HL Deb 16 November 2004 vol 666 cc1296-8

2.53 p.m.

Lord Glentoran asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on the future of' ministerial accountability in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, accountability has been prominent among the issues discussed between the Northern Ireland political parties at the conference at Leeds Castle in September and subsequently. We are continuing to seek, consistent with the fundamentals of the Belfast agreement, arrangements that will command a substantial measure of support among the Northern Ireland parties. We need very soon to be able to reach agreement on accountability and other remaining issues, permitting the earliest possible restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland in the context of a definitive end to paramilitarism.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Lord President for that Answer. I am seriously encouraged. In the previous Assembly, the situation was such that 11 ministries appeared to be 11 fiefdoms. The worst excesses were perpetrated by Martin McGuinness who, against the wishes of the Assembly Education Committee and 66 per cent of the respondents to a housing survey, attempted to remove academic selection. Bairbre de Bru"n, against the wishes of the Assembly Health Committee, removed the new gynaecological developments from the City Hospital into her own constituency. Do Her Majesty's Government accept in principle—which, from the noble Baroness's Answer, I believe that they do—that greater accountability and greater collective responsibility must be central elements of any deal that leads to the restoration of the devolved institutions?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, of course I recognise the concerns set out by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about decisions that were made in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I repeat what I said in my Answer. There is general agreement among the parties that underpinning collectivity and accountability is important to the efficient working of devolved government in Northern Ireland. But there are differing views on how that should be achieved. There are already substantial mechanisms to ensure that Ministers take account of the views of others. For example, there are stringent safeguards if legislative or financial authority is needed from the Assembly, including the possibility of cross-community voting.

Lord Laird

My Lords, to date the cross-border implementation bodies have cost £67 million to put together and to administer; not to do the work but merely to put together and administer. Will they be much more accountable to the Assembly than they were after the first period? If there is no Assembly and no executive, can the Minister assure the House that there will be none of these money-wasting cross-border implementation bodies?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, has expressed concerns about the cost of the north/south bodies. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that the £67 million figure represents costs over a four-year period, by both governments, in respect of the six implementation bodies, Tourism Ireland and the North/South Ministerial Council. At all times the bodies have been, and remain, fully accountable to Ministers in both Governments.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the gerrymandering of facilities as well as votes is a long-established tradition in Ireland, north and south, and not unknown in Great Britain? Be that as it may, does she further agree that it is most important to get the devolved institutions up and working so that in time—and it will take time—greater collective responsibility and individual ministerial responsibility can take root?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree that we must get the institutions up and running. The noble Lord may recall that the executive has to agree an annual programme for government and budget and that each Minister must act within it. The noble Lord may also recall that the previous executive adopted a code setting out which ministerial decisions had to be brought before it for decision. We want to build on these arrangements without undermining any of the fundamental principles of the agreement.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in order to maintain the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament over each part of the United Kingdom, can the noble Baroness confirm that the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland affairs will be fully answerable for what goes on in the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will know that in the Acts setting up the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly it is clear which issues remain within the purview of the UK Government—and therefore the national Parliament—and which rest within the purview of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, whatever the detailed and specific criticisms, overall the Assembly in Belfast was doing pretty well when it was functioning, and that we ought to build on its success in ensuring that we get the institutions up and running as quickly as possible?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dubs is quite right. Overall, if we look back at the way in which the Assembly worked, Ministers had to seek agreement and consensus from their colleagues to get their programmes through. My noble friend is also quite right that we need to build on the arrangements which already exist without, as I said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, undermining any of the fundamental principles of the agreement.