HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc1905-10

11.35 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 6, at end insert— '(3) During the interim period the members of the Agency shall be appointed by the Secretary of State '.

Mr. Speaker

With this we are to take Amendment No. 6, in Clause 4, page 3, line 36, at end insert— ' (4) During the interim period the members of the Appeals Board shall be appointed by the Secretary of State '.

Mr. Powell

Perhaps I might be allowed, in moving the first amendment on this Report stage, without incurring your displeasure, Mr. Speaker, to make a brief reference to the progress on earlier stages of the Bill and to say that although my hon. Friends and I remain of the same opinion as to the principle as we made clear on Second Reading, and although we believe, as will appear during our consideration today, that there are a number of major matters in the Bill that still require correction, it would be churlish not to refer to the great care and courtesy with which those speaking for the Government on the Bill handled the debates in detail during 30 hours in Committee.

I think it would be the general wish that, in that connection, I should specially refer to the right hon. Gentleman the previous Minister of State, without any invidious comparison with anyone else, whose absence, again with no imputation against anyone else, we have discovered, we regret from these Northern Ireland debates and the affairs of Northern Ireland. I hope that a similar attitude of open-mindedness and readiness to deal with the natural anxieties of hon. Members will characterise our proceedings today.

The purpose of the amendment is simple. As the Bill is drawn, it assumes that the 1973 Constitution is in force, and the terminology of Clause 1 is drawn accordingly. Of course, it is the case that those expert in the construction of statutes, if they get hold of the 1974 Act, which we may be renewing in a few weeks' time, and work out the meaning of certain paragraphs of the schedule can come to the conclusion that things are not going to happen at all as set out in Clause 1, and that in fact this appointment and the subsequent one to the Fair Employment Appeals Board will be made by the Secretary of State.

It is all very well for the Government to argue that in that case we have nothing to complain about and that they are legally covered by the proper construction of the statutes, and that those who address their minds, with full knowledge of the circumstances, to interpreting Clause 1 will know perfectly well that where they read head of the Department of Manpower Services for Northern Ireland it really means the Secretary of State, but I put it to the House that in present circumstances that is not the proper way in which to draw a statute.

We ought now to start saying on the face of a statute what we mean and where responsibility is, and that in fact in practice the decision will, very properly, be taken by the Secretary of State. The statute ought to say so, because these statutes are not enacted for the private delectation and consumption of hon. Members, but are designed to be read by large numbers of people, and it is not fair to subject them to the contortion of having to apply to other Acts of Parliament to discover what is really to happen.

I accept that on both sides of the House—and especially on this side—we look forward to a future in which, as with other parts of the United Kingdom, there will be devolution in Northern Ireland. We should look favourably upon anything in a statute that appears to assist or accelerate that development, but there is one fact about future devolution in Northern Ireland that I should have thought could be asserted without the slightest possibility of contradiction or rejection by any side in the political debate, and that is that when it does come about, as assuredly it will, it will not come about under the 1973 Act.

In fact, the Secretary of State himself candidly stated that shortly after he came to office he recognised that, to use the phrase of a former Prime Minister, the 1973 Act that had been bequeathed to him was a dead duck. The form in which this and other clauses are drafted does not even have the merit that we are able to say that perhaps one happy day it will happen that the clause as it is at present worded will apply. It simply is unrealistic—and I do not believe that this is a politically controversial statement—to go on drafting statutes in the terms of the 1973 Act.

We shall certainly support—and this was part of our debate at an early hour this morning—the desirability of preserving a certain continuity against the time when there is again whatever form of devolution there is to be in Northern Ireland. But that cannot be an excuse for writing into statutes procedures and terminology which we all know to be obsolete and permanently obsolete. I ask the Government to take that into account. I am asking them to take it into account in relation to the Bill. I am asking them to take that into account from now onwards in drafting statutes and Orders in Council applying to Northern Ireland.

As I resume my seat and place the amendment before the House, may I make one other observation about our proceedings today? One of the advantages of our bicameral system is that even at Report stage there can still usually be maintained the well understood co-operative relations between the opposite sides of the House whereby matters can be ventilated and without the Government indicating there and then their compliance and without the Government taking up a rigid position, nevertheless there is a stage out beyond when the matter can be dealt with again.

We are not, since this is a House of Lords Bill, to have that advantage in today's proceedings. Lest I should be thought to be calling in question the desirability of sharing the load of legislation between the two Houses—indeed I think that it is useful that appropriate statutes should first make their appearance in another place—I will add that circumstances would be different if, as on many other matters, Northern Ireland and the balance of opinion in Northern Ireland were represented by active members of another place. If that were so, there would be a common point of view taken in opposition by representatives of Northern Ireland in both Houses. As it is, however, we are effectively deprived —and certainly my hon. Friends and I will bear that in mind during today's proceedings—of an opportunity to look again.

I ask the Minister of State to accept that the clause ought to bear upon its face the statement of how it is really going to be operated. Whatever he says in reply to that. I ask him to give an indication that he has taken the principle on board for the future.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Roland Moyle)

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) would be more surprised than anybody—if possibly delighted—if I accepted the amendment. As he said towards the end of his comments, he was deploying a wide constitutional argument. We are proceeding within the 1973 situation as adapted by the 1974 Northern Ireland Act, which falls to be renewed. A wide range of powers have to be exercised in that way under a wide variety of legislative provisions.

The right hon. Gentleman will therefore agree that it would be inappropriate for the Government to accept an amendment which would make an exception in respect of a particular narrow and separate group of appointments to the Fair Employment Agency and the appeals board. Nevertheless, he deployed an interesting constitutional argument.

Whilst I do not accept as a general principle that lay people can be in a position to understand statutes without legal advice, I am fully seized of the point that, so far as we can, legislation should be simple and without unnecessary complications. That will be considered by my right hon. Friend generally, but there are many difficulties in these matters and I am giving no undertaking that we can meet the right hon. Gentleman on that point. We want to retain the Bill as it is without the amendment, for the reasons I have stated.

Despite the large number of amendments, I hope that at the end of the day the Bill will be well on its way to becoming an Act and applying to Northern Ireland. It is therefore important that the Fair Employment Agency has a chairman to start it on its way. To ease some of the doubts expressed, I can say that the Secretary of State has taken a keen personal interest in the matter and that, after surveying all the people available, we have decided to appoint Mr. Robert Cooper, the deputy leader of the Alliance Party at one time, as the new chairman of the agency. He will be regarded as an able person with many of the qualifications which are necessary for the job. I wish him well in the job, which I am sure he will do well. I understand that he is giving up political activity as a result of the appointment.

11.45 a.m.

Mr. Powell

Perhaps in the rather relaxed atmosphere of a Friday morning sitting I may be allowed to follow the Minister of State in his last announcement. It would not be right for personalities from outside the House—at any rate normally—to be canvassed in debate and that is not what I am intending to do. But I want to put on record an observation which I hope will carry the Government's approval.

Many of the institutions which we are setting up—and we set up another in the debate earlier today—will succeed, indeed, will avoid doing harm, only if they are above suspicion and if the motivation of those who operate them is regarded as unpolitical, unbiased and unprejudiced. It is a convention in our affairs in the United Kingdom as a whole that wherever those qualities are required we assume that they cannot be donned like a mantle immediately by a person after leaving political activity.

The Minister will be aware that there is often criticism that judicial and other appointments are made directly from political life and that there are certain conventions which are designed to interpose an airlock between political activity and service to the State which requires to be non-partisan. It is very difficult. if appointments are to be made direct from active political life, for that principle to be applied where it is especially important—in Northern Ireland.

Even if the individual concerned can succeed—and no doubt he would always try—in divesting his mind of all former forensic and other commitments, he will not be believed to have done so, and consequently motives will be attributed and interpretations placed upon the operations of the institution which may be quite baseless but which will be realities in their own right. All who have to do with Northern Ireland know how powerful is the sway of assumption about other people's motives.

I shall content myself with saying that the Minister of State must not assume that the sudden transfer from political life to a position such as that of chairman of the agency which the Bill sets up carries with it the approval of hon. Members on this side of the House, or is accepted as wise. We hope that in future, in balancing all the factors which he must balance, the Secretary of State will give more attention to the necessity of putting a dividing line between political life and other service to the State than he appears to have done in this case.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for having followed the Minister of State in perhaps somewhat broadening the ambit of the debate. In asking the leave of the House to withdraw the amendment, I note that the Minister of State included the plea which I made for future drafting changes among the many matters which his right hon. Friend would be considering in the context of the renewal of the powers under the 1974 Act. That is some little comfort, and upon that basis I beg to ask withdraw the amendment.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Woking-ham)


Mr. Speaker

If any hon. Member seeks to speak, it will not be possible to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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