HC Deb 04 July 1983 vol 45 cc14-5
32. Mr. Arnold

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will bring forward proposals for the setting up of a separate Select Committee to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr. Biffen

I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Arnold

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not take offence when I say that, coming from a staunch friend of the Union, I find that a somewhat puzzling and ambiguous reply. Has he noticed that although Standing Order No. 99 permits many departmental Select Committees to look into the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Office, with few exceptions they have so far refused to do so, on the ground that Northern Ireland has nothing to do with them? Has he also noted that in terms of the way in which business in the House is conducted, the Government have come forward with proposals that have resulted in a massive increase in the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Office? What does he intend to do to uphold the rights of the House of Commons in the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I say at once that I am anxious to meet the anxieties of my hon. Friend, and I hope he does not find that too controversial a reply. Hitherto, departmental Select Committees have been able to look at Northern Ireland affairs, and the Northern Ireland dimension, if one may put it in those terms, has been examined by both the Education and the Trade and Industry departmental Select Committees. The question is whether we want a specific Committee, as suggested by my hon. Friend. At present I am not persuaded that there is an imperative for that, but I am happy to examine that and other problems which concern him.

Mr. Winnick

As there is no chance—and there has not been for some years—of any progress with Northern Ireland policy, would it not be wise to set up a Committee to look at the whole question of future policy for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind some of the initiatives which have been taken by the Government of the Irish Republic in the last few months, mainly the forum.

Mr. Biffen

That suggestion and the source from which it comes would give rise to great anxiety on the part of those in Northern Ireland concerned to maintain the Union, and on that basis alone I must resist the temptation.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the development of Committees of this House, and perhaps the other place, for Northern Ireland would be warmly welcomed by those of us who believe that there should be one legislative assembly for the whole United Kingdom, and should not such Committees, if set up, sit both at Westminster and at Stormont?

Mr. Biffen

I accept that as a legitimate point of view. It is also legitimate to say that a departmental Committee of this United Kingdom Parliament should have within its ambit the consideration of Northern Ireland affairs.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Bearing in mind that Northern Ireland now has its proper representation in the House and has an Assembly, unlike any other region of the United Kingdom, would there not be a danger, if we set up a Select Committee, that Northern Ireland would have a disproportionate amount of parliamentary scrutiny?

Mr. Biffen

That underlines admirably the measured caution of my original answer.

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