HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc1015-8

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 4 to 7 and insert— (""excepted matter" means any matter falling within a description specified in Schedule 2; reserved matter" means any matter falling within a description specified in Schedule 3; transferred matter" means any matter which is not an excepted or reserved matter.")

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

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 56 and 222 to 270.

Mr. Murphy

Without touching on the time allowed for the amendments, which was properly dealt with in a previous debate, I wish to touch on the nature of the amendments that the House will consider in the next few hours. Most of them are drafting or technical amendments, and I shall refer to them in detail shortly.

We will deal with three types of amendment tonight. Some are essentially technical. It was necessary that the other place dealt with the changes because the Bill was drawn up in haste. Indeed, I pay tribute to the parliamentary draftsmen and to all those involved in drawing up the legislation in such a short time.

The Bill was designed to enact an agreement and, inevitably, detailed, technical amendments were necessary because it was drafted in such a short time. Amendments came before the House and the other place earlier in the Bill's progress and hon. Members who were present for those debates will recall that my ministerial colleagues and I said that they would be necessary. This Session has lasted as long as it has because of the nature of that parliamentary process and the significance that the House of Commons attaches to the agreement.

The second type of amendments relate specifically to the points made during the Bill's passage through Parliament. Members on both sides of the House withdrew amendments on the basis that the Secretary of State and my ministerial colleagues and I would think again. We reflected on the points that had been made, and then Lord Dubs introduced amendments in the other place. Many of the amendments therefore result from representations made to the Government by hon. Members and others.

The third type of amendments arise as a direct result of consultation. Some thought that the consultation was not adequate, and others have kindly said that they thought it was. One cannot satisfy all the people all the time, but hon. Members will understand that my door was always open; and if any hon. Members wished to discuss with me any issue arising from the Bill, they were able to do so. Many meetings were held with parties, hon. Members and others who expressed an interest in the Bill. In 11 years in the House, I have never experienced a similar level of consultation. Indeed, although we had consultation over the Scottish and Welsh legislation, it was not the same as on the Bill for Northern Ireland, because it enacts the agreement.

In the end, the Government had to decide on the form that the amendments would take, and we have sometimes pleased some people and sometimes displeased them. If there was no clear sign in the agreement, we had to try to work out whether we could have obtained a consensus on a particular issue had the talks continued. That was sometimes difficult to discover. In many cases, and sometimes on controversial issues, there was unanimity, and I shall list those cases as I go through the amendments before us. I shall tell the House on which amendments every party in Northern Ireland that wished to consult with me agreed. Sometimes, some parties disagreed, but that was not always the case—it is important to put that on record because of the large number of amendments. I sat for several years on the shadow Front Bench, and I should have been the first to exactly the opposite if I had thought that that was not so. We are reflecting concerns as far as we can.

Amendment No. 1 is a drafting amendment, which makes it clear that any matters may be transferred out of schedule 3, which lists reserved matters, that fall within the description given there. Amendment No. 56 creates a new clause out of the old clause 20(4)(b), the drafting of which was defective. Amendments Nos. 222 to 270 bear on schedules 2 and 3. We have had to do some tidying up of those schedules, and a number of the amendments are purely drafting or technical points, or are designed to clarify matters that were perhaps open to uncertainty.

Other amendments add new matters to the schedules, including new subjects such as the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Parades Commission for Northern Ireland and "assisted areas" under the Industrial Development Act 1982. In other cases, we have had to bring some descriptions up to date, including those of international relations, broadcasting and telecommunications, including the internet. In one or two other cases, it has made sense to move matters from one category into another. For example, we thought it right to move the regulation of activities in outer space from the reserved to the excepted category. That was not, of course, a matter much discussed in the agreement or at the talks.

Amendments Nos. 242 and 270 rationalise the way in which the provisions of the Bill are safeguarded against modification by the Assembly. Most of the amendments are technical.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I agree with the Minister, and I congratulate him on the extraordinary degree of consultation that has taken place. I am not able to speak for other parties, but the Liberal Democrats thank the Government for being genuinely willing to listen. More to the point, they were willing to act on at least some of the concerns that we raised, and that is a testament to the Minister's genuine willingness to achieve results. All parties will accept that he spent most of his summer, as he said he would, listening, and responding accordingly.

We still have concerns about some amendments. My intention is to highlight only a small number of them this evening. The Bill has been substantially debated, both here and in the other place. I do not share the concerns expressed by some hon. Members that there is not enough time for debate tonight. That is one reason why we supported the Government earlier.

I shall mention only one amendment in this group. The Minister has already mentioned it, and it may seem a little crazy of me to bring it up again. Amendment No. 241, as he rightly said, makes regulation of activities in outer space an excepted matter. One may think that uncontroversial, but I should highlight the fact that, believe it or not, Armagh observatory has played an increasingly important part in some space research, specifically on the asteroid threat—the impact of a heavenly body on the earth, which could cause catastrophic damage, and which could wipe out a vast proportion of the human race. It may seem insane to raise concern about that, and I do not expect the Minister to alter the Bill at this late stage, but advances in technology may make it possible for the Northern Ireland Assembly seriously to consider matters relating to outer space in 30 or 50 years' time. The Armagh observatory may then be actively involved in such activities.

I raise the matter only because Armagh observatory plays such a prominent role through experts such as Mr. Chambers, Bill Napier and others. I merely want to put the matter on record so that it may be read in the future when this concern is more prelevant. Perhaps Armagh observatory will thus be able to play its part in what will become an increasingly important scientific endeavour.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I want to ask a question about amendment No. 240, which refers to regulation of sea fishing outside the Northern Ireland zone (except in relation to Northern Ireland fishing boats)", which are defined in the way we would expect them to be. May I plead for parity of esteem among the fishing industries of Northern Ireland, Scotland and England?

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

And the Isle of Man.

Dr. Godman

As my hon. Friend says, the Isle of Man should be included, too. The Minister knows that the Northern Ireland fishing industry—specifically the catching sector—is much smaller than the Scottish industry. I seek an assurance that fishing communities in Northern Ireland will enjoy parity of esteem with Scottish, English and Welsh communities when negotiations take place in Brussels and in London on total allowable catches and other such matters. My hon. Friend may wish to write to me, but I seek an assurance in principle for now.

Mr. Paul Murphy

If my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) is patient, he will hear me speak about the fishing industry under the next group of amendments. I hope that I shall not have to write to him.

I am grateful for the comments by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Opik). I, too, have visited Armagh observatory. It was the first observatory I had been to, and it was an extremely valuable visit. The observatory is a great educational asset for Northern Ireland. Activities in outer space have been moved from the reserved to the excepted category because that is the case in Scotland. Amendment No. 241 refers to launching into space, so that it would be possible, eventually, for Northern Ireland—and Scotland for that matter—to take part in such activities.

Putting on for a moment my other hat, as a Finance Minister, I should add that I have not set aside any money for such activities in the forthcoming financial year.

Lords amendment agreed to.

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