HL Deb 17 July 1972 vol 333 cc599-607

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before the House on June 15, 1972, be approved. The purpose of this Order is to provide for a reorganisation of the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland. A Bill to this effect had been presented to the Northern Ireland Parliament and had completed all its stages in the Lower House before that Parliament was prorogued.

Electricity in Northern Ireland is at present supplied by three separate bodies: the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland (E.B.N.I.), and two municipal electricity undertakings which serve Belfast and Londonderry respectively. In addition, the Northern Ireland Joint Electricity Authority has a general supervisory and planning function. The present system, which has a total installed capacity of 1,200 megawatts is, of course, small in comparison with the size of the industry in Great Britain. But it plays a most significant role in the economic structure of the Province, where the increase in demand for electricity is running at between 9 and 10 per cent. a year. To meet this demand, and to provide for future development, the industry is in the process of increasing its capacity by 75 per cent. between 1972 and 1976, and has plans for further development which should increase generating capacity by 175 per cent. in the next decade.

In consequence of this expansion programme and the increasing importance of electricity to the economic life of the community, the previous Government of Northern Ireland decided that a new unified organisation, to be called the Northern Ireland Electricity Service, should be created to take over all the functions of the present undertakings which, under this Order, will be dissolved. The Order in Council provides for the setting up of a new body, whose chief advantage over its predecessors will be to provide a strong centralised organisation for the long-term planning of all aspects of the industry, as well as the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity throughout Northern Ireland, while still providing an efficient and economical service to the consumer. The new Northern Ireland Electricity Service will control the general running of its affairs, subject to the reservation of certain powers to the Ministry of Commerce, and that in the long term it must recover its costs through consumer sales. The electricity supply industry is of course capital intensive, and the Order provides for a borrowing limit of £350 million, which may be raised by Order to £500 million.

This reorganisation inevitably involves large numbers of staff at present employed by the industry. Provision is made to protect the interests of all employees, and to provide compensation should they find themselves in a less favourable position because of the transfer. I understand it is not likely that there will be any redundancies as an immediate effect of this order ; but there should in time be savings in staff which can be offset by normal wastage as administrative services are rationalised. Before ending, I believe your Lordships would want me to place on record the Government's appreciation of the steadfastness shown by the staff of the present electricity undertakings in Northern Ireland. They have been faced with many difficulties and some danger in the past three years in particular, and it is only right that the contribution of the staff at all levels should be acknowledged now that the industry is taking on a new shape. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, laid before the House on June 15 be approved.—(Lord Windlesham.)

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, used the words just now "Before ending": I thought he had hardly begun. The last thing that I, or indeed any noble Lord, would wish to do would be to harass the noble Lord, of all people, with the responsibilities that he carries at the moment. But I am bound to make one or two remarks on the procedure, and they are directed rather to Parliament than to the Government. Here we have a Bill—there is no other word for it—which has admittedly passed through Stormont. I appreciate that the Government have not had time to set up proper procedures for dealing with these matters ; nor is it their fault that at a moment which depends a great deal on inter-Party agreement and discussion it has not been possible to make some sort of institutional arrangement. Perhaps it will be convenient for me to make my remarks on this aspect in relation to this Order, and I need not repeat them later.

It is clearly not possible for the Special Orders Committee to discuss the merits of what amounts to legislation: indeed, it would be outside their terms of reference, although their terms of reference allow them, having satisfied themselves on the vires of a particular Order, to comment on something that is unusual. I am wondering whether it might not be appropriate for the Special Orders Committee, until such time as we have proper machinery in Parliament for dealing with these Orders, at least to indicate in respect of these Orders whether one is dealing with a short Order of the kind we are familiar with, or with what amounts really to an Act of Parliament. Later on we have the equivalent of an Act of Parliament running to 117 clauses. I think your Lordships' House ought to have attention drawn to this matter. I do not want to do anything other than speed the passage of legislation. The Bill has passed through Stormont, and I noticed that in another place there was criticism even by a Member of Stormont of the limitations of the Stormont procedure. I am wondering again whether the Government could consider, when we have legislation of this kind—something which is essentially an Act of Parliament—the extent to which the pattern follows very closely the sort of pattern we follow in the United Kingdom.

Looking at the present Order, I note that it bears quite a superficial resemblance (though it is of a different order, because it is an amalgamation) to some of the British legislation. My experience of Northern Irish legislation is that on the whole they have always sought to follow closely the legislation of the United Kingdom. To take one example of the general powers of the Ministry to give directions to a Service and obtain information, paragraph (2) of Article 11 says: If it appears to the Ministry that there is a defect in the general plans or arrangement, of the Service for performing its functions, the Ministry may, after consultation with the Service"— and the word "Service" is itself rather an awkward word, because although there are what I may call "Northern Irish" reasons for calling it a Service, the paragraph goes on to say that the "Ministry" (not "Minister", which is more familiar to us), may give directions of a general character for remedying the defect. It is very difficult to see how one can give directions of a general character for remedying what is presumably a particular defect.

I should like to ask the noble Lord (I will not press him closely if he cannot give me an answer) how closely this follows the powers of the Minister with regard to nationalised electricity in this country. Furthermore, I notice that a report is to be made to the Minister on the workings of the Service because it says: The Minister shall cause a copy of every such report to be laid before Parliament. Here again I take it that this Order is identical in its wording to the Bill which passed through Stormont. For clearly they did not wish to start playing around and redrafting it to suit the new situation. One wonders, however, which Parliament is meant. Presumably, it must mean the United Kingdom Parliament and the "Minister" in fact is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

There are a number of further points that I could make. There was a debate in another place when a large number of questions were asked. I am bound to say that Mr. David Howell contrived to give more answers in a short time than is usually possible for a Minister. I suspect that there are a lot of points, and it may be that there are noble Lords who know something about Northern Irish electricity: I confess that I know little. Therefore it may be that the noble Lord—and I know that he is very willing to consult the convenience of the House—will perhaps bear in mind some of the observations I made at the beginning, which are not intended as a criticism of him personally or of the Government. I would ask him to bear in mind particularly that the Special Orders Committee could perhaps consider giving just a little more information as to the nature of the Order. This of course may be a matter for the Chairman of Committees. At the moment I take it there is clearly no question of vires, since the Government, with our approval, took almost unlimited powers for doing things by Order ; and this is in accordance with that.

I notice that in another place they are proposing to set up a Northern Irish Select Committee to deal with these matters and I know that the noble Lord himself is anxious to find the appropriate machinery for Parliament. While it is right for us to do as we are doing now and to speed this Order on the way, none the less I am sure we shall be failing in our duty if we do not between us manage to achieve a better procedure perhaps by the next Session.


My Lords, I do not know very much about Northern Irish electricity, but at the time of the last batch of Orders I raised a point concerning precedent. The noble Lord was kind enough to write to me and I am much obliged to him for doing so. My difficulty to-night is this: I realise that one must exercise restraint and not abuse the generosity of this House, but there are one or two points which are of a rather general nature. It would seem to me that perhaps the most helpful way of raising these questions would be on the draft Appropriation (No. 2) Order, as that seems to cover a number of related subjects. If I may, I will defer making any comments until we reach that Order. I hope that that may be found helpful.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, what he suggests seems to me a good way of conducting these debates. We have four Orders in Council on the Order Paper which deal with totally diverse subjects. However, a number of the points which have been raised earlier and which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has raised again now, relate to the way in which Parliament is asked to approve these Orders in Council. Therefore if any observation might seem more relevant to one Order than to another, I am sure our procedure is sufficiently flexible for us to be able to take account of it.

I have given a great deal of thought, as has the Secretary of State in another place, to the question of just how Parliament, in this exceptional situation, can exercise proper scrutiny over Northern Ireland Orders in Council. As the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, correctly says, many of these are in fact substantial Bills. Indeed, by the end of this Session most of what would have been the legislative programme of the Northern Ireland Parliament will be brought into effect in this way. As it happens, it is a heavy legislative programme because a lot of the consequential legislation following on the reorganisation of local government was included in this particular Session. But the difficulty, and it really is a fundamental difficulty, in which we find ourselves is that in the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act, which Parliament passed just before Easter, it was agreed that the only way of dealing with this situation was by way of Orders in Council requiring the Affirmative Resolution of both Houses.

Having said that, I would point out that it is really not possible to subject Orders in Council to the sort of procedures which have been evolved over many years for the discussion and amendment of legislation. The two are quite different. For a start, the question of the timetable is an extraordinarily tricky one. Legislation has to start in one or other House of Parliament ; that House has to finish with it, and send it back again to the other House of Parliament. With Orders in Council the timing is left open. One House may or may not consider a draft Order before the other House ; thus, Members may or may not be able to take into account points of view ex-expressed elsewhere.

What we have tried to do—and through the usual channels I have made this known to the Parties opposite—is to try and import as many democratic features as possible into this exceptional legislative process. This applies particularly to consultation in Northern Ireland with interested parties, and the consideration given to the views of those who express an interest. We are now getting to the stage where Bills had not previously been published as such. Therefore a draft Order in Council is published together with an explanatory memorandum. That explanatory memorandum is sent to interested parties ; to Members of the House of Commons in Northern Ireland and of the Senate. It is available to the public through Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Belfast. There is a period for consultation and consideration of views. The Order in draft then goes before the Northern Ireland Commission. I have taken part in several of these sessions—the major ones so far have concerned education, health and planning. I can assure noble Lords that there is a thorough and protracted scrutiny given to draft Orders by the members of the Northern Ireland Commission.

I readily accept that this is a rather unusual form of public control, but it has some advantages. Ministers and senior officials can be present and take part—officials as well as Ministers—in the discussion. We learn new things all the time. It is not, of course, an elected body—this is the main objection to the Commission—but an appointed body ; but, on the other hand, it represents the views of both communities which, for whatever reason, Stormont was not able to do for the previous nine months.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves this fascinating account of this new institution, I take it that its proceedings are not open to the public. I am not proposing at this moment that they should be ; it would be interesting at some time to know how it operates—whether people can put forward Motions or Amendments. But here again, I accept that the noble Lord and his colleagues are trying to create a new institution and make it very effective. The other point is this. Has this particular Order been through this institution? I take it that it has not, because it had previously passed through Stormont.


My Lords, that is correct. Those Orders which have been through Stormont, or had completed a substantial part of their progress at Stormont, were not referred to the Commission. The draft Education and Libraries Order, which is a long one, had only received a Second Reading at Stormont when a number of points were raised. It was thus referred to the Commission and there was a long discussion on it. I should be happy to give some further information at a later date to the House on the workings of the Northern Ireland Commission. I do not think I should delay your Lordships at the moment. I thought it worth giving a fairly short account of what the procedures are, because as we have often said this is an exceptional procedure.

The stage at which we are to-day is therefore only the tip of the iceberg. A great deal of consultation, debate, consideration and so on, has taken place. When the Orders come to London they are scrutinised by the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments in another place, and by the Special Orders Committee in your Lordships' House. As the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition said, it is not for the Government but for the Chairman of the Special Orders Committee, perhaps after wider discussion, to give some thought to the proposal which has been put forward which I know has support from some other quarters as well. Finally, the Orders are submitted for the Affirmative Resolution of both Houses. In the next Session the situation will be rather different: new proposals may come forward from Her Majesty's Government which are not Stormont proposals. The Secretary of State's mind is open on this matter, as is mine and that of the noble Earl the Leader of the House, as to what we should do in this House.

If I may deal now with one or two of the smaller points that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton raised, on Article 11, Section 2, the Article relating to the giving of directions by the Ministry of Commerce, I can confirm that the power is similar to that contained in the comparable legislation, that is the 1957 Act, in Great Britain. The reference to Parliament is to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, not to Westminster. In all these Orders references to Parliament mean the Parliament of Northern Ireland which is prorogued. The reason is that these are permanent enactments. We would end up in a very confused state if in legislation passed after Easter of this year "Parliament" meant the Westminster Parliament, whereas in all the rest of Stormont legislation "Parliament" meant the Parliament of Northern Ireland. For the purposes of consistency, therefore, and because these are permanent enactments, "Parliament" refers to the Parliament of Northern Ireland. This was pointed out by the Special Orders Committee when they considered some of the earlier Northern Ireland Orders which were approved recently. I think that I have covered most of the points raised in this short debate, and I hope that I have not done so at too great a length.