Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill (Allocation of Time)

– in the House of Commons at 1:37 pm on 17th September 2003.

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Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:37 pm, 17th September 2003

I beg to move,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill [Lords]—

Timetable

1. Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day's sitting and shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, nine hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

2. When the Bill has been read a second time—

(a) it shall, notwithstanding bills">Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with paragraph (1) of Ways and Means resolutions, in connection with bills">Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions, and Ways and Means resolutions, in connection with bills), on any financial resolutions relating to the Bill;

(c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolutions relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

3. On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question and, if the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

4. For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 1 the Speaker or Chairman shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others)—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved, or Motion made, by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.

5. On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

Subsequent stages

6.—(1) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill shall be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(2) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.

7.—(1) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph 6.

(2) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has already been proposed from the Chair and not yet decided.

(3) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.

(4) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on, or relevant to, any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.

(5) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question, That this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.

Reasons Committee

8.—(1) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons in relation to the Bill and the appointment of its Chairman.

(2) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.

(3) Proceedings in the Committee shall, if not previously brought to a conclusion, be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.

(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (3) the Chairman shall—

(a) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair but not yet decided, and

(b) then put forthwith successively Questions on motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.

(5) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.

Miscellaneous

9. Paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

10. The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement and paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 shall apply to those proceedings.

11. Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

12. No Motion shall be made to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to re-commit the Bill.

13. No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown; and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

14.—(1) This paragraph applies if—

(a) a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) has been stood over to Four o'clock, Three o'clock or Seven o'clock (as the case may be), but

(b) proceedings to which this Order applies have begun before then.

(2) Proceedings on that Motion shall stand postponed until the conclusion of those proceedings.

15. If the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies, no notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.

16. Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain to the House the urgency with which the Government seek to progress this Bill, and why it is necessary to take the Bill through all its stages in this House today. It would not be appropriate to dwell in detail on the broader context in the debate on this timetable motion. Members will have an opportunity to debate the Government's analysis, and their policy, more fully on Second Reading, and I intend to address those issues in my speech in that debate. However, I should like to say a few short words now about the context to explain clearly why the Government consider that the Bill before the House today merits urgent consideration.

On 1 May this year, the Government published a series of proposals for the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the restoration of the devolved institutions on a stable and inclusive basis. Those had been drawn up in the light of our earlier discussions with the Irish Government and political parties at Hillsborough. As the House well knows, we were unable to proceed with the implementation of all those proposals in the absence of satisfactory commitments on an end to paramilitary activity.

We have proceeded, with the Irish Government, to take forward certain elements of those proposals as a contribution to building trust and confidence, and the Taoiseach and Prime Minister, on 2 July, reaffirmed the importance of that commitment.

Among those proposals that we have committed to implement is the agreement between the two Governments on monitoring and compliance. In that text, we undertook to establish an independent body to monitor commitments given regarding the implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the restoration of stable institutions. The Government also undertook to seek to amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to broaden the range of measures available to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and ultimately to the British Government, to respond to the commission's recommendations.

Of course, those are complex proposals, in a completely new field. They required a good deal of working up. Apart from which, the practical side of setting up the commission also required a good deal of work—in particular in the search for people of the highest ability and authority to become members of the commission. I am happy to say that I believe we were successful in that search. The result of this was that it was not possible to bring forward our plans before the summer.

We all recognise the urgency now of early political advance in Northern Ireland. As I shall outline in my speech on Second Reading, it is our ambition as a Government, quite as much it is everybody else's, that there should be elections at the earliest possible stage to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and also that they should be successful elections, in the sense that they will carry with them a real prospect of a return to devolved Government.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

Last Tuesday—eight days ago—in the Committee Corridor, an Order in Council was treated as a statutory instrument. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Jane Kennedy, offered the Committee a lengthy litany of things that would need to be done by way of acts of completion prior to elections being held. Will the Secretary of State say—either now or later today, after a period of reflection—whether the litany offered to the Committee must be thoroughly and entirely discharged before there can be elections?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I shall talk to my right hon. Friend during the course of the debate so that I can answer the hon. Gentleman more fully on that point, but I am assured that she said that getting acts of completion from the IRA was an important part of getting all the institutions involved—of which the Assembly is only one—up and running. That has been made clear for months and months. Assembly elections were not held because we knew that the Executive—the Government of Northern Ireland—could not be active unless there was trust and confidence between the parties involved. That trust can be established on the basis of acts of completion.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I do not want to turn this debate into a Question Time about Northern Ireland, but does the Secretary of State accept that the postponement of the elections in itself has become a barrier to achieving the acts of completion and the normalisation of the political process that we all want?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have no doubt that the issue of the elections is hugely important. I shall return to it in the debate on Second Reading, but I fear that I would be stretching the patience of Mr. Deputy Speaker if I did not stick to the timetable motion before the House.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Perhaps it would be helpful to those of us from Northern Ireland if the Secretary of State were to inform the House, at an early stage in the debate, whether the Government were minded to accept the amendment on this matter agreed in the Lords in the past few days.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We will come to the relevant clause later in the debate, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government do not intend to send that amendment back to the other place. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with that particular clause later, and will refer to that matter.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Will my right hon. Friend answer a timetable point? Although everyone agrees that there is a need for urgency in this matter, I am waiting with bated breath for his explanation of why it all has to be dispatched in one parliamentary day. If there is no Committee stage—as was the case with the previous legislation piloted through the House by the Secretary of State—will that mean, ipso facto, that that Lords amendment is accepted?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We must wait until we get to the Committee stage to discuss the details of the amendments.

The return to devolved government requires trust and confidence in the community that departures from the fundamental values of the agreement—including, crucially, the definitive ending of paramilitary activity—will be addressed with determination. In that regard, we believe that the independent monitoring commission has a fundamental role.

That explains our anxiety to have the commission in place as soon as possible. Developing that confidence remains a serious challenge to all participants in the process. The sooner we can have all the arrangements in place, the sooner we can formally establish the commission. That, we believe, will be a substantial step along the road to creating the conditions for a real step forward.

The Bill will place the IMC on a proper statutory footing, and so allow it to undertake the full range of its functions as soon as possible. However, its passage would also send an important signal that the Government are committed to taking the steps that we have outlined as essential to promoting trust and confidence. We very much hope that it will be possible for elections and a restoration of devolved government to take place as soon as possible. The passage of this Bill will help to maximise the chances of such progress in the near future.

I am aware that we have sometimes had cause to ask the House to consider legislation relating to Northern Ireland in relatively quick time. I hope that Opposition Members—and, indeed, Labour Members—will draw some comfort from the terms of today's guillotine motion, which allows us scope for nearly a full day's debate, should the House so choose.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that the compressed timetable for the Bill's passage, although always regrettable, is necessary in the circumstances, in the interest of the political advance that I believe all sides of this House wish to achieve.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:46 pm, 17th September 2003

The Opposition reject, absolutely and with passion, the Government's pattern of imposing automatic timetables on all Bills. We are not alone in that. The whole country, and anyone in the world brought up to observe democratic principles, will consider the motion deeply offensive to those principles and to the spirit of the parliamentary system.

In pragmatic terms, the motion is unnecessary. We would have been perfectly happy to discuss a reasonable timetable for the Bill with the Secretary of State. That would have allowed proper reflection between Second Reading and Committee, between Committee and Report, and then between Report and Third Reading. That is what should happen in any parliamentary system that is not being made a mockery of by an arrogant Government, but I am afraid that that is the case today.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I think that the hon. Gentleman is rather over-egging the pudding, but does he accept that the length of time available today is, in essence, the equivalent of almost two days' debate in the House?

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

The right hon. Gentleman will not mind if I reveal the private conversations that we have had, as they are very much to his credit. I would not reveal anything from a private conversation that was not to his credit, or not within the spirit of that conversation. However, the agreement that we came to resulted in our getting more time than we would have got otherwise. Of course I am grateful for small mercies—for crumbs from this almighty Government's table—but that will not prevent me, or those of my colleagues who have the same problems in other departmental areas, from making genuine protests. There must be no mistake about the seriousness of our feelings about the attitude to Parliament taken by the Government since they were first elected.

I have said already that the Government's approach would be offensive to anyone of genuine democratic principle and bent. I am sure that that applies to many Labour Members too, and Andrew Mackinlay has just expressed his view on the matter. It has nothing to do with party politics, but with the manner in which Parliament should operate. Let there be no misunderstanding of our strong feelings on the subject.

That said, the arrangement to which the Secretary of State referred means that we have more time than would normally be the case on a Wednesday, especially when a statement and other business have also been scheduled. We have been promised nine hours on the Bill and, in that spirit, I shall ask Opposition Members not to adopt our usual course of dividing the House and voting against the timetable motion, but to do everything possible to allow us to use the greatest possible proportion of the time to discuss the substance of this very important Bill.

I wish to leave one thought on the record. The Secretary of State in many ways endorsed everything that I have said. I noted his comments, and he said that the proposals in the Bill were "complex proposals in a completely new field". They are indeed, and I entirely endorse his description of the Bill. However, I hope that he appreciates that his description is the greatest possible indictment of the perfunctory way in which the Government and their Whips—not the Secretary of State personally—believe that Parliament should discharge its obligations.

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

I am not going to take interventions, as I want to get on to the substance of the Bill. There should be no misunderstanding on any side of the strength of the Opposition's feelings on this very important subject, which goes to the heart of the way in which Parliament operates.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 1:49 pm, 17th September 2003

To divide the House on the motion would compound the charade of the process before us. I welcome the fact that the Conservatives do not intend to divide since that would be a waste of our time. None the less, it would be wrong to let pass the way the Government are bouncing through a Bill in one legislative day. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, but he did not answer my question about why we have to go through all stages in one day. He will try to imply that I and others do not understand the gravity of the situation or the need for expedition. We do, and there is no reason why the Bill must go through in one fell swoop.

The Secretary of State is making a habit of this. He behaved the same way on the legislation deferring Northern Ireland elections to such an extent that the House was denied a Committee stage. That was reprehensible, and I rather thought that even this Secretary of State might have learned that that truly offended Parliament. It may sound old-fashioned, but there are those of us who believe in this place and its job of scrutinising and probing the Executive and examining legislation. I had hoped that the Secretary of State would not repeat what he had done.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Members from Northern Ireland have no other way to express their feelings on the motion than by voting on it? What is the difference between voting on this motion today and dividing the House on all the other occasions on which it has also been a charade because the Opposition know that they cannot win the vote? We must have our rights, and I regret that Members whose parties represent absolutely no seats in Northern Ireland are telling us that we are not allowed to vote against something totally obnoxious to the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

If hon. Members want to divide the House, we will have to make a decision. I sympathise with Rev. Ian Paisley because the 1 million and more people of Northern Ireland do not enjoy enough scrutiny of their legislation in this place. Much of it goes through by Order in Council and cannot be amended in the Delegated Legislation Committees that deal with those orders. When there is primary legislation, we are surely obliged to put it through the House in the proper manner, including a Committee stage that allows proper scrutiny.

All the textbooks on the British constitution say that we debate broad principles on Second Reading, and then a Bill goes to a Committee of the whole House or a Committee Upstairs to be gone through line by line. I tell students that that is complete nonsense. Governments hardly ever accept amendments, and the few that they do accept often put right their botched legislation. If I am wrong to make that charge, perhaps the Secretary of State can help me by saying whether a day has been earmarked for the House of Lords to consider any amendment that we may make to the Bill. I hope that he will say that a date has been pencilled in. That would at least demonstrate that he is in listening mode and is prepared to accept some amendments to improve the Bill.

I have referred to what happened when we discussed a previous Bill, and the House will recall that that Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and did not have a Committee stage. It was, however, thoroughly examined in the House of Lords and was, in my opinion, improved there, or at the very least amended. My fear is that tonight's Bill, having been already through the House of Lords, has arrived here, and that, come hell or high water, there is no way the Secretary of State will allow any amendment to it. That would be reprehensible, and if he thinks that I am criticising him unfairly, he might indicate that he is prepared to consider amendments and provide further time in the House of Lords to debate them.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth Independent Ulster Unionist, Belfast South

Does the hon. Gentleman suspect that the Bill before us did not begin its passage in this House last week because it might have been improved if it had gone to the House of Lords this week?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The hon. Gentleman may well be correct. In considering the charges that I am making against the Government, Members should bear it in mind that the elected House of Commons, which contains representatives from throughout Great Britain and, in particular, Northern Ireland, is being given one day for debate whereas their lordships, not one of whom has been elected by the people, had two days and an interruption over a weekend in which they had the opportunity for review and reflection and to table amendments.

It is a travesty that we are being asked to rubber-stamp the Bill today. The danger is that if we acquiesce in that by our silence, it will happen again and again. Nor will it be confined to Northern Ireland legislation; on more and more general legislation, Secretaries of State will tell us that it is of the utmost importance that Bills are passed in hours. They will tell Back Benchers, particularly those on their own side, "You're not playing the game, you're being uncomradely, you just want to make an exhibition of yourself." I know all that they say about me, but I can tell them that it will not wash. Until the people of Thurrock put me out, the Secretary of State will have to put up with me telling him that he is turning Parliament into a charade, and he can wave his hands about all he likes.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

If the Secretary of State thinks that I am being offensive, I will be happy to give way.

I want the Secretary of State to say why it is necessary to rubber-stamp the Bill and bounce it through the House of Commons today without proper scrutiny or an opportunity for reflection. I want a Secretary of State who is prepared to listen and to accept improvements to his legislation.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 1:56 pm, 17th September 2003

It is interesting to hear Andrew Mackinlay outlining the increasing concern among many of us about the Government's arrogance in assuming that they should be able to use programme motions to speed things through even when there are a considerable number of matters to debate. It is fair to say that, like Mr. Davies, we were consulted on the timing, and, in my judgment, nine hours should be sufficient to do all we need to do, especially if we get quickly through the programme motion. For that reason, it would be disingenuous of us to take any opportunity that may arise to oppose the Government if a vote is called. On that principle, we shall not resist the programme motion, but we act with little enthusiasm.

I am extremely concerned that in a previous Northern Ireland debate, which the hon. Member for Thurrock said had set a precedent, there was at least one occasion on which a Minister spoke at such length that those who are in the front line when it comes to justifying the legislation to those most affected by it—the Northern Ireland Members—were more or less excluded from speaking. We have heard from Members who represent Northern Ireland parties that they felt some frustration about the strictures of previous programme motions. I very much welcome the fact that a Labour Member has sought to highlight to the Secretary of State the dangerous precedents that some of us feel are being set when Bills are taken through in just one day.

The various legislative stages have traditionally been staggered, for very good reasons. We were meant to have an opportunity to raise general issues without going into detail on Second Reading. There would then be an opportunity between Second Reading and the Committee stage for Ministers and their representatives to seek consensus and resolution in those areas legitimately raised as concerns by participants in the debate. After that, there was meant to be a further opportunity before Report for cool reflection on matters raised by Government Back Benchers or members of other parties that the Government might not have felt they could modify in the heat of debate but which, with the benefit of a slightly longer period, they could accept were valid concerns. After that, there would be a Third Reading when we could survey the work that had been done.

If all those stages are gone through in one day, all that opportunity is thrown out of the window. The Government have prevented us from having those quiet conversations through the usual channels and there is a danger of railroading the House and parties that are concerned about this legislation—in this case, the other place and the Dublin Government—in a way that will create unnecessary and unwanted frictions. I counsel the Secretary of State to reflect on the potential consequences of moving so fast with legislation which almost by definition walks the boundary between the uncontroversial—the areas that fall within the terms of the Good Friday agreement—and the controversial—the areas in which it challenges that agreement.

The Secretary of State mentioned elections, which are perhaps outside the terms of reference of the programme motion. However, I hope that we will get a chance to express our considerable concerns and the scepticism on the Liberal Democrat Benches about the wisdom of postponing the elections, not least because that increases the expectation in some quarters that, having postponed elections in Northern Ireland once, the Government will find it less difficult to do so again. Perhaps we can return to that matter on Second Reading.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats have always sought to walk a transparent and honest line in our dealings with Ministers—[Interruption.] We have done so in our dealings with my portfolio—matters relating to the north and south of Ireland. We have tried to do so in a way that enables people to understand where we stand, regardless of whether we expect them to align themselves with our position. While we may have had differences with Ministers and representatives of the Northern Ireland parties, our commitment to the Good Friday agreement and the peace process cannot be questioned. We sincerely hope that Ministers will play a straight bat with us, that they will act in good faith in the debates in this Chamber and that we can be confident that all discussions with the Dublin Government will be held in the same context.

The peace process can be successful only if people can trust each other. Therefore, as we discuss this controversial legislation today, let us hope that the debate will have the foundation of that good faith. I never feel positive about any programme motion, but under the circumstances and given the sensible consultation conducted by representatives of the Ministers, the Liberal Democrats are not inclined to resist this motion.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 2:03 pm, 17th September 2003

Trade unions are aware of the distinction between procedural and substantive agreements. For example, they believe that getting the procedure agreement for their negotiations right is tremendously important in enabling them to sort out acceptable substantive agreements on issues, principles, terms and conditions. The peculiarity for me today is that the Bill—the substantive issue—is basically acceptable, but the procedures being used to deal with it are not. Of course, if we went through the normal, proper procedures, I might develop reservations about the substantive elements of the legislation, as I would have the benefit of the cross-fertilisation of ideas that results from discussion.

The arguments outlined by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay are of great significance. My hon. Friend is a great parliamentarian, both in the Chamber and in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. We should all recognise that, emulate the positions that he takes and follow the avenues that he chooses. I am happy to associate myself with him in this matter. He pointed out that the other place has had a better bite of the cherry with this measure. It had a formal First Reading on 8 September to enable the Bill to be printed. It met for a Second Reading on 12 September and had the weekend during which to reflect before dealing with the remaining stages on 15 September when the measure was sent to us. We only have today. Given that we have returned for a fortnight, the arrangements could have been better. Perhaps the Bill should have originated in this House and gone to the other place later, where we could have seen what transpired.

I feeling considerably disquieted by the procedure but I want to get on to the substantive measures contained in the Bill, so I will take the halfway-house position suggested by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. I shall not vote against the programme motion, although I will not vote for it because I want to register my disquiet.

Interestingly, we are able to pursue this Bill because of the alteration in the timetable of the House. We have returned for a convenient fortnight. I am keen that that fortnight's return should continue, as it gives Back Benchers access to procedures of the House that would not otherwise be available to them. No doubt, the Government will also find it useful so that they can push through any measures that are lying around which they might find it difficult to push through on another occasion. If they are going to do that, they should respect hon. Members and enable them to be involved in the procedures of the House and to reflect on the processes.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 2:07 pm, 17th September 2003

I wish to congratulate the Secretary of State on one point. During his contribution, the word "guillotine" fell from his lips. I was delighted to hear that instead of the rather ugly new Labour phrase "timetable motion." Guillotines are what they are. It is wrong to guillotine legislation, but the Government routinely guillotine everything. As a consequence, the opportunity for scrutiny in this House has been greatly reduced.

Many people outside this place are talking about the ineffectiveness of Parliament. People do not realise that the main reasons for the decline of Parliament are the so-called modernisation ideas introduced by this Government, every one of which has disadvantaged the House in carrying out its functions.

Some hon. Members have referred to the contrast between this House, where this Bill is to be rammed through in one day, and the House of Lords, where it has received more serious consideration. Some may think that that is due to the fact that the Government have a huge majority in this place but not in the other place. I do not think that that is the case; it is simply that the House of Lords has retained greater control over its own procedures than we have. I suspect that the so-called reforms that the Government are proposing for the other place largely have the purpose of trying to subject it to the same amount of control as they exercise here. I very much hope that they will be unsuccessful.

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

The right hon. Gentleman used the term guillotine, which is an appropriate expression given the procedure's effect on parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. The guillotine is all the more regrettable given that the Bill had its genesis in an agreement between Governments that was made in April. There ought to have been more of an opportunity for this place to look at what those Governments were doing.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I will come back to the genesis of the measure in a moment. Although I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supported my point about the guillotine and I welcome that, it is none the less my intention to disrupt the cosy consensus that has emerged between the Government, the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats on whether the House should divide on the motion. It has always been our view that guillotines should be opposed on principle. That will continue to be our view, so we invite those hon. Members who have spoken against the motion, rather than sitting on the Bench for 15 minutes twiddling their thumbs, to carry their principled view through to the Lobby with us when we divide the House.

I take issue with the Secretary of State on the genesis of the Bill. His account of the origin of the Bill was seriously defective. The Bill owes its being to discussions held not only in April, but in June and July last year. I remind the Secretary of State of a statement made in the House by his predecessor on 25 July 2002, when I think the Government said they were sympathetic to the proposal that there be some form of machinery to supervise and monitor ceasefires. At the same time, we were pressing for sanctions in the event of breaches of ceasefires. It is from that commitment that the measure flows.

The significance of that point is that the Bill has not come up in a hurry. The proposals have been around for 14 months; they have had a long gestation. The Bill could have come forward much sooner, and had the Government been better focused and followed the advice given by my hon. Friends and me last year, it would have done so. If there is urgency, it is entirely due to the Government's dilatoriness—although I even doubt that the question is urgent.

I have said enough to indicate my party's attitude to the motion. Although we shall necessarily divide the House, I do not want to take any more time from the discussion in substance. We have made our point.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 2:12 pm, 17th September 2003

On this issue, I am normally on the side of the angels; over the years, I have agreed with those who are opposed to guillotines. However, this case is slightly different.

It is remarkable how often the main point is missed. In reality, under the Bill, we cannot amend, change or omit any of the functions of the commission. Those functions, under the 15 clauses of the draft agreement between the Government and the Irish Government are received from that draft international agreement, not from legislation. In terms of the Bill, Parliament has no capacity to deal with the functions of the commission.

Let me invoke authority for the Government's position, as confirmed in another place by Lord Williams of Mostyn:

"I remind the Committee, the commission receives its functions from the agreement."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 667.]

He said, in effect, that an amendment to add to those functions could not become law under the Bill. For that reason, my complaint in respect of the procedural issue is not about the length of time but about the fact that on at least two substantive points in respect of which I should have liked to change the functions, I cannot do so because they derive not from the Bill but from a draft international agreement.

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

I am merely honourable. I may be right, but not in that sense.

My question is simple: is it the hon. Gentleman's thesis that it is now the Executive and not Parliament who are sovereign?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I simply present the point of view set out by the Government spokesman in another place on Monday. As the debate proceeds, I await confirmation that he was right.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I shall give way shortly.

The point goes to the heart of what has been said not only about the legislative role of Parliament but about the position of a party or an individual Member who wants to amend legislation. I recognise the authority of that Government spokesman. He was saying that we should not try to amend those functions because such amendments cannot become law under the Bill. I am thus precluded from tabling amendments that I would have wanted to make.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside Independent Ulster Unionist, South Antrim

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in asking for an early statement from the Secretary of State on that point about sovereignty? Why are we wasting our time here this afternoon if we cannot attempt to amend the Bill? Does that not have a bearing on the fundamental power and authority of the House? I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the joint agreement between the Governments, because it was not a joint agreement or declaration between the Governments and the parties. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek clarification from the Secretary of State as to whether those of us who have tabled amendments and new clauses are wasting our time.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of Members have tabled amendments to the Bill, yet Mr. Mallon tells us that it cannot be amended. Can we assume that, in accepting those amendments, the House rather than the hon. Gentleman was right?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

That is a matter for debate rather than for the Chair at this point in time.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for South Antrim (David Burnside) for those interventions.

According to my understanding of the words of the Government spokesman in another place, the reality is that whatever Parliament's complaints about lack of time, it does not have the capacity to change, amend, add to or subtract from the functions of the international monitoring commission. I may be wrong, or the Government spokesman in another place may be wrong, but as we are discussing procedure I must record that I feel at a disadvantage because if I cannot add at least two further functions, the Committee stage will be rather academic.

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

The hon. Gentleman is in a bad way if he assumes that anything a Minister says is the oracle of truth. Yesterday, I, too, read what Lord Williams said on Monday and was deeply shocked by it. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman and the whole House will agree that what Lord Williams said was arrant nonsense. Parliament can do what it likes; it can decide what it likes in this or any matter—it has no higher authority below heaven. If we change the Bill, it may indeed make inoperative the proposed British-Irish intergovernmental agreement. It will be for the Irish Government to decide whether they want to continue with the agreement and modify it to bring it into line with the Bill. It will be that way round, and I hope that there is no doubt in the mind of anyone in the House about that important constitutional principle.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I think we are getting a little way away from the allocation of time motion, which is what we should be discussing.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you give us an assurance, Sir, that we will be permitted to move the amendments when we come to do so?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

A selection list for the amendments has been circulated already, and we shall deal with things as we usually do.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I take your direction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had not realised that my simple observation on what the Government spokesman said would lead to such controversy. I do not always have total respect for Ministers, but I have enormous respect for the Minister who made that statement. I believe that he is right, but I await confirmation of that.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Would it not be clearer if my hon. Friend were to put it this way: the fact of the matter is that the House has the right, if it so wishes, to amend the Bill, but, if it does so, that will be a breach of faith in respect of agreements that have been reached between the UK Government and the Irish Government?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Mr. Mallon is again being tempted away from the straight and narrow path that I had encouraged him to take. I should be grateful to him if he returned to that path.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I am being tempted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, like Oscar Wilde, I can resist everything except temptation.

I shall conclude with this point: this issue arose yesterday in the House in the debate on the European Union and, although it was not expressed in the terms in which it is being expressed in relation to this Bill, the same point of principle is involved. I simply flag it up. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence, and I shall return to the matter at a later stage when I will seek clarification. If I am wrong, I fear that the other House has been misled.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 2:21 pm, 17th September 2003

The Northern Ireland people have been treated in a disgraceful manner again. It used to be that Parliament would fight across the world for the right to hold elections. Now, part of the United Kingdom has been told that it would have an election and that there would be no alteration of it. Then, later on, that election was called off. Now, we are debating something that is to do with parties outside the United Kingdom that relates to whether we will have the right to hold an election. The amazing thing is that we will have an election, according to the Secretary of State, if it gives the right answer. The right answer that he wants is that everyone will bow the knee and say, "Yes, we're going to accept what the Government want." Are we in a democracy, or are we not?

I am amazed at the statements made by Mr. Mallon because it does not matter who says anything: Parliament is the supreme court of us all, and it is entitled to say what it wants and pass what it wants. Whether the Government have entered into a cushy agreement with Mr. Aherne and his colleagues in Dublin and agreed it with the high councils of the IRA so that they can come in on the act, and with Mr. Adams and his colleagues, it matters not: the House has a right to say.

I regret that those hon. Members who can see how the people of Northern Ireland have been treated take this up as though we were wasting time in saying that we will divide the House. The House needs to be divided so that a proper protest can be on record showing that the people elected from Northern Ireland do not want their country to deteriorate into an appendage of two Governments who will make arrangements behind closed doors not only for themselves, but about what the outcome of an election should be.

It is disgraceful that we will not have time to look fully at the Bill today. The Secretary of State knows very well that some amendments will not be called because there will not be time for them. When he was asked whether he is likely to accept any of those amendments, he was silent. Therefore, we will argue something, but for the Secretary of State and the Government the doors are locked against it and it is all agreed, even before we move the amendments. Who is it agreed with? Is it agreed with paramilitary chiefs, who call the shots in regard to this matter? That is who it is: the IRA—and the hand of the IRA is in the House today.

We then have a further example. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh says that we should not really be trying to amend the Bill because we have no authority to do so. All I can say to him is that he should go back and read what the Government spokesman said, and he will find that what was said is not exactly what he said in the House today. Even if it was, it does not alter the fact that the Bill proposes to allow another sovereign state to have an unprecedented say in the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

If another country were to be given an input into the Welsh Assembly, the Secretary of State would be the first on his feet, saying, "No, no, we are not going to allow some outside Government to enter into an agreement with the United Kingdom Government to deal with the Welsh people. We have dignity; we have our country; and we have our rights." He would fight, as I am fighting now for the people of Northern Ireland. He would say, "No, you can't do that", but he comes to the Dispatch Box to tell us that we have to do such things. What right has the southern Government to tell us what to do?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is falling into the trap about which I have already reminded other hon. Members. We are specifically talking about the allocation of time, and he is touching on matters that would probably be better reserved for a little later in the day.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I was trying to put the argument, Sir, that if what I am saying is so, what is the use of our talking about time at all? We should not really be here in the House at all today, and I am trying to tell the House about the Bill's origins and to explain why we should have time to discuss it. It has immediate and terrible consequences for the people of Northern Ireland.

This is not the first time that the Government have treated Northern Ireland like this. On 12 May 2003, the Government hurried the Bill to cancel the Assembly elections through the House in a day, wiping out the right of the people to express their views on a certain subject. The Government were not having it. The IRA did not agree to it; Gerry Adams did not agree to it; they did not agree to it; and the southern Government did not agree to it, so the people of Northern Ireland were not to be allowed to vote.

When it comes to giving the House scant opportunity to scrutinise its work in Northern Ireland, the Government have repeated their offences over and again against the electorate there. The Government have got into a habit and I fear that if such things are permitted again today, they will be repeated again and again, and, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has told us, they will creep into the legislation for England, Wales and Scotland. So we are carrying a flag for the sovereignty of the House and the sovereignty of those who send people to the House.

Despite earlier claims that progress would not be made until the IRA moved to abandon violence completely, the Government have been negotiating in secret with the IRA already, after telling us that they would not do so. I asked the Prime Minister a question in the House on 27 November, and he said:

"It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward".—[Hansard, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]

The Prime Minister was saying something that we have been saying for years—that we cannot move the democratic process forward until we are dealing with democrats who believe only in the vote, and not in the bullet and the bomb. There was to be no further discussion—the IRA must decommission. The decommissioning issue, however, has almost been forgotten in this whole debate.

The IRA still has the power, which is increasing every day because of the deterioration of security in Northern Ireland. In east Belfast on Monday night, serious incidents took place. I was called to those incidents as the MEP for the area. The chief of police for east Belfast said to me, "Mr. Paisley, are you aware of how many policemen I have tonight for the entire policing of east Belfast?" I said no. He said, "I have six men." We know from a Police Authority report this week that only 1 per cent. of all the terrible burglaries that have taken place have been solved in 12 months. With that background, what would happen to the people of Northern Ireland if there were a resurgence of the IRA? Those are issues that this House needs to take into account.

By speeding this legislation through the House, one can presume only that the Government have something that they do not want discussed. If they have a case, why do they not argue it? Why do they not welcome a full exchange of debate in this House? Why not give us time to debate it? Some very important areas in this Bill need to be put under the spotlight of parliamentary scrutiny. It is clear from what is contained in these proposals that, rather than punish the IRA, the commission will reward it. Sinn Fein-IRA are no more likely to be removed from Government when this Bill is passed, as was attempted previously. Most of this Bill, although Members of the House may not realise it, is directed against the party that I lead. It attacks those who would not sit down with armed gunmen who were prepared even to carry out a spying operation in Stormont. It is aimed against the Democratic Unionist party. The Irish representative on the commission will have a say in the internal affairs of the Northern Ireland Assembly despite what the leader of the Ulster Unionist party tells the country—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now really making a Second Reading speech. I am not sure whether he will seek to catch my eye on Second Reading, but, if so, perhaps he ought to leave himself something to say.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 2:33 pm, 17th September 2003

I am mindful, as you have stressed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the narrow terms of the motion and of the need to get on to debates of substance. I stress, however, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that this is not just a day's debate; it is a much-extended day's debate. I give credit to Opposition spokesmen who have been gracious enough to concede that that is the case.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his opening speech, the Government believe that pressing reasons exist for putting this legislation in place as soon as possible. I shall not reiterate those, but suffice it to say that we consider the Bill's swift passage an essential component of our proposals for political progress in Northern Ireland.

We have taken steps to take account of the concerns of hon. Members, which have been expressed again today, that this legislation should be debated fully. We have provided that additional time, as well as providing that the time not used in this debate on the timetabling motion should be given over to consideration of the Bill. We look forward to a constructive and illuminating debate on that, which I hope will be conducted in a reasonable spirit. I must say to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay that, enthusiastic as he is when he makes points about which he feels strongly, I wish that he would not personalise them in the way that he often does, particularly in relation to someone whom everyone regards as an extremely honourable Member of the House and honourable Minister, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. On reflection, he might regret those comments.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

In that spirit, I bring my remarks to a swift close so that we may move to substantive consideration of the Bill.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 243, Noes 21.

Division number 316 Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill (Allocation of Time)

Aye: 243 MPs

No: 21 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.