HC Deb 08 April 1982 vol 21 cc1095-104

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gummer.]

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not require 45 minutes for my Adjournment debate. If it will be of assistance to the Leader of the Unionist Party I will be quite happy to begin at one o' clock to allow a little more time for other hon. Members.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. In the first few minutes of such a day the occupant of the Chair is, as a rule, playing with arithmetic and changing timetables. I will notify the House accordingly. I am sure that the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

10.49 am
Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for his generous offer.

The Floor of the House is not necessarily the best place for examining the details of the internal structures of Government Departments or even their day-to-day functioning. In any case, the House and the Northern Ireland Committee have directed their attention to the need for changes in the mechanisms. As a result, there has been some streamlining of Departments. The Under-Secretary of State played a notable part in bringing about those changes and in amalgamating some of the Departments, although there are further amalgamations to come.

It should follow that there would be an improvement in the political control of the machinery of government. However, there is still room for improvement in the political control and direction of Departments. The improvements should be a continuous operation. The remedy will not be found in a great leap or in a dramatic initiative. Out of courtesy to the Government, one cannot entirely ignore the ideas that they have put forward in what was intended to be a best-seller—the past week's discussion paper. I shall confine my references to two passages in that publication which bear on the subject of our debate.

The first passage is entitled: Scrutinising, Consultative and Deliberative Functions. It is clearly set out that any Assembly would be authorised to debate, vote and report on the administrative and other actions of the Departments. The Secretary of State would also ask the Assembly to consider and report on specific issues other than those contained within—as we would say in Northern Ireland—transferred subjects. We are assured that all reports of such deliberations will be laid before Parliament.

Hon. Members suffer because far too many reports are laid before them. Even the most diligent find it difficult to skim through—let alone consider and evaluate—more than one-tenth of the reports that descend upon them in an avalanche from statutory, semi-statutory and outside bodies, which have no connection with the House. The mere "laying before Parliament" is unlikely to make great impact on a Parliament that still governs all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

In what form will the reports be presented? They could be presented by means of a Stormont Hansard. However, the procedures of the former Stormont Hansard were very different from those at Westminster. I fear that the Stormont Hansard might lapse back into its old bad habit of recording every jeer and jibe that punctuated even the most constructive speeches. The very nature of those obscure interjections would render the whole account unintelligible to hon. Members, who would be expected to take note of what had been said some 400 miles away.

The alternative might be to produce a summary of each debate. Who would edit it? Would the edited version be generally accepted as accurate? I have merely illustrated the difficulties inherent in the scrutinising, consultative and deliberative functions. They would do nothing to improve the administrative functions of the Northern Ireland Department.

I turn to the other suggested advance and to the section of the White Paper entitled "Committees of the Assembly." The idea that they would be similar to those set out in the Convention report is a fallacy. Mentior of that report reminds us that the committee system envisaged in the report was designed to function on the assumption that there would be a Government based on the same Assembly as the committees and that the Assembly, Government or Executive and committees would interact and be co-ordinated. The present scheme's weakness is that the suggested committees would operate in a vacuum. Their reports would go to the Assembly and if—that is a curious conditional—sent to the Secretary of State, would be laid before Parliament to provide more light reading for hard-pressed hon. Members.

As the reports will generally contain material critical, to say the least, of the Government of the day, they would not—given human nature and the outlook and practice of Governments—be over anxious to publicise that light reading. Those disadvantages will be dwarfed by the pit into which the Government will fall. The committees will be linked to the Departments with the intention of improving the administration of Northern Ireland Departments but they will not only fail to take a grip on the administration and to improve it, but will prove to be a source of continual friction with central Government, as represented by the Secretary of State and his Ministers.

The Secretary of State and his Ministers cannot be summoned to appear before a committee. A committee considering how the administration of a Department might be improved would be unable to summon the Minister responsible—even if he was a junior Minister—before the committee and would also be unable to summon any civil servants in that Department. In the absence of a Cabinet or an Executive, the committees will more probably than not engage in open conflict with the United Kingdom Parliament—and not only with the Government—which will, in the long run, make the decisions.

If the proposal for a draft order is placed before a committee with nothing more to commend it than the explanatory document issued to up to 50 voluntary bodies and to those representing various interests, and if there is no Minister or civil servant from the Department to defend or clarify the proposal, the committee will rightly take the safe course and reject it in case it proves to be unpopular later. What will happen when the proposal comes be Fore the Northern Ireland Committee and is later debated on the Floor of the House? Will the Government decide that, although the Northern Ireland Assembly or one of its committees is opposed to the order, a three-line Whip should be applied to force it through? What will the Government's moral position be if they are seen by the world to be acting in defiance of the express wish and will of a freshly elected Assembly in Northern Ireland?

Such nightmares influenced many hon. Members—as you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker—during our lengthy debates on the Scotland Bill. I refer to the nightmare of a built-in recipe for conflict between two elected bodies; in this case, the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom and an elected Assembly and its committees.

I am grateful to those hon. Members who have attended the debate, although they do not have a duty to do so. I am also grateful to the two Ministers for their presence on the Front Bench. Those of us who are concerned with improving the administration of Northern Ireland Departments are duty bound to ask whether the so-called consultative process is of any value. Can it play any real part in the machinery of government? Alternatively, are we simply adding a fifth wheel to the coach? I have concentrated on the problems of the political control and direction of Government Departments during what is hopefully termed the first stage of the Government's suggested plans. I have deliberately done so because I do not believe that an Assembly will ever go beyond that stage.

I am not alone in holding that view. Virtually every party, newspaper and citizen believes that the suggested plan is unworkable. It is not a question—and this is unique—of various parties in Northern Ireland and in the House having reservations about some parts of the plan. It is not even a question of one party disliking the plan because it feels that the plan is weighted and biased against it. What the parties have in common, and virtually the only objection that they have voiced, is that the plan is unworkable. What astonishes many of us—and this has been reflected in various comments about the document by colleagues in the House and for publication—is that the Government are proceeding along these lines in defiance of the wishes of virtually every party in Northern Ireland, and of every item and element of the media in Northern Ireland which is giving expression to the views of the citizens.

In all conscience, the outline of the White Paper, which was leaked over a period of weeks, was improbable enough but any chance of its survival was destroyed by the authors of paragraph 30(c). This is relevant to today's debate. It states: The Assembly will also be asked to recommend to the Secretary of State arrangements under which the whole or part of the range of legislative and executive responsibilities previously transferred under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 could be exercised by the Assembly and by a devolved administration answerable to it. That same fatal requirement was also embodied in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention 1975, which was designed and introduced to improve the administration of the Northern Ireland Departments. It was charged with the same duty of reaching an agreement and then recommending to the Secretary of State what course of action he should take. That has been repeated in not dissimilar words in paragraph 30 of the White Paper.

The convention had the effect of forcing the parties to go to the electorate with manifestos that set out what each would demand if they were elected. It was not surprising that, following the elections, there were as many policies as there were parties, nor was it surprising that people wanted different and contradictory structures. I am tempted to conclude that the Northern Ireland Office was infiltrated by a saboteur who slipped paragraph 30 to the printers when no one was looking.

I turn to what I hope will be regarded as a constructive contribution to our deliberations in the next few critical weeks. The Secretary of State and his colleagues have wisely decided to seek the views and the advice of Parliament before going firm on legislation. We applaud the soundness of that decision which is in their interests, in our interest and in the national interest. They have recognised the magnitude of the events in the South Atlantic and have realised that British attitudes will never be the same again. During the last seven days the message has been loud and clear from both sides of the House that a simple desire to remain British is the only qualification to secure the protection of the Crown and Parliament. Gone for good is all talk of the Argentine dimension, the Spanish dimension and the Irish dimension. In this more wholesome atmosphere, the Official Unionists look forward to co-operating with fellow Members of the House in assisting the Government in designing sensible and workable methods of governing our part of the United Kingdom.

11.4 am

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

It is a matter of great regret to many Conservative Members that the Government have chosen yet again to sponsor a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Devolved government was not exactly a howling success when it was tried in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1972. That, at least, is what we have all been told by the very people who are now the protagonists of devolved government in Northern Ireland. We are told that the Stormont system is one to which we cannot return, yet it was a system of devolved government that lasted for 50 years.

As a concept, and as a system of government, devolution was rejected by the voters in the referendum in Wales and, to put it mildly, not endorsed by the voters in the referendum in Scotland. So why on earth have the Government, whom I regard as normally sensible, with a good idea of reality in British politics, resorted once again to this failed, unpopular and unworkable system as a supposed remedy for the ills of Northern Ireland? It is not possible to draw a line around Northern Ireland and say "For you, there will be a special system of government. You will have a different level of legislative action. Your politicians will be confined for the most part within the circle." If there is one part of the United Kingdom where such a remedy is bound to produce trouble, it is the part where communal tensions and sectarian differences are the greatest. A homogenous society could possibly work a system of regional devolution within the United Kingdom, but the society in Northern Ireland, by its very character, cannot possibly successfully work a system of devolved government.

Yet the alternative is there. It is plain to see. I fear that the reason why it has not been adopted is that the Government—again perhaps uncharacteristically—are not prepared to take the courageous way forward, because of criticism and opposition from the Irish Republic and from the United States. The alternative system for building up democracy in Northern Ireland—in so far as it is alleged that democracy is not at present complete in Northern Ireland—is to replace the upper tier of local government that was withdrawn during the constitutional reforms in the 1970s.

There should be a tier of local government equivalent to county councils in England and Wales and to regional authorities in Scotland. Why should there not be such a system of government in Northern Ireland? They are the proper bodies for politicians who seek to represent their people and to take decisions on their behalf. For those who aspire to membership of our national institutions and of the House they would be appropriate and serve as a training ground. There is a vacuum in Northern Ireland, which has been created by the Government's refusal to carry out the terms of their election manifesto, which virtually promised a system of local government based on regional councils. The manifesto said that one or more regional councils would be established. I regret that the Government have not been prepared to go ahead with that proposal.

We are told that the reason is opposition to the implementation of the proposal. That represents a disgraceful surrender to pressures from outside the United Kingdom. Today, when we are prepared to use force to preserve the right of 1,800 Britons to remain British in the Falkland Islands, we must re-examine the Northern Ireland position.

The problem appears to be that well over 1 million Britons—and the best of the Britons—want to stay British and yet this Government, I am ashamed to say, proposes for them a system which we all know will not work, but which is designed to lead the people in the long run to accept the idea that some form of association with the Irish Republic is desirable. It is not desirable. It is not consistent with the Government's firm and courageous stand on behalf of the rights of Britons in the Falkland Islands. Many more Britons are involved in Northern Ireland. It is right and democratic that their wishes be accepted. The Government should therefore abandon their silly plans for devolution.

11.11 am.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) talked of political realism. The tragedy is that we all think that we are political realists, but disagree about what the reality is. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that the previous form of government in Northern Ireland was not successful from 1922 onwards. That can lead one to different interpretations of political realism, one of which is that the nature of a political unit there might not be of a type that is stable and secure and might need to be changed in a fundamental way. That is one reason why the Labour Party concluded that a united Ireland, with consent, safeguards and a host of other securities, was the way forward.

Over the years I have tried hard to understand the Official Unionist Party's position, and I can appreciate its anxiety. The people of the United Kingdom as a whole will expect the parties in Northern Ireland to give a careful and constructive response to the Government's proposals. Nothing less should be given to them. I say openly and without hesitation that the proposals do not excite me massively, but nor do they particularly disappoint me. I do not think that they take us any further down the "United Ireland with consent road", along which I should like to travel, but nor do they take us in the opposite direction. The proposal is for a convalescence period for the body politic in Northern Ireland during which local politicians can begin to practise conventional, normal politics, which I assume underlies the Secretary of State's aims. The people of the United Kingdom as a whole would be disappointed and concerned if the people of Northern Ireland did not give a fair wind to that proposal.

Mr. Stanbrook

The hon. Gentleman speaks of conventional and normal politics. Is not conventional and normal politics in this country democratic politics? Does that not mean that the majority should rule, and is that not excluded by the proposal?

Mr. Soley

I do not think that it is excluded, but that depends upon one's definition of majority. The boundaries of Northern Ireland are not regarded by all parties as being designed to encourage and develop democracy. Thai is part of the problem. The hon. Gentleman understands that argument, although he might not agree with it.

11.15 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John Patten)

I welcome the opportunity to reply to the speech by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). He shares my unqualified admiration for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which has had a difficult task in the last 10 years of direct rule. Northern Ireland civil servants have conducted that task fairly and extremely well. Hon. Members have their own views about the giving of honours to civil servants, but Northern Ireland civil servants have earned their honours in the last 10 years.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South made a probing and wide-ranging speech. It was preparatory to the remarks that he will make on the debate on the White Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) made equally probing and questioning remarks. He has always had a coherent and highly developed view about what he believes should happen in Northern Ireland. I respect his view. It is logical, when based on the assumptions that he makes.

The Government have considered that view carefully but, regrettably from my hon. Friend's view, they have rejected it. The views of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Antrim, South will be taken into account by the Government in the coming weeks and months during the debates that we shall have. We shall hear again the voice of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) who has been translated from the Front Bench back to the Back Benches. His voice will be equally effective on the issue from wherever in the House it is heard.

It is important that the House should have the Bill in front of it when the debate on the White Paper takes place. Following his statement on the White Paper "Northern Ireland: A Framework For Devolution" on 5 April, the Secretary of State told the House that he would welcome a debate on the White Paper before we debate the Bill which gives effect to the Government's proposals. The necessary arrangements are being made.

My right hon. Friend also believes that since the Government's proposals on the devolution of powers require important amendments to existing legislation, it will be for the convenience of the House if the Bill is presented in the week following the Easter Recess so that it can be taken into account in the debate on the White Paper. There is no substitute for having the Bill in front of us in black and white so that we can make reasonable and reasoned remarks on the White Paper.

Mr. Molyneaux

What is the purpose of the debate on the White Paper and in what way can hon. Members influence the Government's thinking on the legislation if it is already in print?

Mr. Patten

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House much longer than I and has much greater experience, to which I defer. He knows how Bills are amended during their many stages. I have no doubt that that will happen to this Bill.

The hon. Member reminded us of the recent debate on the order which provides for the establishment of the new Department of Finance and Personnel. During that debate I made two points, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I resist the temptation to read from my speech, great though the pleasure would be for me. The first point that I made was that the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that the implementation of policies and the running of Government in the Province is as efficient and effective as possible during direct rule, for however long direct rule lasts. That is critically important.

The changes in departmental structure made on 1 April and changes in relation to the Departments of Commerce and Manpower Services which are the subject of consideration in the House, are designed to try to promote more effective administration.

I am sure that every hon. Member would like to share in reaching the goal of more effective administration and better resource allocation. I hope that that feeling will be shared by members of a Northern Ireland assembly, should the House decide that such an assembly be set up.

The second point that I made during that debate was that the Government had no wish to see direct rule continue indefinitely. That is clear and it has been reiterated time and again by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The publication of the White Paper on Monday underlines the earnest wish of the Government to find ways to make it possible to transfer to the people of Northern Ireland greater responsibility for their own affairs and greater power over their own affairs. I shall search through my papers, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) did through his in yesterday's debate, to find what my right hon. Friend said in his statement. It was as follows: The proposals in the White Paper are fair and flexible. Like all proposals for Northern Ireland they involve risk and controversy. The Government in no way underestimate the magnitude of the task or the strains any proposals will have to bear. But they also offer an opportunity which, with time, and patience and the continued commitment and good will of Parliament, may be exploited to the advantage and relief of all the people of Northern Ireland".—[Official Report, 5 April 1982; Vol. 21, c. 693.] I hope that that may be so. In the meantime, the Government are continuing the process of refining the structure of Departments in the Province so that better government can continue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins), when Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about 18 months ago started determined to ensure that he made a provision in the government of the Province for better government there. Of the many monuments that my right hon. Friend left, such as his triumph over electricity prices and the electricity tariff in the Province, the process of the amalgamation and refining of Departments will be recognised for many years.

That is all that I wish to say about the present situation of the Departments in Northen Ireland. I entirely recognise that as we have introduced the White Paper and as we are soon to present a Bill, it was proper for the hon. Member for Antrim, South, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North to ask about what might happen to Northern Ireland Departments should there be rolling devolution, partial devolution or full devolution.

To a certain extent the questions that were raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, South were hypothetical, but probing. I hope that it will be appreciated that to a certain extent my answers must be hypothetical. This is not a full dress debate on a White Paper. I do not have a great deal of time in which to attempt to answer all the questions that were raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington. Of course, we shall take note of what has been said in the debate today. It is important for everyone in the House to set any analysis of the points raised so cogently by the hon. Gentleman against the present position in Northern Ireland Departments.

The Northen Ireland Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Environment, Finance and Personnel, Health and Social Services and Manpower Services administer those matters which under the Constitution Act 1973 are neither excepted nor reserved. Hon. Members who are expert in the government of the Province will realise what those terms mean. In other words, the Departments look after all transferred matters.

Under direct rule, the system under which we are working at the moment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is responsible to Parliament for the efficient conduct of government by all those Northern Ireland Departments. However, what happens in practice is probably familiar to hon. Members. My right hon. Friend delegates responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the Departments to junior Ministers. An important analogy can be drawn between that and what might happen under partial or full devolution. The Minsters in their turn represent the interests of their Departments to the Secretary of State.

The tradition of devolved government in the Province is still sufficiently strong for the staff of any Department and for the Northern Ireland public to look upon the appropriate junior Minister as the Minister responsible for that Department's functions. Although in strict constitutional terms that is a fantasy, it has worked extremely well in practice, although it has no firmly grounded statutory basis. It has worked out in that way because of the way in which Members of Parliament and the public have chosen to treat junior Ministers and the way in which Departments have responded to the set-up with which they have had to deal over the past 10 years.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South reasonably asked what would happen under the constitutional proposals. Following the election to an assembly, should an election take place, which it is up to the House to determine, the Northern Ireland assembly will monitor and report on the policies and activities of Northern Ireland Departments.

Prior to any devolution an elected assembly, for the first time for many years, will have the opportunity to influence and monitor directly Northern Ireland Departments.

I understand that it has been frustrating for the 12 Members of Parliament representing the Province not to have a greater say and influence other than that which they gain through writing letters to and seeing Ministers in the Province and raising questions in the House. For the first time for many years, the Northern Ireland assembly, should it be set up, will have an opportunity to influence and monitor the Northern Ireland Departments.

A requirement will be laid upon the assembly to establish individual committees that correspond to each of the Northern Ireland Departments. The purpose of the committees will be to enable the 78 assembly members to monitor and scrutinise the work of the Departments, to influence the development of policy and to question priorities, expenditure and all the issues of Government.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South raised the important issue of the relationship between the reports arising from the committees and their being laid in the House. The reports from the committees will go to the assembly. If the assembly decides that they go forward, it is entirely up to the assembly whether those reports should be sent to the Secretary of State. It is within the assembly's remit, under the terms that we hope to bring forward, to send the reports to the Secretary of State. If the reports are sent to the Secretary of State they will be laid at Westminster, among all the other reports and papers that are endlessly laid at Westminster and which cause us considerable problems in determining and examining them.

Ministers responsible to Parliament will not sit in the assembly, but assembly Departmental committees will be able to discuss Departmental issues with Ministers. They will be able to discuss issues represented to Ministers with Ministers and also perhaps with officials. They might invite Departments to provide information.

We have all seen the growth of the power and standing of the new Select Committees in the House. While there is not an exact analogy between the Select Committees and the committees of the assembly, that is one way in which the committees of the assembly could develop. We hope that positively in the first stage, should the assembly be set up, that is precisely how they will develop. To be frank, as someone who was not born or brought up and who is not resident in the Province, I would welcome such a probing analysis by assembly committees over areas for which I am responsible. I am certain that that would help to make Ministers as responsive to local opinion as possible.

The assembly will not have a formal power to summon Ministers responsible to Parliament or their officials. It will not necessarily have access as of right to Departmental papers. However, I believe that in practice Ministers will co-operate closely with the assembly and with its committees. There is no question of starving the committees of the information that they will need to do their work properly.

In conclusion, I apologise to the hon. Member for Antrim, South for the fact that I have not had time to answer the other major points that he put forward. I know that this subject is one to which he and other hon. Members will return, to probe and question in debates on the White Paper and in subsequent debates. I look forward to those debates, all the more so because I know that they will be conducted in the same moderate and probing way as this morning's debate.