HL Deb 10 February 2000 vol 609 cc776-97

3.39 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland]:

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 12, after ("statutory") insert ("or standing").

The noble Lord said: Clause 1(4) opens up a range of committees and the amendment seeks to protect all persons who might be drawn, perhaps inadvertently, into membership of ad hoc committees or who are inveigled or elected to serve thereon. The subsection could expose Ministers, chairmen and deputy chairmen who might want to serve on the Northern Ireland Select Committee or Grand Committee.

There is a degree of overlap and vagueness in the Bill. I refer, in particular to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who currently serve on such committees by virtue of being elected to the other place. There should be no room for doubt in the interests of those who, perhaps through ignorance, might breach the law as enforced by the Bill.

On the wider question of Northern Ireland Committees, I suggest, as a contribution to avoiding or filling the dreaded vacuum in Northern Ireland, that it might be a good idea to encourage the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to meet more frequently— as required by law. It has not been fulfilling its potential for two or three years, although that is no reflection on any party. That committee can have up to six meetings per year but, disappointingly, it has not met since last summer. Meetings of the Grand Committee would be a way of making people in Northern Ireland of all parties and creeds feel that they were not being neglected or forgotten.

Membership of the Grand Committee is open to all elected representatives who have taken their seats, so there are good grounds for assuming that they will continue to work together, as they did when they met more frequently. That would in itself do much to reassure the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that we can rely on the Minister to use his considerable influence to remove what appears to be a blockage in the usual channels and thereafter to ensure that meetings of the Grand Committee are restored to their authorised frequency.

The Northern Ireland Select Committee was established in the face of a good deal of opposition, mainly from the Northern Ireland Office. Its remit was faulty and still is. Like the Grand Committee, the Select Committee was encouraged to range over all Stormont departments, thereby duplicating the scrutiny and other excellent work done by United Kingdom government departments. Trade and industry is one example. The first excursion by members of the Northern Ireland Select Committee was to Korea to consider how exports to that country from the United Kingdom might be improved. That issue was being tackled from another angle by the Department of Trade and Industry, resulting in unnecessary duplication of effort.

It was my responsibility to spearhead the campaign for the Select Committee. My proposed terms of reference, which I tabled at 10 every morning that the other place was sitting, were: There shall be a Northern Ireland Select Committee to scrutinise the decisions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for which there is no counterpart in Great Britain".

I lost that battle. Consequently, successive Secretaries of State were deprived of the opportunity to meet Members of your Lordships' House and benefit from advice and assistance on matters that could not be touched upon by any other committee— such as law, policing, security and constitutional issues. I am not suggesting that we should invite the other place to amend meaningless terms of reference that it has operated for several years, but noble Lords might consider the formation of a Select Committee of their own on the terms originally proposed. I am convinced that such a committee would provide the Secretary of State with the means of valuable contact with your Lordships now that the House of Lords is rapidly acquiring a legitimacy that allegedly did not exist until a few months ago. I beg to move.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I join the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, in his amendment—partly because it is identical to one introduced by one of my honourable friends in another place. The purpose of this simple amendment is consistency, so that all who hold office in the Assembly are treated equally.

The Bill allows some committee chairs to perform their functions without their committees. Clause 1(3) states that no committee of the Assembly, is to hold a meeting or conduct any business", during a suspension. However, subsection (4) states that only the chair or deputy chair of statutory committees will not continue to hold office. In effect, the chair and deputy chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Procedures Committee, Committee of the Centre, Audit Committee and Public Accounts Committee can continue to carry out their functions without their committees being able to meet to discuss the issues and without chairs and deputy chairs being able to take account of the opinions of their committee members, which seems illogical and indefensible.

In the other place, the Minister focused on the role of the chair within the committee, but there is nothing to hinder the chair continuing his work with the clerk to his committee and external bodies. The chair of the Audit Committee, for example, routinely meets with the Comptroller and Auditor-General. Failure to suspend the chairs of standing committees means that it will not possible for certain elements of the Assembly to continue working through suspension. Is that what the Government intend?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The amendment would ensure that the chairman and deputy chairman of all committees of the Assembly would cease to hold office during suspension, not just the chairman and deputy chairman of statutory committees. I hope to offer both noble Lords reassurance that will go some way to allaying their concerns.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, pointed out that Clause 1(3) makes it clear that no committees of the Assembly can meet or conduct any business during suspension. That includes statutory and all other committees. All Assembly committees, statutory or standing, will cease to function for the duration of the suspension. Subsection (4) deals only with individuals who hold statutory office under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, just as Clause 3 deals with their reappointment in line with the provisions of that Act.

The Bill does not address the various non-statutory appointments such as the chairmen of standing committees. Nevertheless, they too will cease to exercise any of their functions during a suspension because their committees cannot meet and conduct any business. While emphasising that the suspension provisions in Clause 1 will impact on all committees of the Assembly, I express the hope, on the basis of what I have said, that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

I should like to deal with the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. As he knows, this Bill deals only with the committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It does not deal with either the committees of this Chamber or those of another place. In particular, in does not deal with the Northern Irish Select Committee or the Grand Committee.

It is a matter for both Houses to decide the terms and frequency of the meetings of these committees. As the noble Lord implicitly acknowledges, the frequency of meetings is not affected by this legislation. With respect, I do not think that this is the appropriate place to try to deal with the points he has made. It is a matter for each individual place to decide how best to proceed. In the light of my explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I am grateful for the clarification provided by the noble and learned Lord in regard to the points made, especially those made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, who may wish to say something in response. In regard to the second point, I freely acknowledge that I was pushing my luck a little and going beyond the terms of reference. However, there is a relationship here. If we can illustrate that the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom is using its mechanisms to the full to look after the needs, wishes and desires of the people of Northern Ireland, it will be much easier to find a solution and an end to the vacuum. That is why I ventured to go a little wider than I should have done. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord but renew my appeal that he should use his very considerable influence to ensure that something is done to restore those committees to their former operational efficiency. In view of what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Hylton

I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord would feel able to accept at the next stage of the Bill a small amendment to Clause 1(3), simply adding at the end the words, save that the Secretary of State may enable them to meet in a consultative role". That wording would meet the point I endeavoured to raise yesterday on Second Reading, to which the noble and learned Lord was kind enough to reply in responding to the debate.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

It is a novel way to propose an amendment by asking, "What about thinking about this wording at the next stage?" I dealt with this matter on the last occasion. I said then that the reason why the suspension is being considered is to allow a breathing space because of where we are in relation to the process in Northern Ireland. As I said at the time, Clause 1 prevents the Assembly meeting or conducting any business during a suspension. That means it will not be able to function in a shadow or consultative mode. The Bill is not about providing an alternative role for the Assembly; it is about providing a complete breathing space to allow people to focus their energies on resolving the current difficulties. In the light of that, I am not in a position to accept the suggestion of the noble Lord.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Ending suspension]:

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 22, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Lord: For the sake of convenience Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 have been grouped together. I made clear yesterday that my reservation with this subsection is solely in connection with the word "review". I note that in earlier copies of the Bill—this is not just a niggling point; it is something that has puzzled many of us—the clause was printed in italics. The italics have now been dropped. I wonder whether they were intended to give a degree of prominence to that wording in another place, or whether the earlier version was drafted in haste. I suggest that it was somewhat unusual, but I shall not press the point.

I expressed the hope yesterday that it is not the intention to inflict upon the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland another dose of summitry which would be destructive of what little stability remains.

American-style summitry—involving, as it does, the isolation of the participants and starving them of nourishment and sleep—is always welcomed by the news industry. However, the process invariably leads to the downfall of leaders and, on occasions, governments. Instead of dramatic summitry, I suggest that we need a period of reflection. Then we need a thorough examination of the mechanisms of devolution against the background of yesterday's turmoil in Wales and the Scottish "hot-pot" bubbling away nicely, soon to overflow.

Having been present during nearly all the debates on devolution in this Chamber concerning all three parts of the United Kingdom—indeed, four if we count London—it was, and is, clear to me that the problems are not really understood. Regrettably, Parliament has condoned or ignored certain facts of life. We certainly ignored the fact that the Stormont experiment had no counterpart anywhere in this world and that its flaws and unworkability made collapse almost inevitable. I can think of no nation that requires every party to be involved in cabinet or executive and where, if any one element withdraws, the whole structure collapses. Surely we can do better than that. I repeat my plea for modest beginnings.

I was greatly encouraged by the words of Mr George Howarth, the Northern Ireland Minister in the other place, who said on 8th February: Right hon. and hon. Members can envisage circumstances in which some talks would need to take place away from the public gaze. In the past, some talks between parties have taken place in a way that protected the participants and allowed them the space to decide in which direction to move".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/00; col. 202.]

I believe we are entitled to assume that those wise words of a junior Minister represent the views of his fellow Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office and also—dare I suggest it?—the good intentions of Her Majesty's Government in general. I beg to move.

Lord Glentoran

I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I listened with care to the remarks he made. If I interpret the amendments correctly, they would effectively break with the Belfast agreement and could lead to its suspension. I have to point out that all the way through this process my party has linked with the Government in believing in the Belfast agreement and supporting all those who worked for it. We certainly could not countenance any alteration or amendment to the Bill that would endanger the Belfast agreement.

Lord Smith of Clifton

On behalf of these Benches, perhaps I may concur with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Glentoran.

Lord Hylton

I am not quite sure what the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, is trying to achieve with these amendments. It is possible that they are just a probe. I am not quite clear as to their intention. Nevertheless, the noble Lord has drawn attention to an important point; namely, that the fullest possibly dialogue should proceed in parallel with any review. I say that because dialogue between citizens, politicians and members of parties is, I believe, capable of changing attitudes. Changing attitudes is extremely important for the generation of trust that we all know has been somewhat lacking. That is why I hope that the Government and the Secretary of State will do their very best to promote dialogue at all levels whether or not there is a review going on.

4 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

I do not know whether the noble Lord the Minister had noticed that I would be raising an issue at this stage rather than at the further reading because I think it is the time for it to be considered, and it is relevant.

I was not clear yesterday exactly what the two governments expected to review and under whose chairmanship they would do it. I am clear that if the Government has taken us up to the wire, purports to intend to call Sinn Fein/IRA's bluff and to challenge them to make good their implicit commitments, then they should not be offering yet another sop to Cerberus at this late stage that would commit Her Majesty's Government to fall short in its duty to defend the people of Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom whose people, by a substantial majority, voted to stay within the United Kingdom.

In the debate yesterday I referred the possibility of tacit deals that might be proposed to equate the paramilitary arms with those of the regular forces and to lower our defences. I pointed out then that when the IRA speak of the issue of arms they are speaking about the armed forces of the Crown and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, not decommissioning their own paramilitary arms,.

Press reports today suggest—and this is the point on which I should like the view of the noble Lord the Minister—that the Irish Government, in its usual helpful and generous way, is to propose a plan which would involve significant demilitarisation measures by the British in Northern Ireland. By a curious coincidence, Gerry Adams has also been talking about demilitarisation. He is usually aware of what is happening. It is also reported that any initiative from the Republican Movement will be strictly conditional on demilitarisation and the continuation of the new institutions.

The courageous decision, in which I found so much to praise yesterday, may prove to be yet another fudge, purporting to suspend the institutions and appearing to bring a minute amount of pressure to bear on Sinn Fein/IRA, but with both sides knowing that the decision to suspend the institutions is only a manoeuvre and that there is yet another deal under the table designed to give Sinn Fein/IRA yet more, in return for what?

Can the Minister tell us what is the position? I recognise that negotiations are secret and have to be carried on behind the scenes. But since they are creeping out of every crevice of the Irish Times and our own press, I think that we are entitled to have a view; and I did give the Minister notice that I would want it.

I should like to know how the Government propose to justify dismantling defences in IRA "country" in South Armagh and withdrawing forces from a part of Britain while the situation is not, and cannot possibly be considered to be, normal. I have no doubt that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence will be delighted for their own different reasons, such as severe overstretch in the army. It will be nothing short of disgraceful to offer Sinn Fein/IRA yet one more major act of appeasement. I should not be at all surprised if this—combined with the determination of the Government to proceed also to emasculate the Royal Ulster Constabulary to appease a tiny violent minority—will be the last straw for most of the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government have reflected very carefully on that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I shall first deal with the preliminary point about the italics which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, raised. It is customary in another place for provisions which may incur financial expenditure to be printed in italics. Clearly, if and when a review is put in place, there will be associated costs. That was the only reason for the print being in italics.

The essence of Amendments 2 and 3 that we are taking together is to remove the requirement for a review. Suspension will come into effect only if it becomes clear that the political institutions no longer carry cross-community support and confidence. If that is, indeed, the case and the institutions are suspended, it will be essential that we bring the process back on track to a process of discussion and negotiations; in other words, a review. This was recognised during the negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. That is why there is a whole section entitled "Validation, Implementation and Review". If suspension occurred without being followed by a review we could find ourselves in a dangerous political vacuum that could lead to the destruction of everything on which we have been working for so long. It would almost certainly cause the end of the Good Friday Agreement. I think it is that view that has led the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, to express the views that they have in this debate.

As has often been said, here and in another place, this legislation is not intended to suspend the agreement. It is intended to save the agreement. I am convinced that it is only through the twin proposal of suspension followed by review that we can reach a positive outcome, not by suspension alone. Consequently, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

I deal with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. There have been articles in the Irish Times yesterday and other newspapers today. I make our position clear. The onus is on the paramilitaries to provide parity on whether, how and when they will decommission. All our efforts with the Irish Government are directed to achieving that. Security measures are determined by the level of threat. As the threat reduces, we will make progress on normalisation. We have already published a paper setting out our strategy for doing so.

There is no equivalent between security measures and the decommissioning of arms that we seek. In relation to security measures we act on the professional advice of the chief constable. We are determined not to relax our guard. The safety of the public is absolutely paramount. Decommissioning is essential because illegal arms, even if not used, are part of the threat. Substantive and verifiable decommissioning would have an impact on the overall level of threat alongside other important factors. I repeat that security measures are determined by the level of threat. We act on the professional advice of the chief constable.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I am sorry to intervene at this point. I just wanted to agree with and support what the Minister has said about the level of threat and the rumours that are in the newspapers today and were in the Irish Times yesterday. It is extremely important that security measures involving both police and the army are solely determined by the level of threat. After all, Irvinestown has reminded us once again, although we needed no reminding, that the threat does not come only from those who belong to the larger and better known paramilitary organisations but potentially, increasingly, from break-away movements of one kind or another. It is the threat from them, just as much as from any of the larger organisations, that has to be taken into account by the Secretary of State and his security advisers in deciding when to reduce any security measures that there are, including troop numbers and everything else. That has always been the policy, and I am delighted that the Minister has confirmed that it is still so.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I felt that I had made it abundantly clear in my opening words that the one target word in that sub-section was the word "review". I did not mention anything likely to be destructive of the Belfast agreement. I know that we used to be told in former times—last year and the year before—that the substitution of the word "may" for "shall" or vice versa would unravel the whole agreement, none of which I believed. That was the kind of theology. It was that word "review" to which I took exception and which I made clear I regarded as highly dangerous. I should have perhaps suggested the word "amendment" or "consultations". I did try to make it clear that on occasions when we have had these high-wire acts in the way of reviews, cameras and the law, ambushing everybody as they come in and out, putting their own slant and interpretation on what has been said, that was quite frankly destructive of any peaceful way forward. I derive some comfort from the fact that I am in line with the junior Minister in another place. I quoted the words to the Committee. I do hope that he will not be accused by certain Members of the Committee here of trying to destroy the Belfast agreement. In the light of the curious reaction I have had, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 3: Page 2, line 3, leave out subsection (3).

The noble Lord said: A study of the Northern Ireland Act 1998—which, after all, is the governing Act at the moment—reveals that only two years ago we asked why—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I believe that we have yet to come to Clause 3. This is Amendment No. 3.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Effect of restoration]:

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 6, leave out subsections (2) to (7) and insert— ("(2) Sections 16 to 19 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (relating to the election of the first minister and deputy first minister, the determination and filling of ministerial offices and the appointment of junior ministers) shall apply.".).

The noble Lord said: I am grateful for the correction, as I had indicated that I was discussing Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 together as they are grouped together on the groupings list.

Given that so much study was devoted to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 during its progress through this Chamber only two years ago, we have to ask why what we approved without even a Division—namely, the complicated mechanism for appointing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—has now been largely set aside by Clause 3 of the Bill before us. One can understand the desire to avoid delay in appointing, or perhaps reappointing, those two senior Ministers. However, in the likely event of the period of suspension—renewed or otherwise—lasting for perhaps a year, does it not seem likely that the situation, including the political situation, may have changed to such an extent that the original mandate of one or both of those two Ministers will be no longer sustainable? In that situation, would it not be prudent for those two senior Ministers to be reinstated to begin with in designate form and thereafter to seek a renewed mandate in the form of fresh internal elections in the Assembly, perhaps after a period of four weeks?

I understand that in another place a junior Minister took the line that any election during or immediately after suspension would be, to use his words, a very delicate matter. It might be said that Ministers had foreseen the events in the Welsh Assembly yesterday and those which may yet occur in the Scottish Parliament. All of us who have had to submit ourselves to election may feel that all elections are delicate matters, particularly in a marginal constituency. It is not clear whether the juggling between Section 16 of the 1998 Act and Clause 3 of the Bill perpetuates the requirement for a kind of joint departure of both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister; in other words, if one goes, the other must go. One might call that a kind of legislative suicide pact. In the light of yesterday's confusion in Wales, is it possible that there is now a need for a rethink, not to damage the sacred agreement but simply to clarify the rules governing present and future mechanisms within the Assembly? I believe that it would be disastrous if, following a restoration, there was confusion and chaos on the first day back. I beg to move.

Lord Glentoran

Once again, I regret to say that I cannot support the noble Lord's amendment. It seems to me that if suspension occurs (whatever the period of time it takes for democracy to be restored), it would be less than just after all the work, the negotiations, the effort and leadership of both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon, respectively—that they should not resume their posts when democracy is restored. If, as the noble Lord suggests, their mandate has run out, surely the democratic processes will take their own natural course within the Assembly and within the Province, and new elections will follow in the normal way. I believe that it is absolutely right that when democracy is restored after a suspension, those in post should remain there until the democratic processes of the system decide otherwise. As I say, we cannot support the amendment.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

On Tuesday in another place my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson, set out the rationale behind the Bill. He made it clear that the intention was to suspend the institutions in order to create a temporary pause, a breathing space, in which a short review could take place, after which a restoration order could be made.

Fundamentally, the enabling power in this Bill will suspend only the operation of the institutions. The institutions themselves will remain intact. In particular, the Assembly will not be collapsed or dissolved. Similarly, members of the Executive and the First and Deputy First Ministers are not being permanently discharged. Their functions will simply be exercised, for a temporary period, by the Secretary of State. A restoration order will then return all of the institutions intact, to the point before suspension took place. Clause 3 has been drafted to allow a smooth, uncomplicated and swift return to devolution.

If Clause 3 were drafted in the way proposed by the noble Lord, in effect one would have to have new elections for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—and that would suggest that the suspension was intended to be a long-term proposition, which it is not. In addition, it might suggest some permanency that would be damaging to the process of building the trust and confidence which are necessary for the restoration of the institutions.

The vast majority here and in another place have expressed their disappointment at the need to present this Bill. These views are based on the fact that most people want to see the Good Friday agreement work. They want to see power successfully devolved to Northern Ireland. They do not want to see a return to direct rule. The Government are in total agreement with those views. That is why, instead of dissolving the institutions and repealing the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we are putting arrangements in place to allow for what we hope will be a short suspension. It would not be conducive to a swift and positive return to devolution to have to re-establish the Assembly from scratch after suspension. It would not help to create stability; it would have the opposite effect. I hope that in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I am grateful for the noble and learned Lord's response. I can only hope that the obvious conflict between the 1998 Act and the present Bill will not, when the Assembly is eventually restored, cause the whole operation to end in chaos and tears yet again. I hope that the gentle warnings that I have given may at least enable some consideration to be given to the possibility that the experts may not be entirely right. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clauses 4 to 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Orders made under this Act: supplemental provision]:

Lord Smith of Clifton moved Amendment No. 5: Page 3, line 17, leave out ("(except one under Section 9(2))").

The noble Lord said: The premise on which this amendment is based is to ensure that when the Secretary of State makes an order to suspend the Assembly, it must be approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. This is an enabling Bill which, as I said at Second Reading, gives very wide powers to the Secretary of State. It gives him the ability to suspend the Assembly at any time without any further requirement to consult Parliament or to make a Statement.

Yet Parliament has to pass an order to allow power to be restored. That seems to be somewhat illogical. The Act, as it will be, does not have to be used now or at the weekend. In future there may be very different circumstances and the Act would be used without any consideration of the matter being given by Parliament. It is an extremely broad and sweeping power that is being given to the Secretary of State. It may have very serious implications. I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I am in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has just said. Obviously, it is extremely important that the order which sets the suspension in motion should be approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. Sadly, that is not how I read his amendment. It appears to mean that the Act would not come into force, and would not become available to the Secretary of State, unless there had been approved a draft of such an order by both Houses of Parliament. There would have to be a subsequent order and another pair of approvals in order to set the suspension in motion. I do not believe that is desirable. It would be unusual to require an affirmative resolution simply for the bringing into force of the Act. Secondly, it may delay permission being given for the actual suspension owing to the necessity of having two measures of approval, one for the Act itself and the other for the resolution. Therefore, while agreeing with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, I cannot agree to the amendment as I read it.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I cannot support the amendment. Last week the Secretary of State himself in another place had a timetable in mind. He seemed to suggest that, with everyone's co-operation, the Bill could complete all its stages in both Houses and receive Royal Assent at a given time, followed by commencement, in his view, almost automatically. That seemed to be what he had in mind. I believe that is desirable.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Through his amendment the noble Lord seeks to provide that the commencement order bringing this Act into effect should be subject to further parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Although the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, raised questions about its efficacy, I understand that he supports the principle. Although I understand the reasons for moving the amendment, I believe that it is inappropriate.

It is customary for the power to make a commencement order not to be subject to parliamentary approval. In giving its approval to this Bill the House will, with regret, I believe, be giving my right honourable friend in another place authority to suspend devolved government. He has made it clear that he will act on that authority by the end of this week if clear and credible progress has not been made on decommissioning, as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, has said. That is the reality of the position. To be required to return to the House within days for further approval is neither sensible nor appropriate.

Members of the Committee may also wish to note, first, that the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee which considered these matters, has given the legislation a clean bill of health. Secondly, subsequent restoration and revocation orders under the Bill, should it become law, would require parliamentary approval. In those circumstances, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I accept the impeccable logic of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, and the assurances given by the noble and learned Lord. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Short title, commencement and consequential amendment]:

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 6: Page 4, line 11, at end insert ("within 24 hours of Royal Assent").

The noble Lord said: I risk repeating what I said a few minutes ago. In another place the Secretary of State expressed the expectation and hope that the Bill would complete all its stages. He also said that he hoped that it would receive Royal Assent before the end of this week. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said, that is the normal custom for a Bill as important as this, and that any commencement should not be delayed in any way by reference to any other bodies at any other level.

As a loyal subject, I would not presume to anticipate Her Majesty's decision. Therefore, my amendment is designed to ensure that the commencement follows closely on receiving Royal Assent. It suggests a round figure of 24 hours after Royal Assent. But in view of the deterioration in confidence within Northern Ireland and all the rumours, reports, forecasts and so forth, I suggest that, subject to the Royal Prerogative, the commencement announcement could be made perhaps as early as 12 noon tomorrow. We certainly should not allow the situation to drift over the weekend: that would be absolutely disastrous. I beg to move.

Lord Glentoran

I have some sympathy with this amendment but, after considerable thought, I believe it is best to leave the Secretary of State with maximum flexibility as to when he operates the suspension, if indeed he has to. However, I reinforce the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, as regards the suspension being sooner rather than later if the deterioration continues, according to the press and one thing and another. We must not forget that the Ulster Unionist Party conference meets on Saturday. The First Minister, David Trimble, will be in serious trouble by then if we have not got either the product or the process has not been suspended.

Furthermore, the people attending that meeting will come from right across the Province. If they have not heard in due time of the suspension and arrive in the knowledge that it has not happened, there could be considerable difficulties in getting the decision that we want from them. I am being very practical and recommend to the Government that if suspension is seen to be necessary—I still hope that it will not—it is made in adequate time to be announced in Northern Ireland on the six o'clock news.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I appreciate that the noble Lord wishes to ensure that a prompt decision is made as to when suspension should take effect, particularly as it is such a major step. But as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said, the effect of the amendment is to require the Secretary of State to make a commencement order within such a short timescale thereby negating the flexibility of allowing an order to be made in the first place. In practice, this amendment to the Bill would not allow my right honourable friend in another place to take account of any developments that occur before the Bill receives Royal Assent or even just after that. I am sure that the Committee is aware of the rapid changes that can occur in the political process in Northern Ireland, particularly the propensity for developments at the eleventh hour. We must not assume, even at this late stage, that commencement will be necessary. Indeed, many of us hope that there will be enough progress so that suspension is no longer needed.

Equally, the Government must be able to react quickly to preserve the progress that has been made so far and to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland. Assurances have been given, both here and in another place, that those developments must occur by the end of the week or devolved government will be suspended.

Emphasising again that the amendment will require the Secretary of State to trigger suspension of the devolved institutions even if the political context did not warrant it, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for his qualified support of the amendment. I am grateful to him also for issuing a little reminder of certain crucial timetables and crucial meetings taking place in the early part of the weekend, which I was too timid to mention.

I understand the constitution and niceties of these matters. I hope that, at least, the amendment and what has been said in support of it will be taken on board by the Secretary of State—sensitive, as he always is, to the possibility of dangers and troubles further down the road. I am confident that we can leave the matter to his judgment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Schedule [Provisions Applicable During Suspension]:

Lord Smith of Clifton moved Amendment No. 7: Page 8, line 5, after ("may") insert ("by order").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 7 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 10.

We all hope that this will be a short suspension but, were it not to be, these amendments seek to require the Secretary of State to review his decision on the payment of Assembly members every six months. Before devolution, there was a great deal of controversy about the level of payment of Assembly members. That was exacerbated further by the salaries they voted themselves when devolution took place. To allow any public suspicion in Northern Ireland that payments will be carried on over an extended period would be most unfortunate.

There is no political advantage in arguing for the retention of Assembly members' wages if there is little or no work being carried out. I envisage that if the Assembly is still in suspension after six months and no serious attempts have been made to resolve the impasse—we still do not know what the Government will do by way of review—it would be useful if the public could be assured that Assembly members' wages will not be continued ad infinitum without a check. I hope it will not be necessary for the amendment—should it be incorporated in the Bill—to be implemented, but I think it would be a reassurance to public opinion that this will not be another process of delay with payment. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation of his amendments. Whether or not intended, the effect of the amendments would be that the Secretary of State would have power under Section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to vary Assembly members' salaries; however, he would not have power to stop salaries altogether without making an order which would be subject to approval by Parliament. Furthermore, such an order would lapse after six months unless replaced by a further one.

The approach currently set out in the Bill is more appropriate. This transfers to my right honourable friend in another place the relevant functions currently exercised by the Assembly. He will have discretion to vary or stop salaries as appropriate. I am confident that he will discharge this responsibility carefully and with all due consideration. It would not significantly enhance the interests of either Assembly members, Members of this Parliament or your Lordships to introduce a further element into this process. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his assurances. In the light of those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead moved Amendment No. 8: Page 8, line 5, after ("salaries") insert ("or allowances").

The noble Lord said: It is not my intention to inflict hardship on members or Ministers of the Assembly but to clarify beyond doubt the position in regard to subventions from public funds to opposition parties. As it stands, the position is very vague. This issue is relevant because I believe that within the framework of the Assembly a committee—perhaps a finance committee or a body of that kind—is studying how it might benefit from what is called "Short" money—a name derived from its introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, the Leader of the House of Commons in the Wilson government, and a very good friend of many of us on this side of the House.

As leader of a party at that time, I was involved in the discussions. I can certify that the grants were designed to assist opposition parties in Parliament to employ staff and to increase their efficiency in dealing with legislation and related matters. I have reason to believe that the committee at work—it may not, at the moment, be formally at work—in the Stormont Assembly has been in touch with its Edinburgh and Cardiff counterparts. It is important that during this period of suspension—this vacuum, whatever one wants to call it—a gentle word of advice is given to the three Assemblies to ensure that they do not build up false expectations.

I am not seeking to deprive the back-benchers in any of those Assemblies of assistance if Parliament so decides, but the rules of the Short money scheme clearly define the fund as being available to assist opposition parties. Surely that means that a second party in coalition with another party could not benefit, even in an assembly. I do not see how it could be accepted in regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly because the parties are all in a compulsory coalition; there are no opposition parties.

I seek to issue a good-natured word of caution for them not to build up their expectations or, worse still, to make plans for lavish expenditure, in the belief that somehow or other the scheme will be applied to them. In those circumstances, it should be made clear that Short money can be paid only to opposition parties and not to a coalition of parties, some of which are in government. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, did not speak to Amendment No. 9 and I shall deal with that amendment after he has moved it.

The effect of Amendment No. 8 would be to allow the Secretary of State to determine allowances as well as salaries at zero. Paragraph 9(2) of the Schedule was included because the power transferred to the Secretary of State to determine salaries under Section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is such that the Secretary of State would be able only to vary salaries, not to withdraw them altogether. While no decisions have yet been taken on those matters, it is right that the Secretary of State should be given full discretion.

The scope for the Secretary of State to determine the allowances payable to Assembly members is much greater and he already has discretion to withdraw all allowances under the present statutory provision in Section 48 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1998. Consequently, the amendment is unnecessary and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it. I should point out that Sections 47 and 48 of the Act deal with the payment of salaries and allowances to individuals. They do not deal with the payment of moneys to parties, which is to what I believe the noble Lord was referring when he mentioned "Short" money. I am not sure that either Clause 9(2) or Section 47 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1998 touch the issue he raised.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I agree that the Short money would not be in the terms of the Bill as printed, but under the 1998 Act that did not stop the Finance Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly from exploring, I understand, in company with its Scottish and Welsh counterparts, the possibility of making an application—I presume to the other end of the building—for access to the Short money. It was to avoid any embarrassment that I tabled the amendment. I shall therefore withdraw it and I shall not move the other amendment in my name to ensure that there is no distinction between members of the Assembly and Ministers in the Assembly. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments No. 9 and 10 not moved.]

Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Then, Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 9th February), Bill read a third time.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I apologise for the fact that inescapable duties prevented me from hearing the Second Reading debate. I realise that I must not now make a Second Reading speech, but I hope that a brief Third Reading speech may be permissible.

I have, of course, had the advantage of reading in Hansard yesterday's Second Reading debate here and that in another place. I do not see how the Secretary of State could possibly have avoided bringing forward the Bill in the light of such information as is in the public domain, any more than I see how, on the basis of such information, the Secretary of State can avoid bringing in the order implementing the suspension of the institutions forthwith.

I take issue with the Explanatory Notes, helpful though they are, because paragraph 3 states that, the Secretary of State also indicated that should future circumstances require it"— referring to the Statement of 22nd November in another place the operation of the Assembly (and other institutions) could be suspended". The Secretary of State did not say so. In the most robust language, he said that they would be suspended. It is worth bearing in mind the language that he used: However, if there is default, either in implementing, decommissioning, or indeed for that matter devolution, it is understood that the two Governments, British and Irish, will take the steps necessary to cease immediately the operation of the institutions—the Executive, the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, the Civic Forum and the north-south implementation bodies". He continued, Nobody should doubt my resolve to ensure that no party profits from preventing progress in all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement".—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/99; col. 346.] It is clear from a reading of yesterday's debate in your Lordships' House that none of your Lordships appeared in any doubt that circumstances require the suspending of the institutions because the republicans have defaulted on decommissioning. I want to make it clear that I agree—lest anyone in any quarter should suppose that I was reluctant to be counted on that matter at this critical time—because of the collapse of confidence in the Executive and in other institutions that the default has caused, at least among the Unionists in Northern Ireland, and, I suspect, probably more widely.

That collapse of confidence is not irrational. It derives from the fact that trust has to be at the centre of the operation of the institutions of devolution. Furthermore, a crucial expectation which Sinn Fein colluded in creating has been dashed. There is also a further reason. Genuine deliberation and, more especially, genuine compromise, are inhibited if one party refuses to give up its arsenal. Either a compromise will have been extorted by threat of force, or it will have been withheld for fear of such an accusation. Yet surely in Northern Ireland, of all places, the art of judicious compromise needs to be encouraged.

There will be time in due course to review recent history and the Government's handling of those extremely difficult matters with the great benefit of hindsight. At this point, I do not feel disposed to criticise Her Majesty's Government for having travelled many painful extra miles—with one exception which I attacked at the time and to which it is not now necessary to allude. In my own time, I travelled some painful extra miles knowing full well the obloquy that they would attract. The consequence of the Government's extra miles at the very least has surely been this: that Sinn Fein/IRA defaulters are today in the unprecedented position of being universally seen for what they are, at least at present—that is, obstructers of the very process which they claim to support, and blackmailing obstructers at that.

Among their resulting multifarious critics are those who have been driven to denounce even John Hume for "inappropriate" remarks—by which they mean uncongenial remarks—calling for a start to decommissioning by them. The Secretary of State rightly described that in another place as "arrogant". I am afraid that he also described it as "lordly", which your Lordships would not recognise. For that action on the part of Sinn Fein to be noted by all the world is surely not a negligible development; nor is its significance likely to be lost on Sinn Fein/IRA. They are on their own, and, I suggest, for the first time.

I agree with the remarks made in the same vein yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Eames, and others about the need to keep doors open, not to slam them. I agree also with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, in this debate about the availability of other modes of discourse and discussion. There are ways of talking other than in the Executive and the Assembly. Those ways must continue to be taken. We should always travel in hope. But for the immediate future, the Bill must surely be passed and the implementing order made—not least because, otherwise, Northern Ireland will at once lose the leadership of two politicians in particular without whose courage and vision the huge progress noted by noble Lords in yesterday's debate would not have been made.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I indicated to the Government that I wanted to say a few words at this stage. I do not intend to go into any great detail. I have had the experience of the "treble"—of seeing three governments in Northern Ireland abolished. In 1972, I saw the wiping out of the Stormont parliament, which had been created in 1920. In 1974, I was there when the Sunningdale executive was wiped out. I then saw the abolition of the convention a few years later. Now, I am witnessing the current events.

All noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have expressed a great deal of regret. No one in this House seeks with any enthusiasm the passage of this legislation. I do so very reluctantly. But some things should be pointed out. A great deal of criticism has rightly been levelled at Sinn Fein/IRA and their refusal to decommission their arms. But when the review takes place—and I hope that it will be successful—as much consideration and pressure should be applied to the UFF, the UVF and the other loyalist so-called paramilitaries who also have a large number of lethal arms at their disposal.

During the suspension, we are asking the IRA to decommission. The IRA are the Irish Republican Army. Without arms, they are nothing. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is nothing without its murderous weapons. The only reason that the LVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) have any legitimacy in their own minds is that they have lethal arms at their disposal by which they threaten to murder those who disagree with them. So when the review takes place, the same pressure should be applied to all those organisations. If the IRA does decommission, then there will be no need: it will be voting itself out of existence. What is an army without arms? So the IRA must face the consequences—as we must. If it hands in its arms, as I passionately advise it to do, there will be no need for an Irish Republican Army. The same applies to the UVF and the other so-called "loyalist" organisations.

I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, will have made many friends among Northern Ireland Assembly members by querying their salaries. I know how sensitive the matter can be, and has been every time there has been an abolition order.

I should like to ask an important question. During the suspension, when no meetings will be allowed at Stormont—there will be no committees—will members of the legislative assembly be able to attend as individuals? They have offices there, with their computers, word processors and various writing facilities. Will they be able to use the facilities in the building? We all know the symbolism of the Stormont building. In my mind I have a clear picture of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness being held outside the building before they were elected as MLAs. I can readily foresee that the symbolism of the building will be used by MLAs of different political persuasions to put forward their particular point of view.

An editorial in the Irish Times fully expresses my wish and my sentiments at this time. It was written last year, not last week. The final paragraph states: The core of the decommissioning issue is no different today from what it was six months ago. No democratic system can function while some participants reserve the right indefinitely to fall back upon violence and maintain an armed force to do so. The IRA and Sinn Féin do not appear to accept this and believe they can force those who are fully-committed democrats to bend to their will". That last sentence is of great import to everyone at this time. It would be unthinkable that the Belfast Agreement, with all it represents, should founder. But that would be a lesser price to pay than embracing the corruption which would be implicit in a surrender to such demands". That speaks for the vast majority of people in the island of Ireland.

Lord Patten

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. We all listen carefully to what he has to say. How true his words were about the critical importance of decommissioning. For it is arms that confer legitimacy on terrorists on either side of the political divide, whether the possession of the pike in the thatch in the 18th century or the Armalite in the loft in the 21st century. The noble Lord's remarks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, should be listened to with great care.

I must apologise as I, too, was unable to be present for the Second Reading debate. The same kind of inescapable duties kept me away from this House. I shall not detain your Lordships long in this debate, except to say that I hope that we shall indeed have good fortune in the next few days. If we do not, I hope that there will be a period of reflection which may lead to good fortune and the restoration of the arrangements which many in this House wish to see.

I urge upon Her Majesty's Government that, during that period of reflection, they look and think hard about whatever Plan B it may be necessary to bring back to this House and to another place, perhaps in a few months' time. I believe that it will very soon become clear that such a plan may be necessary. I look for reassurances from the Minister that the Government are prepared to take into account the sad possibility that such a Plan B may be necessary. I agree entirely with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden that we must travel with hope, but this House, as well as the Government, must also travel with realism.

5 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for his observations about keeping doors open and other modes of talking. It is nice to have confirmation of what I sought to say both yesterday and today from someone who bore principal responsibility for these matters for a number of years.

This situation places a considerable responsibility on organisations such as the British-Irish Association, the Irish Association, Queen's University, Corrymeela Community and others, who did a great deal over many years to keep some kind of political dialogue going, to do the same if, as looks likely, the institutions find themselves in a state of suspension.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I refer very briefly to the routine extension of an order providing an arms amnesty to be debated by another place on Monday. In my view, there would be misunderstanding if that debate were regarded as in any way linked to our exchanges this afternoon.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we have had a long debate on this important issue. We must not lose sight of the fact that a great deal was achieved under the Good Friday agreement. The issue of decommissioning is one area in which there has been no progress at all. The people of Northern Ireland have gained much from the agreement, and we should audit what has been achieved: an inclusive power-sharing government; cross-border implementation bodies; a North-South Ministerial Council; a British-Irish Council; very importantly, the only human rights commission within these islands; the opportunity to have a police service that has the trust and respect of all; and a significant reduction in the number of troops on the streets. Substantial moves have been made towards the establishment of a normal society.

The Assembly had a long—far too long—period of gestation. In its brief period of effective operation it has proved that it can work well for all the people of Northern Ireland, and we have much to lose if it collapses altogether. Therefore, we believe that immediately all parties in Northern Ireland must come together to resolve the situation. The Bill allows the parties some breathing space to ensure that that task can be carried out quickly and to the satisfaction of all concerned. As I said yesterday, it takes time to build up an institution; it takes a matter of hours to finish it. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, gave testimony to the number of institutions that he had seen come and go. It is vitally important that we do not allow the suspension to go on for too long and that we restore full power to the Assembly as speedily as possible.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, this debate illustrates that your Lordships' House is at one in supporting the Bill, with some provisos. Warnings have been given to Her Majesty's Government. However, we are all still hopeful that miracles will happen and that suspension will not be necessary. I restate the stance of my party. We believe in the Belfast agreement and in the need for the IRA to disarm. We also believe that everything humanly possible must be done to keep the Executive together. We hope that Her Majesty's Government will have the courage, skill, luck and good fortune to do that which we all know is necessary.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their co-operation in allowing all stages of the Bill to take place in this House in the course of two days. In particular, I thank the Front Benches of the two parties opposite. The House is practically united in the views expressed over the past two days. We face a very serious situation in Northern Ireland this week. The Bill before the House is one that none of us would have chosen to consider, let alone bring into effect, but there is a serious risk that cross-community confidence in the institutions will diminish to the point where those institutions are in danger of collapse. The Government cannot stand idly by and watch; they must take urgent action to ensure that they have the necessary powers so that the continuing good governance of Northern Ireland is safeguarded.

All in this House want the agreement to succeed and every aspect of it to be implemented in full. We want to see devolution and decommissioning—both are voluntary aspects of the agreement but both are essential—take place. We want to see substantive progress being made on decommissioning immediately. If that progress does not materialise the Government recognise the need to take action to safeguard the institutions. The Bill provides a breathing space for the parties to come together to review the current situation and resolve the very real problems which exist. It is pause or bust. That is potentially the only choice which lies before us. If that situation is reached I do not believe that it is a choice at all. We cannot allow the institutions to perish; there is too much at stake. A pause will at least preserve the institutions and enable us to focus all our efforts on finding a way forward. All of us want to see the Good Friday agreement succeed: there will never be a better agreement. It is for that reason that the House supports the Bill.

I conclude briefly by referring to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. Next week a draft order under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act is to come before this House and another place. The effect of it is to extend the amnesty period during which decommissioning can take place under the Act until 23rd May 2000. The draft order will be subject to full and open debate here and in another place. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt that debate, save to say that the order is essential in order that decommissioning can take place within the time-frame set out in the Good Friday agreement. That is what we all want to see.

On Question, Bill passed.