HC Deb 08 June 1982 vol 25 cc37-101

Considered in Committee [Progress, 27 May].

[Mr. Bernard Weatherill in the Chair]

4.40 pm
Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. You may remember that on Thursday 27 May my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) made the helpful suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should make available the notes on clauses. You may remember, also, that later during that interesting evening I had the misfortune to suffer your displeasure when I suggested how the notes might be made available.

My right hon. Friend said that he would make the notes available on application. I suggested how the notes might be made available and, sadly, Mr. Weatherill, that incurred your wrath. Unhappily, my right hon. Friend did not say to whom the application was to be made. The matter was left somewhat vague, and I assumed that the notes on clauses would be deposited in the Vote Office and that all those who wished to avail themselves of the wisdom of the notes would have to go there to collect them.

I have been twice to the Vote Office—once this morning and once this afternoon—and it appears that the notes are not available there. This is an important constitutional issue and I imagine that many right hon. and hon. Members will wish to have the notes. My right hon. Friend might have meant that if we made an application to him or to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten), the gentleman with the double first, we would be allowed to have the notes. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be good enough to explain the procedure.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. On 27 May my right hon. Friend said: In the interests of progress and because I should like the Committee to be as well informed as possible, if hon. Members request that the notes be made available to them, I am prepared, on application, to see that they are made available."—[Official Report, 27 May 1982; Vol. 24, c. 1141.] A number of right hon. and hon. Members have made application to my right hon. Friend and they have been supplied with the notes on clauses. Should my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) be content to make an application to my right hon. Friend, he will ensure that my hon. Friend has the notes on clauses as quickly as possible.

Mr. Budgen

Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend did not say, as is clear from the passage in the Official Report "on application to him". He did not specify to whom the application should be made. If the application has to be made to him, no doubt he will receive about 630 applications, but he may prefer to deal with the issue more impersonally.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) will not think that I am accusing him of being ungracious. However, I think that it was exceedingly helpful of the Northern Ireland Office, or the Minister speaking for the Northern Ireland Office, to say that notes would be made available to hon. Members who are interested in the subject and are taking part in the debates. I do not think that this is always done, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a useful offer. Now that we know that we may make application to him, I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will take advantage of the offer. I express my gratitude to him for what he has done.

Several Hon. Members


The Chairman

Order. I do not think that any further points of order arise on this issue. This is not a matter for the Chair. The Minister has given an explanation and I think that we can leave it at that.

4.45 pm
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Weatherill. This morning I went to the Vote Office to try to obtain a copy of the notes on clauses, but was unable to get one. I then went to the Library, which had a copy and which I managed to photograph. Eventually I managed to get a copy from the Northern Ireland Office. The notes consist of about 50 foolscap pages of close typescript. They are of such value and importance that they should be made more generally available. Some of us were lucky enough to be in the Chamber on Thursday night when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us how we could get copies of the notes, but the majority of our colleagues were not present. Normally we go to the Vote Office for documents of this nature. I suggest that it would help the Committee's proceedings if this extremely valuable document were to be made more easily available.

The Chairman

I am sure that that has been noted.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. You will recall that at 10 o'clock on 27 May a business motion was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), and that there was a Division. The Official Report tells us that 76 Members voted in favour of the motion and that 208 voted against it. I was not in the Chamber when the result of the Division was declared, but it appears from the Official Report that the Noes won. Therefore, I am left wondering why the proceedings continued. Perhaps you will be able to inform me, Mr. Weatherill, that an error has been made and that it will be corrected in the Official Report.

The Chairman

The misprint has been noted and it will be corrected in the bound volume.

Mr. Farr

On another point of order, Mr. Weatherill. An important announcement was made this morning, and it is possible that it escaped your notice. It related to the number of Members who will constitute the Assembly if and when it is established. The announcement related directly to paragraph II of schedule 2. The Bill specifies that the Assembly will consist of 78 Members. However, I understand that the Press Association newssheet announced that there would be 85 Members. I gather that that is not generally known.

That announcement will make a considerable difference to our consideration of the Bill, especially the clauses that deal with the size of the Assembly and how its Members are to be drawn. It will be helpful if my right hon. Friend will make a statement. Are we proceeding with a Bill that is incorrect in stating that the Assembly will consist of 78 Members, bearing in mind that at 11 o'clock this morning the Press Association told us that the Assembly would consist of 85 members? It is unfair to expect the Committee to proceed in the dark.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James Prior)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I shall try to help my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who has raised a point of order on a proposal which I understand the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland is making in response to various proposals and objections which have been made to its proposals.

There is a further month during which the present proposal of 85 seats will be considered by objectors and others before the Boundary Commission makes its final decision. As I said to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on a previous occasion, no firm decision has yet been taken on whether the Assembly elections will be based on 17 constituencies or 12 constituencies. As this is an issue that is relevant to a later part of the Bill, I think that it will be better to leave the matter there. The Boundary Commission's proposal will have to be considered in the normal course of events, and not by the Committee at this stage. Therefore, it would be better to wait until we come to the schedule which deals with the matter, by which time the Government will be able to make a statement.

Mr. Budgen

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. May I suggest that when it is expected that there will be substantial changes to the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should announce them as soon as he knows they are likely to occur? The charm of the Bill lies in its imprecision. It can be supported by those who, like the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), hope to witness a united Ireland by consent. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has not voted against it yet, but may do so in future.

The Bill can also be supported, at least temporarily, by those who want a return to some form of Stormont. Each time there is a change, the delightful imprecise balance is upset. An element of support may be bought, but another element of support is lost. It is important that the Committee knows in advance of any change in the balance of this interestingly vague proposal.

I respectfully suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should adopt the following procedure. At the beginning of each day he should announce whether there is to be a change. If he does not, we shall face the difficulty to which I referred in relation to new clause 4. As I said then, a major concession may be made unexpectedly which, if it had been known earlier, might have changed markedly the attitude of many right hon. and hon. Members to the Bill. It is pure accident that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) happened to see the new proposal on the tape and to raise the issue.

The Chairman

Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman there. It is a proposal, and we can deal only with amendments as they are tabled.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill, and with specific reference to the intervention of the Secretary of State. He was extremely helpful, not only in his earlier remarks, to which he referred, but with regard to what he has said today. It seems to me that there is a chronological problem, which perhaps I might put briefly. Perhaps the Secretary of State will, within the terms of the point of order, be able to clear up the matter.

As the Secretary of State said, it will be a month from today or yesterday before the Boundary Commission is ready to come to a conclusion and report to him. We all know that, by statute, as soon as the Secretary of State receives a Boundary Commission report—I think that this refers to parliamentary rather than to Assembly seats, but the Secretary of State can put me right—he is obliged forthwith to lay an order before the House embodying the recommendations of the report.

My difficulty, and I believe that of the Committee, is that it is not easy to see how the timing will work in with the proceedings of the Committee. The Secretary of State has candidly said—one should be grateful for this—that he and the Government are keeping an open mind about whether they will adopt what many of us believe is a more reasonable course., which is to follow the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, which involves an 85-seat Assembly—five seats for each of the 17 parliamentary constituencies.

My difficulty is to see how the necessary amendments can be made in the event of the right hon. Gentleman taking that decision. He has admitted and volunteered that he mind is open. Many of us would regard that as the right decision. But how can he amend the Bill in the way that would then be required, without the Boundary Commission having reported and without the House having statutorily approved the Boundary Commission's report?

It is difficult to see how that could be earlier than the second half of next month. Therefore, by the very candour with which the right hon. Gentleman has referred to the matter, he has raised a problem. It will not affect only us. It will affect many others. I hope that he will feel able to say something to clear up that matter.

Mr. Prior

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I am not able to clear up all the difficulties today, because I have myself only just seen the release on the tape about the Boundary Commission's suggestion. One of the factors that must be taken into account with regard to timing is whether it would give sufficient time for the parties, let alone the electoral officers and so on, to make the fresh constituency arrangements that would be necessary to follow 17 from having constituencies, with five Members for each.

I shall consider the matter during the next 24 hours and try to give a more precise report to the Committee, perhaps at the start of tomorrow's business. In view of that, I hope that we can now proceed with today's business.

Several Hon. Members


The Chairman

Order. The Committee has heard what the Secretary of State has had to say on the matter. I do not think that any further points of order can arise on it.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. It may be of some help to the Secretary of State if I provide him with a transcript of the notice that was issued yesterday by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman accurately said that he understood that the commission had issued a statement. He confirmed that later by saying that he had not seen the statement.

Perhaps hon. Members on this Bench can help by drawing the attention of the Chair and the right hon. Gentleman to the final line. It says: One month is allowed for further representations. The commission will then decide whether to make further changes. It is not merely a question of one month, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) referred. There is a prospect that representations will be made on the statement that was made yesterday. There was an embargo until 1 o'clock, which, for once, the press and the Department seem to have respected. It may be that further representations will be made about the allocation of seats and that other changes could be made, thus producing further delay.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I earnestly wish to assist the Secretary of State in the problem that he now faces. In doing so I refer to new clause 10, and amendment No. 88, which I drafted after discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends to meet this very point—with great prescience, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) kindly implies.

If one expects that the constituencies of any Assembly will be based on parliamentary constituencies, and if one expects, as do I, that the Bill will not be passed during this Session anyway, but possibly in the future when the new 17 constituencies for Northern Ireland have been created, we shall have to take account of those 17 constituencies rather than the existing 12.

I should like to know how one can take account of the amendment that will be necessary to new clause 10, which proposes to alter the figure of 78 to 68, to take account of the extra members for each of the 17 constituencies. Now that the Government, or the Boundary Commission, have sensibly suggested five Members for each of the 17 constituencies, thereby anticipating, as I did, that the proposal will not be brought into force this year, presumably new clause 10 and amendment No. 88 will likewise have to be amended.

May I take it that I may leave amendment No. 88, which provides for the number of seats in each constituency to be the same, except that it will need to be amended from four to five, and that a manuscript amendment might be made to new clause 10 to substitute the figure of 85 for 78?

The Chairman

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would wait on new clause 10, as I have not yet had the opportunity to consider whether it should be selected. The hon. Gentleman wishes to be helpful to me. I assure him that I shall be helpful to him and will give the matter great consideration. However, it does not arise on amendment No. 2.

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