HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc210-3
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a brief statement on the parliamentary handling of Northern Ireland legislation.

As the House knows, it is being invited this evening to agree arrangements whereby Northern Ireland subordinate legislation can be dealt with in Standing Committee with opportunities for debate of a period of up to 2½ hours at a convenient hour. Where applicable, Divisions will take place on the Floor of the House.

Secondly, in addition I intend to propose to the House that we set up a Northern Ireland Committee. This will meet for a limited number of occasions in each Session. The topics to be debated by the Committee will be a matter for consultation and will come before the House for approval. Northern Ireland Members will serve on this Committee as of right; other Members will be appointed separately for each debate.

Thirdly, while it will obviously be necessary for some Northern Ireland Bills to be taken on the Floor of the House, I hope it will be possible to handle some other Bills through the Second Reading Committee procedure, but again this will only be after discussion with those concerned.

Mr. Peyton

I think the whole House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the statement he has just made. I am sure he will agree that no hats will necessarily be thrown into the air at the prospect of another Committee being set up, but we hope the experiment will prove worth while and produce results.

I should like to put three points to him. First, what is his understanding of "a convenient hour"? Opinions vary on this. Secondly, I hope he will reflect upon the desirability or otherwise of having a discussion in one place and a Division in another. It seems to make a threadbare farce of our proceedings and I hope that that sort of thing will not be carried too far. Thirdly, probably at the moment it would be desirable for Northern Ireland Bills to be taken as far as possible on the Floor of the House rather than being subjected to the Second Reading procedure.

Mr. Short

I agree that "a convenient hour" is a relative matter, but as it is a Committee it could meet in the morning.

Secondly, with regard to a Division in one place and debate in another, I would point out that all Members of the House would be able to attend the Committee and of course the report of the debate would be available for hon. Members to read. But as matters would be sent to the Committee only by agreement, it is most unlikely that a Division would ever be required.

On the third point, I agree that there are some matters which obviously ought to be taken on the Floor of the House but, as in the case of United Kingdom Bills, where we can secure agreement between the two sides of the House it would seem better to send them to Committee for Second Reading.

Mr. Molyneaux

Would the Leader of the House accept that it is rather difficult to make constructive comments on the proposed arrangement in the absence of any advance copy of the statement? May I ask him for an assurance that he will honour the undertaking he gave us earlier to discuss these matters fully with the Northern Ireland Members, now that agreement has obviously been reached with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so that the procedures in the Committee, if it is established, can be meaningful?

Mr. Short

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know what has happened. I gave instructions that the statement should be made available. I am sorry about this and will look into it immediately.

On the second point, I have, of course, discussed this matter with the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, I think on more than one occasion. However, if he wishes, with his hon. Friends, to come to see me and discuss procedures in the Committee, I shall be very happy to talk to him about them.

Mr. McNamara

Although this gives an appropriate opportunity for the people in Northern Ireland to have their problems discussed within the House while the Six Counties are part of the United Kingdom and there is no devolved Parliament there, is there not nevertheless a danger, in the establishment of this Grand Committee, that powerful arguments that some are advancing for complete integration will be advanced, to the detriment of the people of both these islands?

Mr. Short

It is not a Grand Committee. I was very careful to call it a Northern Ireland Committee. It is a matter for discussion with Members concerned as to the number of debates and the number of days—perhaps four a year—when they meet in the morning to discuss a topic. But it is not a Grand Committee in the sense of the Welsh or Scottish Grand Committee.

Sir David Renton

Would the Leader of the House clarify still further this question of the matters to be discussed in Committee but voted upon on the Floor of the House? It would seem from what he says that, for example, an instrument affecting Northern Ireland could be subject to that procedure. Does it not also follow that the House could accept or reject an instrument but have no chance of amending it?

Mr. Short

That is true. I think that once we start amending subordinate legislation we shall be on a very difficult course. The procedure in my proposal is similar to that followed in the Merits Committee where United Kingdom delegated legislation is discussed and the Second Reading Committee where the debate takes place in a Committee and, if necessary, the Division takes place on the Floor of the House.

Mr. David Steel

I, too, did not receive an advance copy of the statement, and I find it difficult to understand it. Is it suggested that the Committee should combine the functions, loosely, of a Grand Committee with those of a Standing Committee, and that it should make a detailed examination of legislation? If so, I should attach some significance to the proposal that all Northern Ireland Members should sit on the Committee as of right. This seems to be correct, but it is quite a significant departure from the Standing Order, which up till now has limited the composition of Standing Committees to a reflection of the composition of the House as a whole. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that something of that principle might apply usefully in the present situation with regard to the Scottish Committees.

Mr. Short

The last point raises a different matter. But this is not a Select Committee. This is a Committee designed specifically to have a number of debates each year on Northern Ireland matters. The topic to be discussed will possibly be agreed with the Members concerned before the debate and agreed by the House.