Under the new Standing Orders — and I hesitate to advise Members of this — there is no limit on time. Members will recall there was a time limit of 10 minutes in our Initial Standing Orders. Now that is no longer the case. The Business Committee has, however, given an indicative timing for the debate as a whole of two hours. Clearly, Members speaking for longer will limit the amount of time available to their Colleagues and other Members of the Assembly. Those in the Chair will try to assist Members to keep to reasonable brevity, consistent with being able to express their views with clarity.
The purpose of the Memorandum is to set down principles which will underlie relations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved institutions. As such, it is central to the way in which business will be conducted in each part of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Assembly is part of the governance of the United Kingdom. It is our task to formulate and deliver public policy for which we have the responsibility in Northern Ireland, in line with the needs of the local electorate. However, we are also part of a bigger picture, and we need to take account of what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
This document is therefore designed to reconcile these two roles. It is not legally binding but it is a statement of political intent, binding in honour only. It reflects the post-devolution politics of co-operation, goodwill and a recognition of mutual responsibilities. Some may say that the document should be legally enforceable. However, trying to make the arrangements enforceable in law would not be in keeping with the spirit of co-operation, which is necessary for devolution to work. Such an approach would merely serve to indicate a breakdown of relations and a distrust in the goodwill of others to implement these proposals.
The Memorandum was agreed between the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Ministers and the Cabinet of the National Assembly of Wales on 1 October 1999. The Executive Committee has now considered the documents and agreed them with one addition, which I will come to shortly. It is useful to have a document setting out clearly and sensibly the ground rules for our relations with the United Kingdom Government and the other devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. I now propose to say a few brief words about each of the five documents in the Memorandum that is laid before the House today.
First, the overall Memorandum of Understanding contains the main principles to be followed, and it deals with communication, consultation among Administrations, exchange of information and confidentiality, and the monitoring and management of the devolution settlements. It establishes a commitment by the Administrations to good and timely communication with each other, to co-operation on matters of mutual interest, and to the exchange of information on scientific, technical and policy issues. It also provides for the arrangements set out in the Memorandum to be reviewed and updated at least once each year.
Secondly, the agreement on the Joint Ministerial Committee sets out the terms of reference for that committee, and how it will operate. The committee brings together Ministers from each of the devolved Administrations and from the United Kingdom Government. It considers reserved matters that have an impact on the Executive Committee’s responsibilities, and in turn, devolved matters that have an impact on reserved matters. Plenary sessions, chaired by the Prime Minister, will be held at least once each year. The committee will monitor relations generally and will be able to address particular problems and issues that may arise. Already there is what could be called a small family of subject-specific Joint Ministerial Committees. They have been established, for example, on health, poverty and the knowledge economy. These committees have embarked on a useful programme of work. Indeed, it is interesting to note that today the First Minister and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have been in London attending a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on health.
Thirdly, on the co-ordination of EU policy issues, the concordat sets out how EU business is to be handled, including the exchange of information, the formulation of a single UK policy line, attendance at EU councils and related meetings, implementation of EU obligations and infraction proceedings. The agreement recognises Northern Ireland’s distinctive position within the United Kingdom in terms of its relationship with another member state and therefore extends the terms of the concordat to cover the North/South Ministerial Council as well as the European Union dimension of the cross-border bodies. This is the additional aspect to which I referred earlier.
This EU concordat also sets out the United Kingdom Government’s intention that Ministers of the devolved Administrations should be fully involved in discussions about what could be calle the UK policy on issues falling within their areas of responsibility.
The status and functions of the UK’s permanent representation in Brussels are unchanged, and the devolved Administration will be able to take part in less formal discussions with EU institutions and interests within other member states. Northern Ireland has always had a strong interest in European affairs. The agreement will enable us to have our devolved status acknowledged and also retain the benefits of having the weight of the United Kingdom behind us on agreed policy positions.
Fourthly, the arrangements proposed in the Financial Assistance to Industry agreement are consistent with the provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and aim to balance fairness and value for money with the need to negotiate flexibly and effectively. The aim of this concordat is to resolve the difficulties that arise from competing UK agencies bidding against each other for large mobile investment projects. The arrangements give the commitment that Northern Ireland Ministers and their officials will be fully involved in discussions on United Kingdom policy in this area.
Fifthly, the International Relations concordat covers the formulation of UK policy on implementation and conduct of international relations, co-operation over legal proceedings, representation overseas, visits, public diplomacy, trade and investment promotion, and finally diplomatic and consular relations. It makes clear the Executive Committee’s responsibilities for implementing international obligations on the UK which relate to its devolved responsibilities, and also the arrangements for the Executive to play its part in the conduct of international relations. It reflects a mutual determination to ensure close co-operation in these areas between the United Kingdom Government and the Executive Committee Ministers in Northern Ireland, with the objective of promoting the overseas interests of the United Kingdom and all its constituent parts.
Sixth, and finally, for the statistics concordat, it is sensible that each Administration has the comparative information it needs. The agreement will help ensure that such information continues to be available at Northern Ireland and UK levels. The concordat sets out an agreed framework for co-operation between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations on all matters in relation to statistics. I would like to add that the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) was involved from the outset in its preparation.
I have spoken briefly about what these documents are. They are a first attempt to set out a basis for a working relationship in this new era of devolution within the United Kingdom. More detailed provisions relating to individual policy areas will follow in bilateral concordats to be drawn up between individual Departments of the United Kingdom Government and their devolved counterparts. As a first attempt, therefore, I think these documents are both comprehensive and comprehensible. Provision has been made for the concordats to evolve and be developed in the light of experience. They are merely working documents and part of the machinery that potentially will allow the Executive Committee to work well with the rest of the United Kingdom. As I said at the outset, Scotland and Wales have already considered and agreed their respective documents and are already putting the principles into practice.
I commend the memorandum and the supplementary agreements to the Assembly.
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Assembly" and add
"will not take note of the Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements between Her Majesty’s Government and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee until the political parties have been consulted thereon."
On Thursday, these documents were delivered to our pigeon-holes, and today we are expected to rubber-stamp something of deep significance. It is all right for Mr Nesbitt to tell us that these are not legally binding. This is a statement of political intent, and that is just as binding as a legal document.
The problem is that we have an Executive that has run wild taking powers to itself, and whether those powers are legal or whether we are just talking about political intent, they lay hold of them, as has been seen by the action of two of the Ministers, the First and Deputy First Ministers, who threatened two of my Colleagues with a grand inquisition chamber today. I am glad that my two Friends said no.
It is very interesting that they did not summon the two IRA/Sinn Féin Ministers who saw to it that no Union flag flew, in keeping with the present status of the law, on their buildings on Friday. I even understand that no flag could fly over the office of the Secretary of State, because that property too is under the control of the Minister of Health.
I find it highly reprehensible that the First and Deputy First Ministers quoted newspaper reports without naming the newspapers and said that, because of those newspaper reports, they were summoning my Colleagues to attend a meeting. When Members of the Executive think that they have the power to summon Members — [Interruption]
What did he say?
It is quite parliamentary, I assure you. The Clerk could not show you anything in the book that says that calling a man deaf and dumb is either unscriptural or out of keeping with the laws of this particular place.
I am seeking to illustrate how power has been seized by people who are drunk on it — they are not going in accordance with legality.
We have a new word here, and I congratulate the ecumenist who introduced it. He has got into religious language for the first time. This is a concordat.
It is interesting to know the history of such concordats. I went into the Library, and consulted our brilliant Librarian friend, Mr George Woodman, who is good to us all and treats us all with great respect. I must say that I respect him for his wisdom and for his love of books. He found for me the meaning of "concordat".
A concordat is an agreement, a compact, between the Vatican and secular government on matters of mutual interest. I laughed when I saw that. I wondered why his Leader had been away to the Vatican early on in this Assembly to see Papa himself, and I wondered why the Deputy Leader on the other side was also away visiting the Pope — but things are coming out in the wash. The word "Papa" is Italian for "Pope" — in case this dear man gets excited.
At least they have this ecclesiastical language. A famous concordat was signed in the 1920s between the fascist Mussolini and the Vatican. We are in good company. The name they have used to describe this particular document is most interesting.
There are many things I could say today, but I am a parliamentarian and there are others who want to take part. I could speak for two hours on this subject, and rightly so, and you could do nothing about it, Mr Speaker. I am not going to do that. I will allow time for capable people to serve their own interests. This concordat on co-ordination of European Union policies on Northern Ireland is the most one-sided document I ever set eyes on. For the information of Mr Nesbitt, there are three parts to Europe. Only one part is emphasised in this document: the Council, which consists of all the member states’ Ministers on the relevant subject. There are also the Commission and the Parliament. This document says nothing whatsoever about the European Parliament. It ignores the fact that the leader of the SDLP is a member of the European Parliament. It ignores the fact that Mr Nesbitt’s own party has a representative in that Parliament, and it ignores the bitter fact that in the last five European elections I have beaten them all, and I am still in Europe.
What mighty benefit did this country ever get from Europe? Even our enemies would cite the peace and reconciliation money. Who got that? The three MEPs got it, but they are now to be ignored. There is no place for them in this document. Why is that? Love of greed for power. Little birds fly through the windows where the Executive meets, and then they fly to me and tell me what is happening. They tell me of great discussions, held secretly and with laughter. "We can put a spoke in Ian Paisley’s wheel in Europe" they say, "We will set up our own office, financed by the people of Northern Ireland, and use it for party political ends to forward our own selfish interests, and we will not need to consult the MEPs. We might whisper a few little things in John Hume’s ear to keep him sweet and happy, but the others, especially Ian Paisley, will not know." If that is the way they want to play it, let them. It is an outrage to the people of Northern Ireland.
This House knows that all the vital decisions for the agriculture industry are made in Europe. They are not made by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. If we are going to get agriculture out of its present mess and bankruptcy, we need a regional policy for Northern Ireland in Europe that is different from any policy for Scotland, Wales or England. We have different needs, which must be met. Now there is talk of unity, of a single common policy.
That happened with the present Minister of Agriculture. I regret that she is not in the House today. She went to Europe with the Fisheries Minister and came home telling us that she had got the best of a bargain, yet 15% of our cod industry disappeared. Why? Because she was part of one presentation. We need to have the power, and the right, to make a presentation on a regional basis.
Other European countries that have devolved government such as Germany have catered for their areas and the needs of those areas, even though they are different from the national needs. In fact, when they suffered from swine fever, special legislation was passed in Europe to exempt parts of Germany, the national territory, from those regulations. We have a set-up here in which we are all going to be one, and the Executive thinks that this is how it is going to get anything better for Northern Ireland.
I have sat in Parliament and heard fierce criticism of the peace and reconciliation money. I have heard English Members of the House crying out "Why do we not get this? Why is it not for us?" It was given by M Delors of whom I was never a fan, but at least he realised, because of the pressure that we were putting on him, that people who had suffered tragedy in the past should be tended to, and their needs attended to, by places that got vast amounts of money from Europe. We won that argument, and we got that money.
We need time to consider this document. We need to get provision into it to enable every representative, whether in Europe, in the United Kingdom Parliament or here, to get his voice heard on this.
Various Assemblies and Conventions have met in this House — I have sat in them all. There were only two that I was delighted to sit in, and they were the two that my dear wife was a Member of. It was always a delight to come up and be with her in this House, because I do not see as much of her as I would like. Even when it was only a consultative body with no power, we were able to get the Commissioner to our Committee meetings. The Commissioners are now asking why. The reason is that the Executive does not want them to come to Committee meetings here.
Why should the Commissioner for Fisheries not attend the Agriculture Committee of the House? Why should the men who are responsible for industry not attend the appropriate Committee of the House? The way to get into Europe is to bring these men here, let them see the country and get them to our Committees where they can hear from the representatives who are on those Committees. That has all been swept away; there is not a word about that — not even a consideration or a mention.
We are told that this is a consideration document and that it is easy to understand. I understand what they are doing, and the people of Northern Ireland will understand it. I have marked certain things in this document, and I could go over them. However, it seems that the Executive is intent on driving this through today. We got it on Thursday, and we have to come here today and make these decisions.
These decisions, although they are not legal, are the policy under which the Executive is going to work. They are going to have sad effects upon our economy, our fisheries, our agriculture, our health and social services and all other matters that have now very much become part of Europe. I wonder how all these supposed good Europeans that I have heard are in the Assembly think that the European dimension can be dismissed. Three representatives are needed. In fact, we were done out of the number we needed. Compared with the South of Ireland, we should have at least five or seven members in Europe. We were done out of that. In fact, at the beginning they only wanted us to have two members.
The Official Unionist Party said that only two should go to Europe. It thought that they would both be Official Unionists, and was glad there were three, because it discovered that its man was always the third to be elected. That is why that was changed. However, we should have five representatives in Europe, and we should not be diminishing their value. Members in this House may not like me. I do not care a fig — I will sleep well tonight and wake in the morning and have my porridge as usual.
Members in this House are saying to their MEPs "We are finished with you now. You have had your say; you got the money and we have spent it. Now, as there is no more peace and reconciliation money coming, we can dispense with you." I must tell the rest of my story. They said "We will set up this wonderful office." I have heard of offices being set up before in Europe. They did a mighty lot of good!
The poor businessmen who went over were highly charged for what I, a Ballymena man, could have offered them for nothing. I said to a man "What did they charge you?" "Well," he said, "it was a large sum of money". I asked "What for?" "To take us round". Any goat could surely take a person round that place. It is desperate what that office did. Then it tried to get all the parties to be members of it. It actually put on the names of two of my Colleagues. I wrote to tell it that the Democratic Unionist Party was not in the office and to take the names off. I had a terrible job getting it to take my Colleagues’ names off the notepaper. It insisted that it was a broad church, taking in everybody. That is a church of which I do not want to be a member.
Now another office is going to be set up. Perhaps Mr Nesbitt, seeing that he knows all about this, has defended it, and is its chief apologist, could tell Members some things about this office that is going to be set up. Where will it be located? How much money is being set aside for it? There is not a word about that. It is just passed over without any detail. How many people are going to work in it? Who is going to supervise it? Is the hon Gentleman going to have a continual junket to Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg?
He is saying "Good". I thought that he, as a friend of Sir Reg Empey, would not like any perks. However, he did not get on as many quangos as Sir Reg, and so he was unhappy. Let us talk about this office. Where is it going to be? How many members are there going to be? What standing and influence is it going to have? Who is it going to sway? Does he think that the representatives he sends, civil servants, will be able to do for him what public representatives find great difficulty in doing — getting through to the heart of Europe and getting what we deserve from it? Everyone should remember that, per head of population, we have never got out of Europe the tax money we have put into it.
That is not my statement; that is the statement of the British Exchequer. Let us get down to what is going to be beneficial.
So as far as I can see, these concordats are about strengthening the hold of the Executive, and strengthening the hold of the First and Deputy First Ministers on the levers of government. Well, if people want them to strengthen their hold, let them. But what about Northern Ireland’s key industry, agriculture? We cannot have the same laws as the rest of the UK. Our system of agriculture is different. It grew out of a land war, out of people who owned everything and had to let go. Some of the great contenders among the leaders of Northern Ireland were men eminent in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who fought the tenants’ rights for the Ulster Protestant farmers. There were tenant rights fought for the Roman Catholic people as well. Our farming system is different. Our people are not tenant farmers. Their farms are smaller than those in England. It is a different type of farming. What does for the farmers of England does not do for our farmers.
Let us look at what happened in the BSE crisis. The Baroness was Minister at the time. Some of the farmers worshipped her. They always said "We had a lovely meeting with the Baroness", but I found her absolutely barren as far as farmers’ needs were concerned. The farmers decided to hold a great rally at the King’s Hall, and I was asked to go along and say a few words.
I was not highly critical of anybody, but a man from the Agricultural Producers’ Association was. However, the Baroness thought that it was I. Now, I could have said "Amen" to what he had said, but I did not. She got furious with me, and when we went in to see the Prime Minister she said "How dare you say what you said?" I asked what she meant, and she repeated what this spokesman from the Agricultural Producers’ Association had said. I told her that I had not said it but that I agreed with it. I said "When you were in Tokyo you said Ulster farmers will be treated the same as farmers in the rest of the United Kingdom." We did not have a BSE crisis. In fact, there is a bigger BSE crisis in the Irish Republic today than we have here in Northern Ireland.
It is because of what happened back then that we have a crisis in our industry today. Eventually the British Government had to admit that we were different after John Hume, Jim Nicholson and Ian Paisley met the authorities in Brussels and insisted they would not take no for an answer. They agreed that we were different and that they were prepared to make some slight move, but we are not out of that yet. What would happen if everyone agreed there was no such thing as a special place for Ulster’s agriculture, not because we are Cinderellas, but simply because it is our right? Would the Minister come back and tell us that another 15% of an industry has gone simply because we have had this concordat, and they have had one vital matter considered and agreed?
The British Government also tell us that they will know what is happening, that they will start early. I defy them to tell me what is happening in Europe — for Europe does not know what is happening. There is more business brought to the House in speed in Europe than anywhere else. And there is special legislation whereby the Commissioners can get a thing through the House in a gallop. To say that there is going to be a way whereby we will all know what is coming and will have weeks of discussions and be able to be in on the bottom floor is an amazing statement. For even those in the various Commissions do not know where the bottom floor starts in some of those proposals, and they certainly do not know where it ends.
Overall, the United Kingdom representative will be the Office who will approach the European biggies. It will not be public representatives doing the approaching, he will. I always thought that the Parliament was a place for lobby, but, evidently, now it will be a place where lobbying will be ineffective because the Commissioner can say "We have a concordat. We have agreed with your representative that this is what you are getting." And if the representatives from the Executive in Ulster say "This is the way", then they can say "We do not want to listen to you."
So here we have something that we need to take care of. I have spoken too long already, but it needed to be said. I have no apology for what I have said. I say to the representatives "What skin is it off your face to take this back for at least a week, or for two weeks, so that the parties in the House can all have a look at it and then come back and say where they differ and have a proper debate on it?"
I have a fair amount of sympathy for the points that Dr Paisley has made, and there are a number of issues within the documents that need clarification. If Dr Paisley were to establish some form of timescale whereby this could be brought back to the Assembly, I would be prepared to go along with that.
Mr Speaker, in reply to the question that has been put to me, we can have a timescale — a reasonable timescale — and we must have an opportunity to put down amendments to various things that the Executive wants to carry through. That would be reasonable. Let it go back to the parties, for there is no use in taking it back to the Committees, because they are divided. Let them go back to the parties and let the parties then come. But I would be happy to go to the various Committees if that were the mind of the House. I would have no problem with that.
There are a number of issues that need clarified on what is being proposed. I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with Dr Paisley, because in many ways what is being put forward strengthens devolution, but there are concerns. For example, does the Pledge of Office undertaken by individual Ministers oblige them to fulfil the understandings reached within these concordats? On the question of the memorandum of understanding, what measures are envisaged for general consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly — rather than the Secretary of State — on non-devolved matters in which the people of Northern Ireland have a particular interest? One example, from the Scottish Parliament, is that Jack Straw has allowed the entry into the United Kingdom of Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist.
The event will take place in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament has spoken out against his being allowed into the country. I see a serious conflict of interest arising in that situation.
I agree with what Dr Paisley said in relation to the concordat on co-ordination of European Union policy issues as they relate to Northern Ireland. I quote directly from the document, underlining the case that has already been made:
"The role of Ministers and officials from the devolved administrations will be to support and advance the single UK negotiating line which they have played a part in developing."
The case of the BSE crisis is crucial in showing the fallacy of going forward with a single UK policy. Devolution is there to reflect the interests of the individual regions of the United Kingdom.
One other issue that greatly troubles me is in the concordat on financial assistance to industry. All the regions of the United Kingdom are in competition. A few years ago, the textile company Hualon wanted to establish a large factory at Mallusk. However, due to the delay resulting from the intervention of another UK region that opposed the grant assistance which was being proposed for Hualon, Northern Ireland lost the opportunity of a major investment.
With regard to financial assistance to shipbuilding, the Government are abiding strictly by the European legislation — other regions of Europe are not.
There are a number of issues that need to be clarified in relation to the document, and I ask the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to seriously reconsider pushing this through the House today. Let us have some further consultation on it.
I recognise the need for these concordats to develop the necessary linkages, and I appreciate Mr Nesbitt’s point that they will be reviewed annually. However, I ask for more time for the Assembly to consider a meaningful input.
We should be grateful for the speech from the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party — not so much because it was a good example of Unionism, but because it was a good example of an exposition for Ulster Nationalism. The memorandum of understanding has been in public circulation since October 1999 in its Scottish and Welsh form — the Northern Ireland version differs slightly. A careful reading suggests that the arrangements are not about strengthening the prerogatives of our Executive, but are about a series of working arrangements aimed at trying to give coherence to the United Kingdom in an era of devolution. I would have thought that the Democratic Unionist Party would be in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom.
With respect to the amendment proposed by the DUP, if it wished to have more consideration of these provisions, its two Ministers could have been present at the meeting of the Executive last Thursday.
They need not have relied on little birds flying in and out to relay messages from the Executive Chamber. The amendment would negate the motion entirely if passed, so we do have to be somewhat unclear as to whether its intention or indeed its consequence suggests that it is truly an amendment indeed.
As the leader of the Alliance Party has already pointed out, there is currently a dispute between the Scottish Parliament and the Home Secretary in London, Jack Straw, over his decision. The dispute relates to who should actually control immigration policy for Scotland and, more specifically, whether Mike Tyson should go to Glasgow to fight. Perhaps he should come to Stormont instead. I use that example because it illustrates that what we are talking about today is not a piece of constitutional arcanery; it is not simply about changing the constitutional furniture in a way which will have no impact on the lives of ordinary people. The relationship between decisions at different layers of government within the United Kingdom affects everybody. The intense public interest in Scotland in the Tyson decision is indicative of that point.
I welcome the publication of these concordats. The whole structure of memorandum of understanding plus concordats is to serve, as one academic observer, Prof Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit in London, has put it, as a sort of gearbox within the rapidly changing post-devolution structure of government within the United Kingdom.
The idea of the memorandum of understanding, I think, first emerged back in July 1998 when Lady Ramsey was speaking in the House of Lords on the subject of Scottish devolution. But now the memorandum of understanding and the associated concordats are out in the open, and I trust that none of these mechanisms is designed to smother devolution at birth.
Now it has sometimes been feared, particularly by the SNP — and in a curious way it would seem that the DUP adopts a position somewhat similar to that of the SNP on these issues — it was feared, and perhaps still is feared by Scottish Nationalists, that the joint Ministerial Committees are some sort of device to discipline the devolved Administrations so that they toe the London line on policy issues. But I think that they offer the potential for those Administrations, including our own, to have a greater input into the formation of central United Kingdom Government policy. I welcome the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s initiative in December of last year when he established JMC steering groups, and I understand that one is meeting today to bring together the various United Kingdom Administrations on topics such as child poverty, pensions and the digital age economy.
"a new covenant of common purpose".
I think that even Dr Paisley, precisely Dr Paisley, could not object to the particular ecclesiastical allusion which is contained in that.
As regards EU matters the concordat speaks of maintaining a
"common United Kingdom negotiating line within Europe".
I welcome this, notwithstanding what has been said by other Members who have spoken, because advice which I have received from experts in Germany based on their experience. Each of the 16 German provinces — or Länder — has on occasions attempted to pursue a separate position, be it on agriculture or industry, in Brussels. The result has been detrimental to the Federal Republic of Germany’s overall bargaining position in the Council of Ministers.
The implication, I believe, is that in the long run we in Northern Ireland are better off with a common single United Kingdom position. This should, of course, be drawn up with input from the Northern Ireland Executive and, rightly, there is provision for that in the concordats. I also welcome the provision for and emphasis on monitoring industrial policy. The chief benefit here is the avoidance of expensive bidding wars between the various regions of the UK which would simply work to the benefit of a small number of global multinationals, by enabling them to move back and forth between regions where, they claim, they might set up a factory and to squeeze more and more Government grants out of long-suffering taxpayers. The concordat sets up a mechanism which will, hopefully prevent such bidding wars and hence achieve better value for money on behalf of the taxpayer.
In general these concordats follow the template already established last October in Command Paper 4444 relating to Scotland and Wales, though it is worth noting there are a few details relating to our own particular position — space is provided, formally speaking, for the operation of both the British-Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council.
To conclude, I welcome this take-note motion from the First and Deputy First Ministers. These arrangements are, as the junior Minister noted, not legally binding, but they are part of the evolution of the UK Constitution and, just as that Constitution has in previous centuries successfully adapted to earlier challenges, I have no doubt that it can do so again in this era of devolution.
I too took a great deal of time to go through these documents, and I have come to the conclusion that a great deal more clarification is needed, certainly on essential issues. If I may I would like to go through each of the memoranda and point out issues where certain clarification is needed. I will begin with the specific Memorandum of Understanding — and this is a simple point but one which perhaps lies outside our jurisdiction — but there are many references to four Administrations. Obviously, there is one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in the UK. I do not understand how the role of the UK Ministers, acting on behalf of England as well as of the UK, fits in here. A great deal more clarity is needed in order to understand England’s position in this newly-devolved situation and how UK Ministers, acting on behalf of non-devolved issues UK-wide, can also act on behalf of English issues.
I go on to what is, perhaps, a less contentious but equally important point about the rules on financial assistance to industry. The document states
"Separate but comparable arrangements apply in Northern Ireland."
There are common guidelines for industry. All parties to this concordat commit to mutual consultation in adequate detail and to a reasonable timescale where any party proposes to change its policy and practice. This is vitally important and could be very valuable to this devolved Government in Northern Ireland. For example, there is a consideration that we could, perhaps, change our support to industry and reduce our corporate tax rates, similar to the situation in the south of Ireland. When this was proposed in the past, the answer from London was always "Oh no. We must stick to the UK-wide line." I am assuming that, within this concordat on financial assistance to industry, we have the right to change policy as long as we consult in time. It would be valuable to clarify that we have that right.
Next, I wish to make a general point concerning statistics. I do not know whether Members notice this, but often Northern Ireland does not appear when UK-wide statistics are issued. Perhaps this occurs simply because television news leaves Northern Ireland out, but it definitely does not appear on UK-wide statistics adequately enough. Perhaps we could make sure we insist that Northern Ireland always appears on UK-wide statistics.
My final point, the most detailed of all, concerns the European Union. Both Dr Paisley and Mr Neeson have mentioned our need always to share the UK line. The point that has been made that the BSE crisis exemplifies the problem where a solid, standard UK line is not appropriate in Brussels. I would also refer to parts of these concordats concerning the North/South Ministerial Council and the Special EU Programmes Body, and the fact that agreement will be reached at a North/South level on certain European issues. I want to know how agreement at that North/South level can be transferred into UK-wide agreement to adhere to a common line. There is no clarity on this issue. It has certainly not been thought through enough, and the UK-line argument must take much more account of the specific needs and demands of Northern Ireland as a distinct and special region within the UK.
On issues such as representation, I tend to agree with Dr Paisley when he speaks of the value of the role of European Parliament Members, for example. I am surprised that this document does not refer to Members of the European Parliament and their role in lobbying at European level. The question of representation does not in fact simply mean representation in Brussels, and I would be very interested in asking the junior Minister a question. I noticed a reference to representation overseas in the concordat on international relations:
"The devolved administrations may establish offices overseas within the framework of their responsibility for devolved matters (including for the provision of information on devolved matters to the public, regional governments and institutions, and promotion of trade and inward investment)."
I would be fascinated to know what consuls, embassies or offices we intend to set up in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe. A great deal more information would be useful on these issues. I agree that these documents are important, and Members of this House would appreciate more time to understand their exact implications and the Executive’s exact intentions when we sign up to or at least take note of them.
I would like to add three or four observations to the comments already made by my Colleagues. In doing so, I want to focus on the fact that this memorandum, whilst not binding, is a statement of political intent. Political intent can always be changed by events, and there is plenty of scope in the wording of these memoranda for the devolved territories to probe the boundaries that have been set out. It does not say so in the document, but it is fairly obvious to me that it should be in the interests of the devolved territories to work together to find common interests. They may be remarkably effective in doing so.
It remains to be seen how that evolves in practice and it is, perhaps, the fear of this that has set the whole tone, certainly of the Memorandum of Understanding itself, to be quite schoolmasterly in the way that it continually reasserts the power and sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament to, in its own words, retain "the absolute right to debate, enquire into or make representations about devolved matters".
It is a pity that Assembly Member Roche is not here because he always seems to be rather confused about sovereignty. He would undoubtedly find it helpful to read these documents, as they seem to be very specific on this point.
I will not go into the points that have already been made on the European Union, but I noted rather fierce wording about the differences of approach in implementing EU regulations. It is apparent that across Europe there is a very considerable difference of approach towards the implementation of regulations. Some European countries are very much more expert in this matter than others. I was struck by the emphasis, which occurred several times in the document, on the importance of having, effectively, a common approach and that Whitehall intended to have a close scrutiny role in this.
Furthermore, any devolved territory deviating from the central path would face any financial consequences that might accrue. I suggest that when the time comes, this Assembly should, perhaps, be bold in some of these matters, and it would be interesting to discuss with the other devolved territories what approach they intend to take. This will become particularly apparent when we come to matters where there are marked differences of emphasis between what is important in England and what might be important in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The last thing that we should do at this stage is clarify these matters too closely. It would be much better if that were left to emerge over time.
My final comment relates to the concordat on international relations. I was particularly struck by paragraph 22, which pointed out that "the World Service aims to bring benefit to the United Kingdom and all its constituent parts by broadcasting authoritative and impartial news and information". I wish that I felt confident that it did. I note that the devolved Administrations were invited to maintain direct links with the BBC World Service on matters of mutual interest. I very much hope that this Administration will attend to a matter of mutual interest by ensuring that its broadcasting is both authoritative and impartial. I commend this motion to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you have had to endure your time in the Chair today. You are probably not enjoying it after listening to Mr Nesbitt’s death-inspiring speech and some of the other contributions. Indeed, I noted some of Mr Birnie’s comments were akin to being ravaged by a dead worm. The Assembly and my party appreciate the fact that the Alliance Party and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition have found merit in the proposal and the amendment that my party has brought forward. I hope that they will join us in the Lobby, if it comes to that, during the course of today’s sitting.
The real purpose of bringing forward this amendment is to secure for this Assembly what it deserves: full and proper consultation on what are indeed important matters. The question before the House is essentially that of whose interests come first. Is it the interests of this Assembly, acting for the people of Northern Ireland, or, as Mr Leslie said, are we to throw our trust in with a joint interest over which we do not have the same influence as in this place? Indeed, Mr Leslie has just asked the Assembly not to seek clarification, but the purpose of this House is to secure clarification so it can act, it is to be hoped, in the best interests of the people we represent. It is absolutely essential that we have clarification in order to move forward.
I should like to deal with some of the specific points raised. One in particular caught my attention: the issue of communication and consultation. That is exactly what we seek today, proper communication and proper consultation. This document outlines that on those two issues a certain set of procedures has to be followed. First of all, the Assemblies and the Ministers must alert each other as soon as possible to relevant developments within their areas of responsibility, preferably prior to publication. There is no established code of conduct as to how the Assemblies and the Ministers should alert each other. Is it by telephone call from Departmental Private Secretary to Departmental Private Secretary? Is it by letter or document? Is it by despatch between Departments or from the Minister? That point needs to be clarified.
It goes on to say that they must give appropriate consideration to the views of other administrations. We want to know what standard has been set for appropriate consideration. It is absolutely essential that we can at least assume that it will be higher than the consultation in this Assembly. Before Christmas we had the nonsense of the First Minister running off to Downing Street without even consulting his Agriculture Minister, and informing the Prime Minister about policy matters to do with agriculture. That was within the framework of this Assembly. Can we at least assume that consultation and appropriate consideration of people’s views will actually occur, despite the previous standard of this House?
Mr Nesbitt is asking us to rubber-stamp a very unclear document. Indeed, if the issue of confidentiality — absolutely critical in some of the policies the memorandum deals with and will deal with — were to go through in its current form, we are told a code of practice would be established regarding access to Government information or that of equivalent devolved regimes, and, in due course, the requirements of future freedom-of-information regimes. Yet nowhere in these documents have we seen an outline code of practice. It is critical that the Assembly should at least be shown the code of practice so we can make a decision based not on trust — as some people would have us do — not on blind faith, but on the actual documents put before us. Without seeing that code of practice, this Assembly would be extremely foolish to endorse this Memorandum of Understanding. The junior Minister, instead of coming to this Assembly and asking us to rubber-stamp something incomplete, would be far better going back to his desk and completing the job he was given to do by his mentor, the First Minister. Perhaps if he came back with a better document, the Assembly would be pleased to lend it its full support. At the moment it is very difficult for him to ask for and, indeed, expect the full support and confidence of the House on this matter.
Parliamentary business, which appears on the memorandum, again shows some woolly-headed thinking by the junior Minister. He says in paragraph 14
"The United Kingdom Parliament retains absolute right to debate, enquire into, or make representations about devolved matters."
Fine and true. That covers the issue of sovereignty, and I have no question about that not even later in the document. But two sentences later in the same paragraph he says that Parliament itself will in future be more restricted. But what is it? Does Parliament have an absolute right or does it have a restricted right? There seems to be uncertainty, so both points are put in. What role Parliament at Westminster will have with regard to the activities of the Assembly must be spelt out clearly. In the past — and we all know our history — people said that the old Parliament fell because certain issues could not be raised at Westminster. But what side of the debate is the Ulster Unionist Party on? What side of the debate are the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on in this issue? Do they want Parliament to retain its absolute right to inquire and to debate without restriction, or do they want to see Parliament’s right to debate and inquire into events in the Assembly restricted?
It is essential that the junior Minister confirm this matter to the House, because it is not exactly spelt out clearly here. Perhaps if it were spelt out in very clear and precise terms, Sinn Féin and the SDLP would not support the memorandum. But the junior Minister should confirm that, if any future Westminster Parliament so determined, it could repeal the Northern Ireland Act 1998 without reference to the people of Northern Ireland and irrespective of referenda or whatever. That point was glossed over very quickly, but it should be spelt out and verified to the House.
In moving the amendment, my party leader mentioned the role of the MEPs, who are not, as far as I can determine, asking for special privileges. However, they are asking for one thing, and that is to be consulted about issues upon which, and this is clear, the three of them have a particular expertise. It ill behoves this Chamber, as it would ill behove the Administration, to ignore that expertise which has achieved, against the odds, tens of millions of pounds for Northern Ireland, for community and infrastructure projects, which for years were denied to us. All we are seeking is proper consultation, nothing else, just proper consultation.
However, unfortunately these concordats, especially the one on the European Union, actually wipe out that consultation altogether. The one on the European Union actually establishes that the Republic of Ireland has a greater influence on, say in and right to be consulted on Northern Ireland via the North/South Council than have Unionists or Nationalists directly elected in Northern Ireland itself. That should concern everyone in the House, no matter what his political baggage. Unionists in particular should be alarmed that if this goes through in its current form it will give Nationalists a greater say because Unionists are outnumbered on the North/South Ministerial Council.
The junior Minister is asking us, in the words of James Leslie, to trust and throw our lot in entirely with the United Kingdom representative. However, the United Kingdom representative does not always have the rights and interests of the people of Northern Ireland at heart. One would like to think that the United Kingdom representative, when he or she establishes the negotiating position for the United Kingdom, would be prepared to take on board the interests of Northern Ireland. But that is not always possible and it is rarely achieved. Usually the greater interests of England, and sometimes Wales, are achieved by the United Kingdom representative rather than the interests of all the regions. It is foolish for the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the junior Minister to ask us to sign a blank cheque for the United Kingdom representative on behalf of the Assembly and to let him expect, at any time, the full support of the Assembly on these important matters.
Mr Neeson and Ms Morrice raised the issue of investment, and their points were very well made with regard to financial assistance to industry. Indeed, if the procedures established under these terms and conditions had been followed, an industry in my constituency — one of the largest employers —would today be closed.
It would have considerably slowed down the rights of a company to determine where it should best be situated. Unfortunately, I do not believe that good business practice would be possible under paragraph 7 of the concordat on financial assistance to industry. That is not the way business is done in the modern world. It would preclude many businesses from operating effectively and from making arrangements in regions of the United Kingdom. Why should Northern Ireland have to wait before making offers to companies to locate or relocate here? We should not have to wait for another region to come up with a better offer, or until the prospective jobs go to a different member of the European Union. It would be better for Northern Ireland to strike while the iron is hot.
It is essential that the House, after considering the importance of what is before it, votes for my party’s amendment. This amendment will allow all parties to have greater consultation and consideration on these important matters before they are rubber-stamped. The junior Minister should return to his desk and put together a more substantial paper that we can support.
I will indeed be brief, not least because many of the points that needed to be made have already been covered. However, I reiterate that my party will be opposing the amendment, because we believe it to be disingenuous. The DUP did, as has been pointed out, have an opportunity to engage in full and meaningful discussions with the rest of the Executive. They chose not to. I can only describe it as disingenuous if they then call for further consultation.
Secondly, the whole notion that there is not enough time to discuss this is also disingenuous. The motion clearly asks the Assembly to "take note of" this memorandum, not to adopt it or make it a legal requirement. It has already been explained that there will be at least one annual opportunity to review this. If there are problems in the operation of this package that present difficulty for any part of the Assembly, there will be an opportunity to review it, because this is a modus operandi that will enable the various devolved Assemblies to interrelate and to work together.
We heard this morning the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s concern about the budget delays caused by suspension. We do not want to see any further unnecessary delays. It is unnecessary to delay if there are built-in opportunities to review, examine and change where required. On those two bases, it is disingenuous.
The play that Dr Paisley made on the word "concordat" was interesting. Members will remember from their history classes that the concordat was the conclusion of a row arising from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was concluded, as he rightly said, between the Vatican and Italy in 1929. In line with most of his analyses, Dr Paisley was at least a century or two out. If he had pursued his enquiries with that eminent librarian, he would know that the word concordat has had many uses and interpretations since then, even among peoples who have never heard of the Franco-Prussian War or Mussolini, or perhaps even the Pope.
It is out of date, and it reflects, as I have said, some of the other ideas that we are constantly getting from the DUP. Mr Paisley Jnr also referred to the good work that was being done by MEPs. I am glad he paid tribute to our party leader in this regard as well as in respect of the peace and reconciliation package. Our party leader had a similar agenda some years ago when he ensured the creation of the International Fund for Ireland which supplied money to people in need. Those are the kind of international pressures we should all be dealing with, and we should be working with the Governments involved in our devolved situation, in Europe and in an international situation. That would be a good benchmark for co-operation — the more co-operation we have at different levels, the better.
I support the junior Minister’s paper. Quite a number of things have happened in Northern Ireland over the past two or three years and I am referring in particular to the agriculture industry. There has been crisis after crisis — BSE, the pig meat sector and right along the line. Every time proposals were put forward in Belfast or elsewhere, they seem to have got lost somewhere along the way. If a committee is going to be set up in Brussels, or anywhere else, I welcome that. In my experience we in Northern Ireland have lost out over the last two or three years.
I would not want this to be another quango — this country is full of quangoes — but it should be a place where people representing their industry can go to do a bit of straight talking. I am speaking primarily about the agriculture industry, but there are many smaller industries that also need an injection of funds. It would not take much to make a big difference, and I hope that the proposals put forward by the junior Minister will carry a lot of weight. Northern Ireland is a very small country, and we depend on our exporting industry so much.
This is going to be looked at every year, and we will have the opportunity to pull the rug from under the feet of these people if they are not fulfilling their obligations. One thing which concerns me very much is in paragraph 3 of Mr Nesbitt’s paper, and that is that broadly uniform arrangements need to apply to the handling of matters with an EU dimension, notably financial assistance to industry. Financial well-being could have done so much to help the agriculture industry over the last two or three years — and could still do so. Finance has to come from various sources in order to get the industry back on to a level par with all our competitors worldwide.
I hope this proposal goes forward today. It will, in some small way, attempt to alleviate the problems facing the agriculture industry. Many of the small industries that we discussed today would also benefit from a bit of stability, but it would be a big bonus to the farming industry in Northern Ireland.
I have listened with interest to what has been said — especially to what Mr ONeill said. I am glad we have such a brilliant man among us, who can revise the Oxford dictionary. I trust that he will immediately write to the compilers of the Oxford dictionary and give them his definition of a concordat, because I read in the dictionary that it is an agreement; especially one between the Vatican and a secular Government relating to matters of mutual interest. My definition is from the dictionary. I did not write the Oxford dictionary. I am blamed for writing many things, but Mr ONeill is going to rewrite the dictionary. I congratulate him. I hope that he will do well, get the right definitions, and change the dictionary. Then, the next time I come, I will not need to waste the valuable time of this House explaining that the Oxford dictionary is wrong and that it cannot be upheld. The argument that he puts is absolute nonsense because we have a right to call for the business of this House to be conducted in a decent manner.
Dr Birnie tells us that we should have seen the Scottish and Welsh memoranda. Who is he talking to? We are dealing with documents for this House. He had to admit that the memoranda were not even the same. Then he said that I am a Nationalist because of the speech that I made today — and him in harness with IRA/Sinn Féin. We know who the Nationalists in this House are, and who their fellow travellers are. I will not waste time in answering that. The House can roll this through because there is a majority — Members can do that. However, that will result in sad reaping because there are ways to influence Europe, and British Ministers have singularly failed in influencing Europe.
I pay tribute to my colleagues in Europe, as I always do, but M Delors addressed me, and me alone, at our meeting with him. I was the man who pressed him on the issue of giving money to those who had felt the cruel bondage of terrorism. At the end of the day he said to me "Yes, I believe we should help them."
That money was invaluable to us. Alas, the deadline will expire and, evidently, there will be no renewal. However, those who are elected to Europe and know how it works cannot be ignored. If the Executive want to go this way they can, but all these matters raised by other Members are important and they will result in suffering for the people represented.
I have been told that I should be in the Opposition. I am an Opposition Member of this House, and everybody knows that. However, I am then told that my two Ministers are responsible for this situation. I have never heard such balderdash in all my life. They were not present. They never received a letter summoning them to meet the inquisition. I would like to tell them that the inquisition days are over and the belts, the wheels, and the tortures are past. We are a free people, and we are not going to be railroaded by anyone. We will do our own thing within the law, and I congratulate my two Members.
I laughed. When it suited people in this House to applaud my two Colleagues, they applauded them. Then, when it did not suit their political way, they derided them. They cannot have it both ways. The two Departments will go on with their work no matter who is in the seat. We know what we are going to do — and we will do it.
Alas, the House has decided not to listen to the appeal that has been made today. Upon Members’ heads be it — carry on. However, they should not try and make excuses before the general public. When the general public questions Members on this matter, they should tell the truth.
Members must not try to say that they are giving a place to the MEPs when they are not. They did not even mention them. They did not see any place for them, and they should acknowledge that. They think that they can do better, but we will see. I wonder how many offices there will be and appointments made. They could have offices here, there and everywhere, but instead of spending money on offices they should be spending money on the people that need it most, and that is the farming community. Every extra penny should be going to the farming community, rather than on a grandiose scheme for offices round the world.
I want to begin by bringing some superior classical knowledge to bear upon the debate about the meaning of the word "concordat". It simply means "it is agreed". Perhaps Dr Paisley should have been looking at the old Latin primer and not the Oxford dictionary. It was used originally to describe the agreement between the Italian State and the papacy, but it has been used many times since to describe various levels of understanding between different bodies.
I beg leave to oppose the amendment and to call upon the House to support the original motion before it. In opposing the amendment I should say, with all respect, that Dr Paisley appears to have misunderstood the purpose of the memorandum and its supplementary agreements. As has already been said, the purpose of the memorandum is to set down principles which will underlie relations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a declaration of intent to co-operate with each other, an administrative arrangement designed to facilitate best practice and good models of communication in dealing with business, so that good channels of communication can exist and the devolved Administrations and the United Kingdom Administration at Westminster and Whitehall are fully informed of what each of the others is doing and can communicate and discuss matters with them.
The memorandum was considered by the Executive Committee on three occasions, and the papers were provided to Executive Committee Ministers. Those papers clearly set out the purpose of the memorandum. I want to show the House the document that we are talking about. It was published in October 1999; it has been available since then; and explanatory papers and memoranda have been available to Executive Ministers. The DUP Ministers would have had a better appreciation of it if they had attended Executive meetings. However, they had all the papers and these should have been passed to their party colleagues and discussed with them.
Today’s debate arises out of the Executive’s concern to ensure transparency at all times and to keep the Assembly fully informed. Hence, the matter is being dealt with by way of a "take note" debate, rather than by a ministerial statement or a "teed-up" question for written answer, which would have deprived Members of the opportunity to ventilate and explore fully the issues involved. These documents, and all this material, have been in the public domain since last October. For many months now parties and Members have had the opportunity to read, to digest, to debate among themselves, to explore and otherwise to internalise the content. The Executive has, in fact, fulfilled the remit which is included in Dr Paisley’s amendment: it has enabled parties and Members of the House to examine, discuss and analyse the documents.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Given that the Executive has discussed them three times, with, as I said, all the papers available to them, the purpose and intent of Dr Paisley’s motion had already been anticipated and accomplished by the Executive before he tabled his amendment.
The further matters that I want to refer to arise out of points made by individual Members. I will come to them in the order that I noted them, and I will try to be as coherent as possible, although different Members did refer to the same points, and I may find myself repeating some considerations.
This concordat is between the Executive and the Westminster authorities. Dr Paisley raised the question of whether the MEPs had any role in this. Without meaning any disrespect to any of the three MEPs, the answer is "No". Because the concordat is between the Executive and the Westminster Government, it does not concern or involve Members of the European Parliament. They are not central to the operations of this concordat.
In the papers that I have — a Memorandum of Understanding and an agreement on the Joint Ministerial Committee — the word "concordat" has not been used. The word "agreement" has been used in the Joint Ministerial Committee paper. "Concordat" is only used in the papers on the co-ordination of European Union policies, financial assistance to industry and international relations.
The Memorandum of Understanding sets down the general principles. The supplementary agreements refer to particular areas of policy and explain how the Memorandum of Understanding is to be applied in those areas. The Joint Ministerial Council is simply a mechanism by which the members of the Executives of the devolved Administrations may consult with the Ministers and Secretaries of State at Westminster, and among themselves. It is simply a mechanism.
However, I will deal with the points made by Dr Paisley in relation to the representation of Northern Ireland as a region within the European Union. On the one hand there was his assertion that Northern Ireland needs a separate line, a separate policy and a separate approach to European issues. He specifically enlarged on that in relation to agriculture, and our need to elaborate a quite distinct and separate line about Northern Ireland’s interests.
I find it difficult to reconcile that with the assertion that he makes from time to time about the absolute supremacy and sovereignty of the Westminster Government. If we are to take a separate line in Northern Ireland then we need mechanisms, processes and facilities to enable us to pursue a different line, or at least a modified line on European policy.
Dr Paisley took issue with the intention of the Administration to set up a facility in Brussels. As he rightly says, that is where all major policy decisions are taken in very important areas, such as agriculture. If he is opposed to the setting up of a facility in Brussels that would enable the Administration to pursue its interests directly through having its own servants and facilities there, would that not leave us totally dependent on UKRep? That brings me to the point made by Mr Ian Paisley Jnr, who said we should not be totally dependent on UKRep. Father and son need to get their heads together on that and decide which exactly we want. Do we want the facility to pursue our own line, or do we want to be totally dependent on UKRep? The two are not reconcilable. [Interruption]
We intend to set up a regional office representing this Administration and our other regional interests in the European Union. Precisely because our interests totally diverge from the interests of English farmers we need to be able to pursue a different line. That is precisely the point I am making. I am glad to say that it would appear that on this issue Dr Paisley and I are as one person.
On a practical level, the processes and the mechanisms that the Executive will develop for pursuing the interests of this region in Brussels will; of necessity, and rightly, involve a primary role for the MEPs. Without appearing to be sycophantic, I pay tribute to them for the work that they have done and the many benefits that they have brought to this region through their co-operation, interaction and sharing of power in their roles as Members of the European Parliament.
Setting up the processes, the practices and the mechanisms by which we will represent our interests as a region in the European community will involve a primary role for the MEPs, but will also, I hope, involve a role for Members of the Economic and Social Committee of the European Union, Members of the Committee of the Regions and their alternates, and many other people from a wide range of sectors in Northern Ireland society.
Dr Paisley said that we should have five representatives in Europe, rather than three. That confused me because in having three we have slightly more than our proportionate share of the 81 Members for the UK. If we were to have five that would indeed call into question the entire British link. And if that is what he wants to do he has an ally in me.
Dr Paisley said that we have never received from Europe what we have put into it. That may be true of the United Kingdom Government as a whole, but it is not true of Northern Ireland as a region. The United Kingdom Government has been a net contributor to the EU budget but Northern Ireland has been, enormously, a net benefactor of both the EU budget and UK internal budget. There is no real relevance in Dr Paisley’s point.
The concordat and the memorandum mentioned the Council of Ministers because it is the primary authority in the European Union. It is comprised of Ministers from the Member States and the memorandum includes the right for Members of the Executive in the House to take their place in the Council when appropriate.
Some questions were asked about the office in Brussels. Work is ongoing by way of providing this information to the House. The office will be located close to the European Parliament building. Its staffing will be a matter for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the numbers and levels have not yet been determined.
The role of the office will be to liaise with the European Union institutions in order to ensure that Northern Ireland’s interests are taken fully into account where relevant, to alert Government Departments here to issues arising in Brussels, to provide a base and support for visiting Ministers and to raise the profile of Northern Ireland in Europe.
Not all aspects of the shaping of the facility in Brussels have been agreed yet, but it will involve a formal level of representation where official business is carried out, and an informal level of representation where interests are pursued, information is gathered, lobbying is done and a facility is provided to representatives of the various sectors of industry and society in Northern Ireland.
Dr Paisley spoke about agriculture, which, in common with other major areas of policy, will be the subject of bilateral concordats agreed between the relevant departments in Whitehall and Northern Ireland. Consequently, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will have its own separate concordat with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which will set out a framework for relations within the overarching principles set out in the Memorandum of Understanding. These bilateral concordats between our Departments and those in Westminster will be published as and when they are finalised and agreed.
Mr Neeson referred to the Pledge of Office. The Memorandum of Understanding is not legally binding either on Departments or on Ministers. Rather, it represents models of best practice which, I hope, all Ministers and Members will support. Communication is a two-way street, and the Memorandum of Understanding also applies to the United Kingdom Administration and their obligation to inform and consult us.
With regard to matters such as the visa for Mike Tyson, I should say that the Memorandum of Understanding and the concordats do not affect the constitutional position. There are still issues, such as immigration, which remain within the remit of the Westminster Government. The Memorandum of Understanding provides a framework within which consultation can take place on these issues, but at the moment it does not replace the United Kingdom Government’s authority under the legislation.
Mr Neeson also raised the Mallusk case. I cannot comment on specific cases. Clearly competition will continue amongst United Kingdom regions, and the IDB will continue to make every possible effort to secure success for Northern Ireland. However, the concordat will ensure — as Dr Birnie pointed out — that competition does not lead to regions paying a higher price than they might otherwise do in order to secure inward investment. The current situation lends itself to competitive bidding between the regions. This can be to everybody’s disadvantage. In certain circumstances one might be able to sneak an advantage from it, but in the main it is to everybody’s disadvantage. The concordat and the memorandum of understanding provide us with a framework within which we can prevent that and, by creating jobs, reduce the subsidy burden on the taxpayer.
Ms Morrice made reference to the role of United Kingdom Ministers in relation to the supposed duality of their position in representing, first of all, the whole of the United Kingdom, but specifically the English interest in circumstances where there are three other devolved Administrations. Constitutionally that does not arise. United Kingdom Ministers do not represent England as a region. They represent all of the United Kingdom, while the Ministers from the devolved Administrations represent only the regions.
Ms Morrice also asked about Northern Ireland not being adequately represented in United Kingdom statistics. I should say in reply that this is exactly the sort of thing that the concordat is designed to deal with.
Dr Ian Paisley made reference to communication and consultation, and he set out principles and procedures for the Assembly. He mentioned telephone, fax, meeting, letter, and so on. All methods will be employed. In order to make sure that the public record is adequately maintained, in the main it will be done by writing, but in circumstances where urgency arises it may well first be done by telephone call or by other means.
Mr Paisley Jnr or Snr asked about the code of practice on access to Government information. This has been in the public domain since 1993 or 1994 and, therefore, is not a matter that has been kept from either himself or anyone else.
It was Mr Paisley Jnr who raised the matter of whether the United Kingdom Parliament’s authority was to be absolute or restricted. In the modern world no Parliament or Government’s authority is absolute anymore. The UK Parliament, under the legislation that stands at the moment, retains overall authority but, essentially as a courtesy to devolved Administrations, it commits itself through these concordats, this memorandum of understanding, and indeed other conventions that have been drawn up through the years, to consult with devolved Administrations and not to legislate on devolved matters without such consultation. That is the situation that existed in the past, and the same convention will, I think, be applied to all of the devolved institutions that exist at the moment.
Mr Neeson asked about timescales. As I said before, these papers have all been available since October, and parties and Members should have consulted, or at least read and digested their contents.
Given that the junior Minister has accepted that a number of points raised by my party, the Alliance party and the Women’s Coalition have identified, in the last two hours, a number of flaws that are apparent in this document, will the Member not reconsider his position? Will he agree to the amendment and give us time to rectify these flaws, so that this memorandum can go forward with the full confidence of the House?
No. The various points that have been raised can be reconciled with the position that the Executive has taken. Many of the points are not contrary to the provisions of the memorandum of understanding, and the agreements that were made under it, but are entirely consistent with them. The memorandum of understanding, and the supplementary agreements, provide us with mechanisms for dealing with the points and objections that have been raised by Members.
Mr Neeson raised the question of consultation on the part of the Secretary of State with the Executive and the Assembly on non-devolved matters. Under the legislation, at the moment, these matters remain in his charge. We may agree or disagree on whether that should be the case, but in law it is. We may agree about what he should do, but what he does under the law is a matter for himself. I hope that he will consult closely with the Assembly and the Executive on those matters that remain in his charge.
Mr Neeson also asked about European legislation. Whether by directive or by regulation, consultation is with the European Parliament, but member state legislatures are notified at a very early stage of proposals from the Commission and the Council. The concordat and the memorandum of understanding will provide for an input from the three regional Executives who will make provision for debate in their own Assemblies or Parliaments and, where appropriate, in the Committees of those Assemblies or Parliaments.
Dr Birnie raised the matter of Dr Paisley’s speech which he said was a speech rather more in favour of Ulster Nationalism than Ulster Unionism. I think it would stand a good chance of being adopted by people in my party as a statement in favour of Irish Nationalism, but that is another matter. On the joint ministerial Committees, Dr Birnie asked whether they would be "courts of Star Chamber" to bring devolved Administrations to heel. It may well turn out to be the reverse, where highly aggressive, deeply motivated Ministers, who have to get themselves re-elected here and in the other devolved Administrations, will seek very hard to bring the UK Secretary of State to heel on matters that vitally affect them.
I think that covers all the points raised in the course of the debate. I ask Members to note the memorandum of understanding and the supplementary agreements, and to reject the amendment.
I think the Ayes have it. [Interruption]
Order. The position is clear. I call for the Ayes and the Noes. If it seems to me that the Ayes or the Noes have it, I declare that that is the case. If either side disputes my declaration, Members repeat their call, at which point the Lobbies are cleared, and the Question put. It seems to me that there is extraordinary confusion about a procedure which we have gone through on a number of occasions.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 27; Noes 53.
Fraser Agnew, Eileen Bell, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, David Ford, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Kieran McCarthy, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Sean Neeson, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Mark Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Tom Benson, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sean Farren, John Fee, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Eddie McGrady, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Dermot Nesbitt, Danny O’Connor, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Ken Robinson, Brid Rodgers, George Savage, Jim Wilson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 52; Noes 23.
Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Tom Benson, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, David Ervine, Sean Farren, John Fee, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Eddie McGrady, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Dermot Nesbitt, Danny O’Connor, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Ken Robinson, Brid Rodgers, George Savage, Jim Wilson.
Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Mark Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Main Question accordingly agreed to.