HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc1021-8

Lords amendment: No. 33, after clause 14, to insert the following new clause—Ministerial offices.—(1) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly may at any time, and shall where subsection (2) applies, determine—

  1. (a) the number of Ministerial offices to be held by Northern Ireland Ministers; and
  2. (b) the functions to be exercisable by the holder of each such office.
(2) This subsection applies where provision is made by an Act of the Assembly for establishing a new Northern Ireland department or dissolving an existing one. (3) In making a determination under subsection ( 1 ), the First Minister and the deputy First Minister shall ensure that the functions exercisable by those in charge of the different Northern Ireland departments existing at the date of the determination are exercisable by the holders of different Ministerial offices. (4) The number of Ministerial offices shall not exceed 10 or such greater number as the Secretary of State may by order provide. (5) A determination under subsection (1) shall not have effect unless it is approved by a resolution of the Assembly passed with cross-community support.

Mr. Paul Murphy

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 34 to 44 and 373.

Mr. Murphy

The amendments deal with a technical but extremely important part of the Bill—the workings of the d'Hondt formula for appointing Ministers. I had never heard of d'Hondt until I went into the talks process, but we hear of nothing else nowadays. As hon. Members know, d'Hondt refers to the system by which members of the Executive—the Ministers for Northern Ireland— will eventually be appointed. Essentially, they will be appointed on the basis of the electoral strength of their party as a consequence of the Assembly elections.

Many of the amendments that we are considering in this regard reflect points made during previous consideration in Committee and in the House on Report. Other amendments are technical, reflecting the complexity of the subject matter. As I said on Report and Third Reading, the provisions on the circumstances in which the d'Hondt formula should be re-run needed amendment in order to reflect the spirit of the agreement fully.

Amendment No. 33 sets out the circumstances in which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister may make a determination, as it is called, setting out the number of ministerial posts, and the functions exercisable by the holders of those posts. Those determinations need to be approved by the Assembly on a cross-community basis.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be able to introduce determinations when they choose, but they must do so if legislation has been passed creating or dissolving a Northern Ireland department, as it would clearly be wrong to create a new department without ensuring that it had a Minister in charge of it.

In addition to new determinations to reflect what we might call the machinery of government changes, the Bill also needs provision for the d'Hondt formula to be rerun within the existing framework of departmental responsibility—a matter that was of great interest to hon. Members in Committee.

The series of amendments to clause 15, and in particular amendment No. 34, concern the circumstances in which the formula would be re-run. As hon. Members will know by now, the d'Hondt formula is a means of allocating posts proportionally. The formula will obviously therefore need to be re-run after every Assembly election to take account of new electoral mandates. In addition, amendment No. 34 provides for re-runs in other circumstances—for example, when a party is excluded from office, leaving its seats vacant, or when a party's period of exclusion comes to an end and its entitlement to hold office has to be accommodated.

The Assembly will also be able to set out in its Standing Orders other circumstances when d'Hondt could be re-run. It is for the Members of the Assembly to determine what those circumstances will be. I understand that the Standing Orders Committee of the Assembly is examining the issues and will continue to do so.

The other amendments deal with technical issues, such as what happens when a party declines to provide a nominee for a post to which it is entitled, a definition of a registered political party and a provision that nominating officers may delegate their powers only to officers of their party who are also members of the Assembly.

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 are particularly loved, I guess, by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), who referred to an anorak when he spoke about them previously, as only he understood the algebraic formulas. I now refer to S and how to define it. It is the figure in the d'Hondt formula reflecting the number of seats that the party has in the Assembly.

The revised definition—I am delighted that we do not have to deal with this in the Welsh Assembly—defines S as the number of seats that a party held at the first meeting of the Assembly. We believe that it is right in determining party representation in the Executive Committee to base the calculation on the electoral mandate that the party received in the Assembly election.

Amendment No. 373 is a transitional provision, and ensures that any determination on the number of ministerial posts made during the shadow phase carries forward after devolution.

The reason for the d'Hondt formula, and for S and the algebra, is important. The purpose is to ensure confidence across the community in Northern Ireland, so that people know that their parties will, if they receive a sufficient mandate in the election, have the opportunity for their Members to become Ministers and play their part in the Executive Committee. The referendum was successful for that reason. The formula gives both sides of the community—and others who believe that they do not belong to either of the traditional communities—the opportunity to play their part in the government of Northern Ireland.

As I see the Assembly working, I believe that the overwhelming number of its Members—whatever party they represent—have the interests of their constituents at heart. When those Members must eventually decide their priorities, budgets and policies on hospitals, roads and so on, we will be in a position to say—hand on heart—that the system is satisfactory across the political and religious divide. That is why we chose the d'Hondt formula, that is why the people voted for it, and that is why I commend the amendments to the House.

8.45 pm
Mr. Öpik

I thank the Minister for bringing my long and lonely vigil in defence of proportional representation to a very happy end. I gave the impression of understanding what I was talking about in July—my thanks to others who have been concerned about this issue. It was a good example of intensive and considerable representations leading to a favourable outcome. I suppose that, instead of wearing the anorak of a defender of proportional representation, I now wear the mantle of respectability.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

With knee breeches, tights and silver-buckle shoes.

Mr. Öpik

Perhaps the other place could learn from my experience.

It will be most important to observe the system functioning in the years ahead and to ensure that it works. Once again, I thank the Minister and his staff for listening carefully to our concerns.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

When I raised this issue during earlier debate on the Bill, I asked the Minister whether he would reconsider and include in the legislation a specific requirement to re-run the formula when party numbers changed within the Assembly to such an extent that they impacted on the number of Ministers, chairmen or vice-chairmen from a particular party. Rather than assisting us in that matter, the Minister has done the reverse: he has enshrined in even more definite terms the requirement that the original formula should stand.

That is nonsense, and the Minister has sown the seeds of the Assembly's destruction. I invite him to consider circumstances in which Assembly Members change party in such significant numbers that it affects the number of ministerial and other Assembly posts to which that party is entitled. Under the Bill as framed, that party would not be able to gain the additional posts to which it would be entitled numerically. At that stage, the Executive would not have the power to vote through their own legislation against parties that had been badly done by in those circumstances. A party deprived of ministerial posts because of the insistence on this formula could hold the entire Assembly to ransom and, because of the cross-community rule, prevent decisions from being taken.

The Minister has made this short-sighted determination for only one political purpose. He knows that the most likely movement within the Assembly would be away from the Ulster Unionist party faction led by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

The Minister knows that his agreement would flounder in circumstances in which the right hon. Member for Upper Bann lost numerical strength in the Assembly. Therefore, without any democratic support in the Assembly, the Minister hopes that he can allow the right hon. Gentleman to hold on to office, but he does that only through trickery in the Bill, not through a democratic vote in the Assembly. It is altogether wrong that the Minister takes that course.

It is too late to urge the Minister to think again, because he has taken the matter on an entirely political basis. I entirely oppose what he has done—it is undemocratic. There is no need for any hon. Member to rejoice and think that the Minister is upholding democratic principles. He is not; he is ensuring that, whatever the results at an election, no change will take place in the Assembly thereafter, no matter how much people depart from their manifesto commitments.

The Minister has done a disservice to the House by supporting the amendment and by insisting that the democratic will of the Assembly would be defied in such circumstances. Voting against the amendment would have no impact, other than to reduce the time available for us to speak under this tight schedule. I oppose the measure, but will not be voting on the issue, simply because of time.

Mr. McGrady

Does the Minister agree that the formula enshrined in the amendment copper-fastens in statute the will of the people, as distinct from the will and the manipulative processes of political parties within the Assembly? Does he also agree that the result of the elections to the Assembly is the will of the people embodied and expressed in the number of seats gained by each party? Surely that is the most democratic expression of what the people want and the way in which the Bill allows for the allocation of ministerial seats by the d'Hondt principle.

It is not appropriate for the Bill to provide for the manipulations of parties that are trying to pressurise elected Members to move from one block to another for the purpose of frustrating the agreement, the election and the will of the people.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The Minister had never heard of d'Hondt. All I can tell him is that he should have a look at that Assembly in Strasbourg; he would know perfectly well that such things happen all the time under the d'Hondt system.

Members of the Minister's party have been removed from office and from Committees because of changes in the alignment of Members of the European Parliament. That goes on all the time under the d'Hondt system. It is nonsense for the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) to tell us that that would be a terrible thing, because the d'Hondt system in the European Parliament works in exactly that way. There are all sorts of changes: people from other countries suddenly say that they are no longer affiliated to a certain political grouping, resign and join another grouping. If there are enough resignations, all the chairmanships of every Committee of the European Parliament have to change accordingly.

The European Parliament is always being pointed to as something to be admired, followed and looked up to. The Labour party is dropping a lot of people for the next election, and it will have a lot of other people elected, so it has wide experience of this. The Minister argues that we should adopt the d'Hondt principle, but then he copper-fastens an election for four years. A lot can happen in four years; if such changes happened in this House, the hon. Member for South Down would not say that this House was undemocratic. If they happened in the Dail—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would carry a flag for the democracy of the Dail—it would be all right; and it has happened in the Dail.

I remember a member of Fine Gael who suddenly discovered that he was going to be a member of Fianna Fail, and it changed the whole Government. Of course, he got a good payment, because he was made a Commissioner for Europe and got a grand handshake twice of £60,000, so it was a good deal, but such changes happen under the d'Hondt system, and the House should be aware of it.

I noticed that the Minister shook his head when my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) talked about the measure sowing the seeds of the destruction of the Assembly. Say, for example, that 28 Unionists disagree with what is happening: technically, they line up behind the First Minister designate. Among them, about eight or nine are completely unhappy. When it comes to a cross-community vote and they vote under the cross-community system, there is no cross-community consensus. Under the rule that the Minister is introducing, the only way out of that difficulty—we have discussed it in Committee—is to have an election.

Will that lead to the stability of Northern Ireland? Why can the d'Hondt principle not be followed through, as it is in Europe? The European Parliament runs for its full term. Those who are members of that Parliament have the happy knowledge of when there is going to be another election; it is not like here, where we do not know when the election will be. Why cannot that system be followed?

Therefore, to say that the measure will remedy the position is incorrect. If the situation is as the Minister wants to have it, when it comes to the division, we are going to have an election, and, after the election, the seats will be allocated in keeping with the d'Hondt principle; so what is the use of trying to put off the evil day if there is a rigid divide in the Assembly?

Say, for example—not that it is likely—that a section of the Social Democratic and Labour party joined Sinn Fein. What would happen then? It may be possible, although I do not think that it is likely: I know that the hon. Member for South Down will not be joining Sinn Fein. However, what I am saying is that that could happen. Therefore, it would far better to follow the d'Hondt principle clearly through the whole system.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

One of the difficulties faced by the consensual arrangement under the agreement for allegedly creating democratic institutions in Northern Ireland is the absence of an effective opposition. Everyone except several minor parties that will never, by their votes, be able to change anything, will be in the Government, and they will be in the Government on the application of the d'Hondt principles.

Therefore, one of the weaknesses of the entire system that has been set up under the Bill and under the agreement is the inability of parties or people to change anything within the period, or the initial period, of the Assembly's lifetime. Everyone will be in government, so, effectively, the Government will at no time be the subject of criticism.

Many people say that that is the difficulty that one has to suffer to provide some institutions that will be generally accepted on a cross-community basis, but that is no reason why one should set in stone provisions that effectively prevent the dangers of those institutions from being ameliorated.

For example, at present the Unionist side contains 28 Ulster Unionists and two members of the Progressive Unionist party who are genuinely in favour of the agreement. There are 28 members of the Assembly–20 in the Democratic Unionist party, five in the UK Unionist party and three in the United Unionist party. Thus, when a crucial issue arises, there will be two groups, one with 30 votes and one with 28.

9 pm

One of the issues that may lead to a serious realignment of that grouping is decommissioning. The way in which the First Minister deals with decommissioning could cause a substantial number of members of his party to join the 28 who are saying no. Under these proposals, however, because the First Minister had 28 members to start with, he would probably be entitled to three Ministries. Even if, as a result of some change within his party, he finished up with 10 members of his party who were willing to support him, he would still, apparently, be able to continue with three Ministers.

That is a ludicrous situation, which should not be permitted, but, if the assignment of Ministries, under the d'Hondt arrangements, is pinned for all time to the number of members elected to the party concerned at the date of the election, it is effectively what will happen. Such arrangements will prevent anyone being able to change the number of representatives as Ministers in the Executive, because they will be pinned to a certain point in time—the date of the election.

In such circumstances, the absence of flexibility may even bring about what many people, perhaps the majority, would not want: the collapse of the Assembly. If a minority party has three Ministers, and a group with 40 or 50 members only two Ministers, difficulties will arise. That would be such an insult to the democratic process as to be patently unworkable.

In the interests not of defeating the Assembly but of giving it a flexibility that will reflect the basic demands of democracy, and perhaps preserving it, I ask Ministers to think again about placing in tablets of stone the entitlement of Members of the Assembly under the d'Hondt principles, and pinning that entitlement to events at the date of the election, which may not, at the relevant time, reflect what Assembly members—or a majority group of them—would want.

Mr. Paul Murphy

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) for their support on some of the issues that we are discussing. Let me make a few points about what was said by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

I do not think that I am sowing the seeds of destruction of the Assembly. That is far from my mind. The hon. Member for Belfast, East referred to "my" agreement. It is not my agreement; it is the people's agreement. They voted for it in the referendum. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the idea of rerunning d'Hondt during a period when the Assembly was in office. He raised the issue in the House, as did his colleagues, during consultation. However, the other parties in Northern Ireland did not share his view. He is probably not surprised about that—it is politics.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East said that I was taking a political decision. However, the other place took a decision on this group of Lords amendments, and the House will take a decision on it. As a consequence of our consultation, we tell the House that we believe that the best course of action is that d'Hondt should be re-run only in the circumstances to which I have referred. The Assembly itself, using its own standing orders, can determine the precise basis of any other circumstances.

I think that people in Northern Ireland will understand full well when they vote for parties that—because of the system in which we are currently engaged in Northern Ireland, under d'Hondt—ministerial responsibilities will be established in accordance with the electoral mandate. That is a very straightforward point.

The hon. Member for North Antrim made comparisons with Europe. As I have been investigating d'Hondt, I have been interested in how other legislatures, particularly in Europe, have dealt with it. There are, of course, differences. We are dealing with d'Hondt in the context of an entirely new political agreement, and of all the other aspects that such an agreement entails. The situation in Europe is very different. Although the system is the same, it is operating within a different context.

I think that the Government have taken the right decision, and I hope that the House agrees with us. The other place has agreed with us. I sincerely hope that the public will understand our reasons. I have no doubt that some hon. Members will not agree with me, but they will be able to make their points forcefully in the Assembly itself when it considers the matters.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 34 to 44 agreed to.

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