HC Deb 02 November 1989 vol 159 cc456-7
7. Mr. Gow

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he has any proposals to re-establish local government in Northern Ireland on a basis close to that of local government in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

We have no current plans for changes to the existing structure of local government in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gow

Does my hon. Friend recall the commitment given in the 1979 Conservative party manifesto which stated that in the absence of devolved government we would seek to set up a regional council in Northern Ireland? Why has that commitment been abandoned, and why does my hon. Friend continue to withhold from the people of Northern Ireland the inestimable benefits of the community charge?

Dr. Mawhinney

The commitment has not been withdrawn. We have fought succeeding elections on a manifesto committing the Government, along with the other major constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland, to seeking a form of devolution for the Province. That remains our position.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Minister agree that he was somewhat inaccurate in his reply to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow)? Has he not in fact changed the democratic structure of local government in the proposals for the composition of health boards after March 1990? Will he at least concede that if he goes ahead with that plan the new health and social services councils will be accorded powers similar to those vested in Select Committees of this House?

Dr. Mawhinney

It is and remains part of the Government's desire and intention to give the people of Northern Ireland a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives in a whole variety of ways. However, the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question does not follow from the original question.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my hon. Friend look again at the reply that he gave to our hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) about commitments to devolution? I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister to read the statements made by our right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland who has very clearly declared views about the instability which would result from any form of devolved government in any part of the unitary parliamentary system. The Minister should bear in mind the impact of his thoughts in Ulster on politics in Scotland.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am aware of the strength of my hon. Friend's views because he has expressed them before at Northern Ireland Question Time. However, I must remind him that it is, and has been for a long time, part of the Government's policy and commitment to seek to have arrangements in Northern Ireland which command widespread support across the community and which give local people a greater say in the decisions which affect their lives.

Mr. Ashdown

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment and wish him well in a very difficult and demanding post. Can the Under-Secretary of State assure the House that if the Government were to give thought to increasing the powers of local government, which would be very welcome, he would ensure that that would in no way jeopardise the Government's commitment to speedy implementation of devolution, which is the Government's publicly stated aim in the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Dr. Mawhinney

First, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would wish me to express his appreciation of the right hon. Gentleman's kind words. In Northern Ireland we are seeking arrangements that command widespread support across the community. If any arrangements are introduced that do not command that support, they will not work. That is the Government's basic position. Nothing that might take place in future with respect to local government will get in the way of the Government's long-standing commitment to devolution, which predates the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Forward to