HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc1028-36

Lords amendment: No. 45, after clause 15, to insert the following new clause—Junior Ministers.—(1) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly may at any time determine—

  1. (a) that a number of members of the Assembly specified in the determination shall be appointed as junior Ministers in accordance with such procedures for their appointment as are so specified; and
  2. (b) that the functions exercisable by virtue of each junior Ministerial office shall be those specified in relation to that office in the determination.
(2) Procedures specified in a determination under this section may apply such formulae or other rules as the First Minister and the deputy First Minister consider appropriate. (3) A determination under this section shall—
  1. (a) make provision as to the circumstances in which a junior Minister shall cease to hold office, and for the tilling of vacancies; and
  2. (b) provide that a junior Minister shall not take up office until he has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office.
(4) A determination under this section shall not take effect until it has been approved by a resolution of the Assembly. (5) Where a determination under this section takes effect—
  1. (a) any junior Ministers previously appointed shall cease to hold office; and
  2. (b) the procedures specified in the determination shall be applied within a period specified in standing orders."

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. 72, 75, 76, 78, 80, 82, 98, 364 and 374.

Mr. Murphy

I suspect that there may be some disagreement in the House on this group of amendments too, but we shall see what hon. Members have to say about it. We discussed the issue of junior Ministers with every party in Northern Ireland, and it has been debated in the other place. When we debated the Bill before the summer recess, we touched on the issue. Unfortunately, the talks process did not get around to talking and dealing in depth with the issue. Consequently, the agreement is effectively silent on junior Ministers.

The new clause and consequential amendments would enable the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Assembly to decide to have junior Ministers in addition to the junior Northern Ireland Ministers provided for in the Bill. As I said, there is nothing in the agreement about junior Ministers, although they are provided for in Scotland, were a feature of previous devolved government in Northern Ireland, and are, of course, a feature at Westminster.

In subsequent meetings with the parties, there has been some strong support for some provision in the Bill for the appointment of junior Ministers. There has been no disagreement on the principle, although there has been disagreement on the methods by which they are to be appointed. Accordingly, the new clause provides for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, to make a determination that may cover the number, functions and methods of appointment of junior Ministers—who, of course, must be Members of the Assembly. Such a joint determination would not take effect—this is very important—until it has been approved by a resolution of the Assembly itself.

The other amendments in the group are consequential. They would subject junior Ministers to clause 23's provisions on exclusion from office. They provide that junior Ministers, like Northern Ireland Ministers, cannot serve as Chairmen or Deputy Chairmen of Committees. Last, but not least, the amendment to clause 38 would enable junior Ministers to be paid extra.

Amendment No. 364 subjects junior Ministers, as well as Northern Ireland Ministers, to the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. Amendment No. 374 is a transitional amendment, providing that any determination on junior Ministers during the shadow period is carried forward after devolution.

It is for the Assembly to deal with the nature of junior Ministers by internal debate.

Mr. Öpik

As the Minister rightly says, there is no reference to junior Ministers in the Good Friday agreement, so the issue had to be worked out afterwards. If they are a sub-category of Ministers, we can assume that they will be allocated in proportion to party strength, in accordance with the provisions of the agreement. I seek an assurance on how the Minister envisages that working.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Nothing in the amendment makes it clear that that will be done by the d'Hondt principle. The amendment leaves the nomination in the hands of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Mr. Öpik

That is the concern that I was going to raise. Although we can assume that the posts will be allocated in accordance with the provisions of the agreement, there is no mention of that in the amendment. That is why the Liberal Democrats opposed it in another place. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister appear to have the right to appoint junior Ministers however they want. That seems to run against the spirit of the agreement—and perhaps the letter of it, depending on the interpretation of the term Minister.

There is only a minimal check on the procedure. The Assembly must approve the allocation by a simple majority vote. That means that junior Ministers could be drawn from just three parties. I am flagging the issue because we remain concerned that the provisions run against the d'Hondt principle, because it has not been specified in the amendment.

There is an associated concern, which the Conservatives have raised before. Previously, Northern Ireland managed with four or five Ministers. There could now be 10 Ministers and 10 junior Ministers—a fourfold increase. That could be justified on the grounds of inclusivity, but the method of allocation is in no way inclusive—it is just on the whim of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That increases their power rather further than was envisaged in the agreement. We may trust the current First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but there is no guarantee about the actions and intentions of future incumbents.

I hope that the Minister will go some way towards allaying our fears. It would not be appropriate to call a vote on the issue, but I seek an assurance that he is sensitive to our concerns. I look forward to hearing how he feels a safeguard could be implemented to overcome them.

Dr. Godman

Subsection (1)(b) of the new clause to be inserted after clause 15 refers to the functions exercised by Ministers. If a Minister had responsibility for fisheries, would that responsibility be confined to the Northern Ireland fishing zone?

I have engaged in debate with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and my hon. and old Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on the issue before, and, as everybody knows, many Northern Ireland fishermen fish outwith the Northern Ireland fisheries zone. A few years ago, a Northern Ireland fishing boat was almost dragged down by a nuclear submarine, and that happened far closer to Wemyss Bay than to Ballycastle or anywhere else in Northern Ireland.

The livelihood of fishermen in Northern Ireland is largely determined by decisions taken at meetings of the Council of Fisheries Ministers in Brussels. Will the Minister tell me what role a Fisheries Minister from the Northern Ireland Assembly would play in relation to those meetings? That subject caused much concern during the passage of the Scotland Bill.

Perhaps the Minister has already dealt with the matter in one of our debates that I missed. If so, I apologise to him, and to the House for detaining it unnecessarily—but I want to know whether the Fisheries Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be involved in the deliberations of the Council of Fisheries Ministers.

Will there be a concordat, as is to be established between the Fisheries Ministers in Edinburgh and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Hon. Members from Northern Ireland may say that they are well able to look after the interests of their fishermen in this place, through the Fisheries Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture.

9.15 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley

I think that the Fisheries Minister here should be supported in Europe by the Ministers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, because only those Ministers will understand the full situation and be able argue it properly and forcefully in Europe. The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point, because, as he knows, such decisions are taken in Europe, and they cannot be taken properly unless the Committee concerned, which makes the recommendation to the Commission, has the full information. I believe that the Ministers from the various Assemblies are the people who will have that full information.

Dr. Godman

As I said, we have often engaged in exchanges on that subject. I remember the hon. Gentleman complaining when a Fisheries Minister from the Irish Republic got more for his people than had been obtained by the Fisheries Minister responsible to this House.

I think that the Fisheries Ministers in the two Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament will have to work in close harmony with the Fisheries Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture. That Minister is the lead Minister for the United Kingdom at meetings of the Fisheries Council, but he or she must pay close and sympathetic attention to the concerns of the fishermen of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Mr. McNamara

There will also be the Council of the Isles in one form or another. The Minister in the Republic will be involved too, so there will be a ministerial relationship between Dublin and Westminster, and also between Belfast and Dublin. Perhaps we could develop a unified British Isles attitude towards fishing.

Mr. Robert McCartney

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I understand it, the amendment relates to the appointment of junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Have the matters recently under discussion any relevance to that issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter of order for the Chair. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) is in order at the moment.

Dr. Godman

I would not dare to step out of order with your formidable presence in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Currently, a Minister in the Northern Ireland office has responsibility for agriculture and fisheries, and some of those responsibilities will be handed over to a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Is the Minister with that responsibility being confined to the management of the fisheries within the Northern Ireland fisheries zone, which were referred to earlier? These are important issues for our fishing communities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere.

To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I said in a recent speech in Scotland that I thought that one of the major issues to be determined at meetings of the Council of the Isles—or the British-Irish Council—was pollution in the seas between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the seas between England and Wales and the Republic. That is another very important issue for our fishermen.

I do not want to detain the House, but the Minister is aware of my interest in the management of fisheries. I would hope to see the development of a concordat between the lead Minister in the United Kingdom's Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Ministers from Scotland, Belfast and Cardiff. I am seeking that assurance from my hon. Friend, and I hope the Ministers from the Assemblies and the Parliament will play an important role vis-a-vis the deliberations and decisions taken in Brussels.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister was right to say that few, if any, in the House would oppose on principle the possibility of there being junior Ministers in the Assembly. However, the necessity for junior Ministers in the Assembly might depend entirely on the number of Departments there are and the degree of responsibility that Minsters have.

If, for instance, there were only four or five Ministers, one could argue a good case as to why they should be given some assistance and support from junior Ministers. If, on the other hand, the full complement permitted under the Bill of 10 Departments—and therefore 10 Ministers—were to be taken up, the case begins to diminish.

At present, we have two Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office who do all of the work that would be transferred under the Bill. About half of the duties of the two Ministers, who are sitting on the Front Bench, would be in matters which are to be transferred—roughly speaking. That means that, in total, we have the equivalent of three existing Ministers who are doing the work. However, under the provisions of the Bill, there could be 10 Ministers in the Departments, a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and, on top of that, a plethora of junior Ministers who could also be appointed.

I happen to come from the school of thought that says that one Ulster man can do what three English, Scottish or Welsh men could do, but this proposal seems to be putting that in reverse. Perhaps a dozen or so Ulster men will take over what, effectively, three English, Scottish and Welsh Ministers are doing at present.

The case for junior Ministers still has to be argued, although, in fairness, it must be said that the visibility and closeness of Northern Ireland Ministers will probably mean that they have much more work to do than existing Ministers. They will not be able to hide or escape as easily as present Ministers have been wont to do, and their availability will increase their work load. Of course, the experiences on which I draw apply to both sides of the House.

Although I agree with the principle that there is no reason that there should not be junior Ministers, 1 am not convinced that a case is to be made for having them. Such a case could be made only after the existing Departments have been working for some time and the work load that falls on the shoulders of Ministers and the Deputy First and First Ministers can be properly assessed.

Junior Ministers will not be working within the 10 Departments as some people have suggested. That is not present thinking among those who are meeting at Stormont. Their view is that junior Ministers should work entirely in the central office and, effectively, take on tasks that run across Departments—for instance, Europe, equality issues and matters that would impinge on more than one departmental responsibility.

The notion that departmental Ministers will each have a junior Minister is wrong. Indeed, under the system that the Minister of State is to throw upon our laps, it would be a disaster. Can one imagine the possibility of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister deciding to appoint a Sinn Fein junior Minister to a Department that had a Democratic Unionist party Minister? One does not need to think about that too long to realise the problems that could arise. Yet, if appointments are left solely to the discretion of the First and Deputy First Ministers, that and many other conflicts could occur.

I have read through the agreement in great detail many times. The parties who were signatories to it seemed to accept the principle that the d'Hondt method of appointment should be used for posts within the Assembly—whether ministerial, a chairmanship or a deputy chairmanship. Clearly, the system was laid out in the agreement. If it is right that a Deputy Chairman should be appointed under d'Hondt, it must be right that a junior Minister should be similarly appointed. Why are the Government not consistent? Why do they not follow through what was clearly the established principle within the agreement?

Once again, the Government are attempting to prop up a certain political cabal within the Assembly. The Minister recognises that a certain person does not have much support at present and that he needs to prop him up. So what does the hon. Gentleman do? He provides him with the instrument that Governments often use to prop themselves up—patronage. He allows him to have the instrument that he can use to keep people in line. So, having ensured in the previous set of amendments that no changes can take place, even if all but one of the Members' party move to another group, the hon. Gentleman is now allowing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister a mechanism whereby they can effectively buy support within the Assembly. Again, that is not good for the democratic process.

If the Bill does not expressly indicate what positions there could be within the Assembly, will the Minister say whether the Assembly is entitled to create those positions? Is that sound under the Bill? For example, if there are 10 Ministers, a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and, perhaps, 12 junior Ministers for all we know, will the First Minister and Deputy First Minister be permitted to have parliamentary private secretaries? Can the patronage be extended beyond what is contemplated in the Bill if the Assembly and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister propose it? I hope that the Minister will respond to that question, too.

9.30 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney

Northern Ireland has a population of about 1.5 million people. It has a devolved Assembly containing 108 elected Members and 26 local councils. Under the Bill, it will be subjected to a raft of implementation bodies, which are designed to bring about some consensual ecumenicism between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It will also send members to the Council of the British Isles. In other words, Northern Ireland will become the most over-governed, most expensive and over-administrated piece of ground in the United Kingdom, if not in Europe, and all that must be paid for.

A great debate is raging between the two major parties in Northern Ireland—he SDLP and the Ulster Unionists—on the number of Ministries or portfolios there should be. The agreement and the Bill provide for a maximum of 10 Ministries, with the addition of a central Ministry that will be supervised by the First Minister designate and the second Minister designate—that means that there will be 11 Ministries. The central Ministry will almost certainly look after finance and personnel, but it will have a general roving commission over the other 10 Ministries.

The criterion for the number of Ministries will be not whether 10 Ministries are required for the functional efficiency of the Administration, but the maximum number that can be obtained politically to spread government across the widest field, so that everyone is brought in, including the representatives of organised and practising terror. Sinn Fein will be in charge of two of the 10 Ministries—it is likely to choose equality and education and cultural activity.

That must all be paid for. As the Minister said in his illuminating address to the Assembly a week last Monday—he was talking about budgetary proposals and the block grant for Northern Ireland—the total cost of the 10 Ministries, with the raft of bureaucrats, civil servants, officials and other personages who are needed to service them, will come from the block grant. The piglets in government will have not only their snouts but their trotters in the trough. It is now suggested that the trough should be extended—even tinier piglets should be brought in to enjoy the Government's largesse.

Is that necessary? The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) mentioned the duties and functions of Ministers who are seconded to the Northern Ireland Office. The six or seven existing Departments seem to function well, but there will be, in addition to the 12 Ministers, an undetermined number of gofers. They will be allotted across the board from the central portfolio held by the two senior Ministers. Why? We know that, when there is a vote and the Whip is applied, all those who benefit from the fruits of office are on the payroll.

The extended payroll will be in the gift of the First and second Ministers: effectively in the gift of the Ulster Unionist and Social Democratic and Labour parties, the parties of the centre that will run the show. Those parties will effectively exercise executive government and downgrade the legislative function of the Assembly.

No mind, however fertile, ever thought for a moment of including junior Ministers in the agreement, because no one ever conceived that there would be any necessity for them. The 10 Ministers, plus the two chiefs, will have an enormous body of assistants. The place is coming down with special advisers. If only the public could see the facilities and the assistants that are being provided for Ministers in Northern Ireland, they would realise immediately that there is no reason whatever to have any junior Ministers, and especially ones who will be totally in the thrall of the First and second Ministers designate.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East pointed, d'Hondt was written in stone in the part of the agreement relating to the electoral mandate, but now an issue to which d'Hondt does not apply and that was not predicated in the agreement has been put entirely in the gift of the First and second Ministers, when no solid case has been established for the need for the junior Ministers, who will absorb money that Northern Ireland, the Assembly and the Executive could well devote to much worthier causes than providing a source of patronage.

Some of us in Northern Ireland still have a conscience about public expenditure and believe that the measure would amount to no more than the placing of the means of bribery in the hands of the First and second Ministers.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The case has been fairly put about the over-governance that will take place in Northern Ireland. Six Departments will become 10, and the central Department will be added. Select Committees with a paid Chairman and Vice-Chairmen, elected on the d'Hondt principle, will oversee every Department. There will have to be 11 Committees, because of the new central Department.

Yes, we were under-governed—there was a deficit but it seems to me that we have now gone to the extent of having too many personnel. Because of that, I cannot understand why the Government want to raise the matter of Ministers, of which matter I take a dim view. My party had a meeting with the First Minister and his deputy. We did not understand why they were so dedicated to the idea of having junior Ministers, but I have concluded that it is because they need people on the payroll, whom they can keep in line during tight votes in the Assembly.

Remember that the voting is all cross-community. Unless the total number of people voting represent the majority in each community, there is no majority. In electoral terms, what is needed to make a majority is Unionists who are in the majority in their community, and nationalists who are in the majority in theirs, voting together. There are people labelled "others" who have no part in our lot. They can make only one change, becoming Unionists or nationalists, but it is hardly likely that the Alliance party will become a Unionist party, or that the Women's Coalition will become either Unionists or nationalists.

The Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of the Select Committees will be important. The Committees will have great power: they will be able to summons Ministers, persons and papers to answer. It will be some Government when all that gets going. The proposal in the amendment should never have been put to us—any suggestion that we should be doubling up is wrong. Perhaps the Ministers here tonight would like to propose to the Prime Minister that he gives all of them deputies to help alleviate the overloading. After all, there are six Departments, so why should those running them now not have assistants?

Mr. Paul Murphy

What an interesting debate. It centred on three separate issues, and I shall deal first with the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who spoke specifically about the role of Fisheries Ministers in the new Northern Ireland Administration.

I should say first that junior Ministers can have no statutory functions, but they can assist other Ministers. Therefore, on fisheries, a Northern Ireland Minister would have power over the Northern Ireland zone and, beyond the zone, over Northern Ireland-licensed boats—in other words, exactly the same position as in Scotland. The Minister concerned would be involved in European Union discussions, subject to the agreement of the United Kingdom; and, as my hon. Friend said, the issue would be covered in a concordat.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the British-Irish Council. It seems to me that the matters relating to the sea, such as pollution, the environment and fishing, would be obvious subjects for discussion in the British-Irish Council. However, matters connected with the European Union will inevitably be matters for the member states and the appropriate Ministers in that capacity.

The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) raised the nature of the appointment of junior Ministers. It is our belief—one with which the House of Lords concurred—that, because the agreement was silent on that point, the Assembly should determine that question. In other words, the amendments are enabling amendments. If the Assembly wishes, it can use the d'Hondt principle or any other method it wants—it is for the Assembly to decide by a majority.

The hon. Members for Belfast, East and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) all raised the question whether junior Ministers should exist at all. The hon. and learned Member for North Down spoke at some length on the lack of a need for junior Ministers. However, a small number of junior Ministers will not greatly add to the burden of government in the way that the hon. Members suggested. They drew attention to the fact that Northern Ireland would have junior Ministers on top of councils, an Assembly with 108 members and Ministers, and they suggested that that would be a great panoply of government.

However, if we consider the situation in Wales after devolution, we see that the Welsh will have community councils, powerful unitary authorities and many public appointed bodies. Wales will also be a member of the British-Irish Council, like Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Welsh Ministers will take part in Europe alongside United Kingdom Ministers, and we must not forget the European Members of Parliament. Other parts of the UK will have similar structures.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the Minister say how many Members will sit in the Welsh Assembly and what the population of Wales is, compared with that of Northern Ireland?

9.45 pm
Mr. Murphy

The Assembly will have 60 Members and the population is 3 million, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows. He also knows that people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voted for the proposals. People in Northern Ireland voted in the referendum for 108 Members of the Assembly. He knows full well also that the Assembly will have so many Members because it has to be acceptable to all the people of Northern Ireland, and that is achieved through a system of the single transferable vote. We must compare costs, and the hon. and learned Gentleman asked me how much the proposals will cost. I can tell him that security in Northern Ireland has cost £1 billion a year. If the price of peace and political stability is 108 Members and the existence of junior Ministers, it is a price worth paying.

Mr. Peter Robinson

That is are paying the IRA's price.

Mr. Murphy

That is another issue. We are talking now about Members and junior Ministers. The talks process did not address the issue in detail. If it had, matters would be much easier for us, because the House would be able to implement what had been agreed. That is why we say that it should be for the Assembly to determine the role and number of junior Ministers.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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