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.