HC Deb 29 April 1976 vol 910 cc541-4
8. Mr. Budgen

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on his proposals for the development of positive direct rule.

11. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will take steps to provide for additional facilities for informing Members of Parliament and the public about policy matters within the responsibility of his department.

7. Mr. Molyneaux

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further consideration he has given to methods whereby a more continuous surveillance of administration and security in Northern Ireland can be provided.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I am considering whether any changes are required in the arrangements for direct rule, including any additional facilities for keeping Members and the public informed. I have, however, answered 508 parliamentary Questions and nine Private Notice Questions between 1st November 1975 and 31st March 1976, and a wide range of papers and reports on Northern Ireland are available in the Library. The Government are responsible for all aspects of the affairs of Northern Ireland and have made it clear that they will provide firm, fair and resolute government.

Mr. Budgen

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that as direct rule may last for a number of years there is an overwhelming case for increased representation for Northern Ireland, so that Northern Ireland may enjoy the same representation here as the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

I have answered that point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will notice that even if the law were changed and the Boundary Commission were to do its work on a larger remit, the change would not come into being until the General Election after next, so it could not have any immediate effect.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I welcome the Secretary of State's apparent slight change of heart over the possible new institutions as a result of direct rule. The under-representation to which my hon. Friend has referred, and the fact that Northern Ireland has neither an Assembly nor a Parliament, which is a decision of this House, mean that Northern Ireland must have its Questions answered roughly every three weeks for three-quarters of an hour, while the problems of the Province remain matters of life and death. In those circumstances I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider the setting up of a Select Committee. Within its confidential intimacy the problems of the Province might reasonably be discussed and probed so that Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland might receive adequate answers from Ministers.

Mr. Rees

Of course Northern Ireland is different: we have the great problem of terrorism in Northern Ireland. The Province consists of 1½ million people and it has a Department to look after it. It is smaller than Yorkshire or Lancashire. In that sense it does very well in the House. It is because of the particular problems of Northern Ireland that the difficulty arises. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the 'phone calls to my outer office are about Northern Ireland. The vast majority of the letters that I am receiving are to the effect that their senders go for direct rule. They give reasons for taking that view. That is the general view that has come out of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Powell

I do not dissent in any way from what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier about solutions and initiatives, but does he recognise that consideration has to be given to the provision of a wider scope for local government in the normal sense of the term in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that that would lead to a great improvement and alleviation of administration?

Mr. Rees

On the point about local government and the fact that under the Macrory Report changes were made, putting it into Stormont, one of the problems in that respect—it is not something that I am actively considering; I say this only because it illustrates the point—is that on the minority side of the community it is put to me firmly that the last thing wanted is a return to the local government functions in Northern Ireland. This is one of the problems. When one comes to do anything in Northern Ireland, one cannot look at it logically. There is the basic split in the community.

Mr. McNamara

Has it been drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention that there are only 16 Questions on the Order Paper today relating to Northern Ireland, although on other occasions there have been somewhat more, and today there are only eight Questions from hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, which is roughly two-thirds of the number of Northern Ireland Members. The people of Northern Ireland, through their elected politicians, had an opportunity of finding some sort of administrative and institutional function which would have enabled them to look after these matters themselves, but they lamentably failed to do so. Therefore, it comes badly from Opposition Members to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Rees

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. It is a matter of note that hon. Members should consider my responsibilities for Departments of Education, Agriculture, Health and Social Security and right across the span. Ministers are working actively all the time in these matters, but the amount of interest in them expressed in the House of Commons is remarkably small. Even when there is a larger number of Questions, rarely are they on the subjects that I should have thought would exercise people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In the interests of the whole House, may I ask the Secretary of State when he will act on my reiterated but quite simple suggestion that a list of Northern Ireland papers analogous to the list of European Community papers be circulated to all Members so that they may apply for them?

Mr. Rees

I shall certainly do all I can to help in that respect. I certainly had no problems when I was in opposition about getting all the papers on Northern Ireland that I wanted. It is a matter of going to the Library and having a look. I shall do what I can to help. However, I do not think that this gets to the nub of the very real problems that, I accept, are being raised about direct rule. For instance, I wish that the problems of education in Northern Ireland could be discussed. It may he seen, indeed, to be more than apposite to the problems of Northern Ireland. The opportunities exist, but they are not taken.