§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I thought that it would be helpful if I drew the attention of the House to the change of business on tomorrow's Order Paper. Since we cannot now proceed with the Committee stage of the Animal Health Bill, for reasons known to noble Lords, the Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill has been tabled in its place. Since it has not been possible to give longer notice of the change of business, I have asked that, exceptionally, the speakers' list should be kept open until 10 a.m. in order to give noble Lords the greatest possible chance of putting their name down to speak. The House will, of course, sit at 11 a.m. tomorrow.
§ Lord Rogan
My Lords, I protest at the Government's shameful—I use that word with a heavy heart—decision late last night to bring forward the Second Reading debate on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill to tomorrow. This morning I went to see the Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I have to say—with equal regret— that it. was not a pleasant meeting. Indeed, it was almost like having an interview without coffee.
The Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, when implemented, will bring about wide-ranging changes to the Province's criminal justice system. It is a Bill of 92 clauses and 13 schedules. However, when it was debated in another place, the Government failed to provide for discussion on more than 30 clauses. That is why the debate in your Lordships' House is so important. It is also why we should have been given longer than the mere 24 hours that we now have to prepare for the Second Reacting debate.
As a result of a longstanding commitment, I am unable to be present tomorrow; so, too, are almost all of my Northern Ireland colleagues. I hope that the 233 Government will reflect on their handling of this episode and, most importantly, ensure that it does not happen again.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Bill will have far-reaching consequences for all of the people in Northern Ireland? It will change the whole legal system that has been there since 1922. During its passage through the other place, some very controversial issues were raised. There will be bitter resentment throughout Northern Ireland—I express it on behalf of those whom I seek to represent this blatant attempt by the House to prevent discussion on this most important of Bills, which arose from the Good Friday agreement.
§ Lord Kilclooney
My Lords, I am an Ulster Unionist Member who did not vote against the Government yesterday. I understand that the Chief Whip has decided that the Bill will now be rushed through tomorrow because some Ulster Unionist Members did vote against the Government.
§ Lord Kilclooney
Oh yes, that was said this morning. Will the Chief Whip therefore confirm that this display of pique and pettiness is a sign of a government who are no longer sure of themselves?
§ Lord Campbell-Savours
My Lords, my noble friend knows that there are many very angry elected Members of Parliament in the other place who are concerned about what happened to the Animal Health Bill in the House of Lords yesterday. Can he tell us what is now going to happen to this extremely important Bill? I understand that it was welcomed by the NFU and a majority in the other place. It was greatly anticipated by many departments of state throughout the country, particularly MAFF.
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords, I have a note from the Chief Whip's office that was circulated yesterday at around 7.15 p.m. It was no doubt an attempt to be helpful. It simply said:We tried to contact you this evening but I suspect you have all gone home for the Easter Recess".There is a message there, is there not, my Lords?
§ Lord Smith of Clifton
My Lords, we on these Benches find it intolerable that this timetabling change has occurred. We had been assured that Second Reading would be after Easter. Next week I was going to devote my time to this very lengthy and technical Bill. Frankly, I have to apologise in advance for the fact that any speech that I make tomorrow on Second Reading will be rather generalised and banal because I have not had adequate time to prepare.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I hope that it can never be said that this Bill has been put on the Order Paper simply because of what happened in the 234 House yesterday. Surely other legislation could have been brought forward. I fully understand that the work has to be completed and that, because of yesterday's actions, the noble Lord has been left with a space to fill, but the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill is a vital issue. It is gravely unjust that there should be no possibility to prepare for it seriously. It makes a nonsense of the Second Reading. But, above all, what message does it send to the people of Northern Ireland?
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I suppose that in an ideal world we would have had more notice, but in an ideal world the Government would not have lost the Animal Health Bill yesterday.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I repeat, in an ideal world, the Government would not have lost the measure that was lost yesterday. No one can quarrel with that—not with my definition of "ideal". But, whatever the difficulties facing the Chief Whip—I know him personally, as do all noble Lords—he does not deserve the personal criticisms that have been made of him today. That is not worthy of this House.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, what happened yesterday had nothing to do with Northern Ireland. The Chief Whip will understand when I say that it also had nothing intentionally to do with me. As a result of what happened yesterday, the Government have gained five days of business. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday. For my Province, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill is a very, very significant piece of legislation. My Chief Whip and I have agreed, through the usual channels, to take the Committee stage in Grand Committee. For Ulster Unionists, for the Ulster people and for myself on this side of the House, I ask the Government to make a gesture and to allow us time to consider the Bill.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who has been Attorney-General and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is not available. To the best of my knowledge, many more of my Back-Benchers who are interested in the Bill will not be available to enable the House to have a meaningful debate about the future of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. Second Reading debates are very important. I ask the Government to reconsider the decision.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, perhaps I can take the House through the difficult situation that I faced yesterday evening. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party Chief Whips very reluctantly agreed to this business being tabled. They did not welcome it, but they understood the difficulty that I faced. In that situation, they recognised that I had to make a difficult decision and quickly.
The Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill was my original choice for tomorrow's business. The Opposition chose to take the Animal Health Bill instead. I have no complaints about that. As the House had made it 235 impossible to proceed with the Animal Health Bill, I simply returned to the original option and the original plan. I immediately say to the noble Lords of the Ulster Unionist Party that they would not have known that because that was discussed some three weeks ago in the usual channels. When we decided to proceed with the Animal Health Bill, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill dropped out.
This situation is not of the Government's or my making. Yesterday, the House was perfectly entitled to vote as it did. I wish that it had voted differently, but having so voted the House must not be surprised that, as business manager, I had to reorganise the business quickly. The change had to be made because of yesterday's vote. Therefore, for whatever business we tabled there would he only 48 hours' notice. Of course, I appreciate the inconvenience. Whatever business I put down would be very inconvenient to those involved. I am extremely sympathetic to the case made by the Ulster Unionists, but the fact remains that whatever I had tabled would have inconvenienced one group of noble Lords or another. My noble friend the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and all those who want to speak in the debate tomorrow have been inconvenienced.
We did our best. As soon as there was a possibility that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill would be on the Order Paper, officials in my office telephoned the Ulster Unionist Party's office in the House of Commons. I reached the decision at about 7 o'clock last evening. The officials rang two different numbers, but received no reply. They then sent an e-mail to ensure that the U UP knew as soon as possible about tomorrow's business.
I quite understand the inconvenience that this change of programme has produced for all those involved in Northern Ireland matters. I can assure your Lordships—your Lordships know me well enough—that no spite whatever was intended to those engaged in Northern Ireland matters. I am sorry, but the House must understand that after it had voted to cancel two days' business at 24 hours' notice—under the rules of the House the business had to be tabled last evening—I had about an hour to make up my mind and to undertake the difficult task of deciding on the business to he taken. Your Lordships know that my office takes enormous trouble to table business to suit all those involved. We now publish provisional business—I emphasise "provisional"—three weeks ahead.
In the situation that I faced yesterday, the normal arrangements could not apply, but we tried very hard in difficult circumstances. In Committee, on Report and at Third Reading, there will be opportunities, if your Lordships want—I am sure that you will—to discuss those parts of the Bill that the other place did not discuss in detail.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that what he said was nonsense. It was unworthy of him and I would be grateful to him if he would withdraw what he said. Yesterday evening I took the decision to table this 236 Bill. I did not look at the votes list to see who nad voted. I did not know that the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Laird, had voted against the Government. The noble Lord is nodding. Is he calling me a liar? I did not know how the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Laird, had voted.
§ Lord Kilclooney
My Lords, this morning it was reported to me that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, had named two Ulster Unionist Peers as having voted against the Government and that that was one of the reasons why the debate was being held tomorrow.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, that is nonsense. I took the decision yesterday evening. To be perfectly honest, last evening I was much more interested in looking at those who had voted for the Government. It was only this morning, when I came in, and looked at the other list— I had already taken the decision and the Bill was already on the Order Paper—that I discovered how the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Laird, had voted. That could not have been a part of my decision last evening. When the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, came to see me, I pointed out that those who had voted against the Government had produced this situation. The noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Laird, were two of those who voted against the Government.
In fact, I did not intend to mention that matter in this statement, but I have done so as the noble Lord has raised it. I ask him now to withdraw any imputation that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill was placed on the Order Paper as a result of the votes of the noble Lords. Lord Rogan and Lord Laird.
§ Lord Kilclooney
My Lords, I have heard the explanation given by the member of the Government. I have another source—the persons who met you this morning. I shall check with them before I make any further statement on this matter.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, if the noble Lord does not mind my saying so, that says a lot more about him than it says about me. I do not believe that I can say any more on the matter. I am extremely sorry for the inconvenience that has been caused. It is not a happy situation. I have not faced such a situation before in the five Sessions during which I have been Chief Whip. Yesterday's decision was virtually unprecedented.
In response to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, we are now considering how we can proceed with an extremely important Bill that, for this Session, may have been killed. We do not yet know. It would be wrong for me to say any more until I have had a full discussion with my departmental colleagues and decided how best to proceed.
237 I ask the House to take my good faith on trust. This situation has nothing to do with Northern Ireland, or the situation there. I had to fill a gap very quickly. The Bill that I had in mind originally was the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill and that is why it was tabled.
§ Baroness O'Cathain
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I think that it is very sad that the House has involved itself in rancour about this matter. I simply ask the Government Chief Whip why, as this has happened, we have to sit tomorrow because you are, after all, getting two free days?
§ Baroness O'Cathain
Is it five days? I just ask that question as a simple lay person who gets involved in time management. It seems to me that it would take all the heat out of the situation. The noble Lords who are Ulster Unionists would be able to prepare their speeches, as indeed would the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton; and I should be able to take part, whereas tomorrow I shall not be here.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I dissociate myself wholly from any attack upon the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He found himself in a very difficult position. But there is another side to the issue. The Bill is very important. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday. We cannot do justice to its merits and importance. I beg the noble Lord to say, "Go on your way; have no business; and a happy Easter".
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I must say to the noble Lord that all Bills in front of the House are important. Whatever Bill we debated tomorrow would be important. We have not yet saved five days. We are still considering whether there is any way in which we might be able to take the Bill forward this Session. It may not be possible. But it would be wrong to assume that I have saved five days.
The programme is crowded as always. I have lost two days of government business—both yesterday and tomorrow. It seemed reasonable to continue the public business with a government Bill rather than just to call off the day. In fact there are some extremely important orders that must be considered tomorrow.
I must inform your Lordships that if the House takes a decision that removes two days from the programme at 24 hours' notice my responsibility as the Government Chief Whip is to get the programme through. That is my first responsibility to the Prime Minister and to the Government. That is what I intend to do.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, perhaps I may help the noble Lord. We all understand the difficulty in which he found himself. It was not an easy matter to have to cope with. Does he agree with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain? One could continue with the business as it is. I was told only a short while ago that the business tomorrow is likely to last two hours. If tomorrow were 238 to be removed from the Order Paper, all right, everyone would have got off a day earlier, but one could still carry on this business in an ordered way after the recess. No one would have lost any face at all.
§ Lord Kilclooney
My Lords, with the leave of the House and on reflection I want to withdraw what I said. I have listened to what the noble Lord said. I accept what he says. It is, however, I must make clear, contrary to what I was told this morning. That is why I made the comment in the first place. Having withdrawn that comment and accepted what the noble Lord said, I ask if he will not reconsider his decision to have this major debate tomorrow, which all parties—the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and many from Northern Ireland of both nationalist and unionist backgrounds—agree should be held on another date.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I do not know whether at such short notice we can change the Order Paper yet again. I do not wish to raise the hopes of the House in any way at all. I shall consider all that has been said. At the moment I have not heard anything that persuades me to change my mind that we should not debate this important Bill tomorrow.