HL Deb 04 March 1999 vol 597 cc1907-10

10.19 p.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as a result of the ongoing preparations for the future administration of Northern Ireland, following the Good Friday agreement, today I present the draft Northern Ireland (Modification of Enactments—No.1) Order 1999. This order seeks to modify the law and make other provisions consequent to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Essentially, the order makes provision for enactments which require amendment or repeal; transfer to the appropriate authority in Northern Ireland of powers currently vested in the Secretary of State which were historically vested in the Lord Lieutenant and the Governor of Northern Ireland, the gubernatorial powers; and provides for the continuation in law of statutory rules made in the weeks immediately before devolution but which, because of parliamentary procedure, are capable of being annulled after devolution by either the Assembly or at Westminster.

I now summarise the main provisions of the order. Article 1 is introductory and deals with the title, commencement and extent of the order. It will come into force on the day appointed for devolution. It applies the provisions of the order to Northern Ireland only, except as it relates to certain provisions of UK-wide enactments and to a provision in a Scottish enactment.

Article 2 gives effect to the amendment of various enactments specified in Schedule 1 to the order. This includes the transfer of powers of the former Governor of Northern Ireland relating to matters in the transferred field and which, during direct rule, are vested in the Secretary of State. Post-devolution these would go to either the First Minister/Deputy First Minister, the relevant departmental minister or the department concerned. Decisions on the level of the authority to exercise these powers have been taken on the basis of the importance, scope and nature of the subject matter.

If I could illustrate by means of examples, it might help to set the provisions in context. The Petroleum (Consolidation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1929 deals with the licensing and safe keeping of petroleum. It gives power to the governor, now transferred to the Secretary of State, to make Orders in Council applying the Act to other substances. The amendment being made would transfer the power to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, subject to that department's laying an order before the Assembly.

Similarly, in the Public Records Act (Northern Ireland) 1923, which provides for the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland, the governor had certain powers in relation to the printing and publication of records. These powers would now be transferred to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Finally, Article 7 of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 confers a power on the governor to make appointments to the Water Appeals Commission. This power would transfer to the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly so that the power is exercised in the transferred field but at a distance from direct responsibility for the service provision. This article also gives effect to repeals to the extent set out in Schedule 2.

Article 3 makes provision for statutory rules in passage when devolution comes into force. As I said, under normal parliamentary procedures such statutory rules are capable of being annulled, either by the Assembly or at Westminster, during that part of the statutory period which falls after devolution. Under Article 3 of the order, such statutory rules would be protected.

If I could set the provision in context, it might be helpful to your Lordships. As far as the Assembly is concerned, technically a statutory rule, which is subject to negative resolution procedure and made before devolution, would be laid before the Assembly. If within a statutory period (30 days minimum) the Assembly resolves that it be annulled, the rule would become void from that time.

As a matter of constitutional propriety, the Assembly should not be in a position post devolution to annul statutory rules which have been made under direct rule in the period immediately before devolution. It could, of course, revoke the rule in question after devolution by making a new rule if it so wishes. I should explain that this aspect of Article 3 is not new but largely re-enacts provisions contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

Similarly, it would not he appropriate for Westminster to debate a statutory rule on a transferred matter, subject to negative resolution procedure, after devolution. Once again, the rule could be subject to annulment after devolution because the statutory period of 40 days had not expired on devolution day. For these reasons the provisions of Article 3 are necessary.

Article 4 applies the provisions of the Documentary Evidence Act 1868, as amended in 1882, to documents issued under the authority of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. This means, in effect, that an official document authorised by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly can be admitted in court proceedings as conclusive evidence of such a document.

Article 5 ensures that any subordinate legislation already made by, or anything done under, the enactments which would be amended by this order will continue to have effect after devolution. It also takes account of the provisions of Section 95(5) of and Schedule 12 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That schedule provides for certain references in existing laws to continue to have effect following devolution. For example, a reference in existing law to laying a document before the "Parliament of Northern Ireland" will in the post-devolution context be read as a reference to laying a document before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Article 5 makes it clear that the amendments contained in Schedule 1 to this order do not prejudice the operation of those provisions. A comprehensive consultation paper on the proposals on which this order is based, followed by a draft of the order itself, was circulated to, and considered by, the First and Deputy First Ministers (designate). The draft order was also circulated to the Northern Ireland party leaders.

This order complements the other legislation giving full effect to the new arrangements for the future government of Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday agreement and as such is a necessary part of it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Dubs.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. Despite the complexities of the order—it is a technical matter—I am entirely content with it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past ten o'clock.