HL Deb 04 February 1986 vol 470 cc1011-3

3.4 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking in conjunction with both Houses of Parliament to provide appropriate constitutional and technical arrangements for the proposed Anglo-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Council.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, the question of establishing an Anglo-Irish parliamentary body is, of course, ultimately one for the two Parliaments concerned. I shall be very happy to convey to my colleagues any views which your Lordships may express concerning this important matter.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his reply. Is he aware that questions are being asked on this subject today in the Dail in Dublin? Would it not help to make the Anglo-Irish Agreement more widely acceptable if there were proper parliamentary scrutiny of the proceedings of the Conference of Ministers?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord said. I think I must stick to what I originally put forward. This must be a matter for the two parliaments concerned. There are many constitutional and technical arrangements to be decided. I shall be pleased to discuss this with any noble Lord who would like to talk to me about it, but we must proceed rather slowly on this matter at present.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, while I do not argue against the principle, does the noble Viscount not agree that it is absolutely essential, before any action is taken on a matter such as this, that there should be full and detailed consultation with every possible interested party?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. I entirely agree with him. I hope that we shall have discussions through the usual channels. Indeed, I am prepared to have discussions most widely throughout the House before we commit ourselves to anything. It is for us to decide in this House what we wish to do; another place might have other views but it would be better if we could all be in concert together. However, I would not wish to do anything without making sure that we were taking this House, and all your Lordships so far as possible, along with us.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the noble Viscount will understand that those of us who hope and pray that the Anglo-Irish Agreement produces some good results recognise that it has thousands of opponents—some of them very vicious. They issue rumours and statements that, frankly, frighten many of us who support the agreement and those rumours are not denied by the authorities concerned. There is one aspect which, I believe, came up in this House last week: the fact that what I call the "consultation procedure" of the council and the public generally is so bad. Will the noble Viscount look at that from the propaganda point of view? PR is important. If the Anglo-Irish Agreement is to succeed it must be seen to be succeeding.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, no one can appreciate more than I do some of the points made by the noble Lord. I accept them. I am as keen a supporter of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as anyone. I am so because I have experience of some of the problems involved. I agree that it is important to get the truth across. That is one of the most difficult things to be done in this particular area.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, does the noble Viscount not agree that one part of the truth which has not been fully stressed is that this is really the best offer the Unionists are ever likely to get?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I think it would be very dangerous for me to speculate on these matters, particularly since I realise that I would be offending against one of my own rules; that is, I would be answering a question very wide of the original Question.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, may I press the noble Viscount a little? What kind of timetable of progress towards setting up this kind of tier have the Government in mind? Or is it the view of the Government that there should be a period of further stability before moving forward to the setting up of such a body?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I think the Government are very much in the hands of both this House and another place. I think it is important that that should be the case. I should like to see progress with the Anglo-Irish Agreement very much indeed, but we must consider how both Houses of Parliament in this country could help towards that. I believe that we must consider that very carefully.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the noble Viscount has said that he is prepared to listen to suggestions from Members of both Houses when making up his mind about the parliamentary tier. To what extent can he improve the information that comes to Members of both Houses so that they can make a reasoned judgment? At the moment we have to rely on what I termed last week "puny press reports" in the Printed Paper Office, and nothing else.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, again I would be straying a little but this is an important matter so I will offend against my rules just for a moment to say that press statements issued by the British and Irish Governments describing the proceedings of the intergovernmental conference have been placed in the Library of the House and in the Printed Paper Office following each of the meetings which have so far taken place. We intend that that should be the normal practice. If we can do more to help this House and to get more information I hope that noble Lords will tell me, as I am anxious to respond.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in view of the Government's pledge in Article 12 of the Agreement, should there not be a joint committee of both Houses to work out precisely what constitutional and technical support is required?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, surprisingly enough I have Article 12 in front of me and it says here: It will be for Parliamentary decision in Westminster and in Dublin whether to establish an Anglo-Irish Parliamentary body of the kind adumbrated in the Anglo-Irish Studies Report of November 1981". That is what I propose we should do. It will be for parliamentary decision. I think it would be quite wrong if it became a matter for government decision away from Parliament.