HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc1056-9

Lords amendment: No. 109, after clause 43, to insert the following new clause—Civic Forum— .—(1) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters. (2) The arrangements so made shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly. (3) The expenses of the Forum shall be defrayed as expenses of the Department of Finance and Personnel. (4) In this section "the Forum" means the consultative Civic Forum established in pursuance of paragraph 34 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly.

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. 157 and 380.

Mr. Murphy

Amendment No. 157 would delete the provisions on the civic forum from their current position in the Bill and amendment No. 109 amends them, moving them to a more prominent position.

The main differences with the new provisions are that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will now have a clear duty to establish the forum. The financial provisions have been tidied up and references to the forum representing the views of the community have been removed.

Amendment No. 380 is technical and would provide for any establishment of the civic forum during the shadow phase to carry forward after devolution.

Dr. Godman

I promise that I will be brief. I made an exceedingly brief speech earlier—I think that it lasted 60 seconds. I have spoken to representatives of voluntary organisations and trade unions, who believe that amendment No. 109 is a first-class initiative. I make the plea—I know that I do not have the support of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—that the forum be given adequate resources. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned financial provisions, but I believe that anything less than £500,000 could mean that the forum was nothing more than a talking shop.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) would be unwise to think that only those who oppose the agreement have expressed doubts about the civic forum. Throughout Northern Ireland—I speak also for those beyond the Unionist community—there are grave reservations about it. It is thought that the forum may exercise the prerogative of the harlot—power without responsibility—and constitute itself as an upper chamber. Given recent events, the powers of upper chambers may have some reverberations in this Chamber this evening, but the good government of Northern Ireland will not be served by the establishment of a civic forum that comprises a group of self-confessed lobbyists who have nothing to do other than to do dream up schemes—many of them far removed from reality-with which to carry out a process of self-publicity for various purposes.

There is room for a body that would draw up reports or take advice from a wide spectrum of society—even from members of the self-appointed G7, which includes the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, some elements of the trade unions and one or two others. The Assembly could usefully consult such a body.

However, it would be totally inimical to the future good government of Northern Ireland if members of the forum were led to believe that they were constituted as an upper chamber, that they inhabited the environs of Stormont, that they were the touchy-feely conscience of the Assembly or that they were a moral mirror for the elected Members.

At some point, people have to govern. In a democracy, the people who govern are those who were elected; they are not some collection of polyglot do-gooders. I fear that, unless the civic forum is given a specific remit and unless the parameters of its activities are defined, it will turn itself into not an aid to the Assembly but a body that will generate irritation without forwarding the good government of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson

It is important that we should know why the Bill contains provisions for a civic forum. During the negotiations, the participants were happily working and weaving the various levels of government into the proposed arrangements. They set up the Assembly, the ministerial structures and the committees.

After that, some parties froze—they went rigid. They went rigid because they—principally the Women's Coalition and the Ulster Democratic party—realised that there was a possibility that they might not have their day in the sun, so they devised this little initiative: a mechanism whereby political rejects could get in on the act.

To quote the Minister, any politician worth his or her salt should be in touch with all the interest groups in the day-to-day discharge of his or her duties. It is politicians' job to know what their constituency feels about the economy, culture or any other issue affecting the day-to-day life of the Assembly. The purpose of the civic forum was simply to provide jobs for the boys and, in this case, especially the girls.

The forum is no more than a talking shop: it has no executive function, and no function at all beyond giving an extremely limited range of people the chance to whisper in Assembly Members' ears their views on a limited range of issues. There is a clause that allows the forum to be expanded if the Assembly so wishes, but it is clear who the Government want to be in the forum. The groups that the Minister has outlined would certainly not be representative of the community as a whole. It would be vital for a body specifically charged with expressing views on a range of issues to be representative, but, unless there is a significant change, that will not be the case.

Wherever the forum meets, it should not do so in parliamentary buildings. It is vital that it should never be perceived as a second chamber of the Assembly. That was never intended to be its role, but, if it were to be housed in the Parliament buildings—in the Senate Chamber, for instance—there is absolutely no doubt how it would see itself and how others would see it. It must be kept as a body to be consulted on issues about which the Assembly specifically asks it for its views, and it should not generate its own agenda.

Rev. Ian Paisley

We discussed this at some length at earlier stages of the Bill. When the Minister met us, he was in no doubt about the position that those associated with me in the Assembly took. I know that others spoke to him who differ with me about the agreement but share my views on the civic forum. They agree that it should not be a colossal quango, priding itself on being the House of Lords in the new Assembly, keeping everybody right.

One of the leading proponents of the forum says that adequate money must be set aside to allow it to journey from place to place and meet in venues throughout the country. The forum will not be an elected body, because those who want to be on it are unelectable. They have tried and failed: some of them have changed parties and flown various flags of convenience, but they have still been rejected.

To my amazement, I read in the newspaper the other day that a candidate who was defeated in the Assembly elections demanded that a place be made for him because his contribution was so valuable that Northern Ireland could not succeed without him. The people did not think so—he put himself up to be elected, and the people defeated him. We are also told that the chairman of the new civic form is to be a person of great power, equal to the Speaker of the Assembly.

The time has come when the people should be told about the forum, whose membership is to be nominated by the First Minister and his deputy. I am glad that the Bill has retained the provision that the membership also has to be approved by the Assembly, because it means that the nominees will have to get the Assembly's vote. In addition, I believe that the Assembly will have some power, through the proposed commission to look after the property of Stormont, to prevent the forum from meeting in the Parliament buildings. I understand that the forum has said that the old forum building must be put at its disposal, but it might not be big enough for its members' offices.

We should be perfectly clear: if the people want the forum and if the Government want it, as they evidently do, its lines of operation should be clearly marked. It should not be allowed to damage the Assembly, or hinder the Assembly in the work that it was elected to do.

11 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy

The agreement referred to a consultative civic forum, and that is what it is. It is not an elected body, nor is it a rival to the Assembly, nor a second chamber. It is a civic forum, comprising, I should hope, people of a wide range of views, backgrounds and experiences in Northern Ireland. Some of those sectors—trade unionism, business and the voluntary sector—have been mentioned in the agreement, but other sectors may be included, as agreed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and approved by the Assembly. I believe that nothing but good can come of the forum. It is similar to the Economic and Social Council of the European Union. We have had inquiries from other parts of the country, including Wales, about how the forum might operate, but that is a matter for the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Members of the Assembly to determine. I am quite convinced that they will come up with the best ideas about how to form the body and what it should do. It will enhance, not replace, democracy in Northern Ireland.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Forward to