HC Deb 04 March 1969 vol 779 cc219-24
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

Hon. Members will recall that, following the disturbances in Londonderry last October, I had discussions with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in London on 4th November. When I reported on this meeting to the House the following day, I mentioned that one of the main subjects covered in the talks was the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in Northern Ireland.

On 22nd November, the Northern Ireland Government announced their intention to make such an appointment, and, in the Queen's Speech opening the Northern Ireland Parliament on 17th December, it was stated that legislation for this purpose would be introduced in the New Year.

Subsequently, the Northern Ireland Government raised with Her Majesty's Government the idea that the first holder of the office of Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner should be Sir Edmund Compton, who would undertake this work in addition to holding the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for the United Kingdom.

Her Majesty's Government took the view that, provided this did not prevent Sir Edmund from fully discharging the duties which this House has laid upon him, such an appointment would give great confidence both in Northern Ireland and here. Accordingly, after soundings through the usual channels, and after members of our Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner had been informally advised, I informed the Northern Ireland Government that there was no objection from the side of the United Kingdom Government to this appointment.

Accordingly, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister has today informed the new Parliament at Stormont that, subject to the passage into law of a Bill which is to be introduced next week, the Northern Ireland Government will advise the Governor to appoint Sir Edmund Compton as the first holder of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Northern Ireland. The House will realise that, in this capacity, he would act on complaints referred to him by members of the Northern Ireland Parliament in relation to actions of the Northern Ireland Departments. He would not investigate such actions on behalf of members of this House.

I understand that Sir Edmund Compton would be willing to accept the Northern. Ireland appointment subject to the terms of the Bill as passed into law and to appropriate provision of staff and other administrative arrangements by the Northern Ireland Government. His intention would be so to organise the work as to ensure that he can continue the full discharge of his duties on behalf of Members of this House under the United Kingdom Act.

Mr. Heath

On this side of the House, we welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Government should have invited so distinguished a person as Sir Edmund to assume this office and that the Government take the view that, provided he feels able to do it, they should agree. Presumably, if he found that the burden of work put upon him from this House became too great to allow him to occupy both offices, he would then be able to raise it again.

Would the Prime Minister make one thing clear? He has informally discussed this with the Select Committee. Would he make it clear that the Select Committee will be occupied only with Sir Edmund's work in regard to this House and not that in regard to Stormont?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, that is the position. The Select Committee will carry out the duties which this House has given to it in relation to Departments for which the United Kingdom Government is responsible.

I thought it right to make this statement because Sir Edmund is an Officer of this House who is being released, even if only part-time, for this work. I am sure that the House will welcome this. Certainly, if he felt that the burden of work in Belfast led to his being unable to discharge his duties here, anyone who knows him knows that he would report back and take appropriate action.

Sir Edmund is already acting in Northern Ireland on fairly frequent visits for the purpose of examining complaints which have been made about the effects on individuals in Northern Ireland of actions of United Kingdom Departments on the initiative of hon. Members of this House.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend say whether this means an increase in staff in this country for the Parliamentary Commissioner? Further, can he say whether, if the terms of reference of the Parliamentary Commissioner are extended, as I hope they will be, to local government in this country, that will apply equally in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that there is any need for additional staff or expenditure here. As I have said, Sir Edmund already has to travel in Northern Ireland a great deal, but if this turned out to be wrong the point envisaged by the Leader of the Opposition would probably take effect.

The question of the possible extension of functions of our own Parliamentary Commissioner to fields so far not covered in the Bill—my hon. Friend mentioned, for example, local government—would be an act of the United Kingdom Parliament and would affect only conditions here. It would be a separate matter for Stormont, but I am happy to say that, on my understanding, the Bill which is being introduced there will faithfully reflect in the Northern Ireland setting everything that we have done ourselves in our own Measure establishing our own Parliamentary Commissioner.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Select Committee for the Parliamentary Commissioner is grateful to the Government for have made known to them this proposal, that it has considered the proposal and is satisfied that the acceptance of this additional appointment by the Parliamentary Commissioner would not interfere in any way, so far as the members of the Committee can see, with his duties to this House?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Member.

Mr. Whitaker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on this side of the House warmly welcome the extension of the Omsbudsman to Northern Ireland, which we have advocated for a period of time? Will he consider extending the Omsbudsman's remit to local government in both parts as soon as possible? Failing that, will he alternatively consider extending the anti-discriminatory provisions of the Race Relations Act to religion to cover Ulster so as to remove a cause of bitterness which could easily be remedied?

The Prime Minister

We are continually considering the possibility of proposing legislation to extend the functions of the Parliamentary Commissioner in the work he does for this House in the United Kingdom setting.

The point raised about the Race Relations Act goes very wide of the question of secondment part-time of Sir Edmund Compton to fulfil the duties which will be laid upon the Northern Ireland Omsbudsman under the Bill shortly to be introduced in the Stormont Parliament.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that there are great advantages in having the same distinguished person attached to both countries, thereby ensuring a similar approach and similar standards, but, since we are being asked to share the services of someone who works for this House, may we have the Prime Minister's assurance that Sir Edmund will be equally uninhibited in investigating Ministerial complaints and not be precluded from considering Ministerial acts in Northern Ireland which arise out of interpretation of the Special Powers Act?

The Prime Minister

I agree very much and welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the desirability, at any rate in the earlier stages of this experiment, of having the same Officer in both countries. At a suitable time, no doubt, Northern Ireland will find its own indigenous Ombudsman for the purpose. He will not be inhibited in any way in fulfilling his duties there except by the limitations of the Act under which he will be operating. It is, therefore, a question of waiting to see the text of the Bill, but on all the information available to me the Bill which subsequently will become an Act will follow that passed by this House.

Captain Orr

Is the Prime Minister aware that I can confirm what he has said, in so far as I am able, that it is the intention that the Bill will be on precisely similar lines to the Act which governs the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner here and that we warmly welcome, as practically everyone in this House of Commons does, the establishment of an Ombudsman for Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and gallant Member has confirmed what I said about the intentions of the Bill. No one can say what Act will finally emerge, but Sir Edmund Compton has said that he is willing to accept the Northern Ireland appointment subject to the terms of the Bill as passed into law.

Mr. John Lee

Can we be assured that this appointment, welcome as it may be, is in no way regarded as a soft alternative to the implementation of Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act if Captain O'Neill is brought down by his primitive tribesmen?

The Prime Minister

That raises a different question, but this statement raises something to which the whole House has attached importance, one of the six points which I discussed with Captain O'Neill last November, namely, the appointment of an Ombudsman for Northern Ireland legislation. It does not raise any of the questions that my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. John Hall

Will the Prime Minister agree that under the Act the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner are so circumscribed, and his ability to intervene in matters of real importance so restricted, that the Ombudsman should be able to take in his stride his duties in Northern Ireland? Would the right hon. Gentleman therefore not consider extending the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner, so as to give him some real power?

The Prime Minister

As I said, some of these matters are being studied. The hon. Member will recall that many of these things were debated when the Bill was going through the House, and Amendments were moved, but it was felt that with this radical new experiment it was right to start in a fairly modest way. Some of my hon. Friends, when we were the Opposition, pressed for years to get this innovation made, but the then Government refused to have an Ombudsman at all. I should like to see the Ombudsman's powers progressively widened, as I believe the hon. Member would, after we have had a little more experience.