this House who were unable to speak on Second Reading here, and that there was no debate at all on any of the amendments in Committee, never mind a Third Reading. That is an insult to Parliament and to parliamentary democracy, and it is certainly an insult to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Bill as it has returned from the Lords is only marginally improved. The amendment allows the House to consider the matter should an order be made. However, allowing this Chamber to consider what would in effect be a denial of democracy in Northern Ireland might restore some democratic accountability to this House, but it does little to restore democratic rights to the people of Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow an election to be put off, not to allow an election to take place at a later stage. The Government have shifted their position consistently on the matter, from what appeared to be an undertaking to have an election in the autumn, to a hope that there might be an election in the autumn, to this Bill, which gives no undertaking to have an election at any specific time. I note that the Minister is not prepared to stake his political career on whether there will be an election in Northern Ireland for the Assembly in the autumn.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman, like me, will have heard the Secretary of State, who sadly is not here this evening, say clearly in the House on Monday that he intended that there should be an election in the autumn. I emphasise the word "intended". Those are strong words. We know the Secretary of State, we know that he is a man of his word, and we are entitled to believe, are we not, that that remark was made in good faith and that we can all look forward to an election in the autumn on that basis?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

If the Secretary of State had told us what the factors were that would govern his intention, the House might be in a position to reach a conclusion. He might have been saying that he intended, if the conditions that he wanted to occur were favourable, to have an election. If one of the conditions that he wants to occur is such as to allow Mr. Trimble to win an election, it is probably fairly unlikely that the Secretary of State will have an election in the autumn.

I can understand how any politician who has put a lot of time and effort into a particular strategy will want to do everything possible to safeguard that strategy. It is not, even from my point of view of being opposed to the Belfast agreement, difficult for me to understand why the Prime Minister, who has expended a great deal of time on supporting that agreement, should want to do everything conceivable to give continued life to that agreement. I do not find that at all surprising. What I find difficult is his inability to recognise that the Belfast agreement's season has passed; that the agreement has failed; that in effect it is finished. Simply because he does not like what the electorate are going to say, he cannot take away their opportunity to say it, which is effectively the purpose of the Bill.

The Prime Minister knows that, should he allow democracy to seep into the process, the game is up. Any agreement that cannot survive a democratic test has come to the end of the road. The mess that the Government are getting themselves into comes directly from their refusal to face the reality that the agreement cannot survive. They have to face the reality that it has failed and that negotiations for a new agreement are the only way forward.

Even with the Lords amendment in place and the Prime Minister constructing the most favourable circumstances from the shabby choreography that was outlined during the run-up to the Bill being introduced in the House, even if all the factors that the Prime Minister had wanted to take place had done so, the electorate would still reject the Bill. He may not like it, but the views that this party expresses are the views held by a majority of the Unionist community. The sunset clause inserted by the Lords will be of benefit only if the Government use the time to condition themselves to the reality that the agreement has to go and that a new agreement must be brought in.

The Government have sought to suggest that the election is being cancelled because of the inability of the IRA to talk the talk. No thinking person believes that that is true. As one who was not waiting for the IRA to use any particular formulation of words, I found the whole word game fiasco completely bizarre. My colleagues and I are not interested in statements from the IRA. Frankly, we would not believe them or rely on them. Only deeds, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, are capable of convincing the Unionist people. The disarray that the leader of the Ulster Unionist party finds himself in today comes as a direct result of his taking the IRA at its word. No Unionist should make that mistake again.

Approaching the word games as a disbelieving bystander, I never thought that anything stood or fell on the intentionally conditional and cynically devious language crafted by the IRA. Even using words that it has not used before means nothing if it has not lived up to the words that it used in the past.

The Government were set for an election on 1 May not because the legislation required it to be on 1 May—the Secretary of State invoked the extraordinary power that he has to call an extraordinary election on 1 May. He did that without any words from the IRA. Again, the Government came to the House and set the date of 29 May, once more without any words from the IRA, but when the Prime Minister tells the public in Northern Ireland that he is satisfied that he has received two thirds of all that he asked from the IRA, the election is off.

Frankly, we are not fooled by that. We all know that the reason is something other than that. The election was aborted to save the skin of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. If he could have won the election, does anyone in the House believe that we would not have been out campaigning in Northern Ireland tonight? All parties wanted the election to take place except for half of the Ulster Unionist party.

The Government ask us, "What would you have an election for in Northern Ireland if there is no prospect of setting up a Government afterwards?" The answer is easy. It is called negotiations. If there is deadlock after an election, the legislation provides for a process of negotiations. As it is, no one has a mandate to negotiate in relation to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Assembly has been dissolved, the Members of the Legislative Assembly effectively made redundant, although some finance is being provided for them under the Bill. The reality is that none of them has the democratic authority to negotiate on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

Indeed, the Government included in previous legislation that they brought to the House designating 29 May as the date of the election a provision to ensure that the Assembly would not sit immediately after an election to allow negotiations to take place, so why do the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State ask in a rhetorical fashion, "Why would you have an election if you couldn't set up a Government?" Their own legislation provided the answer: negotiations could then take place with mandated politicians. I believe that the Government will find out just how easy it is to abolish an Assembly and just how difficult it is to set it up again afterwards. There has been plenty of experience of that in Northern Ireland over past decades.

Although the House of Lords has made a marginal improvement to the Bill, there is still no commitment to an election. I do believe that it would benefit the House for us to divide on this issue, although if other Members do we shall be happy to join them; but at least the people of Northern Ireland will have an opportunity to see their elected representatives deal with this issue once more if the Secretary of State makes a decision during the next few months—or, if Lords amendment No.2 is agreed to, even if he does not.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim 7:45 pm, 14th May 2003

When the commentators, of whom there are probably far too many in Northern Ireland, come to commentate on this period of history in the political process more commonly known as the peace process, the passage of this Bill will symbolise the ending of the possibility of devolution in Ulster in the foreseeable future.

We in the Unionist community have no faith in the Government's returning in the next six months to organise an election in Northern Ireland that could create a workable, meaningful Executive or Assembly to try to offer Northern Ireland the benefits of devolution that have been offered, and are working with a certain amount of success, in Scotland and Wales.

This is why I believe my prediction will be proved correct. The minute the Prime Minister announced the postponement of this election, the Provisional IRA withdrew its contact with de Chastelain. The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein only react under pressure. They knew that they could not get in; they knew that they could not get anything unless they came back in. They were under pressure. There is no pressure on them now— and what messages are they getting from the British and Irish Governments? The joint declaration was conditional on acts of completion—the ending and disbandment of the IRA as an organisation, and the 100 per cent. conversion of Sinn Fein to a totally normal democratic party. They have no need to do those things, and they will not do them. They will maintain the pressure, they will maintain the army and they will maintain the threat, because the Governments who preside jointly over Northern Ireland have already made another tactical mistake. They already have the concessions on the watchtowers in South Armagh, and they will get more, as surely as day follows night.

Whatever the Government say, the Unionist people no longer have any faith in this Government's restoring decent, accountable democracy in Northern Ireland. We will come back in the autumn, and I hope that I will be proved wrong. I hope that we will have a democratic election for the Assembly, and that the republican veto that this Government have not had the guts to stand up to will be removed from the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson, I have no wish to divide the House, but this is a sad day for democracy in Northern Ireland. We are to have no local democracy, no election and none of the advantages of devolution in the Province.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I am a little confused, as I believe my hon. Friends may well be. What the hon. Gentleman has just said is virtually an echo of what Mr. Robinson said. Do we take it that the views of the hon. Gentleman and the Democratic Unionist party on this issue are identical?

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

I think that the view across all sections of Unionism is identical: we would like a form of devolution in Northern Ireland. I think that the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP and the broad Unionist community agree that the republican movement continues to have a veto on progress towards devolution in Northern Ireland. If there is unity across the Unionist community, I welcome it.

Photo of Mr Roy Beggs Mr Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim

Will my hon. Friend further confirm that we in the Ulster Unionist party, being totally committed to an election at the earliest possible date, like our Unionist colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, had nominated and were prepared to take our message to the community at large in Northern Ireland, with absolute confidence of victory at the end?

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

My hon. Friend is correct. I put in my Assembly candidate nomination papers last Friday; indeed, the Ulster Unionist party, along with many other parties, put in nomination papers throughout Northern Ireland. We wanted an election and I was looking forward to one for a single reason: to end the veto of the men of violence who use terrorism, and to replace that threat with democratic, accountable government at Stormont. We do not have democratic, accountable government at Stormont because there is a veto from the republican movement that this Government will not face up to.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

I want to make a few brief comments, as several of the issues have already been dealt with. I reiterate the comments of other hon. Members about the disgraceful proceedings that have accompanied the process governing this legislation. Frankly, for Members of this House to have no opportunity in Committee or on Third Reading to move amendments or to speak is disgraceful. [Interruption.] The Minister may want to reply to that point directly, rather than by speaking to one of his colleagues from a sedentary position. However short a time the House of Lords, an unelected body, may have spent in Committee on individual clauses, at least it had that opportunity, whereas the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland and of those throughout the United Kingdom had no opportunity for detailed consideration of this very important legislation, which deals with the democratic process in Northern Ireland. The Bill was not timetabled but guillotined—a distinction that was made clear in the House the other day. That makes the Government's actions all the more reprehensible.

The amendments constitute the slightest of improvements. They make no outstanding change to the Bill's substance, in that there is still no date for an election. There is a quasi-sunset clause, and the provision before us will ensure that the matter has to come before the House again if the Secretary of State makes an order. However, the people of Northern Ireland have been denied their right to have their say in an election on 29 May—the second time in a month that they have been denied their right to speak at the polls. That has gone down very badly across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson said, all the parties in Northern Ireland, bar half of one, wanted this election to take place. I listened with interest to the intervention of Mr. Beggs. His comments are at odds with those of his senior colleagues in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, on the pro-agreement wing of the Ulster Unionist party. In the press at home, they were calling virtually daily for the elections to be put off. Indeed, his comments are also at odds with those of his party's leader, Mr. Trimble, who congratulated the Government and welcomed the statement when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State made it in this House. The people have been denied their choice at the ballot box, and that has been met with the support of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, but with denunciation from all the other parties in Northern Ireland.

The irony is that this legislation is progressing through Parliament to stop an election that has already happened. As a result of this provision, the House could end up debating the Secretary of State's decision when the election is already under way, if it is called in the autumn. That is the nonsense of the Government's position. They will end up bringing matters to the House for decision after the elections have already started in the Province.

The campaign has started, de facto, but the Secretary of State tells the people of Northern Ireland not to nominate candidates, because legislation will be put before the House of Commons. In other words, they should ignore the law, the wishes of Parliament and what Parliament might do. The suggestion is that we should assume what Parliament will do but forget about all the demands of the electoral process. According to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and the chief electoral officer, the elections are under way as we sit here tonight. Expenses are being racked up and the other processes are continuing.

In the autumn, the elections could be announced and halfway through the Government would come to the House to ask whether it approved. That is the nonsense of the situation that the Government are in. They should have let the elections proceed on 1 May, or at the latest—if they had to be postponed—on 29 May. Let the people have their say.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Another concern raised in the House was that the power to hold elections was open-ended. Mr. Carmichael referred to the welcome and helpful report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. It was this aspect of the Bill that the Committee described as unacceptable, recommending, in paragraph 7 of its 20th report, dated 12 May 2003, that

"the House seek a way of defining the enabling power and including in the definition proper Parliamentary scrutiny."

An earlier section of the report shows that the Committee, acting expeditiously, described the other delegations in the Bill—those outwith clause 1—as

"both appropriate and subject to an appropriate level of Parliamentary scrutiny."

I am grateful for those observations.

As we heard earlier, some hon. Members looked for the Bill to fix a date for an election, or a deadline by which one might be called. The Government continue to think that that would be undesirable. We do not believe that it would advance the restoration of a functioning system of government, or more stable politics in Northern Ireland. What is necessary to the restoration of functioning devolved institutions in Northern Ireland is absolute clarity about the future of paramilitarism, and confidence in the stability of the institutions. That is how we will get functioning institutions. Setting a date will not provide them. Setting a date now for an election in the autumn would effectively mean that the campaign would begin now. I have read the report of the Second Reading debate and it is clear that a substantial part was taken up with campaigning. That is not how we should create a propitious environment for political dialogue and political advance. Indeed, the opposite is true—as that debate showed.

However, it is right to set some bounds to the power and provide further opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny. Accordingly, we have tabled an amendment that would require the Government to return to Parliament to extend the power if it has not been exercised by 15 November, which is six months from tomorrow, when we hope that the Bill will gain Royal Assent. It would then be renewable, under the amendment, for periods of up to six months thereafter.

I can also say that it is certainly our intention, if there has been no election by that date, to renew the powers. Indeed if we formed the opposite view—that the power should lapse—we should seek to ensure that the House had an opportunity to consider the question if it wished, before the powers were lost. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has authorised me to say that the debate on renewal this autumn—if, regrettably, we have not had an election by then—would be taken on the Floor of the House. However, I stress that it is our intention to have an election by the autumn.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 8:00 pm, 14th May 2003

I note that the Minister chose his words with some care when he said that the debate this autumn—and, obviously, any vote—would be taken on the Floor of the House. Would that be the case also with subsequent orders that would appear at intervals of six months thereafter?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am almost certain that it would. However, I am in a position to give the House an undertaking that a debate this autumn would be taken on the Floor of the House. I hope that the House will find that, with these changes, the Bill has been improved.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister is highly respected for his expertise in human rights, and he rightly emphasises those matters whenever an opportunity arises. However, the Bill carries a statement that says that it is compatible with the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights. The Minister will know that, in the recent Matthews case, the Assembly of Northern Ireland was held to be the relevant legislature, with full legislative powers. Will the Minister assure the House that, if the elections are delayed repeatedly, it will be compatible with human rights obligations to hold elections to the legislature at reasonable intervals?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am in a position to give the hon. Lady that assurance. She would be surprised if I had not considered those very issues, and I have considered them.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister said that the Secretary of State could come to the House in the autumn to extend the power to call an election. Does that also include powers to extend the salaries, allowances and other benefits enjoyed by former Assembly Members?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the provisions of the Bill, which allow the Secretary of State to make provision for the salaries of Assembly Members. My right hon. Friend indicated on Second Reading that it was still the Government's intention to review that matter after six months. However, it is the Government's intention to consult parties in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman's party, about that aspect of the Bill and its implementation. I look forward to taking part in those consultations with him and his colleagues.

I know that many hon. Members disagree with the Bill, and I understand the strength of their feelings. I hope that they will also acknowledge that the Government have acted in the way that we consider to be in the best interests of the agreement, and of the development of stable Government and a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the Minister for his clear assurance that any debate on renewal of the powers will be taken on the Floor of the House. That is indeed the assurance that we sought, so we shall not oppose the amendment.

This short debate has been rather good. After the disgraceful events of Monday, when the House did not even get to the end of Second Reading on this important Bill, the debate has at least offered us another opportunity for people to express themselves.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State was not able to be here, and that the Prime Minister was unable to be here either on Monday or this evening. On Monday, the Prime Minister would have heard speeches from members of all three parties in Northern Ireland represented in this House—the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party. This evening's speakers included the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for South Antrim (David Burnside). Those three hon. Members on the Unionist side all said more or less the same thing—that the decision was fundamentally wrong. The Government would be inconceivably stupid if they did not take careful note of that.

The Minister is good at trying to put a good face on bad news. It made me smile when he said that the report on the Bill produced by the Lords Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform was helpful. In fact, the Committee said that the Government's proposal to postpone the elections indefinitely was unacceptable. That is extremely strong language for a Lords Select Committee to use about a Government measure; it shows what a disgraceful decision and mistake the Government have made.

The situation has not been improved by the Government giving the House non-credible, even shifty, explanations that no one could believe, which is an insult to the intelligence of any rational person. The idea that the elections are being suspended or postponed to punish Sinn Fein-IRA, when in fact all the democratic parties in Northern Ireland, which object to the measure, are being punished, flies in the face of any notion of justice.

Even more insulting is for the Government to say that the elections are being postponed to punish Sinn Fein-IRA for non-compliance, when, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East so eloquently said, and as I said on Monday, there was no suggestion from the Government that the elections could not be held when Sinn Fein had not complied at all and had not even clarified the three essential points. Now that it has clarified two of the three, the Government say that it must be punished. That is completely absurd. It is insulting to the House. The Government cannot be serious; if they were, they would not be acting in this wholly irrational and completely lunatic fashion.

As I have said over and over again, the only way to deal with Sinn Fein-IRA is straightforwardly and in good faith. If they do not comply or if they behave badly, they must be punished and appropriate sanctions must be taken.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

In a moment.

If Sinn Fein-IRA make positive moves, we should make equivalent positive gestures in return. If Gerry Adams made positive comments, it would be utterly ridiculous to respond by saying, "Now we are going to find a new way of punishing you". It would be completely cuckoo.

However, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, the IRA has not actually done anything yet. A comprehensive settlement depends on a programme of implementation. Only when everybody is clearly complying in deed as well as in word will it be possible for us to make corresponding moves in deed as well as in word. It is thus crazy for the Government to dismantle the two towers in south Armagh, or to promise to do so. Even if it was possible according to the advice that they have received from the General Officer Commanding or the Chief Constable

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a little latitude, but I must remind him that we are not discussing the Bill in general; we are discussing Lords amendment No. 2.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We are indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as I shall not be trying to catch your eye again this evening I wanted to respond to some of the important points that had been made on both sides of the House.

As I said, we have had a good debate, but—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not flout my ruling or indeed the conventions of the House. So far, only one speech has been made in this debate. The hon. Gentleman cannot reply to matters that were dealt with either in the debate on Lords amendment No. 1 or at any previous time. He really must direct his remarks to Lords amendment No. 2.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is absolutely right, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On amendment No. 2, I hope that we do not have to debate this subject again and that the Government are not thinking of again rolling forward the postponement of the elections.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I shall give way in a second.

As I have said before, if there is a further postponement that goes beyond 1 December—the date for review—I fear that will be the end of the agreement and of the peace process that we are working to fulfil. That would be an enormous historical tragedy.

If Lady Hermon still wants to intervene, I shall give way first to her and then to the hon. Member for Belfast, East.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; it is always a pleasure to intervene in his speeches—it is an even greater pleasure when he actually gives way. He knows very well indeed, as do other hon. Members, that the Assembly was suspended last October, so will he please address the constitutional point that, if the elections had gone ahead as scheduled on 29 May, the Assembly could not have met the following day, and that the electorate would have been asked to turn out to vote on a suspended Assembly?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

No, the hon. Lady is not correct. If the Assembly were elected, it would no longer be suspended—it would be in place, and it would be able to do its job.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I want to put a question to the hon. Gentleman that relates to Lords Amendment No. 2 and, in particular, the new date set by the Government—15 November—by which time they would bring this issue back to the House if no agreement to hold an election had been reached. The Government have said, "Clarity is our friend"—I think that was the term used by the Prime Minister—so do they not owe it to the House to make it abundantly clear before this debate ends what requirement has to be met for an election to place? Are only words from the IRA required? Are there any other factors? We should be clear, up front, about what is required for an election to take place.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman asks extremely pertinent questions, and to give the Under-Secretary time to respond to them, I shall now conclude my remarks.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I very much hope that the undertaking given by the Under-Secretary with regard to any order under Lord Amendment No. 2 that may need to be debated in the House this autumn will extend to any subsequent order that might prove necessary. That was certainly the basis of the understanding that I understood to have been reached between me, the Under-Secretary and Mr. Davies, and I hope that the usual channels will bear that in mind. I would certainly view anything other than that as a breach of trust between us and the Government, and I very much hope that that will not be the case.

May I say in passing that the moves that have brought us to this stage since we discussed the Bill on Second Reading reflect creditably on the Under-Secretary, who has shown himself capable of listening and responding to the concerns of the House? As someone who is new to such discussions between those on the Front Benches, I should like to place on record my appreciation of the efforts that the Under-Secretary, his colleagues in the other place and, indeed, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and his colleagues in the other place have made to expedite matters and to deal with this issue in a way that allows some certainty to be injected at last into the situation. As I have said before, we would not choose to place ourselves in this situation, but, given what has been done, we have done the best that is possible in the circumstances.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I share the concerns expressed by Mr. Carmichael, and I raised them earlier. I also pay tribute to the Under-Secretary for his integrity. He shared with us the fact that it was his intention that there would be an election, but he will remember the immortal bard who said that the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang a-gley. To show that we are impartial, since the majority of Members are English, Shakespeare said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Some of us are concerned about the concept of introducing a six-month delay because we bear in mind the fact that the prevention of terrorism provisions had to be constantly reintroduced for years. We therefore stand by the concept of election for a devolved assembly.

May I press the Minister again following the intervention of my hon. Friend Lady Hermon, bearing in mind that Mr. Dodds raised the question about continuing to pay the salaries of current Members? Is not there a danger that a nominee for election who is not already an Assembly Member could complain, under human rights legislation, that there is not impartiality, because people who are not working are getting money to continue to campaign, whereas new candidates must work and are placed at a disadvantage? Will he reconsider his undertaking that that is in keeping with the human rights legislation?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 8:15 pm, 14th May 2003

In the few minutes that I have left, I shall try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. If I may respond to the issue raised by Rev. Martin Smyth in his peroration, I gave a reassurance that this legislation does not infringe the state parties undertaking under article 3 of the European convention on human rights. That is my view, which I reached after considering the issues involved, and that view is expressed in terms in the explanatory notes to the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman raised another point, which was also raised on Second Reading, and I shall give him the same response that the Secretary of State gave: any incumbents in the period between the dissolution of an Assembly or Parliament and an election, if they are being paid, as is the case in all assemblies and Parliaments in the United Kingdom, could be said to be operating at an advantage to those who seek to oppose them in an election. Nobody would be any different in that respect. We must bear in mind, however, that that situation cannot run indefinitely. The Secretary of State will bear that in mind in relation to the scheme developed for payment of those who were Assembly Members.

Secondly, I want to reinforce the point that was made in an intervention by the official Opposition spokesman. It is perfectly clear under the law as set out in the Northern Ireland Act 2000 that a new Assembly would not automatically meet after an election unless suspension was lifted. That is the state of the law at present.

In response to Mr. Robinson, I can do no better than to quote my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when speaking in Belfast on 17 October, and the Government have been consistent to that position since—

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

That was going to be his best point.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Well, we shall never know.

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [12 May], put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.