My Lords, turning back to look at the Bill, one should remember what its purpose is. It was to put provisions in place to enable an Executive to be formed. Under existing legislation, there is a period of time in which that has to happen. It is then a question of prolonging that time. Essentially, the Bill was providing more time for this.
There was no surprise about that. This is the fourth or fifth time that there has been a need to provide legislation. People knew that this was going to come and, from the way in which the talks are taking place between the parties in Northern Ireland, they would have had a fair idea of the likelihood of carrying this legislation. There was nothing urgent about it. Nothing surprising had to be done. There was the possibility of putting the legislation into motion at an earlier stage. If someone then came along and tried to hang additional things on it, there would be time to consider them properly.
We have not had the chance to do that. When one considers the matters that have been looked at today, and compares that to what would have happened if, instead of being a Bill relating to Northern Ireland, it was a Bill relating to Scotland or England, would it have been handled with the same speed, without looking carefully at what the problems might be? There was no serious concentration. We had a Committee stage, but it did not function as a normal Committee, as we can see by the limited number of things that were mentioned.
It was not proper legislation and there was no justification for handling it in that way. With more time, we might have had better debates and been able to tease out some of the things that were causing even the Minister difficulty to work out. Noble Lords will notice that what I am saying has been said repeatedly by Committees of this House: this procedure is flawed and ought not to be followed again. I wonder if there will be any change or if we will just plough on, hoping that an Assembly or Executive are formed and scrambling at the last minute to put them together.
In the course of this debate, noble Lords have referred to devolution and their desire to see it restored in Northern Ireland. If devolution does function again, it would mean that our 90 Assembly Members would be able to return to Stormont to discuss and debate things and consider what they are doing. However, they cannot do that as things stand. Assembly Members themselves cannot form the Administration. Legislation would need to be enacted if Westminster wanted immediately to bring the Assembly into existence for some limited purpose. Some of us have suggested doing that, but I have not seen any willingness on the part of the Government to encourage the Assembly to function even on limited matters.
A very limited consultation is suggested here. It says that the Secretary of State must,
“consult individually members of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.
That is set out in a very bare way. Nobody has talked about the details of the consultation or how thorough it would be. It simply refers to speaking to Members of the Assembly and to considering and reporting on their views. That is a very small step to take in finding things out. I do not know what the outcome will be. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke vigorously earlier about the changes of views that he has detected. If that is the case, no doubt it would be reflected in the views that Assembly Members would give to the Secretary of State if she phoned them up and asked them what they think. It would be an easy step to take and it might help to restore some of those Members’ self-respect. People do not appreciate just how traumatic their situation is: they were elected to serve in an Assembly but are unable to do so, and they have nothing else besides general activities to turn their hand to because they have no way of influencing the powers that be.
This is a modest measure to try to get a degree of consultation. Of course, the Minister spoke earlier about consultations on particular matters being conducted over several months. In that timescale, he could easily get in touch with the 90 Assembly Members, see what their views are and let us know. That would be a good step forward, coming as it does at the end of the evening.