HC Deb 15 July 1974 vol 877 cc129-33

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Captain Orr

There are two small matters that I want to raise before we come to the main bulk of this argument. Earlier, the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) asked about the reports of the Convention and expressed some anxiety that from time to time the House of Commons should be able to judge between, say, majority and minority reports. I understood the Secretary of State to say that the reports would definitely be from the Convention. It would therefore be useful to have some indication of the majorities if decisions are taken, so that we have some idea of the strength of a majority and of the minority dissenting.

The second matter concerns polls. Subsection (3) is slightly alarming. What is worrying is that this great power in the hands of the Secretary of State, if used irresponsibly—I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman does not intend to use it lightly—could result in a whole series of polls on a whole lot of questions which an irresponsible Secretary of State might think useful to try to influence the deliberations of the Assembly.

I should like the right hon. Gentleman to say a little more about how he envisages the polls being used. Unlike the Newfoundland poll, a single poll, these are not to be mandatory, but we should have some idea of what the right hon. Gentleman intends.

Mr. Dalyell

I should like to take up a matter that was raised earlier—namely, the precise criteria on which these questions are to be framed. That is an extremely important consideration, for answers can be influenced by the way in which questions are framed.

I do not accuse the Secretary of State of ill will, malice or anything else, but, as hon. Members know, it is easy to frame questions to get the answers one wants,. and there are many examples of that. It is less than satisfactory to resort to this kind of polling without being clear about the basis of the framing of the question.

It may be said that this is a matter for the future, that it may never happen, that it is a recondite argument. I am not so sure that it is such a recondite argument, for even in this House we have unsuspectingly allowed provisions to go through, rather like Mr. Micawber, only later to find ourselves hamstrung. As others could, I could develop all sorts of pictures of what questions could be asked to create tremendous resentment, and I therefore want to be clear about the basis of the questions.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) asked about the Convention's reports and how they were to be presented. A great deal must be left to two factors. First, I intend to publish a document about the procedures of the Convention. It will be a discussion document—perhaps that is the best way to describe it—allowing the subject to be opened up. It will be concerned with how the Convention is to report to the House.

The voting will be a matter of public knowledge. However, I do not foresee the future of Northern Ireland being determined by a legislature voting late at night by 290 to 278 with the Whips on and so on, as occurs here. I do not foresee the Convention working in that way. Of course there are bound to be votes, and, of course, the voting must be taken into account, but we shall also have to take note of the fact that the future of Northern Ireland could be determined by 40 votes to 38 in favour of a particular process. A Convention is a more civilised way of dealing with it than is normal in a legislature because, after all, there are understandings about the way in which the House votes by the nature of the determination of an election. We used to notice how the Press made a big thing about the result of a vote in the House—and understandably so. There are bound to be votes in the Convention, and the result of the election to that Convention is important, but I do not see matters being completely determined in an arithemetical sort of way.

I was in some doubt whether to include the poll in the Bill. I thought it was good sense, however, to put it in in case it was needed. Who knows what the timing will be? Too often in my short period in office have I wished that I had certain powers. On the wording of any poll, let me say that I had my doubts about the wording of the border poll. I draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) not merely subsection (2) but subsection (6), which says: The power to make orders under subsection (3) above includes power to vary or revoke a previous order and shall be exercisable by statutory instrument but no such order shall be made unless a draft of the order has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. There will, therefore, be control by this House. All the matters my hon. Friend raised are important. I hope that my hon. Friend and the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South will see the force of what I say, and I hope that public discussion will follow publication of the document.

Rev. Ian Paisley

May I draw attention to subsection (7)? On reading that, I cannot see how the right hon. Gentleman can justify his speech this afternoon when he said that if the Convention came up with something which was not acceptable to this House, the guarantee in the Constitution Act would have to go by the board. The subsection makes it clear that the constitutional issue cannot be put before the people in any poll from the Convention—and is that not a good thing? One Labour Member said that the real burning issue was the settlement of the union. Surely that will come within the scope of the Convention. The subsection seems to undermine the Secretary of State's position this afternoon.

Mr. Rees

In the good book that I have written on this matter I carried the matter very much in mind. Subsection (7) is in for very good reasons. I decided that the subject matter of polls should be that which was relevant to the discussions which took place in the Convention. My argument, strongly based on that premise, is that there is now Section 1 of the Constitution Act. If there is a need for a poll on the link with the United Kingdom, there is the provision concerning the 10-year poll which cannot be held under the powers in this Bill. Powers would have to be sought from this House to carry that out. There are strong views about the Constitution Act. I have always felt that the North could not be pushed into the South. However, the question of the link with the United Kingdom is not one for Northern Ireland alone; it is for the whole of the United Kingdom and, not least, for this Parliament. For that reason, subsection (7) is carefully included. It provides that there can be referenda, but if there are to be referenda on the border or on the link with this country, they will require separate legislation in this House, because that is a matter not for the Convention but for the United Kingdom as a whole. While there may be a glint in the eye of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), I can assure him that the subsection is included for very good reasons.

Rev. Ian Paisley

We believe that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland can retain their position, but we have had many assurances from this House and they have all been torn up and destroyed—some of them overnight. However, we believe that the will of the people will eventually prevail. I am only pointing out to the right hon. Gentleman—he did not even take it up—that earlier, he said "If you come up with some suggestions that we do not accept, remember that your guarantee and finances will go." But the right hon. Gentleman could not do that under this Bill. As he has now admitted, he would have to introduce another Bill. He could not do it under a constitutional referendum. He would have to amend the Constitution Act 1973. That is the point I make.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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