HL Deb 02 November 2001 vol 627 cc1631-2

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th October be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order is a tidying provision which corrects a legislative oversight in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The order amends Section 6 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 which lists those bodies from which nominees to the Committee of the Regions can be drawn. The order adds the Northern Ireland Assembly to that list, thereby allowing Members of the Assembly to be nominated as members of the Committee of the Regions by the devolved administration. As such, the order brings Northern Ireland into line with the position in Scotland and Wales with regard to their respective legislatures.

The mandate of the current Committee of the Regions members and alternates is due to expire at the end of this year. Northern Ireland is allocated two members and two alternates. Following devolution, the Northern Ireland Executive is responsible for nominating members and alternates to the Foreign Secretary.

The order will increase the pool of potential nominees from which the Executive may draw. The pool will include both Members of the Assembly and district councillors. This order will not increase the number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland, nor will it affect the allocation of seats throughout the rest of the UK.

I understand that the Executive is currently in the process of determining the selection process it will adopt to select Northern Ireland's members and alternates. It is acutely aware of the sensitivity of the need for the selection process to be fair and open and for those who are nominated to represent both communities in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th October be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, mindful of the demands on the House today, I shall be brief.

I welcome the correction as regards the omission from the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It was one of the many flaws in the Act—due partly to haste in drafting it and perhaps mainly to the influence of those from foreign parts who were determined to restrict to a minimum all references to the integrity of the United Kingdom. For them, the order is something of a setback. But let us be assured that they will continue to chip away at the Union—and no doubt the Foreign Office will render them every assistance, as is common practice.

Will the Government give an assurance that they will adhere to the number of members nominated to the Committee of the Regions; namely, two members and two alternates?

There is a temptation on the part of some to plead for larger numbers on all such occasions. It was so when the Callaghan government granted Northern Ireland equal representation—equal in parity with, for example, Wales. In 1978, some fairly loud Ulster voices were raised in favour of increasing the number of seats from 17 to 22 in line with what they perceived to be the ratio for Scotland. I resisted that demand, knowing that, some day, the long-suffering English would press for a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs, thus linking Northern Ireland's quota and hurling it back into the melting-pot.

I hope that the Government will reject firmly all demands to increase the two-plus-two figures contained in the order. There are always great dangers in asking for more, as Oliver Twist discovered.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the order. I thank the Minister for her explanation.

The committee was created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. At the time there was a danger that the EU was steaming ahead, leaving the public very much behind. That is why it was decided to set up representation for local and regional committees.

I welcome the order as a positive step towards Northern Ireland playing a fuller role in Europe. Europe has greatly helped Northern Ireland 'with investment and grants, so it is important that Northern Ireland and its politicians should have the voice that goes with the significant role that Europe has played. That will be particularly important after 1st January, with the introduction of the euro in the Republic of Ireland and everything that goes with it.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, that we are aware of the sensitivities that would surround a change in the balance of seats in Northern Ireland. We have no plans to amend the current balance. Northern Ireland has two members to ensure balanced representation from the two communities. Any reduction in the number of seats allocated would jeopardise that balance.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his support for the order. Declaring a former interest as one of the original members of the Committee of the Regions, perhaps I may place it on record that the representatives from Northern Ireland play a full and good role in the Committee of the Regions, to the benefit of the people whom they represent. I commend the order the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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