HC Deb 23 June 1982 vol 26 cc362-403
Mr. Proctor

On a point of order, Mr. Dean. It will not have escaped your notice that the Division before last took 14 minutes from beginning to end. Just over 100 Members voted in the Government Lobby, but that should not have affected the time that the count took. Because the Division took as long as 14 minutes, did you, Mr. Dean, notice that that prevented my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) from pressing his amendment No. 105 to a Division, as I am sure he would have wished to do had time permitted?

I am aware of the difficulty caused by the guillotine motion, but would you rule, Mr. Dean, that just because the Government have their draconian guillotine motion they should not be unfair by delaying the counting of the votes?

The Second Deputy Chairman

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and I realise his difficulty. It is my job to ensure that the rules are observed. In my view, the Division was not unduly long; therefore, the process was in order.

9.15 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I beg to move amendment No. 70, in page 8, line 25, leave out from 'departments' to end of line 27. The amendment will delete paragraph (b) of what would be subsection (1) of the Constitution Act. Schedule 2 is almost a re-enactment of a large part of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. It will have effect only under full devolution. Recent debates have disclosed that, of those who have taken a direct interest in the Bill, only a small minority believe that clause 6 will attract schedule 2 or that we are debating a proposal that is likely to have practical effect or significance.

However, it was valuable that schedule 2 was included in the Bill, with the possibility that it created, within the rules of order and the discretion of the Chair, for the Constitution Act 1973 and the power-sharing Executive embodied in it to be reviewed after nine years by way of amendments to the amendment to schedule 2 of the Constitution Act 1973, which comprises schedule 2 of this Bill. It is unfortunate that we cannot devote the attention that we should otherwise have been able to devote to a post mortem on the 1973 Act. As long as that Act remains on the statute book, there will always be a danger that someone will attempt to bring it into effect. No time spent in dedicating oneself to examining undesirable features of the 1973 Act can be time wasted.

As the schedule stands at present and, with modifications, as section 8 of the 1973 Act stood, the Secretary of State can appoint not only the heads of Northern Ireland Departments—what in our terminology would be Ministers or even Cabinet Ministers—but persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine. My amendment seeks to shine a searchlight upon those words by deleting them.

The words are injudiciously and undesirably wide in conferring powers on a Secretary of State to appoint persons to the government of part of the United Kingdom. He may appoint them to discharge such other functions as he may determine. The indeterminacy of the functions for which the Secretary of State can appoint Ministers is undesirable. However, it carries with it the intention—the paragraph paves the way—to enable the Secretary of State to concoct an Administration with a view not so much towards efficiency of administration and the control of Departments as to awarding sufficient jobs, or inventing and awarding sufficient jobs, so as to set up a power-sharing Executive where the competing interests will be stilled by reciprocal or mutual rewards.

This is the way in which in the first essay in 1973–74 the power was used to create functions which were not necessary for the effective discharge of the government of Northern Ireland and to appoint particular persons because they were drawn from certain parties, or even because they were of certain religious persuasions. It is part of the armoury of power sharing, and no doubt it enables the Secretary of State to participate in the wheeling and dealing which he anticipates will precede the making of proposals to him under clause 1.

This is log-rolling institutionalised in the formation of a Northern Ireland Administration in the hope of managing to cobble together an Administration which will be supported by the Assembly. That renders it objectionable to my hon. Friends and myself and it should render it objectionable to anyone who is used to and accepts the logic and function of our own parliamentary institutions and the responsibility of Government to the House of Commons.

This is an opportunity for us to examine some of the implications of a power-sharing Executive and the countervailing inducements which might be necessary to bring such an Executive into existence, and to obtain from the Government a statement as detailed as they can make it of what they have in mind, together with specific examples, if the Secretary of State proposes to act under paragraph (b). If no satisfactory explanation can be given and no sufficient definition is offered to the House of Commons, the Committee would be justified in doing what the amendment proposes and deleting paragraph (b).

Mr. Farr

I support the amendment. It is a pity that it has not attracted more attention. It is vital that the patronage of the Secretary of State is properly curtailed and dovetailed. He cannot be allowed to get away with a Bill that is so loosely worded as, for example, in this paragraph of schedule 2.

I support the intention of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) to omit paragraph 1(1)(b). The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to limit the appointments within the discretion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If my right hon. Friend does not say "Yes" to this, it is in the national interest that he should give the Committee an indication of how he will limit his budget. It would be deplorable if the number of persons to be employed by him was virtually without limit. It would be even more deplorable if he were to have a budget without limit to remunerate those so employed.

The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to the words "cobbled together", and that is rather typical of the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Bill. The Bill has been cobbled together. If one takes the trouble to look up "cobbled together" in the Oxford English Dictionary, or even in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, in the House of Commons Library, one sees that it means "Patching or joining together in a cumbersome or clumsy manner". That is typical of the attitude of my right hon. Friend and some of his Ministers and advisers.

The Bill has been cobbled together. It has been sent on its way with the best wishes of some hon. Members. It is hoped that, as it goes along, it will stagger from one eventuality to another by the patching up in a cumbersome way of the necessary parts of the Bill which are loosely worded at the moment. I agree that paragraph (b) should be deleted. There must be a strict limit on my right hon. Friend's budget or, for that matter, his successor's budget. If such a curtailment is not written into the Bill, we shall be doing a disservice to Northern Ireland, both now and for the future.

Mr. William Ross

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who has set out the objections that any reasonable man must have to this part of the Bill.

In schedule 1, under paragraph 5 the Secretary of State can appoint people to assist the head of a department. It appears that that is half of the Government's stick and carrot. We have the carrot of salaries and cars, which have been mentioned, and the stick of the power of the Government to refuse to allow devolution to come into operation unless it is power sharing. We now have the carrot of jobs for the boys.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend so early in his remarks. I wonder whether he is right in associating schedule 2, paragraph l, with schedule 1, paragraph 5(1)(b), which refers to a person to assist the person appointed as mentioned in paragraph (a)". That is the head of a Department. If all that paragraph 1(1) (b) in the amendment were about was appointing parliamentary secretaries, so to speak, at least we should know where we stood. My hon. Friend has detected something that I failed to find if he can identify what is set out in paragraph (b) of the new subsection (1) of the Constitution Act with the appointment of a parliamentary secretary. If the Minister says that that is all there is to it, we shall have been helped on our way, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend is justified in that assumption.

Mr. Ross

I hate to disagree with my right hon. Friend. Schedule 1, paragraph 5(1)(b), refers to a person to assist the person appointed as mentioned in paragraph (a)". I do not believe that that is simply a parliamentary secretary. I should have thought that that was the equivalent of a vice-chairman at that stage of the game, before the Assembly evolved into a power-sharing Executive, which the Government desire. It is in that light that I make my remarks. No doubt the Minister will guide us and tell us which of us is correct in his assumption. It is clear that that is in paragraph (b): persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine. It may be that I am incorrect, and that the persons to be appointed are not to be vice-chairmen to the heads of Departments. Perhaps it goes further than that. If it does, I should be very worried. I am worried about the ice cream being offered to those appointed to secondary posts.

9.30 pm
Mr. Proctor

I should like to add my comments about amendment No. 70. At an earlier stage we discussed some of the matters mentioned in schedule 2. The purpose of schedule 2 is to amend the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 and to revise section 8 of that Act. It does that in a number of ways that the Minister will no doubt explain. The amendment relates to one aspect of the changes—paragraph (b) of the new subsection (1) of the Constitution Act, which deals with the ability of the Secretary of State to appoint persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine. What are such other functions to be? What work does the Minister visualise that those persons will do? It is important. Are they to be of assistance to those persons who are appointed by paragraph (a)persons to be heads of the Northern Ireland departments"? Are they to be in some way Ministers without special responsibilities?

We are setting up an Assembly that in its early days will have few responsibilities or duties, so I suppose that it is consistent with that that we should appoint persons to have no responsibilities. I should like to know what functions those persons will perform and what type of person will be appointed. How many appointments will the Secretary of State make? The notes on clauses are helpful to the Committee in advising us on that matter. The new subsection (3) states: The total number of persons at any time holding appointments under this section shall not exceed thirteen but the Secretary of State may by an order made by statutory instrument increase or further increase that number". Why has the number 13 been chosen? It limits paragraph (b).

The notes on clauses state: if required, there could be a chief executive member, Heads of the Northern Ireland Departments (which are expected to number 6 shortly)"— after the order earlier this week that is now the position— and deputies to those Heads; but there would be no need to proceed in this way. Under the Constitution Act, as amended by Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Constitution (Amendment) Act 1973, the maximum size of the Executive is 11, although the maximum size of the administration as a whole (which includes the Executive) is 15. The figure of 13 is considered a sensible maximum bearing in mind the size of the Assembly, but that figure can be increased by statutory instrument subject to negative resolution. Why was the number 13 chosen? Why was it decided to allow the Secretary of State initially to appoint six persons to discharge such … functions as he may determine", always on the assumption that there will be devolution of all the Departments in one go? Is there anything to stop the Secretary of State appointing persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine. without any Departments being devolved? Could 13 people be appointed under paragraph (b) without a Department being devolved?

What expense will public funds be put to in the appointments under paragraph (b)? What sum is in mind?

Why does the Minister feel that there should be greater flexibility in the Bill compared with that in the Convention legislation? According to the notes on clauses the Government feel that they need to make the amendments because of the need for greater flexibility.

The schedule sets up a crazy cocktail of Ministers of various sorts, sizes, colour and degree. It is a power-sharing exercise that I believe will come to naught, but I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me on the detail if not on the principle.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

The amendment is designed to limit the size of the gravy train—the power of patronage in the hands of the Secretary of State who is bent on a policy with which a number of us on Government Benches profoundly disagree.

I put one question to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is eager to reply to the points that have been made. It involves the manner in which the members of the Executive are to be appointed. Paragraph 51 of the White Paper describes the manner in which the Secretary of State will make appointments to the Executive. It is not clear whether the Secretary of State, in taking account of recommendations from and the views of parties in the Assembly, will be able to adopt a Cabinet system and permit the Chief Executive to make the appointments, even though the Secretary of State in name makes the appointments.

At the time of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973, I moved an amendment to the 1973 legislation, with the support of the Unionist Party, to provide that, instead of the Secretary of State making all the appointments to the Executive, the Chief Executive should be able to appoint his colleagues in the power-sharing Executive. That amendment was not accepted by the then Government. However, it was a substantial point. Had the amendment been accepted, the power-sharing Executive might perhaps have worked less badly than it did. What is the position under the new arrangements?

If I have trespassed slightly outside the compass of the new subsection (1)(b), I apologise to you, Mr. Dean, and to the Committee.

Mr. John Patten

Let me first direct the Committee's attention to the matters of principle that have been raised. I shall then try to address myself to the important matters of detail, even if I am unable to satisfy hon. Members on the principles.

As the Committee knows, the purpose of paragraph 1 of schedule 2 is in keeping with the spirit of the Bill—to continue to provide flexibility. That is one of the motifs that runs through the Government's thinking in the Bill, the White Paper that preceded it and the scheme that we think is necessary to reach the levels of accommodation that will be required to make cross-community support a possibility.

The intention behind new section 8(1)(b) of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, which the amendment seeks to delete, is to empower the Secretary of State, as does the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, to appoint individuals to discharge functions other than those of the head of a Northern Ireland Department.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) asked us to turn the searchlight on these powers. I shall now attempt to do that to the best of my ability. I hope that I can demonstrate what is intended. For example, the power given to the Secretary of State would enable my right hon. Friend to appoint deputies to the heads of Northern Ireland Departments in a future devolved Administration—exactly as some hon. Members have suspected and hypothesised. There are good reasons for retaining this freedom. It is not simply that it may be sensible to appoint deputy heads of Departments. That would be possible, but it would not be necessary to proceed in that way. In other words, what I have said is the most practical example of what might happen under full devolution.

9.45 pm

The provision that the amendment seeks to delete recognises, as does the Bill as a whole, that any devolution package will, without any doubt, require accommodation—not a very popular word with some members of the Committee—among different groups of the Assembly. Those who were members of the last Assembly will know how difficult it was to achieve that level of accommodation. We have heard in earlier debates of the difficulties that there were then in achieving accommodations.

Therefore, it has been the aim of the Government, in framing the Bill and in designing the schedule, to give maximum flexibility within which the Assembly can come to such accommodations. The Government believe that accommodations will be facilitated by the flexible arrangements that the provision offers. It is worth while spelling it out again, even if it means using dreaded terms such as power sharing. There is nothing in the Bill that requires power sharing. That is absolutely clear on the face of the Bill. Equally, it is not ruled out. It is up to the Assembly to decide.

Several Opposition Members have made great play during the long nights—it has not always been unamusing to hear them—of the word "cobble". We have been told that things are to be cobbled together or patched up. Is that not part and parcel of politics in the Province now?

I read the papers in the Province, and I read with some pleasure and interest that in early June, as a result of a deal between the Official Unionists and the SDLP, an SDLP member was elected to be chairman of the Strabane district council, with the support of a member of the Official Unionist Party as vice-chairman. That was an accommodation made within Strabane district council, which is one of the 26 district councils within the Province.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

I am glad that the Minister has brought to the attention of the Committee the situation in the Strabane district council, because it makes the case that we have been arguing throughout the debate—that local government is the place where accommodations can be reached between people of Republican tradition and people of a Unionist allegiance. It surely bears out the view that there are not great obstacles to the enlargement of the functions of local government. The argument that local government cannot be trusted with enlarged powers does not hold water.

Mr. Patten

I do not think that it necessarily proves or disproves my hon. Friend's case. What it proves is that in the political landscape of Northern Ireland there are forces which, when there is the will, can find the way to come to accommodations. If it can be done in Strabane district council, I see no reason why it cannot be done in the new Assembly when that Assembly sits, as I hope and believe it will, in the autumn.

Mr. Molyneaux

I do not know anything of the background of the Strabane arrangement and it may be that that will exist on a stable basis. The phrase used by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) may not mean quite the same thing. The dictionary that I consulted on the meaning of cobbling something together referred to someone who is not a shoemaker mending footwear in a coarse fashion. I do not think that that would inspire confidence in any of the electors in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Patten

Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say about definitions, he is the leader of the Official Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and I have not seen from him any signs of dissent about the arrangement in Strabane district council. I repeat that if an accommodation can be reached in Strabane, it can be reached in the Assembly.

Turning from matters of principle to matters of detail, I shall try to answer the important points made by the right hon. Member for Down, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor), with his characteristic list of questions, to which I have grown accustomed in the last 70 hours.

It is worth while spelling out that, under partial devolution, all the members of the Northern Ireland Administration must be Members of the Assembly. It is important to get that straight.

I must bring in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on the arrangements under full devolution. It is clear on the face of the Bill, and indeed it is spelt out, that there is no possibility of the infinite extension, without parliamentary supervision, of the number of members of an Executive whom my right hon. Friend could appoint. The number—13—is specified. That number could be increased by an order at a later stage, but it could not be increased in a creeping way without full parliamentary approval.

Under full devolution there can be up to 13 members of the Executive as opposed to 11 under the last arrangement. All but two of them have to be Assembly Members. No hon. Member has picked on that point, but it is important. Only one of the heads of Departments, of which there will be six, or seven if there has been fission among the Departments, can be a non-Assembly Member. There is absolutely no requirement as such for there to be a 13-man Executive. It is not all or nothing under full devolution. It is not nothing or 13. It is simply a maximum figure.

There could be a smaller Executive with other posts in the Administration outside the Executive. For example, there could be three members in the Executive with other posts outside the Executive, but involving the headships of Departments. That is just one possibility in the whole range of possibilities under the flexible provisions in the Bill so as to give Members in the Assembly the chance to make the accommodations that are necessary. I see the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), who has long experience of these matters, assenting to what I say. I welcome that. All that we have sought to do is to give the Assembly maximum flexibility to assist it in drawing up devolution proposals—nothing more, nothing less.

One of the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon did not perhaps take into account the fact that the maximum of 13 relates only to full devolution. Why 13? Under full devolution there could be a Chief Executive and because of the passage of the Departments (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 two nights ago, there will be six devolved Departments at least when the Assembly commences. The Assembly may wish to recommend that each head of Department should have an assistant. If the Assembly so recommends, and if that has the cross-community assent of the Assembly, the powers conferred on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this schedule allow him to make those appointments. It is as straightforward as that. But it only makes it possible for it to happen. It does not require it to happen.

I come now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) about appointments being made by the Secretary of State. All appointments will be made by the Secretary of State. I believe that to be clear on the face of the Bill. If, however, the Assembly were to agree to a scheme reached after an accommodation which gave the Chief Executive a special role in choosing members of the Executive, he could do so at that stage. It is the same story again. It will depend upon the nature of the agreement reached by the Assembly, making maximum use of the flexible provisions in the Bill.

Lest any hon. Member fear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make the appointments under this subsection in an arbitrary fashion, I remind the Committee that before making any appointments under section 8 of the Constitution Act he is under a statutory requirement to consult. Once again flexibility is married to consultation. My right hon. Friend must consult as far as practicable with the parties represented in the Assembly and take into account any proposals for devolution submitted to him.

The amendment should be resisted. Schemes that need to be brought forward to make devolution work will depend on a range of accommodations and the options presented to my right hon. Friend in making such accommodations are another example of the flexibility that may be necessary.

Mr. Molyneaux

In tabling the amendment, we did not mean to imply that the Secretary of State had invented a provision for additional posts in Government where they were felt to be necessary and expedient and perhaps in furtherance of his plans.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, similar powers existed in the 1973 Act and they were put to good use. I remember the great day when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—the present Home Secretary—announced to the House the composition of the power-sharing Executive. I have no doubt that he had carried out the fullest consultations with the parties that showed a willingness to participate in the power-sharing experiment or to nibble at the bait.

We had an odd example of Cabinet formation, because the then Secretary of State mentioned no names and used only party labels. He said that the Chief Executive would be an Ulster Unionist and the Deputy Chief Executive would be a member of the SDLP. He went on down the list only to find at the end that he had one man too many. As a result, the right hon. Gentleman created a new post—the Office of Law Reform—and the occupant for whom it was invented was elected without reaching the electoral quota.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop) reminded me earlier that another obscure individual was appointed to the Office of Co-ordination and Planning. Such were his talents for co-ordination and planning that he never succeeded in finding a vacant office from which to carry out his mysterious duties.

Those were front-line Ministers and Members of the Executive. Our amendment deals with a lesser breed—Ministers without portfolio. There are precedents for the appointment of such Ministers. A former Northern Ireland Prime Minister who found himself in difficulty with his party in Parliament hit on the bright idea of putting half the Members in Government. His troubles were at an end, at least for the time being.

I do not suggest that the Secretary of State will face such temptations. He will not be answerable to the Assembly and will not require votes. He will not even lower himself to attending the Assembly if he can possibly help it.

The six Ministers who represent the six Departments in Northern Ireland can rightly claim to be overworked, but that is a result not of the burden of their ministerial duties, but of the fact that, by their own choice, they are bogged down with duties that could and should be discharged by district councillors and local government officers.

10 pm

As the Minister reminded us, the fact that people would co-operate in administering the law and carrying out local government functions, even at a high level, as they have always done in local government, is illustrated by his example of Strabane. I hope that the Secretary of State will think seriously in the coming days about all that has been said in this debate and, whatever the fate of the Bill, turn his attention to the essential job that has to be done, Stormont or no Stormont, and give the present district councils, almost by a stroke of the pen, the functions that they will have to discharge whatever system of government is designed to reign over them.

The Minister, in his winding-up speech, reminded the Committee of the flexible nature of, and the structure that is expected to result from, the Bill. We would not disagree. The Bill is flexible in the sense that it can be pushed and pulled in all directions. It can be blown about in all directions. In that sense, it resembles a tethered balloon—sometimes not a very well tethered balloon.

It is true, as the Minister said, that nothing in the Bill refers to power sharing. However, all hon. Members know that the Bill, even as it stands, without the mysterious Government amendment on power sharing that is being kept well under wraps until we reach the end of our debates, will not go anywhere without power sharing. We delude ourselves if we imagine otherwise. Despite what the Minister said, we still feel that the scope provided by the new subsection (1)(b) goes far too wide. I recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends and all hon. Members to support the amendment.

Mr. Proctor

I am sorry to have to press my hon. Friend the Minister because he has been very courteous, as always, and very thorough in replying to points put to him. I had thought that my hon. Friend would not be able to satisfy me on the principle. It is entirely due to my own lack of comprehension. I should like to try to discover whether I understand the position correctly in regard to the maximum number of 13 set out in the new subsection (3). I think that the Minister was telling me that the maximum number of 13 would come into play only when the Assembly had the full panoply of its devolvped powers covering all six Departments. My hon. Friend said that the Bill would allow the maximum of 13 only with the full six Northern Ireland Departments devolved to the Assembly. Can my hon. Friend say where this is set out in the Bill? Can he tell me where to find that connection between the maximum number of 13 and full devolved powers for the Assembly?

Is it possible for, say, three Departments to be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and for there to be three deputy heads of Department as well as three heads of Department, making a total of six? Could the remaining seven positions be persons who would discharge such other functions as he may determine"? Is there any limit on the number of persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine where full devolved powers have not come about? I hope that my hon. Friend understands the example that I have given.

My hon. Friend the Minister also drew my attention to new subsection (5), about the two persons at any time holding appointments under this section who may not be Members of the Assembly. Although it limits it by saying that not more than one of them shall be the head of a Northern Ireland department", the reverse of that is that two of them can be persons to discharge such other functions as he may determine". Is it wise that the Secretary of State should take powers to appoint two people who are not Members of the Assembly to exercise those other functions? Is that a wise use of flexibility in this context? May I put a hypothetical question to the Minister? Presumably it would be possible for the Secretary of State to appoint two Members under the new subsection (1)(b) who were defeated candidates in the election for the Assembly. Am I wrong in that assumption, or is the flexibility in the Bill so stupid as to allow defeated candidates for the Assembly not only to be transformed into the Assembly but somehow to become persons under paragraph (b)? I shall welcome the Minister's comments on that matter.

My hon. Friend drew my attention to the new subsection (6), which says: If at any time it appears to the Secretary of State that it is not possible to make an appointment which complies with the requirements of subsection (4) above he may make an appointment which does not comply with those requirements but any person so appointed shall not hold office for more than six months. Again, that is a wide flexibility. I wonder how that subsection would affect the persons in subsection (1)(b).

I am sorry to press the Minister on these points of detail, but it is important to get them right before the gravy train sets out, and to know whether the gravy train will set out with a full complement of coaches or whether we add to it bit by bit as each station comes along on the way to its destination.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

I remind the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) that the Caravan starts for the Dawn of Nothing—oh, make haste! In yesterday's debate the Secretary of State averred that debates under the guillotine procedure were commonly better than debates without a guillotine. It can hardly be said that today's experience has borne out his assertion. Nevertheless, we have one advantage today, and it is that we can hear the Government's case at an intermediate stage in the debate and have the benefit, at any rate before the debate comes to a close, of an opportunity to comment on their case and ask further questions.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for having set himself—even if he did not discharge it—the task of discharging the function—I must have been influenced by the language of paragraph (b)—of giving examples to illustrate the purpose of that paragraph. He started by saying that it could be used to appoint deputies. But then he stopped and simply went on to say that it could be used in other ways. That is somewhat curious, because when we were discussing clause 1(2), which deals with proposals from the Assembly, on which these arrangements may eventually be erected, we found that they are to include proposals as to the appointment under that section of a person to assist any person appointed as head of any such department. The Secretary of State confirmed that he would expect the proposals in some cases to designate persons to be heads of Departments and assistants to those heads. Therefore, one would have expected the corresponding provision for appointments to occur here. However, instead of appointments being made for the assistance of persons appointed as heads—which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) seemed to be expecting—we have the far wider and completely undefined expression, such other functions as he may determine". Therefore, we are still left asking the Government what, besides the appointment of assistants to heads of Departments, they envisage that the Secretary of State may do under this power.

Was my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) right to suggest that the power might be used to create imaginary functions—Ministers without portfolios? Is that envisaged, in order to build up the so-called "cross-community Executive"? Colour seemed to be lent to that assumption by the Minister's use of the words "package" and "accommodation". If we are enabling the Secretary of State openly to create a number—up to seven without the use of his power of Order in Council—of bogus appointments in addition to heads of Departments, the Committee should be told that more candidly than it has hitherto.

The Minister's reference to the custom, which is quite normal on this side of the water and which prevails generally in Northern Ireland, where there is a more or less permanent majority and minority of a party character on a local government body, for the occupation of the ceremonial position of chairman or mayor to circulate or alternate between the parties was unacceptable. In the administration of those arrangements, it is not unusual for disagreements to arise. Nevertheless, the general desirability of such a sharing of the ceremonial aspects of local government life is just as much accepted in the Province as it is in Great Britain; and a very good thing too.

For the Minister to come along and say that it was done in Strabane, which shows that a power-sharing Executive can be constructed by a mix of members of different parties, returned upon different manifestos and for different fundamental objects, is a non sequitur of which he, above all others, must have been conscious even before: it was pointed out to him by the hon. Member for Epping, Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison).

Mr. William Ross

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the position of chairman or mayor in Northern Ireland is not just ceremonial? In certain circumstances that individual has a casting vote, and in such a council, especially where there is, as in my local council, an eight to seven split on general Unionist/Republican lines, there is no possibility of such a post being given to the minor party.

Mr. Powell

Yes, I am well aware of that. The former hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West needs no reminding that exactly the same situation obtains on this side of the water. It is an arrangement that works better and is more honoured in the observance where there is not a narrow party difference between the two sides constituting a local government body.

Whatever the circumstances in any council, it does nothing to support the Government's case for a power-sharing Executive. It simply shows that local government is ipso facto power sharing and that the framework for administrative devolution in Northern Ireland exists at the lowest level in the district councils. One needs only to create a similar framework at the higher level to deal with the other and major functions.

10.15 pm

The whole of a local authority is, ipso facto, the executive. It is the council itself that is the executive. Consequently, all the members of the council share power and participate in the executive. Of course, the different policies will be decided by majority voting. In so far as control of voting is at all consistent, there will be a consistency of policy on the different subjects that a local authority administers. However, that all rests on the ballot box. In local government, the result of the ballot box is faithfully represented in genuine power sharing in administration.

The example at which the Under-Secretary of State clutched reinforced his opponents' case instead of buttressing the Bill. The essential difference between an Executive and a local authority is shown by what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the formation of the Executive. He pointed out that under subsection (2) the Secretary of State forms an Executive—as it were a Cabinet—out of those appointed as Ministers, or in some cases parliamentary secretaries—as it were—under subsection (1).

The essence of such an Executive is its consistency and collective responsibility. A selection is made from among those who have been appointed as individuals to produce a given pattern of party representation. They are then told "It is expected of you that you shall act as an Executive and act upon the principle of collegiality and shared collective responsibility". Until it breaks down, the result will be exactly the same as the previous experiment in 1974. The Executive will do only things upon which there is no party disagreement. The Executive becomes lame because it cannot do anything which matters, which involves party differences or which brings into play the fundamental divergencies between those elected.

Therefore, the power-sharing Executive discloses that it is a prescription for failure. It fails either because it is unable to agree and act as an Executive or because it cannot function as an Executive over the whole area of the subjects of administration. The sole result of the debate has been to show up, once again, the inherent impracticability of the principle upon which the Secretary of State has based his Bill. Before we divide on the measure, I hope that the Under-Secretary will be a little more candid about the way in which paragraph (b) is intended to be used to promote the power-sharing composition of an eventual power-sharing Executive. We should at least be plain about that.

Mr. Fitt

I was reluctant to take part in the debate but I have been provoked into doing so by some of the remarks and inaccuracies of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

The Minister was right to draw the attention of the Committee to an agreement made recently by opposing political forces in Strabane. In only three councils in Northern Ireland has that happened. It has happened in Londonderry—but not recently because of a disagreement—in Strabane, and in Newry with its overwhelmingly nationalist or Catholic majority which has decided to appoint a member of the DUP to the chair. The other 23 Unionist councils do not share power with the minority. They keep to themselves anything that is going. Where the Democratic Unionists have a majority, they hold the chairmanship and the deputy chairmanship.

Let us follow the logic of the Minister's argument. We must remember that Strabane is a cockpit of dissension and close to the border. Atrocious murders have taken place there and and there are all the consequences of heightened tension, animosity and hostility between the communities. Despite that, accommodation was found in the council. Newry is another border town where murder after murder has taken place. The population of the town condemned the murders and found accommodation between extreme Republicans and the other extreme, the Democratic Unionist Party.

I support what the Minister said. When the election took place in 1973 there was no guarantee that I, as leader of the SDLP, would find any accommodation with that brand of Unionism led by the late Brian Faulkner. There was no guarantee that the SDLP would find any accommodation with the Alliance Party, because a significant section of my party regarded the Alliance Party as an offshoot of the Ulster Unionist Party. On many issues the Alliance and Unionist Parties stood solidly against SDLP proposals.

On many occasions the then Secretary of State, now the Home Secretary, was called in to chair discussions among the three political elements. It was not easy. Many compromises had to be made. Compromise is not easy in Northern Ireland politics, but after many hours of discussion and to-ing and fro-ing, we agreed. The Secretary of State did not have carrots or sticks. The people involved in the discussions were the elected representatives of the Northern Ireland people. They tried desperately to reach agreement, and finally they did.

Those representatives did not bring the Executive to an end after five short months. The Executive was toppled because of what the paramilitary organisations did on the streets, because of the illegal organisations on the Protestant loyalist side and because of the bombing and killing by the IRA. That brought the Executive to an end.

I accept the suspicion voiced by the right hon. Member for Down, South that the Secretary of State's power to make appointments may be used to make appointments on a power-sharing or cross-community basis.

Mr. Powell

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the example of local government, does he think that the appointment of Councillor Graham of the DUP to the chairmanship of the Newry and Mourne council will make any difference to the political decisions taken by that council?

Mr. Fitt

The newly elected chairman has already said that there may be times when the majority of council members will wish to participate in cross-border economic discussions and that he must not attend those meetings. It may not have a specific effect, but the chairman's political allegiance will prevent him from acting wholeheartedly on every occasion with the majority of council members.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) and the right hon. Member for Down, South have repeatedly said that all members of local authorities wish to have increased powers. That is a palpable untruth. They do not. SDLP members, who are in the majority on Londonderry council, and their supporters, who are in the majority in Newry and Strabane, do not want increased powers because they know what happened previously. They have not forgotten the strictures of the Cameron report, which clearly stated that the maladministration in local authorities was largely responsible for the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

I did not put the point in those terms. The Association of Local Authorities has had its first conference. I have not yet seen the full report because it has not reached the Library. Did SDLP councillors at that conference dissent from the main view that was put forward by the vice-president calling for an enhancement of the role of local government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Fitt

I am no longer party to the counsels of the SDLP, but that party and all other nationalist political forces in Northern Ireland would bitterly oppose any attempt to restore powers to local authorities. Only three authorities can ever hope to be represented by the nationalist minority. The other 23 will continue to have Unionist majorities. The SDLP councils in Londonderry, Newry and Strabane may say that they wish to have increased powers because they are in the majority, but there are 23 other local authorities in Northern Ireland with permanent Unionist majorities.

Mr. Dunlop

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fitt

The hon. Gentleman will have plenty of time. I have been provoked into telling the truth to try to clear up some of the things that should not have been said.

Mr. William Ross

What about Omagh?

Mr. Fitt

Omagh is a marginal case.

Mr. Ross

What about Magherafelt?

Mr. Fitt

There is no power sharing in Magherafelt.

Amendment No. 70 wishes to kill any hope of cross-community or power-sharing government. It wishes to restrict the powers of the Secretary of State to make appointments that he believes will gain cross-community support and will be in the interests of the people. But the red herring that we do not need an Assembly because all members of local government are clamouring to co-operate is not true.

10.30 pm
Mr. John Patten

I rose in my innocence half an hour to three-quarters of an hour ago to reply to what is sometimes described as a short but useful debate. Once I had resumed my place, some additional and interesting issues were raised and I am glad to have this opportunity to respond to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) asked a number of questions with his usual clarity. Under full devolution there can be up to 13 members of the Administration, all but two of whom have to be Assembly Members. Only one of the heads of Department can be a non-Assembly Member. I direct my hon. Friend's attention to section 8 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 as it will be amended, I trust, by paragraph 1 of schedule 2.

Why will there be 13 members of the Administration? Under full devolution there could be a Chief Executive and there will be six devolved Departments. The Assembly may wish to recommend that each head of Department should have an assistant. The Bill enables that to happen but it does not require it.

Secondly, I direct my hon. Friend's attention to paragraph 5 of schedule 1, which deals with appointments under partial devolution. I direct his attention especially to sub-paragraphs (1)(a) and (b). The critical word is "Notwithstanding". The 1974 act makes provision for direct rule and provides that there cannot be arty appointments to any Northern Ireland Administration at present but notwithstanding that Act remaining in force there can be up to two appointments per Department under partial devolution.

My hon. Friend asked whether it was wise of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to have the power to appoint up to two people who are not Members of the Assembly. My answer is "Yes". That is because that power adds a certain dimension of flexibility into the arrangements and is another example of the flexibility about which I talked at considerable length earlier. I do pot propose to take up any more of the Committee's time on that. If I did so, I would only be repetitious.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) proceeded to ask "What functions might there be other than those within the one example that has been given of giving assistance to the heads of Department, at present of six Departments but possibly more in future should there be fission or possibly fewer should there be amalgamation, as there has recently been?" I shall offer a few possibilities. There might be a Leader of the Assembly. There might be a Minister or Ministers with proper functions other than heading one of the six Departments. We have a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a Lord Privy Seal and a Lord President of the Council, for example, who all have Cabinet status and functions other than those of being a head of Department. There is a range of possibilities on which the right hon. Gentleman could doubtless speculate of Ministers being appointed to perform functions other than those of heading a Department.

There might also be a deputy head of the Executive. That is another possibility. I am sure that the possibilities could be multiplied. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not press me to multiply them, because I have exhausted my powers of imagination in giving a few examples.

The right hon. Gentleman accused me—these accusations hurt sometimes—of introducing a non-sequitur into the debate when I referred to the excellent example of Strabane and the good, sound accommodation which seemed to have been brought about between the SDLP and the Official Unionist Party in dividing the chairmanship and vice-chairmanship of the council. We have had other examples in the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt).

Mr. Dunlop

I tried to intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) to remind him that there is another council, Omagh district council, in which Mr. Liam McDaid of the SDLP used his casting vote to vote himself back into the chair. The same happened in Magherafelt district council, in which Mr. Paddy Sweeney, also in the SDLP, used his casting vote to vote himself back to office. Therefore, there are examples where that high-souled action of the SDLP does not obtain, as it did in Strabane, which the Minister quoted.

Mr. Patten

I do not have the same detailed knowledge as the hon. Gentleman about those two examples, although doubtless those actions were within the rules of order of those two councils.

I was trying to rebut the cruel accusations from the right hon. Member for Down, South that there had been a non sequitur in my speech. I had not suggested that, simply because that accommodation had been reached in Strabane, one could extend from that a chain of a causality that would say, because that happens in Strabane, it will happen in the Assembly. All I was saying was that the example of Strabane, which fortunately was added to in the speech made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West, gives me hope that those accommodations that can be reached at local level might be reached at the Assembly when it sits for its first meeting, we hope, this autumn.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Will an Oxonian permit a mere Cantabrigian to observe in a matter of logic that his two cases are not in pan materia? The circumstances in local government are not comparable to the circumstances of the formation of an administrative Executive responsible to an Assembly. That is where the non sequitur arises.

Mr. Patten

I do not accept that point. If I were unaware of the right hon. Gentleman's abstemious habits, I would suggest that we met at a later stage in another part of the building in order to carry the discussion further. Although I have spent 10 years in the university of Oxford, I, like the right hon. Gentleman, was educated at the university of Cambridge. I maintain that there is no non sequitur in my example. I used it as an illustration of the fact that walking around the political landscape of Northern Ireland were people of good will who could come to those accommodations across the community. It is that strand of good will that gives me great hope that the Assembly will make rapid progress.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 16, Noes 110.

Division No. 238] [10.40 pm
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Farr, John
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Budgen, Nick Kilfedder, James A.
Dunlop, John Knight, Mrs Jill

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. James A. Dunn

I beg to move amendment No. 127, in page 9, line 30, at end add—

  1. 'Presiding Officer of the Assembly' 14,657 words, 3 divisions