HC Deb 24 July 1998 vol 316 cc1353-60 9.39 am
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I beg to move amendment No. 150, in, page 13, line 4, leave out from 'If' to 'by' in line 12 and insert 'three months after either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office the Assembly has not elected a First Minister or Deputy First Minister Her Majesty shall'. The amendment is to some extent consequential to an amendment that we discussed yesterday. It concerns an issue that goes to the very heart of the concept of an Assembly that will sit for a fixed four-year term, unlike this House, which sits not for a fixed term but for a maximum period during which the Prime Minister may, at any time, seek a dissolution. The objection to clause 24(4) is that it undermines the basic concept of the fixed term that is proposed for the Assembly.

Subsection (4) says that the Assembly may be dissolved on three conditions. The third, which is particularly sweeping, is that it is in the public interest that the Assembly should be dissolved". Who is to consider that? The clause states that it will be Her Majesty, but, in practice, it will be the Secretary of State. A simple provision states that a body that is supposedly elected for a fixed four-year term may be dissolved if the Secretary of State believes that it is in the public interest.

That is contrary to the concept of the Assembly's existence and undermines the democratic process. It says to the electorate of Northern Ireland that although they may elect a body, the Secretary of State, who represents and is accountable to no one in Northern Ireland, may, if she considers it appropriate, turn out all its Members. That treats the electorate with contempt and disdain. I trust that it would never happen because no one would be foolish enough to do it. There is therefore no reason why the provision should be in the Bill.

Objection can also be made to the other grounds for dissolution set out in paragraphs (a) and (b). The first is that the persons who are the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Ministers are not able to carry out their functions". That does not refer to issues of individual incapacity such as the First Minister being ill or unable to discharge his functions, in which case action could be taken. There is no such provision in the clause. We need only read the history books to see that there have been times when persons have occupied positions on the Treasury Benches and been incapable of discharging their functions for various reasons, but we need not go into the details of that. One wonders what circumstances the draftsmen envisaged in which all Ministers, not only the First Minister, would be unable to carry out their functions and, as paragraph (b) states, if they were to resign, the persons who would be likely to succeed them would not be able to carry out their functions". Although the provisions in paragraphs (a) and (b) are somewhat absurd, it is the provision in paragraph (c) which is fundamentally objectionable. It runs counter to the spirit of the Bill by demonstrating a degree of contempt for the electorate in Northern Ireland, and it undermines the concept of the Assembly as a body that operates for a fixed four-year term.

Hon. Members will remember that yesterday, when we were considering the provisions for the election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and the consequences of one or other resigning, I proposed an amendment providing for a three-month period subsequent to that resignation in which there would be an opportunity for re-election. We may argue about whether the period should be three months or less—the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) suggested a seven-day period, which I thought too short—but we need to provide a period of between one week and three months in which the Assembly should try to re-elect First and Deputy First Ministers. If it were unable to do so during that period, that is the only case in which the Assembly should be dissolved before it had completed its four-year term.

9.45 am

The amendments that I have tabled would mean that either of the two largest parties would be able to bring about a dissolution of the Assembly if it were determined to do so, simply by arranging for its leader—the First or Deputy First Minister—to resign, not offering any candidate to be re-elected and using its votes to block the re-election of other persons. However, the procedure would be rather cumbersome and would take time, during which the party would have to justify its action, not only to the Assembly, but to the electorate. That is appropriate. It should not be easy for people to bring about the dissolution of a body that is elected for a fixed four-year term. Dissolution should certainly not be caused by the wave of a hand of someone who is not a Member of the Assembly, who is not elected in Northern Ireland and who is not answerable to its people. That is objectionable in principle.

I ask the Government to reconsider clause 24(4) and to consider the amendment, which would provide a procedure to bring about a dissolution while maintaining the integrity of the fixed-term concept by making it difficult to dissolve the Assembly. I point out that, in drafting the amendment, I omitted to provide for the deletion of subsection (5), which would not be appropriate if the amendment were made. We can consider that at a later stage.

My crucial point is that these provisions should be deleted because they are objectionable on democratic grounds and contrary to the concept of the scheme, but there may be circumstances in which a dissolution before the end of a four-year term would be appropriate. The amendment provides for that, but the procedure would not be easy to use because it should be biased in favour of the Assembly serving its full fixed four-year term and dissolving before that only when it would be difficult, or almost impossible, for it to continue. It should not be easy to seek an early dissolution and it should certainly not be done on the ridiculous grounds set out in clause 24(4).

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I welcome the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) because it is interesting to debate the subject. I will not be supporting it, however, because—this is my central point—the clause provides a necessary reserved power. I follow the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument that using the provision would bring about a dissolution by the back door, but the sad fact is that if one wanted to dissolve the Assembly, there would be several ways of making it unworkable, as there are in any assembly. The history of Northern Ireland contains examples of assemblies which, through no one's fault, have proved difficult to work for various reasons. That is why the Bill contains the reserved power in clause 24(4).

The clause is not an attempt to undermine the democratic process. Everyone is trying to give Northern Ireland the maximum amount of representative democracy. This is a reserved power, exercisable through Her Majesty by the Secretary of State. As I have said in other discussions on the Bill, we must realise that we are dealing with the democratic process in Northern Ireland and at Westminster. In making the decision to dissolve, the Secretary of State would be answerable to this House.

Mr. Trimble

If it is necessary to have a reserved power in this matter, will the hon. Gentleman compare and contrast it with whatever reserved powers there might be in the Government of Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill? I do not believe that there is equivalent provision in either.

Mr. Temple-Morris

I think the right hon. Gentleman is right. However, I believe that he has more cause than almost anyone in the Committee at the moment to appreciate and acknowledge the fact that the situation in Northern Ireland is different. The history is different. The effort at devolution to Scotland and Wales is the first in modern times; the circumstances are totally different here, because this is not, by a long chalk, the first effort at devolution toward Northern Ireland. In view of the history and the circumstances, I have no hesitation in saying that the reserved power is necessary.

The reserved power deals with the plural—the whole cross-community concept. The power would be exercised if

the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Ministers are not able to carry out their functions"— plural—and the same for those who might succeed them. Part of the concept is the idea that, if one Minister cannot carry out his functions, it is likely that the other cannot carry out his either. That is how such a situation might come about.

In clause 24(4)(c) we have the saving grace—quite apart from the overall accountability to the House—that it is for the Secretary of State to gauge whether it is in the public interest for the Assembly to be dissolved. Then, far from doing a dreadful act to democracy, one goes to the people in order to elect a new Assembly; the democratic process takes over.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for drawing attention to the matter, but I do not believe that amendment No. 150 helps the Bill. It would merely prolong a situation which the Secretary of State must have the power to deem a crisis, in which she would accordingly dissolve the Assembly. If the amendment were passed, we would have three months' agony in such a situation: we would lose a very valuable part of the Bill.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the points that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) made. I do not have clear in my mind the force of the distinction between subsections (3) and (4) of the clause. Amendment No. 150 deals specifically with subsection (4). We have been repeatedly told that the Bill must be in keeping with the spirit of the agreement, so it is interesting that a four-year term is not mentioned in the agreement. We have already stipulated a specific passage of time during which the Assembly should be operative.

I am puzzled; I do not see why subsection (4) is necessary. We are considering the concept of Her Majesty acting on the advice of the Secretary of State—but the Secretary of State already has the power to act by virtue of subsection (3).

Some people may think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was in dreamland when he tabled amendment No. 150. Some years ago, I visited Holland shortly before a general election. For six months, the two parties that had formed the coalition Government had been unable to come to terms to form a new Government. As I understand it, in such circumstances we would not be in a similar position to Holland, where the existing Government continued to exercise their power until the new Government were in place. We are contemplating a situation where, for whatever reason, the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and other Northern Ireland Ministers were not prepared to work together. If that happened, Her Majesty should have a power by Order in Council to dissolve the Assembly to hold a fresh election after a specified period. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility—humans being what we are—that such a situation might arise. In fact, the Government were considering it. We are suggesting that their proposals are too cumbersome. Our amendment could help by making things easier and more straightforward.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I understand and sympathise with some of the concerns voiced by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) too quickly dismissed those concerns.

I also say to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann that, where possible, and always acknowledging the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, we should attempt to establish similarities in the legislation governing the new assemblies and parliaments that we are creating. He was right to question the difference between clause 24(4) and the provisions relating to a dissolution of the Scottish Parliament. In Scotland, extraordinary general elections are to be held where the Parliament so resolves and, on a Division, a majority of not less than two thirds of its Members votes that it should be dissolved. They are also to be held if the Parlliament does not nominate a First Minister during the period specified. The right hon. Gentleman's anxieties are therefore entirely legitimate.

I should like to know the definition of "public interest" in clause 24(4)(c). Clause 24(4)(a) speaks of circumstances where the persons who are the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Ministers are not able to carry out their functions". Could such a situation be brought about by a vote of no confidence by two thirds of the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I hope that the Minister will treat amendment No. 150 sympathetically. I did not hear the right hon. Member for Upper Bann say that it was a probing amendment, but I believe that it is the type of amendment that should be treated with sympathy, especially when considered in relation to the Scottish legislation.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

What pressures would be placed on the Secretary of State to decide that it was in the public interest to dissolve the Assembly? We well know that, since the process that brought in the Irish Republic, the latter has had, and continues to have, a strong influence on what happens in Northern Ireland. If the Irish Republic said that it was not in the public interest for the Assembly to continue, I am sure that—judging by the past record—that view would be immediately accepted and the Assembly would be axed, because the pressures that have been exerted on Northern Ireland have been largely directed from the south of Ireland.

The same thing happened when the Stormont Parliament was first prorogued and then disbanded. We had the same agitation when other assemblies were put in its place, especially the most recent. It is a very serious thing, given that the Anglo-Irish Conference—which continues under the agreement, under another name—would continue to have a very big say in pressurising the Secretary of State to say that it was not in the public interest for the Assembly to continue. The public interest, to the Irish Republic, is its own parochial interest.

The Secretary of State is being given a very wide power indeed. The result of all that we have done in the House, and all the talks, can be taken away by a stroke of a pen, without any Member of the Assembly or Minister of the Assembly—even the First Minister or Deputy First Minister—having any say in the matter.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

The Question is—

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)


The Chairman

It would be helpful if Members seeking to participate in the debate in the Committee could give a clear indication to the Chair. Otherwise, the Chair may assume that the debate has been completed.

Mr. Taylor

I would definitely have done so, Sir Alan, had it not occurred to me only two seconds ago that I wanted to speak.

I shall make two brief points. First, it seems amazing that, although the Government are not prepared to remove people from the Assembly Executive even though they belong to a political party that is inextricably linked to a paramilitary organisation that is killing people on the ground, they are prepared to take upon themselves the power to remove all Members of the Assembly. I do not follow that inconsistency.

Secondly, I share the fears expressed by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) that the Government will be influenced by the Dublin Government in deciding whether the Assembly should proceed. As a result of that influence, the Assembly could be closed—and there are precedents for that in the history of Northern Ireland. On numerous occasions in Committee, the Government have rejected amendments from the Ulster Unionist party or from Her Majesty's Opposition on the basis that they are inconsistent with the Stormont agreement. I hope that the Secretary of State is listening to this point. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the amendment is inconsistent with the Belfast agreement—because I believe that he certainly cannot do so in this case.

10 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

This has been an interesting short debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) referred to the histories of past assemblies and similar bodies, and reflected on how it was important for Parliament to have the power to dissolve those bodies in the event of various crises. However, I believe that times have changed and that this agreement and this Northern Ireland Assembly will be more permanent.

We have consulted widely on this clause in recent days, and we have sympathy with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred to the Scottish comparison, which is a valid point. It is worth examining it so that we may determine whether there is a read-across from the Scottish to the Northern Ireland situation.

I think that we should re-examine the clause and the consequential amendments that would have to be made to other parts of the Bill.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Does the Minister agree that proponents of the amendment claim that the clause gives total, absolute and almost dictatorial powers to the Secretary of State? However, clause 24(5) states: No recommendation shall be made to Her Majesty to make an Order under subsection (4) unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. That is surely a very strong and adequate democratic safeguard relating to the cause, reason and execution of such a proposal.

Mr. Murphy

In no sense is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a dictator and she, and anyone who succeeds her, will have to be accountable to the House of Commons and the other place.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The issue is surely the balance between the autonomy of the Northern Ireland Assembly versus the insurance policy of referring the decision to this Chamber and the other place. The real concern is that the clause goes some way towards undermining the responsibility and trust invested in the Assembly to be able to manage its own affairs.

Mr. Murphy

This is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, as such, authority ultimately rests here.

In terms of the Assembly's workability, we believe that we should plan not for failure but for success. We propose to re-examine the clause, consult in detail with the parties during August and September and refer the matter to the other place.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Parliament is sovereign anyway, and thus would be able to do what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) suggests. However, Northern Ireland representation in this place is very small, and Northern Ireland parties are not represented in the upper House. According to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), the leader of the SDLP, it would not have any representatives in the other place. My party has never been represented there. Therefore, the House of Lords would not have a full complement of spokesmen to represent the people and put the views. The Assembly should at least—

Dr. Godman

Lord Paisley.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I do not think that that will ever happen—and I would not want it to. I would rather be in a place that has real power. Apparently the other place will be dehorned anyway—and does the hon. Gentleman think that I would offer my head for the chop? I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would make such a suggestion. I will allow him to take my seat.

It is important that the Assembly be allowed at least to express its feelings about the matter.

Mr. Murphy

That is why it is important to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) referred to the four-year term. He is correct in saying that that is not in the agreement, although it was discussed during the negotiations and all parties agreed that a four-year term should be the norm. The poll may be shifted up to two months before or after it would otherwise be held in order to ensure that it could be held on the same day as other elections, where appropriate. For example, the Assembly election would coincide with local elections in Northern Ireland, which makes sense financially and would increase the voter turnout. Subsection (4)(c) enables a dissolution of the Assembly at any time during the four-year term.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde raised several issues. There is no specific provision for votes of no confidence in the Administration rather than in Ministers or parties. We could consider a dissolution on a two-thirds majority—which would be comparable with the Scottish model, as my hon. Friend is aware. As elsewhere, the definition of public interest is in statute and it is not easy to define in abstract. They are just a few reasons why it is important to re-examine the issue, and I ask the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the Minister for his response and for his willingness to re-examine the matter. I am glad that the Government have had second thoughts, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) for his comments about the desirability of having a read-across into the Northern Ireland institutions from the newly devolved institutions. I thank the Minister for taking that point on board.

It was also pleasant to hear the Minister make the simple but fundamental point—which has been sometimes lost sight of in the past few months through misinterpretation of the position—that Parliament remains sovereign and that, at the end of the day, power over all parts of the United Kingdom returns to the House. That point is made clear in clause 5(6). Therefore, those who are concerned about the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 can be reassured about the absolute sovereignty of the House.

That is also the answer for the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). If there is a need for a reserved power in order to act in an emergency, the Parliament has the capacity to do so and has no need of such a clause in this Bill. The one time that it was felt necessary to intervene in the terms that the hon. Gentleman described—I did not agree, but it was done—when the House decided in 1972 to prorogue and abolish the Northern Ireland Parliament, legislation was passed in the course of one day to give effect to that action. The point about the undiminished sovereignty of Parliament remains.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Under the terms of the agreement, Parliament and the British Government have agreed that, in the event of a simple majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom, there will be no claim of sovereignty—which is exactly what section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 declared.

Mr. Trimble

The hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely wrong. While the United Kingdom continues, the sovereignty of this House is undiminished. If part of the United Kingdom seceded, the situation would be different. The possibility of secession has been explicit in British constitutional legislation since 1921, so the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) does himself no credit by advancing arguments that are simply wrong in law. I shall not pursue the issue further at this stage.

I thank the Minister for his willingness to look again at the matter. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 25 and 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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