Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [ Lords]

Part of Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 3:10 pm, 11th March 2010

I join the Minister by saying how pleased Opposition Members were to see the Northern Ireland Assembly agree to the devolution of policing and justice measures, which we see as the final piece in the jigsaw of devolution. It will enable the parties in Northern Ireland now to concentrate on the everyday issues that affect people in the Province; education being one of the most important. We look forward to the orders coming before the house on 22 March and we will support them.

I also agree with the Minister that it is useful when we can work together on these issues. He and I have had a number of meetings on the Bill. It is a short Bill-only three clauses-but we have had at least that many meetings on it and probably more. But I think that that has been useful; I say that to inform the House, if I needed to, that there is bipartisan support for what is going on in Northern Ireland. The issue are too important to be discussed in a party political way; they are bigger than that and we try as far as we can to work together with the Government. We do not always agree but when we disagree, we do so in a civilised way, which is the way forward.

We welcome the Bill, which addresses two of the main issues of concern. The fact that politicians-not just in Northern Ireland-do at present set their own salaries and allowances is looked upon by the public with some incredulity. I am pleased that that is changing for the Westminster Parliament and it is right that we introduce the Bill to give the Northern Ireland Assembly the ability to change that arrangement as well. There were good reasons for the Bill being introduced originally as it dealt with double jobbing, which I will come to in a moment. Things have moved on-the Minister is right-and it is only right that we look at the Bill again.

I entirely agree that an independent body should set the salaries and allowances of Assembly Members. That is a start towards trying to restore at least some trust and faith in the political process. That is the way we have gone here in Westminster-I believe rightly-and the principle is right. As the Minister said, the Assembly cannot delegate such responsibilities at the moment, but the Bill brings Northern Ireland into line with Wales and Scotland.

We felt-it was certainly the case in the other place-that the proposal was slightly weak in that it did not require the Assembly to move in the direction outlined but merely gave it the competence to do so. The noble Lord Glentoran tabled an amendment to require the Assembly to delegate the decision making to a separate body. The Government, and the Liberal Democrats for that matter, did not support the amendment, so we are where we are. But I am heartened that the Minister believes that a Bill will be brought before the Assembly to make that move before 2011 when the next Assembly elections will be held. That is a good thing; I will not make too much of that in the debate as we understand that progress will be made in that respect.

The second part of the Bill deals with the removal of the salary of Assembly Members if they also sit in one of the Houses of Parliament or the European Parliament. Again, we support that move and believe it is a step in the right direction. The Minister briefly referred to Sir Christopher Kelly's report on MPs' salaries and expenses. Its recommendation 40 states:

"The practice of permitting a Westminster MP simultaneously to sit in a devolved legislature should be brought to an end, ideally by the time of the elections to the three devolved legislatures scheduled for May 2011."

That is a very clear statement, and we entirely agree with it for a number of reasons, which I shall come to later.

In an article in the Belfast Telegraph in May 2009 my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out that being an MP is not a part-time job, and I think all Members of this House would agree. I fully understand the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr. Cash) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), but it should be pointed out that if people are physically sitting in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they cannot also be physically sitting here in this Chamber, and they cannot at the same time be attending Committees both here and in the Assembly. I think that the public-our constituents-have the right to see that at least we are available for parliamentary business on a regular basis, and that is simply not possible if people are required to serve in two places.