Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Modification) Order 2003

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

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Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench 6:58 pm, 9th December 2003

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.