HL Deb 25 October 1989 vol 511 cc1367-71

2.50 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of its constitutional and other implications, they will apply Bill procedure to the draft Education Reform Order (Northern Ireland).

The Parliamentary Under—Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, this legislation, as is the general case with such legislation for Northern Ireland during the period of direct rule, will be effected by Order in Council, subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Is it not very frustrating that this order, which will provide the framework for the educational future of 1.5 million of United Kingdom citizens, cannot be amended in Parliament? Further, does he appreciate that the order contains something which is quite new; namely, provision for a new funding and a new status for integrated schools?

Therefore could not this new framework be got right as nearly as is humanly possible in Parliament from the very start?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I was interested to note that the noble Lord said "from the very start", which in this case was March 1988. The substance of the draft order has already been the subject of extensive public consultation beginning with the publication of a consultation paper on that date. That was followed in October 1988 by the announcement of preliminary decisions in The Way Forward document, which is the equivalent of a White Paper.

The latest stage was publication of the proposal for the draft order in June of this year, for which a consultation period of over 15 weeks was allowed. Thus there has been extensive consultation over an 18-month period. Moreover, at each stage modifications have been made to the proposals in the light of the comments received.

Many noble Lords will no doubt feel rather jealous of this particularly elongated preparation of legislation.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Moreover, is it not the case that out of 25 Orders in Council affecting Northern Ireland 12 have gone through this House and Parliament without debate of any kind? Is that not a thoroughly undemocratic process? Therefore should not the Government consider introducing Bill procedure as suggested by the noble Lord?

Further, is it not the case that the noble Lord's honourable friend Dr. Mawhinney in the Northern Ireland Office has been discussing with all the parties involved the possibility of increased devolution, which is at the root of the problem? Can he also say what progress Dr. Mawhinney is making in the matter?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is right on almost all counts. The Government have no doubt that the ideal way to legislate for transferred matters in Northern Ireland is by discussions in a devolved government. Indeed, that is what we have all been working for over the past 18 years with varying levels of success, as the House will know.

However, while the present political climate continues, Westminster is the only place to legislate. As the noble Lord will be well aware, Parliament is nearing the end of an especially heavy legislative Session. I cannot believe that any noble Lord would welcome a full programme of legislation for Northern Ireland being grafted onto it. I believe that it would place an impossible burden on both Houses. The only alternative would be to demote Northern Ireland and that would result in a loss of much valuable legislation tailored to the needs of the Province.

Having said that, as the noble Lord is aware from the answer to one of his supplementary questions, the Government are pursuing what future there may be within a legislative arrangement which is suitable both to the people of Northern Ireland and to Parliament. I repeat now that we are always willing to hear any workable suggestions.

Lord Boyd—Carpenter

My Lords, if orders have gone through without having been debated, is that not largely due to the inaction of the Opposition?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I was rather surprised to hear the claim from the Leader of the Opposition and I must therefore confess that I rather ignored it. To the best of my knowledge and belief, Orders in Council are always subject to affirmative resolution. If that is the case, I think that my noble friend has a point.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there is consultation in Northern Ireland at the initial stages when a Bill is going to come before this House? Is he aware that when I was last in Belfast I talked to the head of one of the teacher training colleges and he told me that he had not been consulted in any way concerning the last Education Bill which came before this Chamber?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, consultations often happen in parallel with legislation which is to come before this House. There is then the extended proper consultation period where parties are of course informed by debates in Parliament which are widely publicised in Northern Ireland. As I say, there are various legislative steps to be taken before a draft Order in Council is laid.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, although I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd—Carpenter, can never avoid making a party political point, even at the extremes, would the noble Lord not agree that the Opposition have been assiduous at all times in debating Northern Ireland matters? Will he also agree that that which precluded the possibilities has been the very point he made; namely, the overloading of work in this House, which is indeed the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not think I had better move into that argument. However, as I say, to the best of my knowledge and belief these Orders in Council are dealt with by affirmative resolution. Therefore it is up to any noble Lord to contribute to the debate which must indeed be held.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is it not the case that if Members of your Lordships' House attempted to amend such an order, or indeed to vote against it, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd—Carpenter, would be one of the first to bound to his feet to inform us of the constitutional impropriety of such action? Although I deny that we have the right to follow the course which he would undoubtedly urge upon us, nevertheless, that is the convention of this House.

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; the convention of this House is exactly that. As we all know, no affirmative or indeed negative order can be amended.

Lord Prys—Davies

My Lords, the Minister referred to consultations which have taken place in Northern Ireland in respect of this order. However, he will know that there is still widespread and severe criticism of the order because it amounts to no more than a rehash of the provisions which apply to England and Wales and does not address itself to the problems of Northern Ireland. Would it therefore not increase the legitimacy of the order, and its acceptability to the people of Northern Ireland, if it were to be introduced through the Bill procedure so that Parliament could debate, test and, it is to be hoped, improve the terms of the order?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord's claim can be substantiated. I say that because, for example, the opting out of grant—maintained schools was dropped, except in relation to integrated schools, which are peculiar to Northern Ireland, and integrating the education package was not proposed originally but was introduced in the current proposal.

Further, so far as concerns the common curriculum, it was made much more flexible as a result of consultation because areas of study were introduced rather than a definitive list of subjects. However, I have no doubt that these are matters that we shall be debating when we receive the order, which I hope will be laid early next month.

Lord Prys—Davies

My Lords, the point is that orders can be debated but they cannot be amended.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, no, they cannot be amended. As the noble Lord will be well aware, the Bill procedure is used for matters which are unique to Northern Ireland, such as fair employment. The education reform proposals differ slightly, in the ways that I have just described, from those in the Education Reform Act which was fully debated by Parliament. Issues which are unique to Northern Ireland, such as integrated schooling, form a small part only of the overall legislation and would not warrant the exceptional use of the Bill procedure.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, of course my noble friend is right when he says that when an Order in Council comes up for affirmative resolution it cannot be amended. However, on the assumption that there was a debate, as there is entitled to be, and that the draft resolutions then under discussion came in for serious criticism from any quarter of the House, is it not possible for the Government thereafter to introduce an amending Order in Council of their own? Would not that be the way forward?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, yes. I am sure that my noble and learned friend will rem ember the end of one bitterly fought Session when our noble friend Lord Cockfield withdrew a Treasury order which was an affirmative instrument.

Lord Blease

My Lords, is not part of the problem the fact that we are overloaded with business in both Houses of Parliament? My second point is that we have the 1974 Act on the statute book. It lays down a procedural arrangement. Has the Minister not identified the problem as being mainly at the draft or consultative stage of the order? If there were more effective consultations at that stage of the legislation that might help to ease the problem. May I follow the noble and learned Lord and attempt to make a suggestion which may meet some of those problems in Northern Ireland? Would it not be possible, under the Northern Ireland Act 1974, to have draft orders more effectively and constructively considered at public sittings in the Parliament building in Stormont, under the consultative committee procedure, and chaired by the Minister dealing with the particular order?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in theory of course the thinking behind the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, is right. However, currently there is not much likelihood of elected representatives sitting down together to form such a desirable committee. As I said earlier, the Government are open to all suggestions and I shall take up and pursue that suggestion with my right honourable friend.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, further to the helpful suggestion made to the Minister by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, that the Government would always listen to substantial opinion expressed in the House and would then amend things, and the Minister's happy acceptance of that proposal, may we take it that in future if the Government receive a majority of 25 or less on any amendment moved from these Benches, they will consider accepting the amendment?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I rather thought that the whole of this lengthy exchange on the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was about inconsistencies and the impossibility of making comparisons. The noble Lord has therefore just achieved the impossible.