Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 4th March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 8:55 am, 4th March 2003

We seek your indulgence, Mr. Benton, with regard to a slight change in our proceedings. You will appreciate that talks are taking place in Northern Ireland now, and it would facilitate our discussions here if the members of the Committee who are currently involved in those talks were present.

I beg to move, That further consideration be now adjourned.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

As members of the official Opposition, we were consulted about this matter yesterday. We have no objections to such a proposal. We accept that the discussions have continued longer than was first thought necessary. It would be proper for the Minister of State to be in Committee for further consideration of the Bill, but we accept that it is sensible for her to be in Northern Ireland for the talks. We have no complaints about that. The substance of what is being discussed there is not a matter for us.

However, the pertinent subject that I raised when we debated the original programming motion is a matter for us. I had an inkling that we might be in such a position this morning. If I understood the newspapers correctly, part of the talks that are taking place concern policing in Northern Ireland. It is not for the Committee to argue whether it is right or wrong to hold such discussions. However, it is essential for the Government to understand that in agreeing to their request, we are not agreeing that the Committee should in future be used as a vehicle for implementing what may be agreed over the next 24 or 48 hours. I made it clear at the beginning that our proceedings in Committee concern a Bill that started in the House of Lords. It was discussed fully there, and it was discussed on Second Reading, when the whole of the House of Commons could participate. It is now being considered in detail here.

I should be grateful if the Minister could assure us that when we resume consideration of the Bill, it is the Bill, and the Bill alone, that we will be dealing with. If the Government reach agreement with the parties in Northern Ireland to change policing, that should be the subject of separate legislation, so that both Houses of Parliament can have a full debate on the Second Reading of any such Bill.

I am grateful that we were consulted yesterday, but we were given some dates and times when the Committee should sit again. That was not a matter for consultation; it seemed a little like a ''take it or leave it'' statement. In order for a Programming Sub-Committee to meet when there is not universal agreement, proper notice has to be given. I should be

grateful for your ruling, Mr. Benton. While supporting the Minister's proposal that further consideration be adjourned, I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that Her Majesty's Opposition agree with the other matters that have been proposed. They should be matters for consultation.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I am advised that the remit of the Programming Sub-Committee will fall under my purview. It is legitimate to have the suggested motion put to the Committee as an alternative, and I understand that if further consideration of that is needed, it will come under my remit.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

In that case may I indicate to you, Mr. Benton, and your co-Chairman, that my support for this morning's motion does not imply support at this stage for any other things that may or may not have been informally mentioned to you, to the Clerks or to us? I do not suggest that we will automatically oppose such things, but we need to complete the Committee's business. For example, it was suggested that we meet on Thursday. I have not had the chance to ask my colleagues whether they can physically manage to attend on Thursday. They made themselves available today in all good faith—although they are not here now because I did not want to drag them in at 5 to 9, as I knew that we would support the motion.

My party and I readily support the motion to adjourn. However, I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that we shall not use the Committee to do anything related to the negotiations that are occurring. The negotiations should be separate. Before we reach an arrangement to complete the work of the Committee, the usual channels should have a good chance to talk about that and to report back to you, Mr. Benton.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I have noted carefully what the hon. Gentleman has said. If there is fundamental disagreement at any stage, I shall be happy, in consultation with the learned Clerk, to consider anything that he puts forward.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The Liberal Democrats also understand the reasons for the motion. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that the talks in Northern Ireland had gone on longer than necessary—but shouting will always be better than shooting, and if the talks lead to a significant step forward in the peace process, they are worth while.

I have two concerns, which are on roughly the same lines as what we heard from the hon. Member for Spelthorne. I have mentioned before the enormous difficulty of scrutinising properly legislation that relates to Northern Ireland. That is simply because of the compressed nature of the legislation and the fact that consideration of different things often happens at the same time. This situation presents the Government with an opportunity to be more respectful of the pressures that they are putting on the Opposition. As we are supporting their motion, they should ensure that they are considerate towards our request to have the space to do the jobs that we have been elected to do.

As the points made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne implied, several of us feel that the Government have been racing ahead with legislation at breakneck speed and have played fast and loose with the processes of Parliament. They have used the suspension as an opportunity to say, ''Take it or leave it,'' again and again about legislation that in Northern Ireland might have been subject to considerable consultation, but has not been deeply debated in this House.

The Liberal Democrats ask for the programme motion to be explicit, for no other reason than the fact that our Northern Irish colleagues have difficulty attending the Committee. We, and the Conservatives, would be extremely unhappy if the Committee was used to push something through that has been unilaterally agreed by one side or another in the peace talks. I want the Minister's assurance that there is no intention to use the Committee as a vehicle for something that might not achieve broad cross-community support.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I heard what the Minister said. The hon. Member for Spelthorne said that there had been discussions and consultation with the official Opposition, and I wonder whether the non-appearance of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) indicates that there was also consultation with them. There was no such consultation with me or with my party. Having said that, I have no particular gripe. I would support any honest endeavour to ensure that all members of the Committee can be present at its sittings. However, I would have deep misgivings and worries if the Committee were reconvened in order to consider further new amendments, which are currently—

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I may be able to help the hon. Gentleman indirectly. It was made clear to me yesterday that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann had said that he could not be here, and was content with what is happening this morning. I enter the caveat that that information was second hand, from the usual channels. It appears that the other Unionist party was consulted, and I am shocked to hear that the hon. Gentleman was not. I sincerely hope that the usual channels will note that all parties should be involved in such discussions.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. However, as I said in a previous sitting, there seems to be an ongoing attempt not to consult some parties in Northern Ireland, especially those that fundamentally disagree with the approach and the basis on which the Government are building and reconstituting present institutions. That should not happen. Irrespective of the party political position, there should be a requirement to consult widely, regardless of whether people are in favour of, or fundamentally opposed to, the Government position.

I am in an awkward position, because some of the clauses that were to be discussed this morning go to the very root of the problems that we are experiencing

in Northern Ireland. In our debate on new clauses 1, 2 and 3, we would have discussed the discriminatory nature of recruitment to the Police Service. I am happy to accommodate hon. Members, but I shall fire a clear warning shot across the Government's bows: I earnestly hope that when we reconvene, we deal with the business of the House, rather than the business of the House plus other direct unilateral discussions such as those outlined by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), which subsequently become part of the business of the Committee.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to hon. Members for their comments, and for their support for adjourning the Committee this morning, which is helpful. I take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, although he may wish to clarify one of them. He said that he understood that talks had gone on ''longer than is necessary''. I am sure that all of us hope that the Assembly will be running as soon as possible, and agree that talks should take as long as necessary.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am grateful for the chance to correct that, if I did say it. I intended to say ''longer than expected''.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I thought that that was probably what the hon. Gentleman meant to say, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to clarify any confusion.

I apologise to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) who was not consulted; the hon. the Member for Newry and Armagh was not consulted either. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann indicated his support for adjourning the Committee today. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for security was in talks herself, and perhaps events moved too quickly. We did our best to consult people, and I apologise to the hon. Member for East Londonderry for any oversights.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I question the phraseology that the Minister used in connection with the discussions that took place between the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and, presumably, someone from the Minister's office. She said that the right hon. Gentleman had indicated support for the Adjournment. Does that mean that he was, or was not, consulted?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I was not present when the conversation took place, so the hon. Gentleman is testing my knowledge. My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman was content, and that he was consulted, but the matter is one for the Minister responsible for security, who was involved in the conversation. I cannot repeat verbatim conversations that took place when I was not present. My understanding is that the right hon. Gentleman is content.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

May I raise an issue on which the Minister should reflect—on behalf, I suspect, of all those who work within the usual channels? She should be aware that if there are to be discussions with any political party in the House, those should be through the usual channels and not through the spokesman, the Minister or the shadow Minister, because that is the way to confusion.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am having my knuckles rapped, Mr. Benton. I was not present when the conversations took place, but I understand that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann is content for there to be an adjournment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with that answer.

As for the date and time set by the Programming Sub-Committee, the Government will wish, through the usual channels, to be as accommodating as possible to hon. Members. That is a matter for the usual channels to discuss, and for me to comment on it would be inappropriate.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised specific concerns about scrutiny. The tone and context of the Committee to date has been such that the Minister of State has welcomed opportunities for scrutiny—our discussions and debates have shown that—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not still think that there is inadequate scrutiny. He raised the issue of the 22 pieces of Northern Ireland legislation that have been introduced in this House since the suspension of the Assembly. The Secretary of State made the commitment that legislation that had been started in the Assembly and was going through it—legislation on which the Assembly had consulted and which, in some cases, had even gone through Committee—should continue and not be lost. I appreciate that that puts pressure on hon. Members; it also puts pressure on Ministers. It is right, however, that the people of Northern Ireland should not lose

legislation to which the Assembly was committed and which was already going through the usual processes.

I have no knowledge about further amendments; it is the Minister responsible for security who should address that matter, and she will write to hon. Members about it, or otherwise contact them. I am sorry that I am unable to help. No signs or inferences should be read into that—I just do not have the information. As soon as I have the information I will ensure that it is made available to hon. Members.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I readily accept that the Minister does not know the ins and outs of what has been said by other people, but would she undertake to relay to the Minister of State and the Secretary of State the fact that Committee members would take the greatest exception to any attempt being made to bring anything back from the agreement and include it in the Bill. As long as the message is relayed back, I am content.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Gentleman is quick to get to his feet this morning. Had he waited a further two seconds I would have got to my point, which is that all the comments made this morning will be relayed through the usual channels, and to the Minister responsible for security. I shall be happy to ensure that that is done. I hope that hon. Members will accept that the Committee should now adjourn.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Nine o'clock till this day at half-past Two o'clock.