§ 4.9 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 27th March be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee].
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 provides for the Secretary of State to run the Northern Ireland executive departments but also for special legislative powers in place of those of the assembly. Those powers would expire, if not renewed, on 14th April of this year.
§ Efforts to restore the Assembly have not yet quite succeeded. I am sure that we all hope for a speedy restoration of devolved government to Northern Ireland. At the moment of restoration, the powers we seek to renew today, along with the machinery of direct rule, will fall away and the devolved Assembly and Ministers will take back their full authority.
§ I recognise that we place a significant burden on this House in the months during suspension. We have brought forward elements of the Assembly's programme that had not been fully enacted by suspension on 15th October. We tried to implement that programme to the same timescale that the Assembly would have done, which has meant a great deal of work. If, contrary to our hopes, it is necessary to bring forward further orders, I undertake that we shall generally allow a period of three months' public consultation on draft orders before they go through formal stages here. That will give an opportunity to everyone, including of course your Lordships, to contribute to the development of legislation before its final form.
We hope to see the early restoration of stable and inclusive institutions and early steps towards the devolution of policing and justice. Your Lordships will want to know that the following statement was made from 10 Downing Street today just after noon:
Continuing discussions between the Governments and the pro-Agreement parties have led the Governments to conclude that sufficient progress has not yet been made which would allow the holding of a meeting between the Prime Minister, the Taioseach and the parties later today. The Prime Minister and the Taioseach will meet this afternoon in London to review the situation".
If there is success we shall need to return to your Lordships in the near future to seek authority to carry various proposals into effect, including—we hope—at an early stage the restoration of devolved government. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft Order laid before the House on 27th March be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his remarks. What he said in a short and brief statement is in fact a huge happening. With no blame on the noble and learned Lord or, on this occasion, his Government, we are where we are in relation to the statement from 10 Downing Street to which he referred.
It is no secret that those of us who follow affairs in Northern Ireland were hoping for a major statement and, if I may say so, a major happening. That clearly has not happened, to the disappointment of us all. That is felt not only here but throughout the Province, on the streets of our cities and towns. The population were waiting for something that would give them hope that we could return to devolved government and progress towards a complete and absolute democratic state and peace.
We are patient. We are still waiting and hoping. Easter should be a happy time. It has not yet arrived. Let us hope that there will be some news from our Province before Easter that can be termed good tidings. The order has to be passed today. All I can say is that I support it and I hope that we will not have to do the work of Stormont and that we will not have to pass a repeat order in six months' time.
§ Baroness Harris of Richmond
My Lords, I take a slightly more robust line than the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. We have no wish to detain the House, but it is important that the views of these Benches are placed on the record. We support the order, but reluctantly. We do not believe that Orders in Council are the best way to legislate.
Orders were at different stages of the legislative process in the Assembly when they arrived in Westminster. Some had nearly completed all stages and been subject to a great deal of scrutiny from the Assembly. Some had been through Committee stage or were in the process of being considered by an Assembly scrutiny committee. Therefore, they might have benefited from extra time at Westminster. Some had completed only the second stage—effectively, a Second Reading debate—and had not been scrutinised in any detail. One order, the Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order, had not even been through the second stage in the Assembly. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton, who is unable to be in his place today, voiced strong concerns at the time about the appropriateness of bringing forward this legislation as an Order in Council when the Assembly had not even had the opportunity to discuss the principles involved.
Having said that, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal took on board the concerns expressed by several noble Lords, and allowed provision for a special Northern Ireland Grand Committee to look in more detail at some of the orders off the Floor of the House, for which we were most grateful. However, being Orders in Council, there is no provision for 422 amending the legislation. I recognise that there must be some mechanism to legislate for Northern Ireland, if the Assembly goes into suspension. We cannot have a situation where Northern Ireland is left in limbo and a number of important initiatives are delayed by months.
I have a question for the Lord Privy Seal. It is one that he may have answered previously as regards his proposal for three months' consultation. If we were to find ourselves in a similar situation on another occasion, would the Government consider sending a number of these orders to a pre-legislative scrutiny committee, which would be able to take evidence from interested parties? Such a process would be particularly important for orders that had not received detailed scrutiny in the Assembly.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords. I shall be brief. I begin my remarks with a profound apology for missing two opening speeches. I was working diligently upstairs in the House and did not notice the change of business on the television screen.
Today the Prime Minister had hoped to unveil a new initiative on Northern Ireland; but, regrettably, that hope has been dashed by the intransigence of what one might term the "republican guard" (Irish version), who have gobbled up all the concessions, but, true to form, always demanded more. The Downing Street team has been very patient, and most generous. But obviously the team now realises that it is impossible to concede anything more without causing irreparable damage to the entire body politic in Northern Ireland.
Fortunately, there is a constructive and workable alternative. There is an acceptable workable model in Wales, which could, without any difficulty, be tailored to suit Northern Ireland. It closely resembles the plan endorsed by 14.5 million electors in the 1979 general election. That model is proof against sabotage—no blocking powers to frustrate the greater number. It simply provides for administrative devolution, which works perfectly well in Wales. No one—no party—is excluded, unless they exclude themselves. Huffing and puffing cannot obstruct sound governance. The unthinking will say that it is not enough. Very well, but do they mean to come clean and state their preference for total integration, via direct rule from the sovereign Parliament?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions made this afternoon. I agree with the thrust of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. He said that he was disappointed; indeed, all of those concerned in one way or another with Northern Ireland matters are disappointed. The noble Lord said that both he and his party are patiently waiting and hoping—a sentiment that we can all echo.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, it is important for me to repeat what the two Governments said. They could have taken the easy option, but they did not. They said that, 423sufficient progress has not yet been made".That is rather an important and significant point.
The noble Baroness questioned me on what I said about public consultation. I take her point entirely. I am happy to reaffirm that we shall generally allow a period of three months for public consultation so that all those interested can make their representations and your Lordships will be able to consider them. I believe that we have a good record.
The noble Baroness was kind enough to refer to the Northern Ireland orders Grand Committee. I believe that we shall have an opportunity to discuss those. But—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—I reiterate that the Government's firm policy is that we do not wish to be in that position and, as he said, we certainly do not wish to renew the order in six months' time. I am obliged to noble Lords.