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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I should like to begin by thanking my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mike Penning, who was in the Chamber earlier, for his work in preparing this Bill and steering it through the House. My task today has been greatly eased by the work that he has done in explaining the contents of the Bill to the House. I should also like to thank speakers from all parts of the House—from the four parties of Northern Ireland represented in the Chamber today—for their constructive contributions to debates on the Bill. [Interruption.] Three parties and an independent, I am sorry. I have looked carefully at the earlier debates, and I think the House has done an excellent job on the Bill. While we have not always agreed on amendments, there has been a great deal of consensus on much of its contents.
As many hon. Members have noted, this is not a Bill that makes radical changes to the architecture of government in Northern Ireland. It has been described variously as a “tapas Bill”, a “portmanteau Bill”, and a “bouillabaisse Bill”. Stephen Pound, in his inimitable way, has even suggested that some would see it as a “bits and pieces” Bill. I welcome that sort of Bill, because I would describe it as a Bill for more normal times. In the past, Northern Ireland Bills have made fundamental changes to government in Northern Ireland, or have been introduced in response to political crises. This Bill supports the development of the devolved institutions. The emphasis now has to be not on further radical institutional departures, but on delivery—chiefly delivery by the institutions in Northern Ireland, but with our support—on reducing community division and on economic renewal. That is the keystone of our approach to Northern Ireland.
If I may be allowed a personal note, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am newly arrived back in Northern Ireland, although as some hon. Members will know, I spent time in an earlier incarnation there. Indeed, I spent the best part of a year in west Belfast, defending, as I saw it, people of the community of Northern Ireland, whether they were from a nationalist, Unionist, Protestant or Catholic background—I was defending them all—against the scourge of terrorism, and I am proud of having done so.
In my view of the past, and in my hopes for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, I, too, have a past, shaped by my experience, which has shaped my views. For now, my aim is to work with all the politicians in the Northern Ireland Executive to help them to deliver the benefits to which the agreements have opened the way. The Bill is consistent with that approach. It clears the decks of a number of relatively small, but important, matters, to smooth the way for better delivery aimed at Northern Ireland’s future peace and prosperity. The changes that the Bill makes are not radical, but they are important. Northern Ireland is now moving in the right direction.
I am very flattered indeed that the Minister should regard me as a party in my own right. I am an independent Member but it is always lovely to be unanimous with myself.
The Minister will know that a key provision of the Bill is to move the scheduled election date for the Northern Ireland Assembly. By statute, the Assembly should be elected every four years, but that term has been extended. Will he kindly give a guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland that the House regards that as a rarity? In fact, when there is a statutory lifetime of a devolved Assembly that should be changed very rarely indeed.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady is unanimous with herself. I did not mean to portray her as a party, but rather as an individual independent.
On the substantive issue, as an historian I remember the Septennial Act 1715, which extended the life of the Westminster Parliament and was rightly disparaged over the years. Extending the life of any assembly or Parliament should be done with great care and only in exceptional circumstances. I, like the hon. Lady, am a democrat and I do not think we should go that way, but on this occasion there is general consensus that that is probably the right way forward.
It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to consider hosting world leaders in Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I remember that when the Prime Minister announced it, some people said, “That’s a bit dodgy,” but it worked extremely well and I pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland, who made it such a successful G8 summit. It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to present the Turner prize in Northern Ireland. It would have been inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of visitors would travel to Northern Ireland for events like the world police and fire games this summer.
The passing of this Bill through the House marks a further step towards normalisation for Northern Ireland. This is the first Bill since the imposition of direct rule in 1972 which has not been enacted in haste, as a result of a political crisis or to implement a political agreement. Instead, it has been subject to public consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and thorough scrutiny following the usual timetable in this House. It is something to celebrate that we are now able to consider matters thoroughly and without the urgency that has been a feature of previous Bills, and although I have attended only this sitting on the Bill, I might say that we have been able to discuss it with good humour, which is also important. I commend the Bill to the House.
I reiterate the comments made by the Minister of State about the good spirit in which the debate has been conducted. We have been considering matters of great moment—matters of state, matters of considerable importance, but it has been done overall, I hope, in a good and positive atmosphere.
May I trespass upon your good nature, which is legendary, Mr Deputy Speaker, by adding my own tribute to the late Eddie McGrady? When I attended his funeral in Downpatrick last Thursday, as I went up past McGrady’s estate agents, turned round at McGrady’s accountants, arrived at the cathedral to meet Father Fergal McGrady, son of Malachy McGrady, it occurred to me that possibly there was somebody in Downpatrick who was not a McGrady, but I did not find them. I was privileged to sit with Arlene Foster, who represented the DUP very well. Between the Secretary of State and Arlene Foster was none other than Ms Ritchie, who is not, as I know it, a McGrady, though she was considered and referred to as a protégée of the great McGrady.
May I, once more trespassing on your legendary good nature and good will, Mr Deputy Speaker, add my sympathies to Naomi Long for the occurrence that took place over the weekend, which she has typically and characteristically responded to with enormous courage? She is here tonight to support what may be Government amendment 1, but is in fact the hon. Lady’s amendment 1. She has done that extremely well and successfully. For somebody who considered the matter in a Statutory Instrument Committee, to see it come to fruition on the Floor of the House is a great tribute not just to the good sense and good will of the House, but particularly to the driving force of the hon. Lady.
We heard from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Robertson. He could have spoken more—I recommend to any Member the Committee’s full report on the draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It should not be forgotten that a great deal of the business that is affected by this legislation has not been discussed on the Floor of the House tonight and has not been amended. Although the expression “a bits and pieces Bill” may seem a trifle crude, the Bill is a glorious melange, a coming together of so many different aspects, all overseen with a golden thread of positivity.
Let us not forget that the Bill deals with political donations, dual mandates, the position of the Justice Minister, electoral registration, equality duties and even the regulation of biometric data. We have considered so many of these—the fixed terms, the length of the current Assembly term—and we have arrived at the end with, I like to think, a strong degree of consensus, which is again a tribute to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, its present Chairman and its members, who I see are well represented in the House tonight.
On the first group of amendments, new clauses 1 and 2, we heard from Mark Durkan. I have immense sympathy with the points that he makes. The hardest task that any of us who is involved even peripherally with the affairs of Northern Ireland must face is the legacy issue—the issue of dealing with the past. It overhangs everything we do. All our deliberations must be seen in that context. Just to listen to some of the names and some of the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman mentioned reminded us—those of us who needed reminding, and I rather doubt that any of us do need reminding—that we will always have to be aware of the full horror, the monstrosity of the past, which lurks over our shoulder at all times.
However, tonight we have heard a little bit of good news which points us in the direction of consensus. Dr McCrea, as ever, spoke from the heart and spoke with great emotion. None of us in the House could ever have anything less than utter respect, regard and understanding of the pain and the agony that he and his family and many members of his community have suffered, yet we are here today in a democratic House, undertaking democratic legislation to make life better for a group of people who have not been well served in the past.
If there is one thing that we must recognise as binding together everything that we have done tonight, it is, as the Minister said, that the Bill is an indication of progression. We are moving forward into a safer, more inclusive and shared future. It may seem that much of the content of Bills is minutiae—a minor matter. There is nothing of minor matter in the politics of Northern Ireland. Every single aspect of the Bill is crucial and has great significance beyond this House. I like to think that what has emerged here this evening is at the very least a signpost on the way to a better and a shared future. All Members of the House should take some credit for that achievement here tonight.
There is important Back-Bench business to be taken. My natural loquacity will be limited, if not choked, on this occasion. I would like to say more and there is probably more to be said, but I shall end by saying that the House has done Parliament, democracy and above all the people of Northern Ireland a great service tonight. I am proud to be a Member of the House that agreed this Bill this evening.
I would like to say it is a great pleasure to follow Stephen Pound, but it is very difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman. Once again, I welcome what he said and the way that he said it, with his customary humour and good grace.
I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well. We look forward to working with him. I formally put on record our condolences to the SDLP and to the people of South Down on the sad loss of Eddie McGrady, who was a very decent and honourable representative for all the people of South Down. I have expressed my sentiments privately and I have written to the SDLP, but I want to put that formally on the record. He was a true outstanding example of what a Member of Parliament and an elected representative should be.
I also want to put on record our condemnation of the attack on the offices of Naomi Long. I note that my hon. Friend Mr Campbell has tabled a motion for debate today in the Northern Ireland Assembly condemning that and other attacks. He made the point that whether these evil acts have a loyalist or republican label, they are equally wrong, regardless of who is responsible. I think that all hon. Members will endorse that. We as democrats must stand up against attacks. Members of my party and of the SDLP, and members of other parties and of no party, have had their person, their offices and their property attacked previously, simply because they stood up and expressed a point of view in a democratic way. It is scandalous that anyone should be targeted for doing that.
We welcome the Bill. It is limited in scope, but nevertheless it deals with some important matters. We wish it had gone further in relation to party donations and the point that I raised in relation to a glaring loophole, but no doubt we will return to that at some point. I welcome the fact that the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly has been brought into line with those for Scotland and Wales. We now have an equal situation for the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The Government have been sensible and right to do that. There are the new arrangements for the Minister of Justice and the Assembly’s power to reduce the number of MLAs, which we certainly want to see. There are far too many Assembly Members in Northern Ireland, and the number needs to be reduced.
We recognise that other more substantive issues need to be debated and for which provision needs to be made. We hope that after the Haass talks and further consideration in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee we will be in a position to come forward with some kind of consensus on major issues and debate them further and, if necessary, legislate for them in this House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on Third Reading. We had a good debate on Second Reading and during part of the Committee stage in this Chamber in June, and my hon. Friend Mark Durkan took the Bill forward in Committee. Tonight we discussed further amendments on Report and now we have the Third Reading debate.
In contributing to the debate, as Member of Parliament for South Down I want to thank all Members on the Front and Back Benches and across various parties for the tribute that they have paid tonight to the former hon. Member for South Down, Eddie McGrady, who passed away last Monday afternoon in Down hospital. I worked for and with Eddie for many years, and I, like other hon. Members here tonight, always found him a man of considerable integrity, hard work, dedication and commitment to all his constituents without fear or favour. He represented the true hallmarks of what a Member of Parliament should be, at a time in Northern Ireland when it was difficult to engage in that particular role because of ongoing violence, ongoing deaths, ongoing threats and the ongoing murder of many of his constituents, some of whom I have already referred to in this debate. He condemned all of those unequivocally, because he always believed that the principle of democracy must reign. He, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and many other party members, participated faithfully in the negotiations on the Good Friday agreement, because we firmly believed that that was the pathway and the direction of travel to the resolution of our conflict, bringing about a final political settlement on the island of Ireland, espousing the relationships between Unionists and nationalists in the north, between the north and south of the island and between Britain and Ireland, which were characterised by the political institutions that were established as a result of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
On behalf of my party and my SDLP colleagues in this House, I condemn the terrible and horrendous attack yet again on Naomi Long and on her constituency office. Such attacks are an affront to the democratic process and to democracy. Again, I emphasise that this House and all Members adhere to the principle of democracy, and we want that to reign supreme. Those who carry out such acts of violence are reprehensible, and their deeds are reprehensible.
The Bill, with its 29 clauses, is being debated at a time, as the Minister said, when there has been no particular crisis in Northern Ireland. It simply reflects a movement in the democratic process in Northern Ireland. We in the SDLP—my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle, for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and me—would like to have enhanced the Bill with the inclusion of clauses to deal with the past, which is currently the subject of the Haass talks, bringing back the whole issue of petitions of concern to what they were meant to be under the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and the whole area of statutory duties with regard to good relations. We welcome the greater level of transparency in relation to donations and the Government’s further commitment tonight on that, which was originally brought forward by the hon. Member for Belfast East.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and I raised the issues to do with dual mandate. We asked for that area of the dual mandate to be extended to the Lords and Seanad Eireann in the Republic of Ireland, because that would be more comprehensive and would deal with the issue in a much fuller way.
In Committee, I tabled amendments on the length of the Assembly mandate, which has been referred to tonight by Lady Hermon. We believe that the extension of the Assembly term from four to five years is undemocratic, because Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who fought the election in May 2011, those Members who were elected, and those people who voted for all candidates in that election, did so for a four-year term, not a five-year term. I understand the Government’s wish for synchronisation, so that matters concur with what is happening in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but we in the SDLP are clear that that is a disruption to the democratic process and to the principle of democracy. On Second Reading, I referred to the mystery tour, and why that decision had been taken. When the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and other organs of political activity in Northern Ireland were supporting a four-year term, why was it automatically changed to a five-year term?
So far I have not received a sufficiently adequate answer to that mystery or puzzle. Perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate that tonight.
Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the pros and cons of the delay of the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, whether or not it is delayed for a year could hardly be categorised as an issue of burning interest among the people in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The people of Northern Ireland fully subscribe to the principles of democracy and, I think, contrary to what he says, would be concerned about that.
In conclusion, although the political process in Northern Ireland has moved on and there is now a concentration on the social, health and economic agenda, we want to see those processes built on. We want to see total delivery for the people of Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to see an Assembly and an Executive that are actually working for the people on all the issues that matter, rather than some of the sterile debates and decisions that have taken place in recent months.
We want the British and Irish Governments to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive on energy, economic development, urban regeneration, jobs and the economy, because we all—I am sure that this applies to all parties from Northern Ireland represented here—want to see delivery for the people in relation to Treasury and fiscal matters. We want to see our tourism protected. In that regard, and in advance of the autumn statement, there is a need for VAT on tourism to complement the level it is at in the Republic of Ireland, because we do not want our tourism industry, our jobs and our economy—
In conclusion, after that slight detour— I am back on track, Mr Deputy Speaker—in relation to the general principles of the Bill, we look forward to a positive solution from the Haass talks on issues relating to flags, emblems, the past and victims, some of which we would have liked to have been addressed by new clauses in the Bill, but I am pleased to have been able to participate this evening.
I will take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to his new post. It has been an experience getting to know him slightly better this evening. It is good that we have been able to make some progress during what I think has been, with regard to outcomes, quite a positive evening.
I also want to express my personal sympathy, and that of my party, to the SDLP and the McGrady family on the passing of Eddie McGrady. He was a gentleman, someone with integrity, and he served his whole community without fear or favour. I know how closely Ms Ritchie worked with Eddie McGrady and so particularly want to pass on my personal condolences to her at what must be a very difficult time. He was very highly thought of right across the community in Northern Ireland, and that cannot be claimed of many people. He was distinguished by that and by many other things he did while a Member of this House.
There is much to commend in the Bill. However, in line with the convention that we should save the best until last, I will focus first on some of the matters about which I am still discontent. As I stated earlier, I am disappointed that donations were not addressed more fully at this stage in the Bill’s progress, with regard to both moving towards full transparency and addressing the issue Mr Dodds raised on overseas donors and the lack of transparency. I think that the time has come for us to build on the progress we have made in Northern Ireland and show confidence in that progress, and I believe that in order to do that we must be courageous in the decisions we make as politicians. Part of that has to be about taking on responsibility for transparency and accountability and the normal standards of public life that apply everywhere else. It would be a huge step forward if progress could be made on that.
I am also disappointed that we have been unable to address as fully as I had wished the issue of dual mandates between the Assembly and Seanad Eireann and between the Assembly and the House of Lords. I have had some success this evening, so I will chance my arm and ask for some more. One of the reasons for not addressing the issue in relation to Seanad Eireann in Committee of the whole House was that there was soon to be a referendum on abolishing it. The referendum failed to abolish the Seanad, so it is an ongoing concern that people can still be Members of the Assembly and the Seanad. I ask the Government, in the light of that development, to consider revisiting the matter when the Bill moves to another place.
I want to welcome progress made in the Bill on four matters. First, I welcome the progress in addressing the anomaly of the appointment of the Justice Minister, which currently advantages my party but would advantage any party that found itself in receipt of that post. It is unfair and, we believe, unbalances the situation. That is something we have raised and worked with other parties to find a solution to, so we are pleased to see it resolved in the Bill.
I also welcome the legislative footing for the end to dual mandates. It is a matter on which a number of parties made commitments before the last Westminster elections, but only now are we slowly beginning to see some progress. I believe that the Bill’s passage through the House has concentrated minds on the issue. I believe that putting that on a legislative footing will ensure that those commitments will be met by all the parties that made them, which I welcome.
I also welcome the regularising of the Assembly’s terms to avoid future clashes with Westminster elections. I regret that that could not be done before the last Assembly elections so that the public would have known that they were electing an Assembly for a five-year term. However, I think that on balance it is better that we regularise it now, rather than having the kinds of ad hoc changes to Assembly dates that we had previously, when people were never quite sure when Assembly elections would take place. It almost appeared as though our elections in Northern Ireland were not as valuable or important as elections to other places. It is important that that has been regularised. It will allow people to focus properly on Westminster issues for Westminster elections and Assembly issues for Assembly elections.
I also welcome the move to remove permanent anonymity for donors from January. I want to put on the record my thanks to Nigel Mills for his support for the amendments we tabled in Committee. He ensured that mine was not a lone voice on the matter and that at least there would have been two of us to act as Tellers, even if there was no one to count. I was pleased that he was willing to do that and thank him for it.
I am pleased about those matters not just because they are ones on which I have campaigned, but because I believe they mark an improvement in the democratic process for the people of Northern Ireland and the people I represent in east Belfast. Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland—Members have reflected on that this evening—but we still have a long way to go in achieving the normality we wish to see. Indeed, the events of recent days and weeks suggest that there are still those, both loyalist and republican, who would seek to deflect us from doing that. It is our duty as elected representatives to make politics work, to aspire to the highest standards in public life and to restore the relationship between us as elected representatives and those we represent, to engender their trust and confidence and to demonstrate that politics is the only way forward and that it is a practical and effective way to make our views known and heard. I believe that the Bill will move politics forward in Northern Ireland and improve the working of the system there. I am pleased to be able to support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.