HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc997-1010
Andrew Mackinlay

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 3, line 20, at end insert— '(6A) In subsection (5) (motion for resolution not to be moved unless certain conditions are satisfied), for "Presiding Officer in pursuance of a notice" there is substituted "Secretary of State".'.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 23, in page 3, line 23, leave out from 'he' to 'move' in line 24 and insert 'may appear before the Assembly and'.

Amendment No. 67, in page 3, line 43, at end insert— '(7A) Where a recommendation has been made by the Commission mentioned in section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission) Act 2003, the Secretary of State shall within seven days of receiving the recommendation serve a notice on the Presiding Officer requiring him to move a motion for such a resolution.'.

Amendment No. 68, in clause 7, page 6, line 20, at end insert— '(7A) Where a recommendation has been made by the Commission mentioned in section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission) Act 2003, the Secretary of State shall within seven days of receiving the recommendation serve a notice on the Presiding Officer requiring him to move a motion for such a resolution.'.

Amendment No. 24, in page 7, line 16, leave out from 'the' to end and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 25, in page 7, line 19, leave out from 'he' to 'move' in line 20 and insert 'may appear before the Assembly and'.

Amendment No. 26, in clause 8, page 10, line 10, leave out from 'the' to end and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 27, in page 10, line 13, leave out from 'he' to 'move' in line 14 and insert 'may appear before the Assembly and'.

Amendment No. 28, in clause 9, page 12, line 17, leave out from 'the' to end and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 29, in page 12, line 20, leave out from 'he' to 'move' in line 21 and insert `may appear before the Assembly and'.

Amendment No. 69, in page 12, line 22, at end insert— `(3A) Where a recommendation has been made by the Commission mentioned in section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission) Act 2003, the Secretary of State shall within seven days of receiving the recommendation serve a notice on the Presiding Officer requiring him to move a motion for such a resolution.'.

New clause 4—Requirement for early debate where notice served by Secretary of State— `.—Where the Secretary of State has served a notice under section 30(6), section 47A(7) or section 51A(6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the Assembly shall debate such a motion within 7 days.'.

Andrew Mackinlay

I want to speak to the series of amendments tabled in my name. Their kernel is encapsulated in amendments Nos. 22 and 23.

As the Bill stands, if the Secretary of State has not been able to persuade the Northern Ireland Assembly to put in train the exclusion of a Minister from the Executive, he has the option and power to take the initiative. In listening to this evening's debates and thinking about the Bill, I have increasingly felt that much of what it deals with will not happen anyway. I preface my remarks with that observation because we have almost been getting into an academic exercise. However, I am not the author of the Bill and I believe that we need to conduct proper scrutiny.

The Bill proposes that, in extremis, when the First Minister and his deputy are unable to take the initiative by going to the Assembly and obtaining cross-party and cross-community agreement to the exclusion of a Minister, the Secretary of State can—this is the point that I invite the Committee to consider—instruct the presiding officer of the Assembly to table a motion. That is absurd. In the likely event of such circumstances arising, it would be much better and in the interests of everybody concerned for the Secretary of State to attend the Assembly and speak to the motion himself. That is what my amendments seek to achieve.

First, it is part of the rules of natural justice that people should be able to face their traducers and probe the reasons for any action against them. Secondly, I invite the Committee to consider this point: if we are in such a critical situation in which there is a paralysis, but the Secretary of State finds it essential that a Minister should be excluded, it will be in his interests to marshal all his advocacy and oratorical skills to persuade the paralysed Assembly—by definition, it would be paralysed—to take the necessary action.

I do not want to labour the point, but it is nonsense that the presiding officer should be the instrument or vehicle for these matters. Clearly, the legislation as it stands implies that the presiding officer would move the motion formally. If I am wrong, however, the presiding officer will be put in an invidious position, especially as he or she can, under existing legislation, be appointed by the Secretary of State and will not necessarily command widespread support in the Assembly. It seems crazy to introduce a formulation whereby the presiding officer will table the motion to exclude a Minister.

Mr. Dodds

In seeking to require that the Secretary of State come to the Assembly in person to table the motion, does the hon. Gentleman intend that he should be subject to questions? Obviously, the presiding officer would not be in such a position. Does he think that such questioning would be helpful in elucidating the Government's position in such an eventuality?

10.15 pm
Andrew Mackinlay

Absolutely. Let us suppose that, in the absence of the Secretary of State, the presiding officer comes along and tells the Assembly, "I am formally instructed to move this motion." Presumably, that would fall on deaf ears if the Assembly had not already been persuaded, or was not acting on its own initiative. My amendment No. 23 provides for the Secretary of State to argue his case before the Assembly. He would be subject to questioning, and would be able to marshal all his energies to persuade the Assembly that exclusion was crucial to the Northern Ireland political process.

Mr. Carmichael

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the invidious position in which the Bill places the presiding officer, but I am not entirely persuaded that his suggested solution is the best. I understand that the Secretary of State currently has no speaking rights in the Assembly, and amendment of its standing orders would be necessary for him to acquire them. I feel that, by acting through the House of Commons, the hon. Gentleman would interfere with the Assembly's integrity. Surely it is every legislature's right to determine its own standing orders.

Andrew Mackinlay

That is an interesting point. We need to distinguish between a devolved and a subordinate Assembly or legislature. Whether we like it or not, painful though it may be, the Northern Ireland Assembly—unlike the Scottish Parliament and, to an extent, the Welsh Assembly—is by definition a subordinate legislature.

We are talking about mechanisms to exclude Ministers who are answerable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I did not write the provision allowing the Secretary of State to instruct the presiding officer to move a motion to exclude them. If my amendment were accepted, the question of standing orders would become academic.

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman may not be giving due consideration to two points. First, in his opening remarks, the Secretary of State made the connection between the proposal as it stands and the agreement setting up the entire political process. That cannot be dealt with arbitrarily, although that is what the Bill effectively does. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that the Secretary of State should go and speak to the Assembly. One assumes that he will give the Assembly information. Can we imagine a Secretary of State who cannot divulge intelligence and information that he possesses being able to address an Assembly or answer its questions? Such an arrangement would be dangerous for the Secretary of State, and I cannot imagine any Secretary of State agreeing to be put in such a position.

Andrew Mackinlay

The hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State might not be able to divulge information to the legislature. Surely it would be 10 times worse for him to lob a letter through the letterbox and tell the presiding officer to read it out. Not only is that an insult, it would carry no clout whatever. In the extraordinary circumstances in which the Secretary of State could not get the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister to take the initiative, and in which it was impossible to guarantee a majority in the voting system of the Chamber, the Secretary of State might well think he could swing it. Having done his arithmetic, he might think that the voting could be extremely narrow.

Indeed, I can foresee circumstances in which the voting could be very close; it could come down to one or two votes. He might be in a position to persuade the legislature to take that initiative.

Lembit Öpik

This is a very interesting point, not least because it tests the Assembly's status. Given that we are trying to normalise the situation, surely the more that we can ensure that the Assembly conducts such matters itself—even with consultation between, say, the Secretary of State and the presiding officer—the better.

On the presiding officer's having trouble, even Martin Luther King and Gandhi—and, indeed, the current Secretary of State—who had all the charisma in the world would find it difficult simply to go in and achieve the outcome that the hon. Gentleman suggests, not least because doing so would be regarded as interference by the very people who are resisting the actions of the presiding officer.

Andrew Mackinlay

I do not want to labour the point, but we are talking about an in extremis situation. The Bill as drafted deals with the situation in which the Secretary of State tells the Northern Ireland Assembly that it must consider the motion, but does so—I am not being flippant—by letter. That is nonsense. If it is so imperative that that should happen, surely it is in everyone's interests that he appear alongside the presiding officer in that lovely chamber, state his case and respond to questions. Inevitably, there would be a wider audience, including a television audience. He might well legitimately take the opportunity to appeal to that audience, to give legitimacy to what would be a very grave act.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

No one doubts the sincerity of my hon. Friend's suggestions. Following on from the point made during the previous intervention, the question of the Executive entering the legislature smacks of Charles I entering the House of Commons and asking for Members to be removed. There is a fine line between what the Executive can do and what the legislature's approach is, given that we are trying to foster democracy in Northern Ireland.

Andrew Mackinlay

One point—

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Mackinlay

Of course.

Rev. Ian Paisley

This procedure was in fact carried out in the old Assemblies. The Secretary of State addressed us on many occasions; indeed, a whole series of Secretaries of State did so. We did not feel belittled because they came to address us; in fact, it gave standing to the Assembly. It also allowed us to show that we were reasonable people who could argue our case. The Secretary of State's coming to address the Assembly does not demean it.

Andrew Mackinlay

On the King or the Executive coming to Parliament, thank goodness that Charles I did come and that Speaker Lenthall was able to tell him where to go. I remember it well: "If it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak, except for the permission of this House, whose humble servant I am. Get lost!" At least the legislature was able to stand up to traducers. What if Charles I had simply sent a letter saying, "You're all under arrest"? That is what is being suggested here.

The amendment would improve the Bill, but I imagine that it will not be given further consideration by the Secretary of State. As with much Northern Ireland legislation, the bolts and rivets are being put in the Bill as it goes down the slipway. Bouncing legislation through without due consideration is not the best way to form it.

Mr. Dodds

There is much merit in the point that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) makes through his amendment. The argument that the Assembly and its Members are in some way demeaned by the procedure that he proposes is ludicrous, given that the entire the Bill is based on the idea that the Secretary of State will have the power to act when the Assembly has not agreed that such action be taken. Those who argue against the hon. Gentleman do so on a completely wrong basis, because tonight they will no doubt support provisions that give the Secretary of State powers to do what the Assembly has not voted for.

I want to speak briefly to our amendment No. 67 and consequential amendments. Their purpose is to ensure that, when the Secretary of State receives a recommendation from the international monitoring commission, he would be required to send it to the presiding officer in the Assembly within a set period of seven days. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has to consider the resolution to serve a notice on the presiding officer, but absolutely no time limit is specified for his consideration before the resolution has to go before the Assembly. That highlights one of the concerns voiced on Second Reading and mentioned by several hon. Members—how long the procedures will take to reach a definite conclusion from the moment a complaint is made. It will first be referred to the monitoring commission and then go through the labyrinthine and byzantine procedures set out in the Bill. As the Bill is currently drafted, when the Secretary of State eventually receives a resolution, he can spend as much time as he likes considering the matter.

As we heard earlier, the Secretary of State will be required—it applies to allegations of a breach on political grounds or a paramilitary breach—to consult the Dublin Government. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State was rather coy about clarifying the matter. He talked about formal consultation as if it were all about having a chat over a cup of tea in the corridor. The fact of the matter is that the Secretary of State will consult and involve the Dublin Government in the crucial issue of the possible penalties to be imposed on a party or a Minister in respect of a so-called political breach within the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is clearly not a matter for the Dublin Government; it should be a matter entirely for Her Majesty's Government and the parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Is the key issue less the procedure that the Government are setting up than the problem of ensuring that there is sufficient time not to deal with the subject matter of the complaint, but to allow the Government to cobble together another deal—as they have on every occasion—by making further concessions to get Sinn Fein to start toeing the line?

Mr. Dodds

That is precisely the case. By the time any decision would be forthcoming, so much time would have elapsed that people in the community—no doubt including newspaper editors and others—would ask whether there was any point in pursuing the matter. They would say that time had passed and that it was time to move on and, as the Minister of State said earlier, to look to the future.

Mr. Donaldson

Is not that precisely what the Government want in respect of Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormontgate? They propose to take no action regarding those breaches, and no sanctions will be applied against Sinn Fein-IRA for the republican movement's involvement in all those matters. They are to be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about.

Mr. Dodds

That is right. We have just dealt with clauses 2 and 3 and we saw that clause 2 specifically bars the monitoring commission from dealing with matters that may be prejudiced and have to go to court. That will undoubtedly affect cases such as Castlereagh, Colombia and the Florida gun running, which have all been subject to court proceedings. For similar cases in future, the monitoring commission will say that it cannot deal with them, because it is specifically barred from involvement in cases going to court. What therefore is the point of all this? It is designed to act as a fig leaf so that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) can go around the country pretending that he has an effective sanction—he called it a guarantee—but, as has been exposed tonight, it is nothing of the sort. It is designed to string out complaints so that by the time they are dealt with, another deal or fudge has been put together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) pointed out.

10.30 pm

We can contrast that approach with the Government's attitude to the tabling of a censure motion. I raised the matter earlier and the Minister of State said that it would not demean the work of the Assembly or the value of such motions. However, that was not the point that we were making. Our point was that the Bill would make it harder to table such a motion. The Minister did not deal with that point, but with an entirely different one. I hope that Ministers will listen carefully to the points that we make. To make it harder for Members of the Assembly to raise issues or to table motions when other Members are in breach of the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is reprehensible. Then to have a procedure that could be strung out, without any effective timetable to bring matters speedily to a head, will not provide much—if any—confidence to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mallon

I wish to reply to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). It is a matter of historical record that the then equivalent of the Secretary of State took a view on the subordinate Administration in Northern Ireland He did not go to that Administration. Instead, he said., "Come to me," and when they got there, he said, "Pack: your bags and go." The absence of an Administration lasted some 30 years. Such an approach will not work with the Assembly.

I also noted the disparaging way in which the hon. Gentleman referred to the failure of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to obtain a majority in the Assembly. He should know that given the difficulties in Northern Ireland politics it can be difficult to get a majority within one's own party—I speak of all parties involved—let alone in the Assembly. I make those points gently to the hon. Gentleman.

The functions of the body have been mentioned, so I wish to refer again to Lord Williams of Mostyn and what he said in the other place. My earlier remarks were made at least seven hours ago, so one or other Minister should have had the good grace to get up and say that the Government agree with their Minister in the House of Lords. That is the least that he could expect from his colleagues in the Government.

Andrew Mackinlay

I have been misunderstood enough this summer, so I want to make it clear that I did not mean to make any disparaging remarks about the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister. I am fully aware of the difficulties and constraints of marshalling majorities within one's own party and across the complicated system in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I was looking ahead to when we get the Assembly up and running—I hope that we do, and that it can achieve concord and marshal a majority view—but the Bill foresees a scenario in which the Secretary of State might have to instruct the presiding officer to take that action. I am not the author of the Bill: the Secretary of State is its author.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Far be it from me to suggest that he might speak in a disparaging way about Northern Ireland parties, or anyone else. I am not suggesting that, but if an Administration in the north of Ireland is to be made to work, we must give it respect. It must be allowed to gain its self-respect, and it should not have to grapple with an overtly subordinate position. Whatever else we know about people in the north of Ireland, we know that they will not respond if they are treated in that way.

Jane Kennedy

I confirm that what my noble and learned Friend Lord Williams said in another place on 15 September—it can be found at column 667 of the Hansard record for that day—was correct. I hope that that answers the point, but I will look in detail at the debate that we have had on the matter to see whether further clarification is necessary.

The amendments and new clause moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) would curtail the opportunity for reflection among the parties on what the proper response might be to a report by the independent monitoring commission in a way that is inconsistent with the agreement and compliance published on 1 May following discussions at Hillsborough castle. That scheme makes it clear that once a report containing a recommendation has been published by the IMC it is for the Assembly parties to consider what their response might be.

The parties are not bound by the terms of the IMC report. It remains open to them to respond in line with its recommendations or to take any of the other steps available to them under the Bill. By requiring the Secretary of State to act to ensure that a motion embodying the report's recommendation is laid within seven days of the report being received, and that that motion is debated within seven days of its being notified to the presiding officer, the amendments would reduce the time available to the Assembly parties to reflect on what course of action they might take in response to a report.

Not only is that not consistent with the Hillsborough text but, by providing that the commission's recommendations would automatically be embodied in motions before the Assembly—

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