HC Deb 15 June 1982 vol 25 cc796-810
Mr. Farr

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Before the Committee moves on to discuss the next two amendments that have been scheduled for selection, could you guide the Committee? Amendment No. 103 in my name and amendment (a) to that have been selected for discussion whereas amendment No. 137 tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) and myself is not selected for discussion. That latter amendment relates to a five-year period. The main two amendments that relate to a 10-year period and a two-year period have been selected. Is it possible for us to refer, en passant, to the five-year amendment though that has not been officially selected?

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Your ruling will be keenly awaited as it appears to be a point of great curiosity and, possibly, of important precedent. You have been good enough to select the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) and myself that seeks to leave out "ten" and insert "two". That raises the question whether an hon. Member would have a better chance of his amendment being selected and being able to address the Committee if he amended his own amendment rather than tabled another amendment parallel with it. It could be argued that our procedure is deficient in the inadequate opportunities it allows to an individual Member to display an array of alternatives between which the Committee would have the opportunity of choosing. You might, in your wisdom, either consider that the hon. Member should have been advised to amend his own amendment or you might be able to bring it within your discretion to regard his substantive amendment No. 137 as being, in effect, an amendment to his amendment. I hope that that further submission will not be taken. Mr. Weatherill, as a sign of ingratitude or dissatisfaction at your eye having fallen favourably on amendment (a).

8.45 pm
Mr. Farr

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I tabled the amendment suggesting a 10-year period but after consultation with colleagues I was told that it might be thought to be a wrecking amendment. Nothing is further from the truth. On second thoughts I decided that I had another string to my bow and I tabled the "five years" amendment as an alternative that might be more acceptable to the Chair.

The Chairman

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for explaining in that way. I have selected amendment No. 103 and amendment (a) to it. I have not selected amendment No. 137, but it will be in order to refer to five years or any other period which hon. Members believe to be appropriate.

Mr. Lawrence

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Can you advise us further about the right of Back Benchers to guard themselves against premature closure by executive action? I make no complaint that the closure on the last debate was premature. I should have been pleased to speak, although I did not rise to my feet.

On the last two occasions, the tendency has been to move the closure with speed in the early hours. On one occasion I rose in an effort to clarify the rights of Back Benchers. The other night you said that to suggest that the Patronage Secretary was about to apply to close the debate was a hypothetical point. I sat down, the closure was moved and it was too late to raise a point of order.

This evening, Mr. Weatherill, you have added a gloss to the concept of the hypothetical point of order because you told my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who complained about a premature closure, that the question was not as hypothetical as it was last time. It would assist if you could explain whether that is a refinement upon the concept. If it is, it has the practical effect that there may be a moment in time that did not exist the other night, when a Back Bencher can get to his feet, raise a point of order and make an effort to forestall the premature closure of a debate.

I understood you to say the other night, Mr. Weatherill, that there was no moment of time between a hypothetical application and the moving of a closure. Tonight you appear to be saying that the concept is not as hypothetical as it was last time.

The Chairman

I am bound by the Standing Orders. If the hon. Member refers to Standing Order No. 30 he will see the exact position. Whether a closure is approved is a matter for the Committee. I do not decide. I put the matter to the Committee and the Committee decides.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

On a point of order, Mr. Weatherill. Can you confirm that it will be possible to have Divisions on both amendment No. 103 and amendment (a)? If it should be the desire of the Committee, having had a full debate on the amendment to the amendment, that there should be a vote on the Question being put, in the event that we then vote on amendment (a), do I assume that it would be possible for the Committee to return to discussing the substantive amendment No. 103 and that, in the event that we debate the substantive amendment, it might then be necessary for the Patronage Secretary, if he should so desire, to move a separate closure motion?

The Chairman

Let me clear up this matter. There can arise two votes on amendment No. 103 and amendment (a) to that amendment. I shall call the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) to move his amendment. Then I shall call the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) to move his amendment to the amendment. When that is done, the debate will then take place on the amendment to the amendment. The subsequent vote will take place on that. If that succeeds, that amendment is made. If it falls, then we may have a vote on amendment No. 103.

Mr. Brown

Further to that point of order, Mr. Weatherill. I follow your guidance so far but, as I understand it, we then return to a possible debate on amendment No. 103. If it should be the view of the Patronage Secretary or anyone else in the Committee, that we have had sufficient debate on both amendment No. 103 and amendment (a), will it be necessary before we proceed to a second vote on amendment No. 103, for a second closure motion to be moved, if the Committee has debated both amendments in the same debate?

The Chairman

A further debate will not arise. As the hon. Member will see, the amendments are bracketed. Separate votes may take place but not separate debates.

Mr. Farr

I beg to move amendment No. 103, in page 6, line 11, leave out 'one year' and insert 'ten years'.

The purpose of the amendment is to bring some stability to the Province in the event of the occurrence mentioned in paragraph 1(b) of schedule 1, which provides that if an order for devolution has to be revoked, direct rule and the interim period will run again for one year, starting from the date of revocation, and will then again be subject to annual renewal under section 1(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1974. As the schedule stands, if there is to be possibly an annual re-run of the procedure, I do not believe that that will be anything other than conducive to considerable political and social unrest.

My right hon. Friend has repeatedly said—he said it again today several times—that the political situation in Northern Ireland is tender. Nothing is more likely to aggravate or inflame it than the lack of some form of stability of the type suggested in the amendment. I referred earlier to amendment No. 137 in my name which suggested five years instead of one year. That amendment was not selected for debate, but I was glad to have the assurance of the Chair that I could refer to it. Perhaps a five-year period from the point of view of the Secretary of State would be preferable to a 10-year period. The reason I have suggested the 10-year period is that, if one is sure that there will be another upheaval in less than a decade, it can only be conducive to social and political unrest and not to good and sound government. What we want to ensure is that the Government stop playing shuttlecock and battledore with Northern Ireland. Having a 10-year period instead of one year will introduce far greater stability.

I can imagine nothing worse for the Department concerned, for its efficiency or for morale, than to be subjected to the risk of having its role changed rapidly from year to year. Nobody who is not a Member for Northern Ireland has a greater admiration than I for the civil servants in Northern Ireland. The departmental civil servants in Northern Ireland—and I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary nodding assent—have done a splendid job in adverse conditions. To put it mildly, they do not have the public support, either in or out of the House, that they should have. The role of civil servants is one that I have always admired, but especially in Northern Ireland. The Committee should appreciate how difficult their task has been.

I can imagine nothing that any Government could do which would be more conducive to uncertainty and unrest in the renowned Civil Service in Belfast and elsewhere than the uncertainty caused by the possibility of an annual change. That is why my amendment seeks to ensure that, if this event comes about, it takes effect for 10 years rather than for one year.

There has been tabled an amendment to my amendment proposing that the period should be for two years instead of 10. I shall listen very carefully to the arguments adduced in favour of that amendment, but I do not think that a period of two years will provide the stability that I feel is needed.

I think I am right in saying that the Secretary of State has not yet accepted an amendment from the Government side of the Committee, but let us suppose that he accepts this amendment, as I hope he will after he has heard the argument. In that 10-year period of stability we could be quietly working towards a more acceptable system of devolved government. By that I mean that instead of having a devolved Assembly we could be working more towards an Assembly based on the local government or county council principle such as exists in England and Wales, and akin to similar institutions in Scotland. A 10-year breathing space would allow the Government to see whether it would be more appropriate for the next transfer to be made to an Assembly along the lines of a county council in England and Wales.

The Secretary of State's acceptance of my simple amendment would not only provide the return of direct rule but, in the decade of direct rule, the Government would have a chance to have a second look at the setting up of the Assembly to see whether it should be run on local authority lines as elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

9 pm

Mr. Body

I put my name to the amendment proposing a five-year period. Does my hon. Friend agree that if one were to vote for the amendment for a 10-year period, direct rule need not necessarily continue for 10 years? Would it not be possible within that period, once some settlement were reached, for the period to be reduced to five years if the House had the will to do so?

Mr. Farr

My hon. Friend is always cogent in such discussions, and I hope that he is successful later in catching your eye, Mr. Dean.

I should not like to put forward tonight the argument that five years is better than 10. Although we have the latitude to discuss 10, five or two years, I think that the 10-year period is best.

One reason why a 10-year period is better than a five or two-year period is that it gives a real chance for the Secretary of State and the Government to rethink the role that a devolved Assembly will play. There is a sizeable body of opinion in the Committee that thinks that the Government are wrong. It is fearful of the effect that the setting up of the type of devolved Assembly that my right hon. Friend seeks under the Bill will have on the unity of the United Kingdom.

We hope and trust that in such a 10-year standstill period, with public opinion turning more to our side than it is today, my right hon. Friend, or whoever takes his place in the Northern Ireland office—not my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten), the Under-Secretary; his chances of succeeding are remote if he continues to persist with the Bill—will be better able to reflect in that 10-year period what the unity of the United Kingdom needs and, perhaps more importantly, what Northern Ireland needs.

A 10-year period will give an opportunity to consider how the role of county councils in England and Wales can be applied to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. The population in Northern Ireland on 30 June 1980 was 1,547,000. Those people will have between 78 and 85 elected Members of the Assembly. That is only slightly different from a county council in England and Wales.

For example, Staffordshire, with a population of 999,900, has 82 councillors. That is somewhere between the 78 and 85 of the new Ulster Assembly. I shall pick one or two out of a whole range of county councils which have between 78 and 85 councillors. They include Bedfordshire, with a population of nearly half a million, Derbyshire with a population of nearly 900,000, Suffolk with a population of 597,000, and West Sussex with a population of 643,000. Those five county councils—

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is going rather wide. This is a fairly narrow debate. We are dealing with the period of time, and the hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to that subject. At present, he is going much wider than that.

Mr. Farr

Perhaps I might go a little further, Mr. Dean, and you will then realise that my remarks relate closely to the amendment. I am saying that it is essential to have this 10-year standstill so that a proper period of reflection can take place to see whether the Assembly in Northern Ireland should not be run more on the lines of a county council, or a Scottish council, than as a devolved Assembly as proposed in the Bill. I was seeking to point out that many county councils in England and Wales, with a population of a little less than Northern Ireland, have the same number of county councillors.

The question whether the number of Assembly Members would have to remain between 78 and 85 would be considered during the 10-year period. During the decade that I seek to include in the Bill, I know that representations will be made from Northern Ireland—the point has already been made to me—that there should be more Members of the Assembly than the 78 to 85 that are proposed. As I said earlier, Staffordshire, with a population of almost 1 million, has 82 county councillors, while Northern Ireland, with a population of roughly 1½ million, is to have 78 to 85 Assembly Members. I have been informed that during the 10-year period there would be pressure from many people in Northern Ireland to have the Assembly running on county council lines, and its membership increased from 78 to 85 to over 100. That is not to say that there is any particular ratio, even after local government reorganisation in 1974 in England and Wales, of population to councillors. Before reorganisation, the county council of Rutland, with a population of only 30,000, had 28 councillors.

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I am finding it difficult to relate the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the amendment. I see that he wishes to draw some analogies, but they must be strictly related to the time factor, which is the subject of the amendment.

Mr. Farr

I was about to say that I regard this 10-year period as essential so that the alternatives can be properly explored. I was touching, probably incorrectly, on an alternative form of Assembly duty, which many of us on these Benches would like to see brought into effect, instead of the Assembly duties which are at present proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Molyneaux

The hon. Gentleman has rightly given a great deal of consideration to what might happen during the 10-year period. Has he taken fully into account the fact that the population in Northern Ireland increases more rapidly than that in Great Britain. Therefore, the ratio of Member to population would change as the years passed. If it were necessary to reactivate the Assembly after seven years and if the 70 per cent. requirement could be cobbled together, would the hon. Gentleman suggest that there should be some mechanism for reviewing the number of Members after that period?

The Second Deputy Chairman

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted down that road. I have already ruled that those sorts of argument are well outside the scope of the debate, which is strictly related to the time factor.

Mr. Farr

I have the greatest possible respect for your rulings in all circumstances, Mr. Dean, but it is impossible to talk only about the time factor without endeavouring to place before the Committee what one will do with the gained nine years. I do not think that a year is sufficient. That is why the amendment has been tabled. I am endeavouring to explain to the Committee what will happen in that nine-year period and what I believe should happen.

I hope that a realisation will develop that a form of county council government is particularly suited to Northern Ireland rather than the present form of devolved Assembly. One would then have the opportunity of examining the duties and responsibilities of county councils in England and Wales. Most county councils in England and Wales have the type of duties that should be discharged by an Assembly in Northern Ireland. They are responsible for planning, transportation, museums and art galleries, housing—there is the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland—highways, traffic and parking, road safety, environmental health, animal diseases, the police—that is excluded for Northern Ireland—the fire service, leisure services and the airports.

I should like to see greater use made of that 10-year period so that it can be ascertained whether the form of Government proposed is the right one or whether there is not an alternative which would be more suitable and more satisfactory for the Province.

Another reason why I particularly believe that the 10-year period is appropriate relates to the figure in the Bill of 70 per cent. A 10-year period will give a chance for reflection. Any new Bill which might be introduced after that period could provide for a simple majority rather than for 70 per cent. It is the normal procedure in a democratic Assembly, including our own, that a simple majority should apply. In democratic countries where there is a written constitution, it is only on constitutional matters that a certain figure above 50 per cent. is required to settle a decision.

In the constitution of Zimbabwe which was drawn up in Westminster there is a requirement that a certain number of votes should approve any measure to amend the constitution. That is an example where more than 50 per cent. is required. During these 10 years it will be appropriate to consider how the Bill can be approved. I paid tribute earlier to the civil servants of Northern Ireland and I referred to the difficulty that they will have in continuing to carry out their duties properly and effectively against a background of possible change from one year's end to another.

9.15 pm

It seems strange that we should be seeking to provide the Assembly proceedings with the requirement of a 70 per cent. majority or 70 per cent. approval. If we pitch the figure as high as that the result might be exasperation, possibly with results that will be regretted. If the requirement is a majority greater than 70 per cent. it will be difficult to get an agreement—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman is again reverting to debates that we had on clause 2. We are now dealing with the schedule accompanying clause 2. This is a narrow amendment that relates to a certain period. If the order is revoked, that period will run again for one year. The hon. Gentleman is proposing to substitute 10 years. This is a comparatively narrow issue and it is an abuse of the procedures of the House of Commons, and of rulings that I have already given, to revert to the merits of the case, which were discussed during debates on clause 2.

Mr. Farr

Of course, Mr. Dean, I accept your ruling, but I am seeking to emphasise that if the 10-year provision is accepted by my right hon. Friend it will provide the Government with a breathing space in which they can see where they are going in Northern Ireland. I must endeavour briefly to point out in my few remarks the alternative to the deplorable course that is outlined in the Bill, which the Government could pursue to their advantage. As I tried to explain earlier, it is difficult for me merely to say "It should be 10 years" and to deal with the matter on only a numerical basis. I must endeavour to explain to the Committee how the gain of nine years would be utilised and for what purpose it would be utilised. I think that I am right to seek to explain the purpose that I should like to see the nine years put to, and the outcome that I hope will result from having 10 years in which to reflect.

I feel certain that the Government have this Bill wrong. If they are to press on with it and the eventuality to which I am referring comes about, at least we shall have the assured stability of 10 years of direct rule without interruption if the amendment is accepted. That will enable the Government of the day and all those who advise the Government to come to a conclusion on the future course for Northern Ireland. That is why it is essential, even if we touch upon it only briefly, to discuss the options that I should like to see considered by the Government when they come to make up their minds about the future.

My right hon. Friend has made continual references to the way in which he takes advice and to how he will make up his mind. My point is related more to clause 1(4) (b), which refers to the Secretary of State making up his mind about whether such a proposal commands the support of the majority.

With the 10-year period we could enshrine in an amending Bill, if not in the present one, some guidance to the Secretary of State about how he should make up his mind. He has told us from time to time in Committee that he takes this and that advice. When he is pressed to describe more exactly what guidance he seeks, he tells us that he is informed by representatives of political parties, political leaders, civil servants and so on. It is vital to know how the Secretary of State makes up his mind. It is not enough to rely upon his replies to interventions.

I hope that in a 10-year period there could be laid down some form of guidance by which the Secretary of State should take advice when considering such legislation. I see no reason why his taking advice should be secret. I am sure that hon. Members, especially those from Northern Ireland, have determined views about whom he should and should not go to for advice. The utilisation of a 10-year period is vital to the present Bill and any subsequent legislation.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I had not intended to do so. I have listened carefully to the argument that he has clearly set out. However, amendment No. 103 would not preclude either full or partial devolution taking place at any time in the 10-year period. It would simply not require an annual review of direct rule. It simply substitutes renewal every 10, or perhaps two, years. As drafted it could not preclude either full or partial devolution during the 10-year period.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am aware of that. I am trying to secure the definite stability of 10 years' direct rule. Much could happen in 10 years. The Secretary of State could lay before the House some guideline about how he forms his opinion. We could debate that. The Bill takes its precedent from previous Northern Ireland legislation. As drafted, the Bill is lax. It allows the Secretary of State to seek an opinion and take the temperature. The House should guide him more on how he takes the temperature. The House should guide him about to whom he goes For advice. We should also guide him about whom he should not go to for advice.

I therefore hope that in the 10-year period that improvement will be made to the present system. It will provide not merely a period of stability of direct rule but a time for reflection on whether this form of devolved Government is correct, or whether something more akin to that of the local authorities of England and Wales, particularly the county councils, would be preferable. It will also enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or his successor to ascertain whether there is a fairer and better way to be approved by the House of Commons, and to state clearly how he could, in an approved manner, ascertain the views of the population in Northern Ireland.

We must bear in mind that at present my right hon. Friend has considerable powers to use his discretion. I do not believe for one moment that he would misuse those powers. I have every confidence in him. Nevertheless, the matter is of such critical importance that the Committee should know exactly whom he is being advised to see and to consult in Northern Ireland. Indeed, does he take opinions outside Northern Ireland? Is he forbidden to take opinions, say, from Dublin? I do not know. There may be no reason why he should not do so. Nevertheless, in matters of such critical importance the guidelines should be fully discussed and approved by the House.

I hope that those matters can be ironed out during the 10-year standstill period of direct rule.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Minister is quite right that, even if the amendment were accepted, direct rule could be ended and some kind of devolution introduced, literally at the stroke of a pen? Does he also agree, however, that the same is true of the present annual system of renewal? Each time we provide that it is only for one year and say that in the interval we may invent something else and come back to the House for authorisation. But no one in his heart of hearts really believes that. At the end of June each year we go through something of a charade when we say that we are renewing the powers for a further year but that it is for the last time and perhaps, even before the 12 months are up, there will be something new. As the hon. Gentleman will know from my amendment, many of us believe that 10 years is too long. Nevertheless, we agree that there should be a target time in order to provide a certain stability. People would then be spared the agony and uncertainty of feeling that there is a time hurdle and that they must do something before the next renewal.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that most helpful intervention. As he said, we have this agony every year with the annual debate in the House of Commons. Recently, it has been more of a formality. Nevertheless, the troubles of Northern Ireland are displayed in public and the Secretary of State's reasons for renewal are portrayed and debated every year.

If that annual event were replaced by a 10-yearly system, there would be greater stability. We are all well aware of what happened in 1972. If the then Government of the United Kingdom had made it clear that direct rule was to remain effective for 10 years and that they were bound to that by Act of Parliament, I believe that there would not have been half the strife, "aggro", mischief-making, or the suffering and discomfort that so many thousands of innocent people and so many gallant police and Service men in Northern Ireland have encountered in the succeeding 10 years.

If the Committee accepts this amendment, it will give the Bill some stability, and a much needed element of stability for the Province.

9.30 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I wish to speak to amendment (a) to amendment No. 103. It proposes, in line 1, to leave out 'ten' and insert 'two'.

In catching your eye at this stage, Mr. Dean, I believe that I am not depriving any hon. Member of the opportunity to make the speech that he would in any case be making on the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) since this is essentially the same point. As you have several times reminded the Committee, Mr. Dean, we are debating the length of time between which it is necessary for the interim period to be renewed under the 1974 Act.

The schedule is more important than it might appear. It is, I suppose, in the last resort machinery attached to clause 2. Nevertheless, it raises a number of important issues. It provides for the movement out of and into direct rule and on the making and revocation of respective orders; namely, for full devolution and for rolling devolution. Although we shall be examining that presently, it so happens that revocation under rolling devolution appears to have escaped the eagle eye of the right hon. Gentleman's draftsmen, but we shall shortly be moving on to put that right.

There are a number of matters involved in the schedule on which it would be proper to ask questions. I hope that we shall have an opportunity of doing so when we reach the debate on schedule 1 stand part, since the amendments with which we are now dealing relate only to specific aspects of the schedule. A number of important aspects are not covered by the amendment.

I now turn to the length of time for which the interim period ought to endure without having to be renewed. It is true—and this was the burden of the intervention by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) in the speech of the the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr)—that if we agree to the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Harborough, or the lesser amendment that my hon. Friends and I consider preferable, we should not in all circumstances be varying the renewal period under the 1974 Act. I do not think that it is in our power to do that within the scope of the Bill. Although the Bill gives us carte blanche to amend the 1973 constitution, it so happens that, ironically, it does not provide the same unlimited facility for amending the 1974 Act dealing with direct rule.

Nevertheless, we are here contemplating the circumstances of relapse to direct rule after full or partial devolution. We therefore have an opportunity—a legitimate opportunity—to look at the time of the periodicity of renewal of direct rule.

The hon. Member for Harborough has done the Committee a service in discussing the length of the period. He was right to place this finger on the factor of stability. I do not believe that what he said on that head was seriously affected by the very correct intervention by the hon. Member for Oxford because it is that year, that annual interval, in the 1974 Act that stamps direct rule with its character and to which our attention has been directed by the amendment.

When one recalls the circumstances of 1974 when the Act was passed, it is intelligible that a one-year period for renewal was proposed and accepted. After all, the predictions of those who said that the 1973 Act would break down had been fulfilled. They were fulfilled, not accidentally or as a result of some unforeseen eruption into the politics of Northern Ireland, but because of the inherent contradictions of the 1973 Act. The real authors and only begetters of the 1973 Act—I do not mean the spokesman—were pretty confident that given a little time they would again have the show on the road. Therefore, when they were assisting the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) to draft the 1974 Act, it would have been too much to expect them to contemplate a period any longer than the one year.

Time has gone on, and every year since then the 1974 Act, which introduced direct rule, punctually and annually—it is one of the summer fixtures—has been renewed. It is time to ask—that is what the Minister of State has done—whether that interval any longer fits the circumstances.

Mr. Budgen

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is not with us today. Perhaps he will take his place later and we shall hear his words, but it is a matter of interest that he has not spoken in these debates.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his correction. I think that the battle of Bosworth Field was fought in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr)—

Mr. Farr

indicated dissent.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

It was not. That is one error piled upon another, one Pelion piled upon another Ossa of mistake. Somehow, I do not know why, I tend to associate the hon. Member for Harborough with that disastrous effect of English history, when the man whom some regard as the last English gentleman was betrayed by a Stanley—never trust a Stanley—and was deprived of his crown and of his life. However, I apologise for digressing, and I am sorry that I got the constituency wrong.

Neither I, my hon. Friends nor any Northern Ireland representative regards direct rule—to which we would automatically relapse if there were a revocation order as provided for in this part of the schedule—as a satisfactory form of government. For one thing, it is incompatible with local government as it is known in the rest of the United Kingdom. For another, it is incompatible with legislation as we understand it in this House. Those are two monstrosities that we renew annually for Northern Ireland when we renew the interim period under the 1974 Act.

None the less, if the truth were told—we do not always tell it—and the Secretary of State were looking for a form of government likely to command widespread acceptance throughout the community, I grieve to have to say, although I must do so in candour, that it would be direct rule. Of all the violent insurrections and protests that have taken place in Northern Ireland in the past eight to 10 years, none has been against direct rule. The opinion polls, that we all agree to disbelieve and also to quote, genuinely show that to be so. Acquiescence may not be enthusiasm but that is the attitude of almost the whole population of Northern Ireland towards direct rule. I say that because, in proposing a longer period than the present period for renewal—although admittedly a period that is only one-fifth of the length of that proposed by the hon. Member for Harborough—I might be misunderstood to be singing the praises of direct rule and of desiring, if not its diuturnity, at any rate its long continuance without the necessity of debate and renewal.

That is not so at all but during the past eight years, Northern Ireland Members have each year approached the time of the extension of the interim period with the hope of an amelioration of direct rule. They have welcomed the annual basis of renewal on the grounds that it will shortly give an opportunity for minor improvements in home rule—for example, a minor extension of the powers of the district councils to be made by the Government. It has also provided us with an opportunity for a review of the conditions in the Province, at least annually, though we have other opportunities for that. Sometimes it has provided us with a sort of argument to urge upon the Ministers of the Northern Ireland Office that they had better get on with those improvements and reforms that we believe are necessary and desirable.

I must confess, however, that as the years have passed the annual renewal has become more and more perfunctory. It has produced less and less hope on our part that it might be accompanied by a promise of gradual but real reform. Instead of looking forward to annual, if only small, steps towards more acceptable conditions—conditions more akin to those enjoyed in the rest of the United Kingdom, even under the 1974 Act—we have instead been entertained with threats, warnings, allegations, and fantasies of some new dispensation that would presently be sprung upon us and would render all this unnecessary.

I could cite predecessors of the Under-Secretary of State the hon Member for Oxford who over and over again have assured us that it is not necessary to worry about this or that because, before a few months are out, there will be devolved government in the Province. That brings me back to the essential point made by the hon. Member for Harborough. It is wholly unacceptable that after eight years the application of the system of government in the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland should be at 12 months' purchase at maximum.

It is a standing invitation to anyone who supposes with evil intent that the Government of the United Kingdom are not serious about the union. It is a standing invitation to all and sundry in Northern Ireland to regard themselves as living in a sort of limbo in an annual interim position that is not compatible with the principles on which the rest of the United Kingdom is governed but that has been renewed punctually year by year.

9.45 pm

One could not devise a prescription more apt to create uncertainty and to undermine confidence than an attempt to govern part of the United Kingdom under a system of direct rule renewable annually. It would be far better, except that for some years ahead the position would be the same, to give people a chance to escape from the constant necessity of being engaged in constitutional debate and controversy. Some people may complain that the inhabitants and representatives of Northern Ireland are always talking about the constitution. That is no wonder, since they know that the topic will automatically be raised and that the rug will be pulled from under them at least every 12 months.

Mr. Farr

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State always portrays the Bill as a great opportunity to restore business confidence in Northern Ireland. Would not business confidence be far more readily restored by the certainty of at least 10 years of direct rule and a form of government that is assured for the reasonable future?

Mr. Powell

My hon. Friends and I decided that 10 years was too long, despite the argument of the hon. Member for Harborough, to leave the interim period undebated and to leave direct rule as an accomplished continuing fact. It would be inconsistent with our objections of principle to direct rule to accept that it could continue without further parliamentary action for 10 years. Therefore, we have tried to amend the period.

The hon. Member for Harborough and the Committee may ask "Why two years?" The argument could be put forward—no doubt the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) will deploy it—for a longer period of tenure than two years. However, in the context of the Bill it is necessary to break the annual habit. At least let us break out of what we have lived with for eight years—the annuality of direct rule.

We should be sorry to have to reconcile ourselves—I judge that the hon. Member for Harborough might also be sorry—to the notion that there would be no major improvement in the local government of the Province or in the manner for which the Province is legislated for many years ahead. We should be sorry to renounce the opportunity of telling those at the Northern Ireland Office that, if they must renew direct rule, at least before or at the same time they should announce certain improvements.

Mr. Amery

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that acceptance of this amendment would not commit the House or the Government to 10 years of unchanged rule? Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) said that it would not prevent devolution, equally it would not prevent advances in local government or towards integration. The difference in years between my hon. Friend's amendment and the amendment to it is not necessarily contradictory.

Mr. Powell

The right hon. Gentleman is right, as the Under-Secretary confirmed, in saying that as this schedule is drawn and constructed, having revoked full devolution, it would be possible at any time to revert to full devolution. However, we are looking at the practicalities and the probabilities rather than at the theory. The practicability and the probability is that if one made an attempt at full devolution and the attempt had to be called off, as it had to be in 1973–74, the Minister would not make, any more than he has made since 1974, except after a long interval, a new attempt. Therefore, we are entitled to take into account the central argument of the hon. Member for Harborough about achieving a degree of stability in the constitutional arrangements in the Province.

Mr. Porter

The fact that we have had annual reviews of direct rule since that time would, in my view, give it the degree of stability for which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) is asking. The rubber stamping over the past few years gives it that stability.

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest, but not with my normal silent applause. I fail to understand the logic. The Government believe, mistakenly in my view, that the Bill will give a new sort of Government to the Province. That has not been prevented by the fact that we have had annual reviews of direct rule. If the Government are right, which is highly unlikely, in believing that they will have some part of devolution, what is wrong with the proposal that, if we have partial devolution, we should look at it in each succeeding year? That seems to me eminently sensible. I see no purpose in two years. I can understand, but not accept, what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough says about 10 years, but I see no purpose in two years.

Mr. Powell

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in supposing that these provisions would provide us with an annual look at devolution or partial devolution. On the contrary, this period gives us another look at direct rule at annual intervals.

My hon. Friends and I feel that we should be breaking out of that annual habit, and should take the opportunity afforded by the schedule for doing so. On the other hand, we do not feel that it is wise to go as far as to assume, or even imply, that we should gladly accept a decade of direct rule. We should not. We want to establish that at any rate this interim period is something less ephemeral than is implied by the automatic annual renewal, which was no doubt not anticipated in 1974–75 but which has been our experience.

It is an irony of the schedule that the whole schedule, and certainly the provisions with which we are dealing, is built upon the doubt of the Secretary of State about whether his devolution will work. We are talking about the measures that would follow upon the revocation of the order, which many, to judge by earlier debates, thought unlikely ever to be made.

I am sure that it was right—and we are grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough in this respect—that the automatic annual renewal of direct rule should be challenged, and challenged in the context of the Bill. I am afraid that my hon. Friends and I will not be able to follow the hon. Member into the Lobby in support of the amendment, but I hope that we shall have the support of the Committee in breaking the habit of annuality with the implication of enduring uncertainty that inevitably it carries with it.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Perhaps, Mr. Dean, before the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) catches your eye again the hands of the clock will have moved beyond midnight, to the point when we reach his 70th birthday. I have watched his performance in this debate and many others and heard his speech tonight and I have no doubt that he will arrive at four score years with just as much vitality as we see tonight. We shall continue to enjoy the ferocity of his logic, enlightened as it is by those shafts of humour. We had a charming one tonight about Bosworth and Bosworth Field that collectors of Powellisms treasure just as much as collectors of "RAB"-isms. I must not stray from the amendment. [Interruption.] I should take offence if the Leader of the House were to think that even that mild compliment were wrong. My right hon. Friend was in a sedentary position when he uttered his remark and perhaps Hansard will not have heard what he said.

The Secretary of State has made a bald point of the importance of stability for the future of the Province. It is my view, and that of many of my hon. Friends, that the Bill is not conducive to stability and that the Assembly—if it comes into being—will be a source of instability. That is not his view and the Secretary of State is entitled to his opinion just as we are to ours. He must take the credit for thinking that he may be wrong. I rather have the feeling that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary intervened during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) that perhaps he had not read—or if he had read had not really taken to heart—The Times leading article today. Although that article appeared in many ways to be friendly to the Bill there was a sharp sting in the tail. It said that the Bill might not produce the results that the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary hope to see. If that were to be the case there would be no choice except to proceed in some other way, either by the continuance of direct rule or by the integration process that some of us favour.

It is important to remember when criticising direct rule—I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South and with most of my hon. Friends that we do not like direct rule—that a large proportion of the people of the Province consulted in public opinion polls have put direct rule and its continuation as their second choice. We must pay attention to that. It is important not to rule out direct rule even if we do not think it is perfect.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can claim that he has tried to achieve a different solution. He has tried to achieve devolved government even though all the leaders of the political parties in the Province and even some of the Government's best friends in the House think that it is wrong. It is all very well for him to insist on his formula although it appears to fly in the face of almost every authority interested in the subject as well as in the face of the traditions of the Conservative and Unionist Party. It would, however, be worse to refuse the spirit of the two amendments.

I ask the Secretary of State to think seriously about accepting the spirit of the amendments and making a concession. I ask him to consider the five-year compromise, which falls between the proposed two-year and 10-year proposals. Earlier my right hon. Friend tried to drive a wedge between—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress; to sit again.