Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 19th July 2006.

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Read a third time.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland 3:32 pm, 19th July 2006

moved the Amendment:

After Clause 16, insert the following new clause-

"EXCLUSION OF MINISTERS FROM OFFICE

(1) Section 30 of the 1998 Act (exclusion of Ministers from office) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1)(b) insert-

"(c) because he is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland,".

(3) After subsection (2)(b) insert-

"(c) because it is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland,".

(4) After subsection (7)(d) insert-

"(da) whether he or it is committed now and in the future to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland;"."

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland

My Lords, I made the argument for this amendment on Report. I undertook to read Hansard after the Minister's response, because I was not totally clear in my own mind that he was not right. Having done so, and looking at Section 30 of the 1998 Act,

"Exclusion of Ministers from office", and reading it pretty carefully, I do not believe that the section goes far enough. That is especially true as at an earlier stage I did not move the amendment to alter the pledge of office and chose to follow through with this amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, I understand the concerns over this matter and indeed, as we have said before, we have a good deal sympathy with what the noble Lord seeks to achieve through the amendment. But, as I have also said before, this is not the way to achieve it.

The amendment would allow for the removal of a Northern Ireland Minister who was no longer committed to upholding the rule of law. The underlying aim—that support for the rule of law be embedded into the political life of Northern Ireland—cannot, of course, be faulted. That much we are all agreed on and that is what the Government have consistently said. We ultimately want all parties, including Sinn Fein, to unite in support of the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The amendment does not help us to achievethis aim. It is unnecessary and adds no value to the requirements already in place. Moreover, the Secretary of State has already made his position on this matter very clear and has repeatedly said that he will not set any further preconditions for anyone entering devolved government. That is the end of the matter. There will be no more preconditions. There are no excuses for devolved government not to be up and running, and we will not erect any more hurdles.

The arguments against this amendment have been well rehearsed as the Bill has passed through this House. Noble Lords are aware of the requirements of the pledge of office under the 1998 Act. I have outlined many times the protections afforded by the pledge, which all Ministers must affirm before taking up their posts. It requires a commitment to non-violence and to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. As I said on Report, safeguards exist for where Ministers and parties fail to observe the pledge of office. The pledge is not simply words on paper; safeguards exist in case it is broken.

In addition, on Report, I set out the statutoryduty to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary that all Northern Ireland Ministers are subject to under Section 4 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The judiciary are the guardians of what we know as the rule of law. Therefore, the duty in the 2005 Act is the right and fitting way to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and is embedded into Northern Ireland's political life, rather than a further unnecessary amendment to the Bill. The amendment is not needed: the protection already exists in the pledge and in the 2005 Act.

As I have said, we do not question the principle of what the noble Lord seeks to achieve; nobody does. However, for the reasons I have set out, we are firmly of the opinion that further safeguards are unnecessary. However, we recognise the strength of feeling and depth of concern on this matter, and I reiterate that we stand ready to take forward in legislation any changes to the pledge of office that the parties can agree on in the context of a package on other constitutional issues. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

With the leave of the House, because this is the last opportunity I will have to speak on the Bill as it passes through the House, I have a short point to add. We all agree on the significance of the Bill. It recognises and builds on the ongoing transformation of Northern Ireland. It looks to the future and recognises the possibilities that lie ahead. I have set out why I do not believe that the amendment inserting the process for amending Orders in Council that was accepted on Report is helpful. However, the ministerial team and I recognise the strength of feeling in both Houses about the inadequacy of the present arrangements for dealing with the bulk of Northern Ireland legislation. They are very unsatisfactory. I am therefore prepared to give the House the following undertaking: between now and 24 November, our focus is fixed on getting devolution up and running, which is plan A, and we do not want to be diverted from that. However, if that does not prove possible, for whatever reason, the Government will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable, including provisions that will enable Orders in Council to be amended in the light of views expressed by Members of both Houses in a way that reflects the spirit of the amendment passed by this House on Report. There will be an opportunity, agreed through the usual channels, for an amendability stage in the parliamentary consideration of Northern Ireland Orders in Council. We will also ensure that we legislate for Northern Ireland by a Bill—primary legislation—wherever appropriate.

On Irish donations to political parties, I regret that the amendment was pushed to a vote and the clause was removed on Report. I have written in detail to noble Lords about this matter. The effect is to bar entirely donations from Irish citizens and other bodies to political parties in Northern Ireland from November next year. This change clearly goes against the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and would have serious repercussions for the parties and the political process in Northern Ireland. That is why the Government will seek to overturn that amendment in another place.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I find it rather strange that he is making these statements which would be best made next Tuesday when the Bill comes back to us to consider Commons amendments. We do not have much opportunity to comment on what he said. However, for these Benches, the words that the noble Lord uttered are helpful, and I thank him.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

It may assist the House if we treat my noble friend's intervention as the Minister speaking early in the debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, which, as a result, will allow any noble Lord who wishes to speak.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome the part of the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, regarding an amendability stage for Orders in Council. This is huge step forward and something that for 30 years we in the Ulster Unionist Party has been pressing for. It will take one of the more unacceptable edges off direct rule and help to make it more democratic. I hope that it will put an end to the scandalous situation that obtained in this House last week when legislation was forced through against the wishes not just of the Northern Ireland Members but of the people of Northern Ireland without the opportunity of discussing it in detail and focusing on aspects that could have been changed. There could have been legislation last week that would have been acceptable to people and which would have achieved most of the Minister's aims had there been the opportunity to deal with it in the way which I now hope will happen after November of this year. So I welcome that.

However, I must also say that I do not welcome what the Minister said about the other change that was made on donations. I disagree entirely with his comment about the amendment being contrary to the Belfast agreement. That is not how I read the Belfast agreement and I claim to have a little expertise on the matter.

I make one other point on the substance of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I understand the principle behind it. He is entirely right that persons who do not support policing should not be in office. Whatever the arguments may have been a number of years ago, we now have settled arrangements for policing, which are broadly endorsed, and there can be no excuse for any party not endorsing and supporting policing as things stand. The Government are making a huge mistake in their approach to republicans by continuing to try to induce them with further concessions on devolution of policing, which is wholly premature.

However, it might help the House on the substance of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to put in a little of the background. The amendment is to the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act for exclusion of Ministers from office. The mechanism in the Act is defective. We recognised that it was defective on 10 April 1998 because the mechanism depended on cross-community support, and we knew as a political reality that cross-community support would not exist then or in the future. Consequently, on the afternoon of that day we went to the Prime Minister and raised the matter. He communicated with us before the agreement was made—that is crucial in terms of the interpretation of the agreement—that if it turned out that the provisions of the Act on exclusion of Ministers were ineffective, he would support changes to the agreement. It was on the basis of that undertaking that I and my colleagues endorsed the agreement.

I am happy to say that the Prime Minister kept his promise. He kept it by ensuring that the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was enacted, which noble Lords will realise gives the British Government unilateral power to suspend the Assembly, which has been exercised—and was exercised most recently in 2002 after an ultimatum given by my party to the Prime Minister following the discovery of the extent of the criminality that the republicans had been engaged in. I hope that that safeguard, which in our view was crucial to the making of the agreement, is sustained and will achieve the objectives that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has put forward. I hope that when the Minister said that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was unnecessary he had that Act in mind and that procedure which has been used and should be available in the future if it turns out that republicans return to criminality.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Police), Home Affairs, Whip 3:45 pm, 19th July 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the Orders in Council mini-debate which the noble Lord ran alongside the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I thank the Minister for placing on record the Government's intention to address how we legislate for Northern Ireland in Westminster. It has been a long time coming. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton has been leading the charge, so to speak, on that point for a long time. We have certainly raised concerns on the matter for at least two years and we are very grateful that the Government have now fully taken those concerns on board and are prepared to act. We appreciate that the Government are firmly committed to the 24 November deadline and understand that we must concentrate first on restoring the Assembly.

However, if devolved power is not restored to Stormont by that date—of course, we sincerely hope that politicians in Northern Ireland will be able to find a way through the current impasse—how quickly will the Government move to put the new arrangements in place?

We on these Benches also very much welcome the intention to legislate for Northern Ireland by primary legislation, where appropriate. Can the Minister clarify precisely what that means? Are we likely to see more Bills such as this, where a number of unrelated measures are scrutinised at once, or will it mean that Northern Ireland measures will be included in legislation for England and Wales that is proceeding through Parliament?

Given our debates on anonymous registration, it would be much better if provisions for Northern Ireland were included in that way. However, we appreciate that that would require discussion between various government departments. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be better co-operation and co-ordination between the various Northern Ireland departments and departments in Whitehall?

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, I want briefly to place on record the appreciation of the Ulster Unionist Party of the statement just made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. It has considerable significance, which is not only recognised in our Parliament here in Westminster but will be very important to the people in Northern Ireland.

I repeat what I warned about a few months ago: when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland met in Armagh city, they implied that there was a plan B, should devolution not proceed by the deadline of24 November this year, and that that plan B would be further involvement of the Republic of Ireland in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. I warned that that was having a dangerous impact on the loyalist community in Northern Ireland and that alarm bells were ringing across the Province. The day after the meeting in Armagh, the UDA and UVF—two illegal organisations which had said that they were going to decommission—announced that their plans for decommissioning had been abandoned. That was a real warning of the impact of the Armagh meeting on the people of Northern Ireland.

Today's statement by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is therefore not only good for the procedure of legislation relating to Northern Ireland under the direct rule system but, it should improve political attitudes on the ground in Northern Ireland. As an Ulster Unionist, I recognise the courage of the noble Lord in coming forward today to clarify what will be the procedures should there be no devolution by 24 November.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, very briefly, first, I thank the Minister for his courtesy in writing to a number of us last week about the misunderstandings that went back and forth over donations to political parties. His explanation is clear. There may still be some small ways in which the provision could be misused, but they are not significant; so I am grateful to him.

I should also say—I will say it this way to save the time of the House—that I very much agreed with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said. So I do not have to say it again. Finally, can the Minister confirm in as many words—he has come pretty close—that if it became clear that any Minister was not committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland, that Minister would promptly be excluded from office? If he can say those words, it will make a great deal of difference to how we might look at the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Glentoran.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, I am sorry to have dumped this on the House. I had no other opportunity to do so, as there is only one amendment. The rules of this place—there are no rules of this place—make it easier to do these things, because we do not have Third Reading speeches. We are going to come back to this, because the other place will consider the amendments to the Bill and there will be an opportunity on Tuesday for us to deal with that. The answer to the final question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is yes. I appreciate what he said about the letter, which I hope clarified the position. It certainly cleared it up for me.

I am also grateful for the broad welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, to the short statement that I was able to give. Let us make it absolutely clear that we do not want direct rule; we want the Assembly back. In the event that we continue with direct rule, the entire legislative framework and the laws governing Northern Ireland will be made here at Westminster, and there will be more scrutiny than there has been in the past 30 years. That is quite clear from the statement. No one need be in any doubt whatever about that in Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness made a point about speed. Usually when Ministers want to hedge things, they say, "We will do this in due course" or "We will do this shortly". I actually said—I have it in bold in front of me, and I said word for word,

"the Government will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable".

Quickly does mean quickly after 24 November. I do not know the date of the Queen's Speech at the moment—there is a bit of flexibility at that point in the year because of the date of the State Opening of Parliament—but it will happen quite quickly afterwards.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for his welcome and for the background that he gave but, to avoid any doubt, the Bill does not devolve policing. It enables policing to be devolved, but it was made abundantly clear before the noble Lord entered the House that it will be some way down the road before the trigger—if I can use that term—would be pulled to devolve. However, the Government were obliged to put on the statute book the legislative framework for the possible planned devolution of policing, which is what the Bill does. It does not devolve policing. That was made quite clear.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Crossbench

My Lords, my comments were as much directed against certain foolish parts of the Secretary of State's speech on Sunday.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Sustainable Farming and Food), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Sustainable Farming and Food), The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, my right honourable friend does not make foolish speeches. He made an excellent speech on Sunday. It was quite a long one, and he said one or two things about the consequences if plan B comes into being; in other words, direct rule will continue. We have made it quite clear that we would not mind the shop, as now. The process of reform will continue, and in some ways it will speed up. The fact that the Bill will achieve Royal Assent does not mean that policing will be devolved. That is what I need to put on the record. It will be years before the circumstances will be right, but the point is that the legal mechanism is in place. In fact it has already been put there and this Bill clarifies certain points from other legislation.

For 30-odd years we have dealt with unsatisfactory legislation for Northern Ireland. Having got an Assembly up and running—and hoping that it would be back by now—we have tried in the past 12 months or so to find a mechanism. But we have reached the point where we have said what we have said today, and that goes further than anything else over the past 30-odd years. It is a major upheaval. Let me put it this way: the usual channels will want to make sure that this is for Northern Ireland only. It is secondary legislation quite distinctly for Northern Ireland.

I want to make a final point. The other day someone mentioned the budget. In this House we do not debate in great detail the Budget for Great Britain; so I donot expect that we will be debating in detail the budget for Northern Ireland. There are rules on finance that we have to abide by, and I think that that is quite legitimate. But the general spirit of everything else shows that this is a major and substantial change to the democratic scrutiny of legislation under which the people of Northern Ireland live. I am grateful for noble Lords' response to the statement. I hope that when the Commons have looked at the amendmentsin your Lordships' House, and perhaps sent us a message back, we can reach an amicable solution so that the Bill can receive Royal Assent.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Shadow Minister (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Shadow Minister, Northern Ireland

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for that response and for the whole way in which he has handled the Bill for the Government. I refer in particular to a little incident that happened yesterday. Early in the afternoon I had a meeting with him in his office. Later in the afternoon, he was in my office and we reached a mutual agreement that we had it right at this end and the other end had cocked it up—if I can use that language in this place. The result has finally come out of the machine and the statement he has read out is agreed by all of us. I think that it is a very good compromise.

I have also read the Secretary of State's speech, which probably should not have been mentioned this afternoon. It took me about 20 minutes to read—it is a very long speech. I am not sure that it was totally brilliant for the location in which it was made or for the audience to whom it was made. I thought he took a number of risks, but we shall find out how that has worked as it makes its way through.

Having said that, I am afraid that I have to return to my amendment. On this occasion I think that the Government and the Minister are wrong and that it is necessary to strengthen this part of either the pledge or the reasons for removing Ministers from power. The point is critical—crucial—to the debate now taking place between the parties and there should be no fudging: it has to be absolutely crystal clear. I am sure that I am not being presumptive in saying that I know that the Minister agrees as strongly as I do that it is either right or wrong. You are either on-side with the police and the national judicial processes or you are not. Several times during the course of this debate the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has put it more succinctly than I can. Speaking not just for myself but also for my party, we would like something stronger in the Bill. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 97; Not-Contents, 149.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.