HC Deb 11 March 1986 vol 93 cc858-74

7.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

I beg to move,

That the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 (S.I. 1986, No. 221), dated 12th February 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved. This order was made on 12 February 1986 at a meeting of the Privy Council under the urgent procedure as provided for in schedule 1, paragraph 1(4)(b), of the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The urgent procedure requires the order to be approved by resolution of both Houses within 40 days after the date on which the order was made, if the order is to continue in force.

Hon. Members will be aware that since September 1985 Unionist-controlled district councils in Northern Ireland have been adjourning, first, in protest about the presence of Sinn Fein members on councils and now because of the Anglo-Irish agreement. By the end of January, early February of this year, it was clear that the adjourning of councils would put at risk the striking of district rates for 1986–87. The House is aware that under the provisions of local government legislation in Northern Ireland there are three specific functions which must be exercised by councils themselves and cannot be delegated either to officers of councils or to a committee of the council. These functions relate to the striking of rates, the borrowing of money and land transactions. The failure to strike a rate is a clear indication that Unionist-controlled councils intend to escalate their action against the Government's policy. In these circumstances, the Government's first priority has to be the protection of services and jobs and it was for this reason that on 12 February we requested the Privy Council to make this order. I made clear at that time that

This precautionary step is being taken because the Government is not prepared to allow citizens and ratepayers in any district council area to be deprived of those services and facilities to which they are entitled, nor to allow the jobs of council employees to be put at risk through the actions of councillors. The House may be aware that there are default powers already existing in local government legislation in Northern Ireland. These powers would be insufficient to secure the uninterrupted delivery of local services, however, since they require a failure to exercise a function or a breakdown in service before action can be taken, and such action would take several weeks to complete. As it has now been indicated by some Unionist councillors that they wish to cause maxirnum disruption to local government, it would clearly be irresponsible not to take additional powers to minimise the damage that could be done either to the public or to the employees of the councils. That is the main reason why the Government are seeking the approval of the House to these new powers.

I should tell the House that we now have a situation where a majority within Belfast city council has deliberately defied the rulings of the High Court, where 18 councils, including Belfast, have deliberately defied a direction from the Department of the Environment to make a district rate, having earlier already decided to break the law by not striking a rate by the due date, and where these same councils continue to adjourn or suspend meetings, thereby threatening services in these council areas.

If I may now turn to the main provisions in the order, hon. Members will see from article 3 that, if it appears that a council has failed or is unable or unwilling to exercise duly and effectually any of its functions, the Department of the Environment could make an order which would suspend that council and appoint other persons to assume responsibility for the affairs in that council area. I think it important to emphasise that, since this is a measure of the last resort, the Government would also want to ensure that any application of these powers would not be permanent. Hon. Members will therefore see that there are provisions for the order to be revoked if circumstances subsequently changed and councillors were willing to resume normal business. It is also important to draw the attention of the House to paragraph (2) of article 3, since this would give the power for the suspension from all other public bodies to which a councillor has been appointed or elected by virtue of his membership of a district council. It would be anomalous to suspend district councillors from their council activities and not at the same time consider their suspension from those other public bodies on which they represent local council interests. The remaining provisions in article 3 are provisions which follow from the suspension of councillors and their replacement by others. These powers will ensure that those persons appointed to look after the interests in any council area have the full authority of the law to continue to exercise all functions previously exercised by the council. This would include the modification of any transferred provisions.

Paragraphs (7) and (8) are designed during direct rule to preserve the position of the Assembly if legislative powers were devolved to it. While direct rule continues, they are modified by schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974 which suspends the requirement to lay such orders before the Assembly in its present consultative form.

Hon. Members will see from article 4 that the legislation will remain in force until 31 May 1988 but could, if necessary, be extended for periods not exceeding one year until 1991; that is, for a five-year period in all.

The Government will not be deflected from their objective of safeguarding those services in Northern Ireland which are a fundamental entitlement in any society. The Government have been patient over a period of months during which local councils have not been meeting. The stage has now been reached where it has proved necessary to seek these additional powers as a contingency in order to be in a position to secure the provision of services and to protect jobs. I hope that these powers will not have to be used, but I can assure hon. Members and the people of Northern Ireland that, if it proves necessary as a measure of last resort to take this step, the Government are prepared to do so. I should like to remind Unionist councillors that the functions provided by their council, such as burials, refuse collection and the operation of leisure facilities, are for the benefit of all sections of the community. I naturally wish that these important local services should remain under the control of local elected representatives, but if this proves to be impossible the Government must be certain that they can step in to protect innocent members of the community.

I have explained to the House the background against which the Government have decided to introduce these new powers. I have outlined the main reasons why we find it necessary to seek these powers and have given a summary of their intent. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that our action is justified in the circumstances, and recognise that the powers will be used only if it proves essential.

I commend the order to the House.

7.16 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

This debate must be set in the context not only of the Anglo-Irish agreement but of the Unionist reaction to it. For it is that reaction which has led to 18 Unionist-controlled councils in Northern Ireland systematically adjourning, systematically turning their elected faces to the wall, and declining not only to set a rate but to care for the majority community which elected them to do just that. It is not that those Unionist councils are unaware of their duties, as the Minister explained. 'All of them have been directed by the Department of the Environment to set a rate. All of them have, in effect, refused.

In one case, that of Belfast city council, the council has been ordered to do so by the Court of Appeal. But Belfast city council has closed its ears to the counsels of the law. The only law that appears to have any significance for those Unionist councillors who hold the majority in the 18 councils that have refused to set a rate—eight other councils which are not Unionist-controlled have set a rate—is the law of rhetoric or, rather, the law of King Lear—

I will do such things,— What they are yet I know not,—but they shall be The terrors of the earth. We have seen several such "terrors" since the signing of the agreement. Faced for the first time with an Anglo-Irish agreement that agreed ways should be sought to enhance security co-operation between the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, what did the Unionist leadership do? It organised a march on Belfast city hall. Faced with an Anglo-Irish agreement which led to the Republic acceding to the European convention on terrorism, what did the Unionist leadership do? It called for a series of by-elections throughout Northern Ireland, saw its vote fall, and found that one of its Members of Parliament lost his seat.

Faced with an agreement that affirmed that any changes in the status of Northern Ireland would come about only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland—an obligation to be lodged with the United Nations—the Unionist leadership called for a day of protest which led to violence on the streets of Belfast; a violence that winged its way round the world and was seen on television screens in the United States of America at the very time when its Senate and Congress were discussing $250 million of aid for Northern Ireland and the border areas. We saw the work force at Harland and Wolff pulled out at a time when three vessels are up for contract with the Ministry of Defence, and when an assurance of political stability was sought. There was a call for the suspension of the very agreement that seeks to add a sense of security to the lives of all who live in Northern Ireland. None of these measures has had the slightest impact upon the Anglo-Irish agreement.

To add to the irrelevance of Unionist reaction, we are debating this order, which would give the Government powers to send in commissioners, on the very day that there has been a further intergovernmental conference in accordance with the agreement. I am not entirely sure whether Lear would turn in his Shakespearean grave, but those who believe in the unity of the United Kingdom must be concerned that the attitude of the Unionists, the Unionist reaction, the Unionist response, the Unionists' turn to violence and intimidation, is likely to sunder the United Kingdom more than any IRA bullet, bomb or other act of aggression. The sight of Sinn Fein councillors voting to strike rates in their communities, while the Unionists seek to adjourn business, must be particularly galling for those who have long espoused the Unionist cause.

Those who believe in local democracy and who believe that local democracy should serve local people, that rates are set for services, and that services are there for people must feel a particular sadness when, on a small scale, Unionist leaders and elected representatives withdraw their consent and their representation in order to make their own people suffer more. For example, and it is only one example, some 40 jobs may be lost and a variety of community services brought to an end on 31 March because of Unionist non-co-operation at local level.

The Belfast Telegraph has reported that in east Belfast a clean-up programme could go, with the loss of 27 jobs, jobs created under the Action for Community Employment programme. Belfast city council has until Friday of this week to decide on grants for community groups for the 1986–87 financial year. The members of the council have been too busy to do that because they have been considering whether there should be a banner reading "Ulster Says No" on the town hall; that is more important to them than saying yes to renewal of community programmes. If no decision is made by the council, all the community groups depending on such grants will have run out of money by 31 March.

When an approach was made by the community groups to the appropriate executive in the Belfast town hall, he suggested three courses of action. The first was that an approach be made to a bank to negotiate a loan. This is impossible because, since most are charities, they cannot legally and knowingly run up deficits. This course of action was a non-starter. The second was to serve redundancy notices for 31 March, and I am saddened to have to say that most have now done this. We may here have shades of Liverpool, but whereas the Labour party was the first to squeal and shout at the treatment of the workforce of Liverpool, it is equally right that we should be concerned about what is happening to community workers in Northern Ireland.

The third alternative for these community groups was that the staff should be asked to stay on voluntarily from the 31 March. This alternative to firing people is just as bad, for they are condemned to work without pay because of the irresponsibility of Unionist-controlled councils. One asks them to run up bills and not to make mortgage payments because elected councillors turn their faces from the tasks that they were elected to perform. One brings local government into disrepute. One brings one's own principles to desuetude for an abstract principle of opposition to an agreement that guarantees one's rights but is not remotely concerned with how families can survive when the breadwinner does not work—or, in this case, works but is not paid—because a council declines to strike a rate.

Some 25 groups in Belfast alone will suffer as a consequence of this default of the Unionist-controlled council. Other workers funded from elsewhere will lose their jobs if their organisations collapse. Further workers on Action for Community Employment schemes administered by the community organisations will also lose their jobs. The sum involved in relation to these groups is £129,850 for next quarter, or a total for the year of £389,550. The problem is not that decisions have been taken not to fund, but that decisions to allocate funding will not be taken in time. Seven directly funded resource centres will close. Seven other directly funded community centres will also close. The funding for these groups amounts to £79,600 a quarter. Some 27 full-time and 10 part-time workers will be affected. All 14 groups are on annual block grants from Belfast city council.

A further 11 groups in receipt of grant funding will be seriously affected. Four community relations projects will be placed in jeopardy, together with another seven: the Association of Local Advice Centres, the women's education project, the north Belfast resource centre computer project, the Workers' Educational Association sixties-plus unit, Trinity technical aid, Northern Ireland, the conservation volunteer urban unit and a community education project. These 11 groups receive their funding through the Belfast area needs programme. The money is provided by the Department of Education, but the city council can claim it from the Department only after it has been spent. The money involved—£50,250 for the last quarter of 1985–86—should have been claimed from the Department last Friday to cover the period from January to March 1986. It was not claimed, so, although the money is available, it will not reach the groups which need it most. For these 11 groups a total of nine full-time jobs are threatened, along with a number of ACE posts. The legal responsibility for community work was handed over to district councils in 1976, and the Department of Education has said that it cannot and will not interfere.

It has always been a part of the Unionist case that there should be true integration with the rest of the United Kingdom. It has long been espoused by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). I am sure he will not begrudge my telling the House that Down council has actually set a rate—an 8p rise in the pound, which has put up the rates by 18 per cent.

But who would wish to give more powers to local councillors who then proceed to walk away from them? Are the Unionists fully aware of what they are doing to public opinion in this country, even in so minor a matter as the equivalent of parish councils setting a rate? Who would want to give them devolved powers over education, health, and fire services, if, for a political purpose, a political gain as they perceive it, they would withdraw their members from the council chambers, adjourn business and walk away? Even Pontius Pilate washed his hands before doing so.

The Unionist dream of integration, of giving more powers to local councils, must be even more remote as the British public gradually understands what withdrawal of consent means to the average, ordinary man and woman of Northern Ireland: a threat to services, a threat to jobs, disrespect for the law, and, if the Unionists had their way, anarchy.

The recital that I have given of Belfast city council's treatment of community programmes is mirrored throughout Northern Ireland. All Unionist-controlled councils are putting their voluntary organisations in the same position, although the crisis has come to a head sooner in Belfast because the court declared ultra vires the town clerk's acting and taking decisions on behalf of the council. In other councils, the town clerks are still acting. Some of the non-Belfast councils, however, have been boycotting for an extended period, dating from the protests against Sinn Fein. Craigavon borough council first adjourned in November 1985 and has made no payments to voluntary groups since.

The immediate impact outside Belfast is lessened by the fact that no community group jobs are wholly funded by Unionist-controlled councils. Ultimately, however, the effect will be the same, as groups are denied funding and gradually bleed to death. What is happening in Belfast is only a microcosm of what is in store for the next financial year, and we urge the Government to remedy the situation now before there is irrevocable damage.

In a statement on 10 February, when he was talking of emergency legislation, the Minister said that it had been necessary to seek these powers to ensure that there was no breakdown in the provision of local government services, and to protect the jobs of council employees. He described the measure as a precautionary step because the Government were not prepared to allow citizens and ratepayers in any district area to be deprived of those services and facilities to which they are entitled, nor to allow the jobs of council employees to be put at risk through the action of councillors. The Minister had in mind the burial of the dead, the collection of refuse, the maintenance of public health and the operation of major leisure facilities.

What we have in mind is the community programmes, those who work in them, and those in the community who benefit from them. While we understand the Government's reluctance to send in commissioners too early, and accept that that should be a last resort, we ask the Minister to direct his attention to the community programmes and to those who are in them. We suggest, respectfully, that he directs his mind immediately to those issues.

No one wishes to disturb the balance of a local democracy or unduly to interfere with the powers of those who have been elected. But at the same time jobs should not and cannot be put at risk. It is shameful that Unionist councils have turned their backs on community services and on those who work in them. For that reason we urge the Government not to be intimidated on the ground by Unionist rhetoric or Unionist leaders; to let the commissioners go in to protect jobs and services; and not to let the people of Northern Ireland again suffer the futilities and barrenness of Unionist policy. We want the Government to act on these matters. We shall not divide the House tonight, but we urge the Government to act promptly when the order is placed on the statute book.

7.31 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

The easy philippic to which the House has just listened will bring no benefit to any section or interest in Northern Ireland or Great Britain, including the Government. When the Secretary of State wrote on 13 February to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) announcing the order he said: I understand the depth of feeling which exists. Alas, would that that were so. It is perfectly clear that neither the Secretary of State nor the Government have comprehended the depth of feeling that exists. If they had, the Secretary of State would not have perpetrated the solecism of fixing the debate on a day when in Northern Ireland the Anglo-Irish conference is meeting, and of sending almost the most junior of junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to present the order to the House. He would have realised the inherent offensiveness of that step, to which, I presume, he was blind because I do not imagine that it was intentional. It is simply an evidence of the continuing incomprehension.

The Minister would also understand why, having done that, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and some of my other hon. Friends thought it would be more in the interests of their constituents in Northern Ireland and of the Union that they should be in the Province today and this evening, rather than in the debate. He would also have understood—this is what the debate is about—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) wishes to intervene, perhaps he would get on his feet and let us hear his remarks instead of muttering under his breath. I see that he is not responding to my challenge. If the Secretary of State had understood the depth of feeling, he would understand what it is that brings the debate about, and that in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland, ever since 15 November 1985, the Government of Northern Ireland are essentially a Government who are no longer that of the Crown in Parliament, but one effectively shared with the Ministers and Government of another country.

That being the sense shared by those councillors with large numbers of their fellow countrymen, they could not in honour continue to participate, even in the minimal form of government which is represented by the local government of district councils as it exists today in Northern Ireland—a form of government, which, not inaccurately, was described just now as being more or less equivalent to that of a district council.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of those men that was part of the government of the Province which had ceased to be governed as part of the United Kingdom, and where genuine authority and influence lay outside this country. That is why they declined to take part in or responsibility for even that vestigial part of the government of Northern Ireland. In those circumstances, it was right and necessary that the Government should take up the responsibility.

The Government have, under existing legislation, the power to make a rate. But I do not criticise the fact that the Government have taken power at the same time effectively to administer these local government services. They must take responsibility for that for which elected persons in those 18 councils no longer in honour feel that they can take responsibility. That is what is going on, and that is what lies behind the order.

It may come as some surprise to any hon. Member uninterested or unacquainted with Northern Ireland if he were in the Chamber this evening to know how vestigial the powers of district councils are. The Government are already directly responsible, although they do not always admit their responsibility to the House, for the major services which are administered in the rest of the United Kingdom by elected authorities. Only a small addition to those powers for which the Government are already responsible will be made if the order is put into effect. Indeed, the district rate covers only the penumbra of services. The general rate, which corresponds to the rate paid in a corresponding part of the United Kingdom and supports the main services, is already fixed by the Government on the Government's responsibility.

I hope that if the order is put into effect, and I believe that it will be, the Government will accept their full, direct responsibility to the House for the details, as well as the policy, of all the elements of administration which then lie within their control. I hope that they will be prepared in the House to answer debate and questions on the details, as well as the policy of those services. Hitherto they have sought to hide behind the appointed boards for health, housing and education. I hope that they will not behave in that way in relation to the services which they will take over under the order from local government.

I believe that good can come from evil, and that the extremity to which the Government's mistake of 15 November is inexorably leading can have a good result, and lead the House and the Government to face the realities in Northern Ireland, instead of constantly hiding and running from them. Regarding local government—this was touched on by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell)—there is no complete membership of this United Kingdom without full enjoyment of local government as it is enjoyed in the rest of the United Kingdom. There have been arguments and suggestions that only the vestigial powers that exist at present can safely be left with elected authorities. Otherwise, there might be misadministration and discrimination.

This order is a reminder that, as a learned judge remarked not long ago, local government is the creature of statute and local government is ultimately the creature of central Government. The ultimate responsibility for what is done in local government inexorably returns to and rests with central Government.

It is perfectly feasible that those councillors in Northern Ireland—and I know them well—of both political majorities and colours are capable of administering far more than the trivial services that are at present within their scope. It is perfectly possible for them to be entrusted with the range of services which elected councillors supervise and administer in the rest of the United Kingdom. What we are doing tonight is a reminder that it is wholly within the powers of Government to ensure that such a transfer of responsibility is not misused but is controlled and does not lead to any of the results which have been feared.

This is not an order that any of us would welcome. Rather we regard it as inevitable. Nevertheless, there lies behind the order, and I say so here tonight, the possibility that the day will come when the people of Northern Ireland will be endowed, as they are entitled to be endowed, with the right to local administration of those services which are locally administered in the rest of the United Kingdom. The claim of the people of Northern Ireland, as long as they are part of the United Kingdom, to be administered like the rest of the United Kingdom in all respects is in the end an indefeasible claim. That claim sooner or later will extend to local government.

7.41 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has spoken four times about the depth of feeling which exists in Northern Ireland, and which is not appreciated here. I assure him that I have seen that depth of feeling. I have seen it in practical terms. I saw it last Monday. I saw it no later than yesterday. A brave and courageous nursing officer, who tried to get her staff into a hospital at Craigavon, had her leg broken by people who 'were suffering from a depth of feeling. One of my constituents was taken to Craigavon hospital with his head split by a brick, which had resulted from a depth of feeling. I know that depth of feeling; I know the result of it. I assure the right hon. Member for South Down that there is at least one person here who knows that depth of feeling and knows the effect of it.

It is a matter of regret that, as we face all our problems in Northern Ireland, the democratically elected councils throughout the north of Ireland have to be dealt with in this manner. I speak as a member of Armagh district council which will no longer operate when this order has been put into effect. When the councils were formed, we regarded them as having great potential. We regarded them as the nursery beds for partnership and reconciliation on decisions on a minor scale. We hoped that that nursery element would grow into the politics of the north of Ireland. However, like most other things, because of the depth of feeling, that opportunity was lost.

What have we seen? We have seen discrimination which has been proved in the courts of Ireland. I ask hon. Members not to take my word for it, but to look up the court records. We have seen the way in which councils have been used for political reasons. The Minister of State said that this was the second time that Unionist councillors had withdrawn from councils. It is not. It is the third time. On that previous occasion, as a member of a council and as a citizen, I attested to the court the right of Unionists to stop doing council business. I lost, and it cost me a great deal of money. After three attempts, I hope that the Department will now grapple with this problem.

I am loth to speak in political terms, but I find it difficult not to do so. I prefer to consider the merits of councils, their functions and effects, but it is not as simple as that because they are being used as political tools, not for the first time, but for the third time since 1973–-we must all realise the essence of this matter—to challenge the sovereignty of this Parliament, as we saw on the streets of Northern Ireland last Monday. The Unionists in the north of Ireland are claiming quasi-sovereignty -independence for Northern Ireland within the British context. Somehow they are seeking to have their cake and eat it.

Those in the House who are sincere, committed Unionists must realise that this is the essence of the Unionist revolt. That is why district councils are being treated as they are by Unionists on those councils.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) has rightly itemised some of the effects that this will have. Yesterday, I spoke to people employed by Belfast city council in the resource centres. There will be no community service budgeting for those centres, and there will be no money for the neighbourhood development schemes in Belfast. Such schemes are crucial in a divided city where a concrete wall has to be built between the Protestant and Catholic sections. The neighbourhood development schemes and councils will not be able to operate. The wages of the people in the centres will not be paid, and there will be no cash for the resource centres. The Action for Community Employment schemes will come to a halt. New employment will therefore not be created through the admirable ACE schemes. The clerks in the councils do not have it within their power to fund those resource centres any further.

We are entering a situation where people will lose their jobs and the food off their plates so that others can demonstrate their depth of feeling. That will be one of the net results. Another net result, which I fear as a councillor, will be the lack of services to the public. When I write to the district councils on behalf of constituents, I do not even get the courtesy of a reply. Councillors do not have the right of consultation to which they are entitled, especially with the Department of the Environment in relation to roads, housing and planning permission. That shows the way in which the electorate is being put at a tremendous disadvantage. This form of elected democracy, which should be the basis of the most intimate relationship with the community, is suffering and all that important work is going by the board.

Remarkable cuts in the housing programme, which councillors should examine and influence, are being swept through. Armagh district council will not furnish me with details of the housing programme. It will not send planning schedules. Therefore, people who, like me, wish to carry on as councillors do not have the facility to do so. Must my democratic rights and those of my constituents be sacrificed so that the depth of feeling can continue to express itself?

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Will he explain whether the refusal to communicate with him is a deliberate act and, if so, who is responsible for it, as I find what he is saying extremely disturbing?

Mr. Mallon

In their wisdom, Unionist councils—they are the majority—decided to hand over all powers of administration to the chairmen of the councils, who could instruct the clerks to the councils. For the whole of the Armagh district council area, one man, who I saw manning the barricades showing his depth of feeling last Monday, has power over every item of council business and decides whether I shall get a reply to my letters.

The service to the public is vital and initiatives, if there are any, of some council officers will be frozen because they will not run the risk of taking decisions for which they might have to answer. They have to consider whether there will be retrospective authorisation of decisions. Council clerks who want to do their job properly are being put in an impossible position, as are councillors who want to fulfil their role.

The right hon. Member for South Down talked about the depth of feeling of councillors who are bringing district council business to a standstill. He conveniently ignored the fact that there are people in the north of Ireland who want to serve on councils. I am one. There are many others, including the 100 elected members of my party who want to serve their constituents, but they cannot, because the Unionist parties have arbitrarily decided that they will not. The right hon. Gentleman ignored the fact that eight councils are operating well. They have struck rates and are serving their constituents. They all happen to be in areas where there is a Nationalist majority. These are strange times indeed. I belong to a party which was born on the streets in revolt and in the civil rights movement. Unionism has gone down the road that we took 10 years ago and discovered was a cul-de-sac. Can they not learn even from recent history, if not more distant history?

I welcome the prospect of action on district councils at last. I have not seen much action in the past. It is unfortunate that it has been left to individuals to go to the courts at their own expense to test legislation. It was unfortunate that I had to do that. It was unfortunate that individuals from Craigavon and Belfast district council had to test the law. Why did the Department sit back and watch? I should have thought that it was part of its duty to discover legal realities. I hope that the Minister of State will give us some assurance that, as a result of this problem, he will have the legislation under which councils operate in the north of Ireland examined thoroughly, as it is patently faulty.

Because of faulty legislation, councils can be used, just as they have been three times since 1973. The ball is in the court of the Minister and the Department. I ask him to use some courage in that regard. The order provides that, if councillors are suspended, those who serve on area boards will also be suspended from membership of those boards. In those circumstances, it would be only right to appoint people from the councils who wish to serve to redress the imbalance. The Minister should not tell us that he cannot do that because every appointment after election to a council is a nomination by the Minister. He has an opportunity to ensure that democratic representation on those boards continues.

I am aware that the Unionist parties have sent the Minister to Coventry, but that is no reason why he should not speak to the other political parties in Northern Ireland. I remind him of a request that my party made on 19 November 1985 for a meeting to discuss the problems of district councils. We have not yet had a reply. The request has been repeated, but we have still not had a reply. I should have thought that four months was long enough. Is the Minister taking a leaf out of Armagh district council's book and ignoring the request of other parties?

I welcome the order with some regret and for an extraneous reason. If implemented, it will give the Department a chance to do something crucial—to get a worm's eye view of how local government operates in Northern Ireland. It will have an opportunity to see the quality that does not exist in many councils in terms of representation and administration.

The order provides that proper steps should be taken to ensure that councils at administrative level are properly led and administered and not dragged down to the depths by lack of imagination or commitment. The Minister knows what I mean and what I am speaking about. He should get a worm's eye view of what we have to live with in Armagh, Craigavon and many other councils throughout the north of Ireland.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough started with a quotation from Shakespeare. It is worth remembering that one of the essences of tragedy is that it is self-inflicted. Once again, we have the trauma of people in the north of Ireland inflicting punishment on themselves and others when it could be avoided. There should be no equivocation. The Minister said, "as a contingency" and "if it proves essential". I should have thought that experience of the past five months would have shown that the time for "ifs" and "buts" was over. I, too, would like to quote Shakespeare: If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly".

7.58 pm
Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

It was my misfortune to be absent when the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made his maiden speech, and I am glad to have heard him speak today with force and eloquence. It is right and proper that the voice of Nationalism should be heard in this place. Indeed, it is right that the voice of separatist parties in Wales or Scotland should be heard here. This House is a place where there can be dialogue between Unionism and Nationalism. The Northern Ireland Assembly cannot fulfil that role and I believe that, Ministers are now contemplating its termination.

There is an irony in a member of the Social Democratic and Labour party appealing to the sovereignty of this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman described his party as being born in revolt. I thought that his parry's mission was to throw off the sovereignty of Parliament over Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I hope that my days here are numbered, as I hope the days here of every representative from Northern Ireland and numbered. As I said in my maiden speech, I want to do that in such a way that we create unity within Ireland without spilling one drop of blood or diminishing one man's rights. As such, while I am a Member of the House I shall treat it with respect and I shall try to present that point of view, but make no mistake about my position.

Sir John Biggs Davison

I hope that it will always be possible for there to be discussion between Unionists and Nationalists in this House.

The Under-Secretary of State who introduced the order made a sad speech because this is a melancholy occasion. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh pointed out, the people of Northern Ireland of every faith and opinion now face hardship, inconvenience and danger. The order is the "Local Government (Temporary Provision) (Northern Ireland) Order 1986." "Temporary" is a euphemism for emergency. Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and this House are in the presence of the largest emergency since the troubles began. We all know whatever we say and however much we whistle to keep up our courage, that the Anglo-Irish agreement has antagonised the most moderate Unionists and the most moderate Unionist councillors. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) quoted "King Lear". I suppose that if by one's policy one drives men mad one is fully entitled to call them mad. That is what is happening today.

I submit to the House that it is time that both Front Benches stopped lecturing and started to listen. When will the day come, which was promised by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that Unionists will see the benefit of the Hillsborough agreement? When does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary think that we shall see progress under this agreement towards peace, reconciliation and stability?

The House rarely discusses local government in Northern Ireland and it is sad that now it is obliged to discuss local government it cannot do so in a constructive fashion. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) hoped that some good would come out of this evil and that realities in Northern Ireland would now be faced. The reality is that the only practicable constitutional way forward is that which is constantly neglected and even ridiculed by Ministers — the fullest administrative devolution to local government — analogues to, not identical with, local government in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is the way forward. I invite Ministers to consider that way forward. It might help to mollify an estranged majority in the Province of Northern Ireland.

8.3 pm

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

A fortnight ago today the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. After that meeting a statement was issued by the Prime Minister—I do not think that it was an agreed statement—in which she said that she also offered consultations with the Unionist leaders about the arrangements for handling Northern Ireland business in Parliament at Westminster.

I have long felt that this procedure for debating legislation for Northern Ireland, even if the motion which stands in the Prime Minister's name is moved and passed, is most unsatisfactory because we cannot amend the order which is now before us. Therefore, I very much hope that the matter which was discussed a fortnight ago will be resumed and that there will be further discussions about arrangements for handling Northern Ireland business in Parliament at Westminster.

I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) about the timing of today's debate. It is perfectly understandable that the leader of his party and his hon. Friends wish to be in the Province today. However, I shall allow myself what I hope the right hon Gentleman will not think is an impertinence. I want to say that I hope that the leader of his party and his hon. Friends will participate in this House in future debates which affect not only Northern Ireland but the rest of the United Kingdom and all other matters. I hope to see a return to full representation from the Unionist parties in this place.

The arrangements for this evening's debate, however unsatisfactory, are arrangements which I believe are required by the situation. In my opinion, there was no way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could have failed to bring forward this Order in Council at this time. However, perhaps even my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will agree that the debate would not be taking place had it not been preceded by the Anglo-Irish agreement of 15 November.

I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for South Down that those who sit on the Treasury Bench still do not understand, or at least give no appearance of understanding, how deep is the feeling of bitterness and resentment about what happened on 15 November. There is no need for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to take my word for that. I can understand if my hon. Friend pays no heed to me, but he ought to pay heed to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. During an interview published in the Belfast Telegraph on 17 December 1985 my right hon. Friend said that the response in Northern Ireland to the Anglo-Irish agreement was "much worse" than had been expected. Was it much worse than my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary expected?

Yes, I think that all Northern Ireland Ministers, if they are honest with themselves, will say that they did not expect the reaction to be as it was. Why did they not expect the reaction which was totally predictable and predicted by others? It was because the advice which was being given by those in the Northern Ireland Office to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was based on a misunderstanding of the depth of Unionist feeling.

I understand why the order is before the House but I have to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that one cannot continue to govern a part of this kingdom in a way which is massively and significantly different from the way in which one governs other parts without the consent of the majority of people whom one is governing differently.

I hope that it will not be necessary for this order to remain in force for long, but I can understand the depth of feeling that have led Unionist councillors to take the action that they have taken. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will show a little more understanding of those depths of feeling and a greater willingness than has been in evidence since 15 November to acknowledge that it is just possible that Northern Ireland Ministers may be in error.

8.10 pm
Mr. Needham

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) made a powerful plea for a deeper understanding of ACE schemes and community projects in Northern Ireland. I think that the whole House will agree that it is a pity—I put it no higher than that—that the protest that we so much hoped would be both lawful and peaceful turned out in several instances to be neither. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, in local government, the effect of the unlawful process is to bring into considerable doubt the schemes that are of real benefit to the community.

We have only become fully aware of the problems that have arisen within the past few days, and we are considering them. I go back to what I said earlier—the appointment of commissioners would be a last resort, and grant-aiding community projects is a permissive power available to the councils. We wish to see those permissive powers kept with the councils and used by them, as that is the basis of their functions.

I could hardly be flattered by the comments made by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) about my position in Northern Ireland. However, I am the Minister responsible for local government and for the protection and provision of services. Therefore, it is right that I should be here to introduce the order and reply to this debate.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Member explain—I understand his point—why his colleagues are not here. In support of something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) I point out to the right hon. Member that I hope it will not be too long before his colleagues return to take up their seats, as I think that I heard him suggest might be the case, so that they can resume their questioning of me and my colleagues with the determination of which I know that they are capable.

When they do so, I humbly suggest that they encourage their colleagues to resume some of their functions on councils, although it can be argued that many of the services that local councils perform, as the right hon. Member for South Down said, are trivial in comparison to many of the functions that local councils or county councils have here. I must agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough that it will be even more difficult to persuade Government or Parliament to give greater responsibilities to those councils when at present their councillors appear to be prepared to act outside the law.

Unfortunately, I was not here for the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) but I have read it and I have had the privilege of listening to him come to the wicket for the second time. Whereas the right hon. Member for South Down hardly flattered me by calling me the most junior of junior Ministers, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, by referring to me as the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, has done my ego a great deal of good. All of us—I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne—understand the depth of feeling in the majority community. Therefore, it is even more necessary that all of us, wherever we are and whatever our position, are careful about the words we use and the tone in which we use them.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that the ball is in my court. I cannot accept that proposition entirely, but the whole point of local government has to be that the powers that are given to local government are exercised locally. If they are not being conducted properly we have, as a Department, introduced a commissioner of complaints and the local government auditor. We are not "big daddy", and nor is it right that we should be. The hon. Member and some of his colleagues have taken the opportunity of pursuing matters locally through the courts and that, in our judgment, is the way to proceed.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Many of our right hon. and hon. Friends are thinking carefully about the depth of feeling. Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us feel that we could understand it better, when we look back on the day of action or strike, if we had been able to see a more spontaneous withholding of consent, if that was what was going to happen, by those in Northern Ireland, and not the widespread intimidation, barricades and bullying that appeared to go on that day, which seemed substantially to fog any true expression of feeling?

Mr. Needham

My hon. and learned Friend is right. The effects of the day of action, and its effects on the British public at large, were traumatic and extremely unfortunate. It has done considerable harm to future investment possibilities in Northern Ireland and to the image of the Loyalist community. That is a tragedy because I know that the vast majority of people in the Unionist and Loyalist community in Northern Ireland are decent, law-abiding and sensible people.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh asked about the introduction of commissioners, but I hope that that will not become necessary. If they were to be introduced, all councillors would be suspended. Therefore, it would not be possible to take councillors who are against the boycott and put them on to boards—such a move would not be a particularly good and sensible idea as it would be denying the ballot box by putting into positions of power people who had not been elected to those positions.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the Minister—I go no further this time after promoting him last time—for giving way. However, I have to disagree. Every person who sits on an area board is in the last analysis appointed to it. Some of these people are not elected to district councils or to any other office. If a commissioner is appointed, the councillors who wish to serve on the council are disadvantaged not only in connection with the council but in relation to sitting on an area board. The Minister must clear up that contradiction.

Mr. Needham

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there are rules governing appointment to boards which vary from one board to another. There are ministerial appointments which take into account the background, experience and professionalism of appointees to those hoards. In other cases many people have to be appointed and the minister and the Department have no say in that under the statute.

Mr. Mallon

Will the Minister confirm that each person who sits on an area board is appointed to that board by the Minister responsible for that relevant board?

Mr. Needham

I think that we are getting into a slightly esoteric argument but the point is that the Minister has no discretion and must accept the people put forward to him from the local authorities or from the organisations under the statute.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The point that the Minister must clarify is whether the withdrawal, after the appointment of commissioners, of these appointed members from the boards will create vacancies which can be filled by the Minister. The Minister must address himself to that point.

Mr. Needham

I cannot give a definite answer to that question. As I understand it, and I will confirm this later to the right hon. Member for South Down and to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh the appointments are lost and cannot go to the commissioners and would not fall back to the Minister for appointment. I will find out and write to the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman about that.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh if he has not received a reply to his request to send a deputation to see me. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the present circumstances I am only too happy to receive a deputation from anybody. I have been informed that the hon. Gentleman's November or December letter did not arrive and I have replied to the hon. Gentleman's colleague in the last two weeks.

As the only part I have ever played in Shakespeare was the fool in King Lear, I shall adjure from making any quotations. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne who commented that men who were driven mad become mad. I understand my hon. Friend's point, as it was Lear who drove himself mad.

I must tell the House that as the Minister with responsibility for the environment I do not relish bringing this measure to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne is correct to say that in the Prime Minister's statement following the talks in Downing street one of the offers that was made was to consider the methods by which legislation in Northern Ireland could go through the House. The councils were adjourned because of the Sinn Fein presence before the Anglo-Irish agreement. Nevertheless, I accept that the situation has been subsumed by that.

As I said before, in putting this order to the House, I hope that, we will not have to use it. I hope that in local affairs in Northern Ireland it will be possible, accepting the depth of feeling, for councils to resume their normal business in the not too distant future in the same way as the right hon. Member for South Down has resumed his place in the House.

We all agree that the order should not last too long and that it is an order we would prefer to do without. However, as the Minister responsible for the environment, I have the duty to protect services and jobs if necessary. I therefore commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to,

Resolved, That the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 (S.I. 1986, No. 221), dated 12th February 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th February, be approved.