HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc119-25


10.15 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I beg to move amendment No. 95, in page 31, line 23, at end add— '(6) The membership of the Forum shall be determined by the Assembly voting on a cross—community basis in accordance with section 4(5).'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to consider clause 65 stand part.

Rev. Ian Paisley

In the agreement, there was a proposal that there should be a civic forum. I understand that the reason was that people who were at the talks thought that they would not be elected to the Assembly. They therefore thought that they should safeguard themselves and have a sort of House of Lords to be a second chamber—

Mr. Peter Robinson


Rev. Ian Paisley

Yes, it would be an unelected second chamber to be brought into being by the patronage of the First Minister designate and the Second Minister designate. They would have full charge of all the arrangements, the money to be paid, the whole set-up and all the people who were to be members of the forum. The amendment would mean that the Secretary of State could appoint the First Minister designate and the Second Minister designate to implement the recommendations and to make nominations, but that the Assembly itself, under the consensus rule that is held up as the means of controlling discrimination against any section of the community, should determine membership of the forum. Those who are so keen to have the forum and all the consultation should readily agree that it would be entirely in order for nominations to be approved by a consensus vote in the Assembly. At least that would put the new forum on a democratic basis.

When Ministers are appointed under the terms of the legislation, they will have to undertake a great deal of consultation. Committee Chairmen will be breathing down Ministers' necks and Vice-Chairmen will be breathing down the necks of Committee Chairmen and Ministers. Every Committee member will be judge and jury, with the ability to cross-examine the Minister and all his staff. The Minister will have to put all his books on the table. That will be in addition to any consultation that will take place through lobbying—every Minister consults interested parties on every matter that comes before him.

To set up an elaborate second Chamber and to make it a matter of patronage is to say, "If you are a good boy, you will get a job." One of the defeated candidates castigated the electorate for daring to reject him after all the great work that he had done for eight years. He said, "Surely I have been disfranchised by the electorate". All democrats must stand for election and if people do not vote for them, that is too bad. People do not necessarily appreciate the ability, skill and dedication of the person concerned, and that is what happens in elections—the best man does not always win and the electorate have the final say.

The civic forum may be a vast body. We do not know how many members it will have—perhaps the Minister will help us with that. We do not know where they will come from and there is no guarantee that they will represent the community across the board. Other bodies in Northern Ireland that are supposed to represent the community across the board do not do so because they are quangos. Anyone who agrees with the Government but is defeated in an election is sure to be appointed to one of those bodies. Two that come to mind are the Police Authority and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. One has only to look at who is represented on them—those who have the patronage of the Government. Those who do not say yes to everything that the Government say have a baldy's chance, as they say in North Antrim where I come from, of getting nominated. If they are nominated, they are soon removed. My party has suffered that in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Police Authority, as have others. Nominations to quangos in Northern Ireland do not reflect the strength of political parties among the electorate.

Members of the new super-quango—a replica of the patronage-driven House of Lords—are to sit with Ministers and give them instruction and consultation. The Committee should allow Ministers to have such a forum, if they want it, and to recommend various people to sit on it, but at the end of the day, the Assembly, under the consensus rule which means a majority of Unionist and nationalist representatives, would need to rubber-stamp the nominations. I do not think that anything could be fairer than that. The Committee should consider that proposal and the Minister should accept our amendment. It is probably the only amendment that we may have accepted, although I do not have any optimism about that. Perhaps we shall say that it was good to sit here for six hours every day moving amendments if at least one is accepted. One is better than none.

Mr. Peter Robinson

My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) may be too optimistic in expecting that the Government might accept an amendment from this side. They can prove me wrong if they wish.

I support my hon. Friend's amendment, which would add a subsection to the clause to ensure that those on the new civic forum were representative of the community as a whole. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) tabled an amendment on a previous clause to ensure that the commission would be representative of the community as a whole. This amendment is one way in which that can be done for the forum. Anything that is not representative of the community will not be passed in the Assembly by the cross-community vote required under clause 4(5). The amendment would ensure balance in the membership of the forum.

One can study several documents to find out the purpose of the civic forum. I agree with my hon. Friend that the last thing that a Minister will need under the new system is more advice. There will be advice from every quarter. Commissions will be advising; 108 Members of the Assembly will be advising; special committees are being set up to advise; and there will be the normal lobbying. The elected representatives in Northern Ireland will be much closer to the electorate and the various interest groups, and therefore more in touch with their views. The civic forum is clearly being set up to allow individuals to have some patronage—some jobs to hand out to keep people happy and on board. There will be seats for political rejects.

The Bill does not reflect the agreement on the civic forum. The agreement says: The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will … establish guidelines for the selection of representatives". There is nothing in the Bill about guidelines for the selection of representatives. Clause 65 says only: The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum the views of the community on social, economic and cultural matters. There is no suggestion that they have responsibility for making arrangements for election.

The Bill restricts the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in determining the membership. It allows them to designate sectors that can be included, but it does not allow them to name individuals. If the sectors in the agreement must be included in the civic forum, plus any other sectors, there will have to be a mechanism to determine who represents each sector. Will each sector have a mechanism for sending forward its representatives or will they be selected? If so, will it be by the United Kingdom Government, by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister or by the Assembly?

To some extent, I have the answer to that question because I asked a question of the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), in Northern Ireland Question Time on Wednesday—or was it the Wednesday before? The days are beginning to merge after all these debates. The Minister said: The agreement makes it clear that it is a matter for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to lay down guidelines for appointments to the civic forum. He is dead right; so it does, but the Bill does not. The Minister continued: They will be put to the assembly for its consideration and approval."—[Official Report, 15 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 395.] The amendment seeks to encourage the Minister to make it very clear that not only the guidelines on and general arrangements for the civic forum, but the appointments will be put before the Assembly so that the Assembly can approve them or otherwise. It is a very simple matter. I hope that the Minister can satisfy us on that point.

10.30 pm
Mr. Temple-Morris

I would dearly love to grant the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) an amendment, but it is not within my gift. Charitable as I am in wishing to do so, I do not believe that the Government should accept amendment No. 95—surprise, surprise.

I should like to make a couple of basic points about what I understand to be going on. The consultative civic forum is not as awe-inspiring as the hon. Member for North Antrim seems to think. It is certainly not a patronage-driven House of Lords or a second chamber. I would have thought that the very motive behind the procedure of appointment is that it should not create an institution—that the forum should be as different from that as possible. Its essence is that it should be above the party politics of Northern Ireland; it should bring into the processes that surround and are part of the Belfast agreement people whom Northern Ireland sadly lacks at present. It should bring in people who do not go into active politics.

Clause 65(2) states: The arrangements"— as they are called— shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly. There is a control. The hon. Member for Belfast, East was right to draw attention to the fact that, in addition, under the Belfast agreement, which surely will be pursued under the Bill and the eventual Act, The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will by agreement establish guidelines for the selection of representatives to the Civic Forum. Indeed, those guidelines will doubtless come back to the Assembly for approval.

In no way is the civic forum a sort of House of Lords. It is a consultative body which will provide a valuable and additional activity. It should not be—this is why I am very much opposed to the amendment—brought into the political process. It should be kept out of that and remain consultative to it. That is the essence of the Bill and of the Belfast agreement.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The hon. Gentleman suggests that, by not having the Assembly approve membership, as the amendment suggests, appointments would be kept away from the political process. Somebody has to appoint and approve; it will be politicians. It will either be this Government, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or the Assembly—all those involved are politicians. How does choosing one mechanism over the other take the appointments away from the political process?

Mr. Temple-Morris

Everything is part of a political process. The point is to provide for the, hopefully, worthy gentlemen who will serve on the civic forum a certain separation—a wall of the system between them and the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. People who serve on the civic forum must be kept apart. At the same time, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, by reason of clause 65(2) and the general powers of the Assembly, will doubtless have all the voice that they need. Goodness knows, they are not exactly short of it.

Mr. Paul Murphy

Hon. Members will know that the civic forum was set up by the agreement, but they may not know that, during the strand 1 negotiations, a second chamber—perhaps on the lines of the old Stormont Senate—was seriously considered. However, the parties concluded—they were probably right—that as the Assembly would have 108 Members, a second chamber was not needed.

A consultative civic forum is enshrined in the agreement because the parties also thought that, over the past 30 years, when the political stability of Northern Ireland was in question, people from business, the trade unions, the Churches and the voluntary sector had in many ways made the country work.

The Bill says: The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum the views of the community on social, economic and cultural matters. Clause 65(2) states: The arrangements shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly. That clearly provides the Assembly with the opportunity in law to pass judgment on the arrangements that will be suggested to it in a report. The Bill also refers to the way in which the forum will be financed. Again, that is a matter for the Assembly, which will have the right to determine its own financial matters, including those relating to the forum.

I understand the points made by the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), but I must disappoint them. We must operate in the context of what is happening at the moment—the hon. Member for Belfast, East referred to this—which is that, under the Bill, the Secretary of State is charging the Assembly to consider the question of a civic forum, and particularly how its members should be appointed. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will present their report to the Assembly when it meets in September, and then the Assembly will have to consider the report and how the forum is to work.

The agreement is reflected in the way in which the Secretary of State has, through the Bill, directed the Assembly and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act. There is ample opportunity for Assembly Members to debate, discuss and finally approve how the civic forum should operate, how it should be paid for and how it should be made up.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is all very well for the Minister to tell us about the guidelines, but that is not sufficient. The Assembly must be able to have a say on whether the make-up of the membership follows the guidelines. As I said, we have consultative bodies that are supposed to represent the community, but do not. The only way in which to monitor whether bodies are representative is for the Assembly to decide whether the guidelines on membership that are set out by the two Ministers have been correctly applied.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) was not at the talks, but I know what some of those sitting at the table said. They said, "We might not be elected. After all our good work, we might have no place." As the Minister said, there was a long discussion about a second Chamber. I know things that are happening in Northern Ireland of which the hon. Member for Leominster is evidently not aware. It is simply a matter of patronage. Those who could not get elected to the Assembly will be on the body, and it will reflect the politics of those who were rejected by the electorate.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister said that the arrangements referred to in subsection (1) would be arrangements for setting up the forum, but he should look again at the wording, which refers to "arrangements for obtaining views" from the forum, not for setting it up.

Rev. Ian Paisley

My hon. Friend makes an important point, to which the Minister should reply.

Let no one be deceived. All over Northern Ireland, people who submitted themselves to the electorate and were rejected suddenly turned up as chairmen of quangos, with far greater power than local government, making decisions and spending vast sums. It is only right that we have a consensus vote and both sides of the community can decide whether a person should be a member of the body. What could be fairer than that?

As the Bill stands, those in the forum will be appointed by one person. I talked to one of the Ministers the other day. I pulled his leg and asked whether he had his nominees ready. He said, "Oh, yes. There are many people I want to get on to the forum." It will be a body of cronies.

If we want to know what the trade unions think, we can go to the trade unions. If we want to know what the Churches think, we can go to them. If we want to know what women's groups think, we can go to them. They are all very well organised. Why say that the forum is not a political body when we are discussing it only because of people who wanted to take over the country at the election—they said that some of us would sink, to rise no more—but who sank and who now hope that a life belt will be thrown to them?

Mr. Paul Murphy

The point about the arrangements is extremely important. I know that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has concerns, and were those concerns accurate I would share them. Certainly, the civic forum should not be a second chamber by default. It is there specifically to represent the views of the organisations and bodies to which I have referred. It would be wrong if it were usurped by party politics.

The body is consultative, and the method of the consultation, which will then feed into the Assembly, is the most significant aspect. It is not a law-making body; it is there specifically to give advice to the Assembly, and the method of giving that advice should be determined by the Assembly.

Rev. Martin Smyth

How many people will be on the civic forum, and who will nominate them? The Minister mentioned business, trade unions and community groups. Sometimes, business interests have nominated people to the community partnerships, for example, and those bodies have had to be reformed as a result of the lessons that we have learnt. Will the Assembly do more than make arrangements for how it is to get the information? Will it assess whether the debate has been fully communicated and how many people attended any particular debate? People in a rump may pass on views and, when they have been given the status of the civic forum, we can guarantee that they will be a thorn in the flesh of any elected body that dares to turn down those views.

Mr. Murphy

The Bill states that the Assembly should determine how the forum makes its views known to it, so the Assembly will consider how best the advice can be used. Will it be used at some stage in the legislative process? Will the Assembly use it by debating reports that it receives? I do not know. It is a matter for the Assembly to decide.

Rev. Martin Smyth

What about the method of appointment?

10.45 pm
Mr. Murphy

Again, that is something that the Assembly is to consider in September. The agreement charges the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister with doing that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the Ministers and to the Assembly saying that both were to consider the guidelines by which people would be appointed to the forum. When that report is before the Assembly, I am sure that all the points that hon. Members have made tonight will be debated at length. It is important that that issue is debated and that the forum is not a second chamber, but a consultative forum. It is novel and it could be interesting if it develops properly, according to the agreement.

Rev. Ian Paisley

In view of what the Minister has said—I am glad that it is in Hansard because I will have the joy of reading it to the Assembly during that debate and will have the authorised version before me—I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn, Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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