HL Deb 21 October 1998 vol 593 cc1468-72

(".—(1) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters.

(2) The arrangements so made shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly.

(3) In this section "the Forum" means the consultative Civic Forum established in pursuance of paragraph 34 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement.").

The noble Lord said: These amendments concern the civic forum, one of the bodies provided for in the Belfast agreement for obtaining the views of various sectors of the community, including business, trade unions and the voluntary sector.

This amendment moves the provisions from the obscurity of Part VII, miscellaneous and general provisions, to a more prominent place in the Bill alongside the other institutions provided for in the agreement. There have also been some minor changes to the provisions. These include omitting the reference to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister obtaining through the forum the views of the community, just in case anyone got the impression that we were seeking to imply in the Bill that the elected representatives in the Assembly were not sufficiently representative of the views of the community which elected them! That is far from the case.

We have also removed specific references to funding from the provision on the forum. We are considering the general question of funding the institution in the Bill and may introduce amendments at Report stage if these are necessary.

Amendment No. 345 amends the schedule on transitional provisions in Schedule 12 to ensure that arrangements concerning the civic forum made during the shadow phase of the Assembly carry forward after devolution. I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 115, Amendment No. 115A:

Line 8, after ("established") insert (", by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly,").

The noble Lord said: This is intended to make clear that the civic forum is to be established by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which is how I read paragraph 34 of strand one of the agreement. I beg to move.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I am a little worried about the poor old civic forum. The Committee will probably have noticed that the Bill completed its passage through the Commons without their noticing that it was absent from the Bill. That went entirely unremarked. We are now restoring it at this stage in the Lords. I suppose it is quite a good principle that if there is no reason to have a body, one should not have it. We have an admirable title in the civic forum. We had a body with a short vestigial life which I imagine played a useful role in an earlier stage of the peace process.

I think we need to be quite certain what we want a civic forum for. I believe there is a need for such a body in a Province which has such a weak civic culture. There is perhaps a role for a body called a civic forum to reach out into Northern Ireland society to try to build civic institutions which are the necessary accompaniment to the elaborate constitutional structure we are setting up. Clearly we shall not create a civil society in Northern Ireland simply by having better parliamentary institutions and a better sharing of relationships north and south. It has to be done by animating a greater civic spirit and responsibility in Northern Ireland.

My slight concern is that the civic forum is an afterthought put in the Belfast agreement for reasons of piety and that it is in this Bill for the same reason. We find ourselves saying that First Ministers are to provide guidelines on the selection. Why could not the civic forum be drawn fairly widely from Northern Ireland society? Why should not certain bodies be established as nominating bodies which could nominate people to it? Why should it not meet in different places around Northern Ireland? Why should it not act as a sounding board for building around the new assembly and the new all-Ireland institutions greater levels of consent and information? Why should it not in some ways act as a public information service giving information from the Assembly?

I think it would be a great shame if it just reproduces the conventional, cross-community deal represented by the Assembly itself. I do not have the answers and this is probably not the appropriate place to discuss them when we are discussing specific amendments to the Bill. However, I think we should all recognise that at the moment this is a title in search of a role. We have some obligation to try to think what would make a civic forum useful to the developing, and we hope peaceful, society in Northern Ireland.

Lord Hylton

I agree with a great deal of what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. As someone who is involved to some extent in voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland I very much welcome the coming into being of the civic forum. It may not be terribly well known in this country that Northern Ireland has a wonderfully good structure of community organisations which exist even in the smallest neighbourhoods and villages. That experience should be used to develop and to build up civil society and to help the assembly to cope and to grapple with the difficult problems that it will have to face.

As to the future role, some of the areas that such a forum might attempt to address would include looking at proposals before they have got as far as being White Papers or draft Bills. It might also consider the consequences of legislation and how it will work in practice and to what extent it may need to be amended, modified or changed completely. Those are the kinds of functions in which such a body could be helpful.

Lord Fitt

In a debate on an earlier amendment we spoke about clarity. The same subject applies in speaking to this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, is right. Very little attention has been given to the forum: how many people will be on it; how it will be funded; where it will sit; whether it will work in competition with the Assembly—that would be one of the worst things that could happen. Above all, we do not want to set up another factory of grievances. There have been too many bodies in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years where everyone has expressed their grievance, political, religious and in relation to all the other divisive events in Northern Ireland. If the forum is to be a positive factor for Northern Ireland, we should know exactly how it will be constituted. How many personnel will be on it? Will Assembly representatives be able to sit on it as well as carrying out their functions in the Assembly? Will they be able to make recommendations to the Assembly? Will they be able to reject or oppose some of the recommendations that come from the Assembly? The phrase, "civic forum", is loaded with all kinds of imponderables.

The Minister has been helpful in the debates that have taken place on the Bill. He has listened to the concern expressed in this Chamber; he has gone away, examined matters and returned with amendments. I hope that on Report he will be able to give us a further idea as to exactly what the forum is meant to be and what it can be.

Lord Dubs

Before dealing with the various comments and questions raised, perhaps I may turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. It seeks to make clear that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are responsible for establishing the civic forum.

We are clear that the responsibility rests with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The clause as it stands makes that clear. If the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have the duty to make arrangements to obtain the forum's views, as is clearly stated, that seems to us to give them also the duty to establish it in the first place. However, I have noted the noble Lord's comments. I should like to consider the matter further and come forward with an amendment on Report if we believe it to be necessary. I am grateful to the noble Lord for the useful contribution he has made. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Turning to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, the Commons took note of this matter. It was then included in Clause 64 and we have moved it forward. The Commons did have a chance to consider it.

Perhaps the more important point is that raised by the noble Lord and by my noble friend Lord Fitt on the specific arrangements for the forum—how it will function and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, made a number of excellent suggestions as to how it might work, the job it might do and how its members might be selected. My noble friend Lord Fitt asked questions on the same matter.

The key issue is that these are all matters which the shadow Assembly has already invited the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to consider and report on. Under the agreement it is the First Minister and Deputy First Minister who are to establish guidelines for the selection of members of the civic forum. All these matters to do with the civic forum are best considered by the Assembly, which has already begun to consider them.

The alternative would be for us to ask to set down a blueprint as to the precise way in which the civic forum might be selected and how it might operate. I suggest that that might be going a little far in relation to the responsibilities of this House and indeed of Westminster. I should prefer to have a limited reference to the civic forum, as in the Bill as presently drafted, and to leave it to the Assembly to take these matters further. After all, if the Assembly is not happy about its relationship with the civic forum, the civic forum will not be all that effective. It is not meant to be an alternative body to the Assembly; it is meant to be a helpful way of, as it were, tapping opinion across a whole range of bodies in Northern Ireland. If the civic forum is to work, it must be seen by the Assembly as being helpful to it, and in particular as being helpful to Assembly Ministers. For that reason I should be reluctant to go down the path of specifying more precisely how the civic forum should work. We ought to leave it to the Assembly.

Lord Skelmersdale

I wonder whether the Minister can answer a question that has just been prompted by his remarks. As he understands the position, namely that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, will set the body up and make arrangements for its operation, presumably they can "unmake" it if they find that it is not useful. Is that the case?

Lord Dubs

The civic forum was agreed as part of the Good Friday agreement. Given that that will be within the responsibility of the Assembly First Minister, Deputy First Minister and other Ministers, we have to leave it to them. I suppose that theoretically they could. But that would mean that they would be tearing up a part of the Good Friday agreement. Given that the vast majority of Members of the Assembly have supported the Good Friday agreement, I should think that that is not a path down which they would wish to go. I should have thought that in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement they would want to give effect to the proposals for the civic forum.

Lord Skelmersdale

The Minster has just put his finger on exactly the point I was trying to make. Is it in the power of the Assembly to build on the Good Friday agreement? It seems to me that it should be. That then raises a question as to whether there will be interference with that decision of the Assembly either by the Parliament in London or by the Dail in Dublin.

Lord Dubs

This is becoming rather hypothetical. Let me restate the position. The civic forum is part of the Good Friday agreement. The majority of politicians elected to the Assembly were elected on the basis of supporting the Good Friday agreement. We fully expect the Assembly, through its Ministers, to establish a civic forum—not in terms of any detail that we set down for them but on the principle that there should be such a forum. The noble Lord asked whether theoretically they could kill it off. I suppose that they could; but there would have to be cross-community voting in the Assembly to achieve such an end.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I am sorry to pick the noble Lord up on this point, but that is extremely important. Up to now I have often loyally defended the Government on the sanctity of the Belfast agreement and how we must not detract from it, take parts away from it that we do not like. The Belfast agreement states clearly that there will be a civic forum. Is the Minister now saying that the Assembly can unilaterally remove it?

Lord Dubs

I said that the debate is becoming theoretical and I do not wish to be taken down this path. The Government's position is clear. We support the totality of the Good Friday agreement and we expect the Assembly to do likewise. Theoretically I suppose that the Assembly could at some future date decide on a cross-party basis to go further or to do different things. But at this stage it is the Government's obligation fully to support the Good Friday agreement and to make it clear that we expect all participants to do so. To go further and look into the distant future is theoretical; it is a trap into which I do not wish to be drawn.

Lord Skelmersdale

Surely what everyone needs to know is what is the power of the Assembly. The noble Lord seems to have just said: "That is the Belfast agreement; this is the Bill; matters are set in concrete". What a terrible thing to be doing!

Lord Dubs

I did not say that. I said that in setting up the Assembly we are sticking totally by the Good Friday agreement and we expect Members of the Assembly to do likewise. I then said that perhaps matters would change in the fullness of time. The Assembly would have to make decisions of that sort on a cross-party basis. Clearly, we do not set in concrete all aspects of the way in which the Assembly is to operate. What we are saying is that, here and now, the Good Friday agreement is a test by which we judge these particular actions.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

In the light of the undertaking given some minutes ago by the Minister to reconsider these matters, and particularly Amendment No. 115A, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 115A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 115, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Amendment No. 115 agreed to.

5 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 116:

After Clause 43, insert the following new clause—