Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Modification) Order 2003

– in the House of Lords at 6:58 pm on 9th December 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I should like to explain the background to the order. It was clear to the Government following the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly that, in the short term at least, restoration of the devolved institutions would not lead to stable and inclusive devolved government. The Government believe that it would be wrong to restore before there is a real prospect of such an administration being formed. It remains our firm wish, however, that restoration should take place as soon as possible, and to that end we will be talking to all the parties in the days and weeks ahead to explore how it can be achieved.

The order was originally laid before the House on 27th November and has the effect of amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 47(9)(a) of that Act provides that a person's membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly begins, for the purposes of remuneration and pension, on the day when he takes his seat in accordance with the Assembly's Standing Orders. Standing Order 3(3) in turn provides that Members shall take their seats by signing the Roll of Membership at the Assembly's first meeting. Therefore, unless corrective measures had been taken, the new Members of the Assembly would not have been eligible to receive pay or allowances.

This order therefore provides that, for pay and allowances purposes, membership of the Assembly began on 5th December 2003. That date was chosen as it was the latest date on which the first meeting of the Assembly could have taken place had restoration been possible on election day.

Newly elected MLAs needed to know, as soon as possible after the election, whether or not they were to be paid and, if they were, at what rate. It is not unreasonable for them to ask for some degree of financial certainty for the purposes of running constituency offices and carrying out their duties. That is why it was necessary to make this order under the urgency procedure. A draft of the order was considered earlier today by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and it confirmed that it is content.

I recognise that any decision to pay salary and allowances to Members of an Assembly which cannot presently meet may attract a degree of scepticism. It is clearly not right that Members should receive full salary in these unusual circumstances. However, the new MLAs have a fresh mandate and significant constituency responsibilities. Moreover, many of them will be contributing to the review of the Good Friday agreement which will begin soon. It is right that they should be paid for those activities.

We have therefore announced our intention to pay salaries at the rate of £31,817 per annum for the time being. That is what was paid following the suspension of the previous Assembly in October 2002 until its dissolution in April this year. We believe that this level of salary is appropriate, given the reduced level of the MLAs' responsibilities.

We have arranged for newly elected MLAs to receive a package of allowances to facilitate their work. We shall also expect this package of salary and allowances to cover the costs of the parties' participation in the forthcoming review. I must stress that these salary and allowance arrangements will remain under close review in the light of political developments.

I am sure that all noble Lords share the Government's hope that we shall be able to restore effective devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this order is a necessary response to this unusual situation. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 27th November be approved.—(Baroness Amos.)

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative

My Lords, once again, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for presenting the order to us. She has made clear that its purpose is to enable Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, elected on 26th November, to be paid for the time being at 70 per cent of the full MLA salary. We shall not oppose the order, although we feel that this situation cannot go on indefinitely.

We have this situation because, despite the elections taking place, the Assembly remains suspended—it has been since October 2002—and Members are unable to take their seats. We hope that this state of affairs will soon end. We would like to see the Assembly sit and we would like to see devolution and the Executive restored at the earliest opportunity.

Regrettably, after the elections—as before—there is still not the necessary trust and confidence between the parties for that to happen. As the Government recently pointed out, the situation now is, if anything, more difficult with the DUP and Sinn Fein the largest parties within their respective communities. The prospect of an immediate end to direct rule seems remote.

What is required now is to build that elusive trust and confidence between the parties, something which the Government have notably failed to achieve to date. Naturally, we wish the Government well in the talks that will be held with the parties next week. We believe that the review, provided for in the agreement, should proceed as the Government have indicated that it will, and we sincerely hope that all parties will participate.

Yet, despite the elections having been held, the central issue still remains the same as it was before they were called—the continued existence of armed and active paramilitary organisations, republican and loyalist. There must be an end to all forms of paramilitary activity, as set out in paragraph 13 of the British and Irish Governments' Joint Declaration. And we need to be confident that the IRA's so-called war is over. We must see an end to both the IRA and the so-called loyalists as effective paramilitary organisations.

The Government, too, need to learn lessons. They have to ask themselves how a pro-agreement unionist majority has in five and a half years been turned into a clear anti-agreement unionist majority. They have to ask whether this is a consequence of too many side deals and one-sided concessions to republicans and, I regret to say, broken pledges by the Prime Minister on both weapons and prisoners.

I urge the Government to think seriously about how they are going to restore balance and fairness to this process. I urge them to consider how they are going to tackle the crisis of confidence in the political process among moderate unionists. And I urge them, along with the Irish Government, now to place all possible pressure on the republican movement to do what should have been done three and a half years ago.

It has been clearly demonstrated that the democratic process in Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter, cannot survive with political parties operating private armies.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for presenting the order. When the elections took place on 26th November, a majority of those who were elected were in favour of proceeding with the Belfast agreement. That is absolutely clear—approximately 70 per cent of those elected were in favour of pursuing the Belfast agreement. The order is about paying the people who were elected on that day. I well understand the concerns about whether the Assembly sits or not and whether people should be paid if it does not.

As the Minister indicated, there is the representative role. I am not clear about the extent to which the MLAs will be taking up that representative role. It seems to me that they could be encouraged to do so and I shall be interested to hear her view on that. The constituents of the MLAs will have all kinds of concerns and I want to be certain that the MLAs, although not sitting in an Assembly, have access to government as representatives of the people. It seems to me that they ought to have. It may well be that being involved in the real lives of their constituents may lead to people being concerned that the Assembly is not sitting and that it should do so and should work.

I, too, hope that the talks process will now work well and that we can get the Assembly sitting. It is important that the review takes place, not least as regards the designation of people and the silly position which the alliance had to take in allying itself with one group in order that the Assembly could sit on an earlier occasion. But if, in effect, the Assembly does not sit, how long should the order last and what further mechanisms will there be? The Assembly is supposedly to run for four years. I should hate to think that four years would elapse and that, in effect, the order would remain in place.

However, we are in uncharted territory because the election was called on the basis that there would be a devolved Assembly. I do not believe that any of us quite understands why it did not work, but the choreography was such that there was supposed to be a devolved Assembly and that is why the election was called. Let us hope that no one can now say that this group is not representative of the Northern Ireland people. The Members were elected a week or so ago under a fairly decent electoral system and therefore it should be possible for them to be seen as the people who need to get on with that job.

Therefore, from these Benches, for now we agree with the order. However, sadly, there may need to be some modification if we do not see the progress for which we all hope.

Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench

My Lords, it is with a measure of frustration that we find ourselves debating such an order once again. As I said earlier, 13 months have now passed since the suspension of the Assembly and, despite the recent election, we are, frankly, no further on.

When a candidate is elected to a democratic institution—to which many in this Chamber can personally relate—he enters into a contract with the electorate. Salaries are dispensed in return for a genuine and steadfast commitment to constituency matters. A Member's salary is as much a part of the democratic infrastructure as the elections themselves.

However, it will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that the doors to Northern Ireland's democratic infrastructure—in the form of a workable Assembly—remain closed. We have had an election; we now have Assembly Members; yet, the other side of the bargain—the debating Chamber, the committees and even the corridor conversations—is not available. Your Lordships may well be aware that the Assembly door remains closed because, despite thirteen-and-a-half months of negotiations, republicans have yet to deliver the Prime Minister's "acts of completion"—the end of their so-called war.

Now, I do not wish to detract from the good work that many Members do from their respective offices, dealing with constituency matters. Yet, without the framework of the Assembly and its institutions, such work effectively falls on deaf ears. No Assembly Member has the authority to change legislation, to make or achieve concessions on issues of concern to the electorate or even to question others. It remains our job, in this House and in another place, to discuss, debate and legislate on behalf of the citizens of Northern Ireland.

The current Assembly Members certainly deserve our support and, indeed, a salary, but the Government cannot ignore the growing public disquiet over what may be regarded as an unnecessary perk. People find it increasingly difficult to accept that Members of a suspended Assembly can still enjoy their salaries, and I therefore urge the Lord President of the Council to consider that such a situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. We must have some kind of time-limit on how long salaries, albeit at a reduced rate, will be paid. Such a limit may even provide the necessary incentive for Members and parties to work swiftly to achieve the desired restoration of the Assembly. Is the Lord President of the Council in a position to tell us how long the Government expect Members to be entitled to remuneration under the current circumstances and whether they are now prepared to consider implementing a time-limit?

As I said while debating another Northern Ireland order a few weeks ago, there is great potential that we shall see another election to the Assembly in a few months' time. If so, we shall effectively have allowed Members to receive salaries for, say, six months, only to stop the payments while we go to the polls once again. A further election will undoubtedly bring additional changes to the list of Members. Thus, we may well see a situation where Members who have been paid not to sit in the Assembly then lose their seats—a first for a democratic process.

One effect of the suspension of the Assembly is that, once again, we in this building are responsible for scrutinising the Government's activities in Northern Ireland. One method of doing so is by tabling parliamentary Questions. I must express dissatisfaction with many of the replies which, in my view, verge on being incorrect or misleading or simply not answered. I cite the example of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as being guilty of such crimes. I ask the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council to look into those matters.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 7:15 pm, 9th December 2003

My Lords, it seems that the order is largely technical and, therefore, acceptable. I hope that I shall be in order if I range slightly further afield than its text. The results of the election in Northern Ireland can hardly have been surprising to many people. It is clear to me that negotiations are likely to be quite long and arduous before any devolved government are restored.

I considered it encouraging that the Democratic Unionist Party, as currently the largest party, is reported to be talking both to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and, I believe, also to Her Majesty's Government. However, can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House give us an indication, however vague, of when, in her view, the Assembly might sit? I suggest that it could fulfil a number of useful functions. It could, for example, discuss the review of the Belfast agreement. Surely it would be better to do that in an open, face-to-face, way rather than by simply circulating memoranda and perhaps having occasional conversations with Ministers. The Assembly could also discuss the numerous reports of the many quangos that exist in Northern Ireland, and I suggest that it could also question Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office on the affairs of their departments.

I very much hope that it will be possible for the Government, by means of various confidence-building measures, both to decrease the distrust which the noble Lord on the Opposition Bench mentioned and to show that practical ways can be devised of power-sharing within the existing institutions that are not suspended. I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State on this matter and I should be grateful for whatever response the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can give us.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, on the subject of the order, I was not sure from the account given by the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council of the precise chronology and why 5th December was the date substituted, although I entirely understood why a date had to be substituted. I thought I had heard the noble Baroness say—of course, I may have misheard—that 6th December was the last date on which the Assembly would have needed to meet. Therefore, my question is why 5th December, in particular, was chosen. I infer from the fact that it was the last date that there could have been an earlier date subsequent to the election result being declared.

I have a mild personal interest in this matter in an academic sense. In July 1989, on the Monday of a particular week, my appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was announced. But it so happened that the late Lord Younger, who was the Secretary of State for Defence, was obliged to remain in that post for the whole of that week in order to take the Russian Minister of Defence—the first visit ever to this country by a Russian Minister of Defence—around the country and for the office not to be delegated to his successor, my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, who was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time. I hasten to say that I did not check my own salary over the four days but I did not kiss hands with the Secretary of State until the Friday. I assume I was paid at the lower rate during the four days. Four days is not much and only eight days, by my calculation, is the relevant gap in this particular instance. However, I am interested in the answer to this small query as to why 5th December was chosen unless, as I say, I misheard what the Minister said originally.

As regards the background to the order, I share the concerns of my noble friend Lord Glentoran. I do not want in any way to carp and I understand the path that events take in Northern Ireland. However, we may be paying a high retrospective price for the hand-written commitments that the Prime Minister gave during the 1998 referendum, a facsimile of which I continue to carry on my person as I have done ever since the events. It is arguable that at least one of those commitments was not within his power to guarantee and in so far as it was, was not precisely pursued. But we are where we are and I join my noble friend in hoping that we can work our way through these matters.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for contributing to the debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that the situation is difficult. We cannot allow it to continue indefinitely. That is precisely why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is engaged in intensive discussion.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, it is clear that almost 70 per cent of those who voted at the Assembly elections voted for pro-agreement parties. It is very important indeed that we bear that in mind. We shall continue in discussions with all the parties to seek a way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that it is important that we build trust and confidence. I entirely agree with him.

As regards the access that Members of the Assembly will have, I was in Northern Ireland last Friday and met four Members of the Assembly. In discussion they spoke of the importance of their constituency role and the role they would have in any review. I can confirm that newly-elected Assembly Members will have the same rights of access to government departments in order to raise constituency concerns as they would if the Assembly were restored. Arrangements for that have been put in place.

The noble Lords, Lord Shutt and Lord Laird, both pressed me on the issue of timing, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I hope that noble Lords will accept that it is very difficult for me to put any kind of time limit on this. As I said originally, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is involved in discussions which we hope will lead to a resolution as quickly as possible. However, we all recognise what a sensitive time this is.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, raised the issue of Written Answers. I am happy to discuss that with the noble Lord in the light of his concerns about the quality of information he has received. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about the way that Assembly Members might be able to engage in the review process. The format for review is currently under discussion. I am sure that the point raised by him will be taken on board.

As regards the final point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, I said in my speech that 5th December was chosen as it is the latest date on which the first meeting of the Assembly could have taken place. I hope I shall be able to answer the question. Under normal circumstances the Assembly must first meet within eight days of polling day including polling day and not including a weekend. That is where the eight-day time limit came from. I recognise that the noble Lord asked why we did not choose an earlier date. I think that the date was chosen on the basis that it was the last day on which the Assembly could have sat. I hope that that answers the noble Lord's question. If it does not, I shall write to him. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.