HL Deb 28 November 2000 vol 619 cc1251-9

3.7 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Disqualification for certain offices which may be held by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly]:

Lord Rogan moved the amendment: Page 1, line 14, at end insert (", or (e) be nominated as a chairman or deputy chairman of an ad hoc committee.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at the outset, I freely admit that this amendment would have no effect on the Bill in its current form. Indeed, if the Minister were now to give a clear assurance to the House that the Government have no intention of reintroducing Report stage Clause 1 in another place, I would gladly withdraw my amendment and sit down. However, if the Government are minded to reintroduce what was Clause 1, then this amendment would have an effect, a very important effect.

My amendment would prevent persons holding a "disqualifying office" from being nominated as a chairman or deputy chairman of an ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, it would prohibit a Minister of the Government of the Republic of Ireland, or a committee chairman or deputy chairman of the legislature of the Republic of Ireland, being nominated as a chairman or deputy chairman of an ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Both in Committee and on Report the Government have shown that they can be persuaded. They were persuaded on points regarding the policing board, committees of the Republic of Ireland legislature and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. I am optimistic that the Government will be persuaded again. An amendment was offered in Committee to add the presiding officer and the deputy presiding officer to the list of positions to which a holder of "disqualifying office" could not be appointed. The Government rejected the amendment on the grounds that the presiding officer and deputy presiding officer have no role in relation to the initiation of policy or policy development.

Again on Report the Government rejected an amendment to add the presiding officer to the list of positions to which a holder of a disqualifying office could not be appointed. Will the Minister confirm that by virtue of Section 40(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the presiding officer must be a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission? Will the Minister also confirm that the holder of a disqualifying office is barred from being the presiding officer because the presiding officer must be in the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission?

Of course, we must consider this amendment on the assumption that the Report stage Clause 1 will be reintroduced in another place. As the Bill stands, no holder of a disqualifying office can even sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

At Committee stage of this Bill and again on Report, ad hoc committees were rejected on the basis that they have no statutory role in the development of policy. But is it necessary to have a statutory role in the development of policy in order to have a role in the development of policy? I think not. It is quite possible to have a role in policy development without that role being statutory. Thus, ad hoc committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly have a role in the development of policy.

The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 came before this House on Thursday, the second of this month. The issue of flags was discussed in a committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly before the regulations were brought forward. It was an ad hoc committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly in which the issue of flags was discussed. Does the Minister believe that it would have been prudent for a Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland or a holder of any other disqualifying office to have been a chair or deputy chair of that committee? Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable to have a Minister of the Government of the Republic of Ireland involved in deciding where the national flag should, or should not, be flown in any part of the United Kingdom?

The Government have conceded that a chairman or deputy chairman of a statutory committee would have potential conflict of interests with the holder of a disqualifying office. They should also concede that the same potential conflict of interests would arise with a chair or deputy chair in an ad hoc committee.

In urging the Government to accept this amendment I also urge them not to reintroduce the clause removed on Report. I would be more than happy for the Government to refuse to accept this amendment if they give an undertaking that they will not reintroduce the removed clause in another place. Something that was not part of the Belfast agreement and demanded in the agreement should never have been introduced by the Government at the request of Sinn Fein. When I refer to the "request of Sinn Fein" I do so in the same vein as Sinn Fein refers to "discouraging" young Catholics from becoming members of the police service in Northern Ireland and that is, let it be noted, post the police Bill.

Sinn Fein/IRA has for many years discouraged—and still does—young Catholics from participating in policing through murder, violence and intimidation. Now Sinn Fein requests a measure and the Government either place a Sinn Fein clause in the Bill as with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, or, as in the case of this Bill, the Government produce an entire Bill. Just as "discouragement" means intimidation for Sinn Fein/IRA, the Government appear to read a Sinn Fein request as an order.

Surely this Government must learn, and must learn quickly, that the insatiable appetite of republicanism can never be satisfied. If the Government produce a piece of legislation which contains a specific Northern Ireland issue, or they produce a Bill with particular Northern Ireland aspects, they must not continue to consider only the views and wishes of Sinn Fein/IRA. Carrots alone do not maintain motivation unless interspersed with the occasional stick. I beg to move.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I raise what appears to me rather a substantial point. It seems that we are now discussing an amendment proposed to a clause which is not there or is part of a Bill which has been declared dead. Without Clause 1 the Bill no longer has any life or meaning. According to my understanding, Clause 1 was taken out on 20th November by your Lordships' House. Now the noble Lord, Lord Rogan—no blame attaches to him—has somehow, with considerable ingenuity, managed to persuade the Table Office to accept an amendment to a clause which has gone. He has properly expressed a wish that the Government in another place will not seek to replace Clause 1 in a Bill which is now effectively dead. He rightly fears—I certainly share his anxiety—that if the Government were to be so insensitive (that is the politest word I can think of) as to reintroduce the now dead Clause 1, they would revive the whole Bill and give it a fresh life in a quite indecent fashion which I do not think anyone could possibly welcome.

I do not wish to speak about the merits of the amendment at this stage. The noble and learned Lord has a disagreeable responsibility in regard to the Bill. He has a rather difficult time of it these days and I have the utmost sympathy for him. I say sincerely that I always respect the patience, intelligence and courtesy with which he handles tricky and difficult situations. However, on this particular occasion he will have a lot of explaining to do with regard to what in this thoroughly undesirable Bill is now living and capable of meaning anything and whether he and his colleagues in another place intend to do the dreadful thing of reviving the corpse by giving the Bill its Clause 1, or its head, back again so that once again the wretched creature will be capable of breathing and of living.

Before the merits of the noble Lord's reasonable and sensible amendment are gone into further, I do not think that it is too much to ask the noble and learned Lord whether he will be kind enough to comment on the degree of animation which this ghastly corpse can expect to receive from his colleagues in the near future. I earnestly hope that the noble and learned Lord will say that the Government have no such sinister intentions of restoring to life a Bill which never deserved anything other than total condemnation.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I had better intervene at this stage as the Minister did riot intervene while my noble friend was speaking; otherwise he might bring the debate to a conclusion.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am advised that I am allowed to speak only once in this debate. Intervening in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I should make it clear that it is the Government's intention if the Bill do now pass to argue in another place that the former Clause 1 of the Bill should be reinstated. We stand by this Bill and intend to pursue this Bill. I speak by way of intervention rather than losing my right to speak.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps I may say that I paid my very sincere tribute to him in the hope that he would be able to influence his honourable and right honourable friends elsewhere to emulate the virtues for which I have given him credit.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, with temerity, I remind noble Lords that it is Third Reading. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord. Lord Peyton, that speaking once and intervening in the intervention of another speaker is stretching the point.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, perhaps I may resume my remarks. First, I deeply deplore the announcement that the noble and learned Lord made, although it came as no surprise. However, I shall return to that a little later.

I hope that the Bill will remain dead and will not be revived. But if it were to be revived, then this amendment would be a valuable small addition to the Bill. Without the amendment, the incredible difficulties of dual loyalties—they are the reasons that the Bill is so potentially damaging—could be much worse. I therefore support the amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I deal with the first point of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, I have indicated the Government's intentions with regard to the former Clause 1 of the Bill.

On the proposed amendment, I confirm that the presiding officer is a member of the Assembly Commission by virtue of Section 40(2)(a) of the 1998 Act. Clause 2(2) of this Bill prevents persons appointed as members of the commission from also holding the offices listed in that clause. This clause does not cover the presiding officer since he is not appointed but is a member of the commission by virtue of the 1998 Act.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord would be good enough to answer my question, which concerns me greatly. How is it possible for us now to debate an amendment to a clause which is no longer in the Bill?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, the clause which is being amended is new Clause 1 of the present Bill. Therefore, there is a clause which can be amended. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, comes to my aid by nodding vigorously. Procedurally, there is no question but that the debate on the amendment can go forward. I believe that that view is confirmed by the Table Office and the learned Clerk. In terms of procedure it is perfectly possible to debate the amendment. As a matter of substance, it is right that the issue should be debated, it having been made clear by me on behalf of the Government that we shall argue in another place for the reintroduction of Clause 1.

The amendment of the noble Lord seeks to prevent holders of disqualifying offices—those are the various offices mentioned in the present Clause 1—from being able to take up positions as chairmen or deputy chairmen of the Assembly ad hoc committee, as he said, to avoid conflicts of interest. We do not believe that those safeguards will be necessary in the selection of those offices. First, unlike statutory committees, ad hoc committees do not have the same role in the development of policy and legislation. Secondly, and more importantly, unlike the restricted offices included in the present Clause 1 of the Bill, ad hoc committee chairmen and deputy chairmen are not selected by the d'Hondt procedure and so are not automatically appointed. There is, therefore, room for discretion in making appointments. Candidates with existing offices in the Irish Parliament could be passed over if it were thought that they were unsuitable to be a chairperson or a deputy chairperson of the ad hoc

committee. Consequently, the Government believe that the amendment is unnecessary. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment and await the Government's more considered response at a later date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

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

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

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, typically for this Bill, this is the last Third Reading of this Session. The Bill has been at the bottom of the legislative pile throughout its passage in this place. It was introduced into another place just before Christmas last year. Its Second Reading here was as late in July as it was possible to be. Committee and Report stages were both delayed; and Third Reading now comes at the end of the Session. That is amazing for a Bill which was presented to the Commons as so urgent that it had to be passed in two days—and that was in January.

The Bill as it stands is meaningless. I doubt whether this House has ever sent such complete rubbish to another place. It is the sweepings of a Bill. It contains only consequential clauses but no operative clause. As it stands, its only effect would be to prevent Irish senators from sitting in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which no one wishes to do.

The Government's cover story about bringing Ireland into line with the Commonwealth, which it left voluntarily 50 years ago, was completely blown away in the course of our debates, revealing in stark clarity the central proposal of the Bill. That was itself demolished in this House, leaving these sweepings.

No Member of Parliament from a Commonwealth country has ever sat in Westminster at the same time and no one is going to do so. No Member of Parliament from any other European Union country can sit in Westminster at the same time as being a member of his own parliament; and no one proposes that he should be able to do so. Sinn Fein/IRA want this Bill. It is not that they want to sit in two parliaments at once. We know that they do not accept the validity of the Westminster Parliament with respect to Northern Ireland. It is expressed sometimes as not wishing to take the Oath but it goes much deeper. It is a hostility to all our proceedings here. They do not want to sit in the Westminster Parliament and the Dail at the same time. They want to be able to claim to represent Northern Ireland constituencies in the Dail. That reason for wanting this Bill is not simply a contention from this side of the House. It is fully stated and documented Sinn Fein policy, as has been made clear in our debates.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said on Report that such a claim to represent part of the United Kingdom in the Dail would be constitutionally wrong. I agree. That is what makes it extraordinary that the Government should want to make that possible. The noble and learned Lord speaks as though it were all a gesture of good will with no effective consequences. But, if passed in its original form, the Bill would provide heavy and sustained propaganda opportunities for Sinn Fein/IRA for the foreseeable future. It is not part of the Good Friday agreement. It has nothing to do with the new joint institutions for British-Irish co-operation which we have always supported and which followed on from that agreement. Worse than that, it is a one-way concession: it applies only to Irish citizens but not to British citizens.

On Report, the noble and learned Lord gave us at some length details of the changes to the Irish constitution about which we all know. But he could not tell us that the Irish constitution would be changed to allow British citizens to sit in the Dail.

In any event, the Bill as it originally stood was wrong in principle. No one can legally represent two United Kingdom constituencies at the same time in the House of Commons and, more to the point, they should not be able to represent two constituencies in different sovereign Parliaments at the same time.

There have been suggestions that the Bill is part of a secret deal between the Government and Sinn Fein. Perhaps that is what the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms meant when he referred to it as part of the "choreography" of Northern Ireland. Further, it has been suggested that it resulted from the deal when the Prime Minister wrote his hand-written appeal to Northern Ireland electors to support the agreement at the time of the referendum. If that was so, in my view the Government need feel no compunction about it. The promises made at that time have been dishonoured root and branch by Sinn Fein, particularly in respect of decommissioning.

In the course of our debates in this House we have shown the true nature of this Bill and its consequences. The House decided clearly that the Bill's central proposition was highly objectionable. Therefore, we are sending a husk of the original Bill to another place. They must confront the issues, which they were not able to do in January.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we have consistently maintained that this Bill is worth while, that it is positive and that it is symbolic of a new era in the history of the United Kingdom and Ireland. We are seeking to allow Members of the Irish Parliament the opportunity to campaign and to take up seats in the United Kingdom legislatures in recognition of the extremely close and positive ties which exist between Britain and Ireland. Nevertheless, as the vote to drop the former Clause 1 demonstrated, it appears that many here do not agree that this new relationship is sufficiently important to warrant this Bill.

The simple rationale for introducing the Bill nearly a year ago was, and still is, to recognise the advances made since the advent of the Good Friday agreement in the constitutional and political future of Northern Ireland and, in particular, the effect that that has had on our relationship with one other nation—Ireland.

That relationship was proved in the negotiations which resulted in the Belfast agreement. It was the British and Irish Governments working together with the parties that made it possible to reach agreement. Throughout the crucial and difficult process which led to the Belfast agreement, and again subsequently when we experienced setbacks in the full implementation of the agreement, the Irish Government were key players in bringing the political process back on track, sometimes at potential cost and in the face of personal tragedy.

The historic agreement is a pact not only between the Northern Ireland parties and the British Government, but also between the Irish and British Governments and with the people of Northern Ireland. Quite simply, it would not have been possible to get this far without the contribution of the Irish Government or, indeed, the support of the Irish people, as shown in the referendum on the Belfast agreement.

Our relationship with Ireland has been strengthened not only by the Good Friday agreement, but by the British-Irish agreement, which replaced the Anglo-Irish agreement. Under this new agreement, the Irish Government fulfilled their commitment to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. With the endorsement of over 94 per cent of the Irish voting public, the Irish Government removed the territorial claim over Northern Ireland which had existed as a central principle of the Irish constitution for 80 years.

The Irish Government and the Irish people showed that they accepted and supported the principle of consent that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority within Northern Ireland wished it to be so; and, crucially, they recognised the separateness of Northern Ireland from Ireland.

We must not forget that these developments have accompanied huge progress in Northern Ireland. For the first time in 30 years the main paramilitary groups are on ceasefire. Violence, death and destruction are no longer a part of everyday life for the majority of people living in Northern Ireland. The strong economic growth there is higher than in most other regions of the United Kingdom, and there is rising employment, inward investment and an increase in living standards across the community.

We have returned power to a devolved Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, placing responsibility back where it belongs, in the hands of local representatives. They are rising to the challenge with enthusiasm, imagination and energy.

All that has happened and is happening. The achievements are a matter of fact, not of interpretation. They came about only because the United Kingdom and Ireland were prepared to work together to bring peace and to lay a solid foundation for Northern Ireland's future. Of course, I am not saying that the current situation is perfect; we still have a long way to go. But we have travelled a long way already and at every step we have been supported by the Irish Government. I believe that this Bill gives modest recognition of that fact.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. In the middle of his rather misplaced triumphal song, I ask him what evidence or expectation he has that any Irish citizen other than a member of Sinn Fein will make use of the provisions of Clause 1 of the Bill.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have no idea who will use the Bill. By way of argument, I am saying that the Bill recognises the strengthening relationship between the United Kingdom and the Irish Government. It does not give automatic rights to representation to Members; it simply makes it possible for the electorate to have a wider choice of candidates. In doing so, it extends the democratic principle.

I finish by answering a question which has been asked throughout the debates in this House: who wants this Bill? The Government want it because they recognise all that the partnership with Ireland has brought in recent years. By the same token, the Irish Government support and welcome the Bill. For the reason that I gave earlier—the extension of the democratic principle—it is also generally supported by the nationalist population. The Bill is also welcomed by a number of the political parties in Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Women's Coalition.

There is support for the Bill and there are good reasons to support it. I urge all those who want cooperation with the Irish Government and progress in Northern Ireland to support it.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

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