Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Special Report


The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

I. Introduction

1. In its report 'Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive',[2] the Liaison Committee proposed that each committee should make an annual report on progress on 'live' recommendations and other matters in its reports. This is our first annual report in response to the Liaison Committee's request.

2. A full list of our reports to date in this Parliament is set out in Appendix 1. Of these, we identified three reports on which it was appropriate to seek further information from the Government on the progress of implementation of recommendations. These were our reports dealing with:

  • electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland;[3]
  • the impact in Northern Ireland of cross-border road fuel price differentials;[4] and
  • the operation of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989: Ten Years On.[5]

The memoranda submitted by the Northern Ireland Office, in respect of the first and third reports, and by HM Treasury, in respect of the second, are set out in Appendix 2. We consider these further below.

3. This does not, however, represent the full extent of our work following up previous inquiries. We have continued to take a close interest in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, on which we reported in November 1998.[6] We took further evidence from the Service in October 1999[7] and recently conducted a more extensive follow-up inquiry. We expect to report on this shortly. We have also returned to the subject of Northern Ireland public expenditure, the topic of our first report of this Parliament.[8] We have not looked further at the future composition, recruitment and training of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a subject on which we reported in July 1998,[9] as this was extensively debated by the House in the context of the report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland [10] and the subsequent enactment of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

4. In Session 1999-2000, the scope of our remit was substantially affected by the progress of devolution in Northern Ireland. Under Direct Rule, Northern Ireland Office Ministers were also responsible for the work of the Northern Ireland Departments. The coming into force of the relevant provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 at midnight on 1-2 December 1999 transferred responsibility for the Northern Ireland Departments to the Northern Ireland Executive, which is answerable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Our report on devolution and the work of the Committee[11] set out how we responded to this change in our remit. For the period of suspension of the devolved government in Northern Ireland, the functions of the Northern Ireland Departments were once again subject to the direction and control of the Secretary of State. As a consequence, they were once again formally within our purview for the period 12 February to 30 May 2000.

5. We have not embarked on any inquiry during a period of devolved government which primarily relates to a "transferred matter" within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as such inquiries are properly matters for the Northern Ireland Assembly. A number of our reports, including reports of previous Sessions, have related to matters which are now transferred matters. These include our reports on special needs education in Northern Ireland,[12] the livestock industry[13] and the scrutiny of Northern Ireland Non-Departmental Public Bodies.[14] The relevant committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly may wish to draw on such reports, and the Government responses, as part of their ongoing scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Departments. The financial allocation for new railway rolling stock in 2000-01 and inward investment, the subjects of our Fourth and Fifth Reports respectively of Session 1999-2000, became transferred matters in the course of the inquiries. As each inquiry was at an advanced stage when devolved government was restored, we decided that it would be sensible to complete it, despite the change in political responsibility.

II. The Government's Memoranda


6. We reported on this subject in March 1998. Our inquiry overlapped with the Government's own review of electoral procedures in Northern Ireland, which was established in July 1997 and reported in October 1998.[15] Consultations on this report were more extensive than the Government had originally intended and, as a consequence, we did not receive a full response to our report until May 1999.

7. When we examined the Secretary of State, in April 2000, on recent political developments in Northern Ireland,[16] we asked about progress towards eliminating electoral malpractice. The Secretary of State drew attention[17] to the extension (available since November 1998) of the time for the Chief Electoral Officer to check absent vote applications, to the recruitment of extra staff to assist the Chief Electoral Officer in his scrutiny function and to work to assess the adequacy of his investigative powers. While restating that a 'smart card' remained the Government's long-term objective, the Secretary of State effectively ruled out its introduction before the next General Election.[18]

8. The updating memorandum reports that, following the evidence session, a Working Group was set up to develop a range of initiatives intended to combat electoral abuse. The Group produced proposals for a Bill to counter electoral fraud. Recent discussions with political parties in Northern Ireland revealed "broad agreement to the proposals", but "during the course of these meetings, several new ideas or modifications to current ideas were raised". The Northern Ireland Office is also awaiting the views of both the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission on the proposals of the Working Group. It is now preparing a response to the proposals put forward in the course of its consultations with the political parties and "considering the next steps".

9. Although we welcome the fact that the general thrust of the Department's current proposals accord with our general approach to the problem of reducing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, we are very concerned about the length of time it is taking to secure any progress, even on such basic matters as replacing the most vulnerable identification documents which currently entitle a voter to a ballot paper. When we reported in March 1998, less than a year after the General Election, we had a reasonable expectation that rather more progress might have been made before the next General Election in tackling the serious problems of electoral malpractice than appears likely to be the case. Given the extensive consultation that took place following publication of the Government's review, we find the need for yet more rounds of consultation surprising, and the level of progress disappointing. Given that it is now unlikely that legislation can be introduced before the 2001-02 Parliamentary Session, at the earliest, we recommend the early publication of a draft bill on measures to counter electoral fraud, based on the proposals of the Working Group, modified to reflect the Government's consideration of the points raised in the most recent round of consultations.


10. We reported on the impact of cross-border road fuel price differentials in July 1999. This matter remains of topical interest in Northern Ireland, as fuel prices remain significantly lower in the Republic of Ireland, thus maintaining an incentive for users in Northern Ireland to source fuel from the Republic, either legally or illegally.[19] The Government responded[20] in October 1999 and its response was generally supportive of our conclusions and recommendations. We welcome both the major developments highlighted in the Treasury's updating memorandum, namely, the establishment of the Organised Crime Task Force and the very substantial enhancement by HM Customs and Excise of the resources devoted to tackling oils fraud. Both these developments have the potential to play a key part in tackling this difficult problem. We set out in the table below figures supplied by Customs which show the overall trends in seizures of illicit fuel in Northern Ireland. There is a clear upward trend in seizures and we note that Customs expect to double the volume of illicit fuel seized in 2000-01 compared with 1999-2000.

Smuggled fuel seized (litres)
Misused/laundered fuel seized (litres)
Total seizures (litres)
499, 542
2000-01 (to 30 September) (provisional figures)

11. Given the ongoing interest in Northern Ireland in the problems caused by cross-border fuel price differentials, we welcome the further work by Customs to produce updated estimates of the revenue loss both from oils fraud and from legitimate cross-border shopping. We look forward to receiving further information on this in due course. We note that Customs has continued to adopt a tough vehicle seizure policy and that they do not restore any vehicle used to smuggle road fuels. In this context, we also note that all legislation under which Customs operate has been examined and that Customs consider that this is in compliance with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.

12. The updating memorandum reveals a welcome degree of closer co-operation to tackle problems of oils fraud, both within Northern Ireland and in terms of drawing on the experience of other EU countries. We note, though, that a formal Memorandum of Understanding between Customs and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was under discussion at the time of the original response, has not yet been concluded. Given that some fifteen months have now elapsed since the Government replied to the report, we should like to know what is holding up the conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding.

13. One of our original concerns was the apparent ease with which the fiscal markers could be removed from gas oil. We were therefore concerned to note in the Government response that the European Union has selected a product, Solvent Yellow 124, for use as a common marker throughout the Union which is slightly easier to launder than the marker currently used in the United Kingdom, and which, in due course, the United Kingdom may be obliged to introduce. We agree with the Government that it would be unsatisfactory for the United Kingdom to be required to adopt a marker which is easier to launder at the very time when a more resistant marker is needed. We note that the testing of the proposed common marker is not yet complete and that a decision has yet to be taken by the Commission as to whether to adopt Solvent Yellow 124 as the 'Euromarker'. We urge Customs to continue to make robust representations to the Commission on the need for a more secure marker for duty-rebated fuel. We agree with the Government that Customs should press the Commission, if it adopts Solvent Yellow 124 as the common marker, to begin another programme to select a more robust marker. We concur with the Government that Customs should also consider carefully how to implement any use of Solvent Yellow 124 required, and whether the United Kingdom should retain its current marker in addition. In this context, we welcome the Government's assurance that it is likely that the Commission will have no difficulty with Member States requiring more than one marker.


14. We reported on the operation of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989: Ten Years On in July 1999, and the Report, and the Government Response, was debated in Westminster Hall on 15 March 2000.[21] Since our Report, responsibility for a number of the matters covered has transferred, as part of the devolution of responsibilities, to the Northern Ireland Administration. The updating memorandum therefore concentrates on the matters remaining within the responsibility of the Secretary of State.

15. We welcome the agreement between the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission on a Memorandum of Understanding. Conclusion of such an agreement was one of our recommendations. We note the progress made on designation of public bodies under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and that a further tranche of bodies is expected to be designated in the near future. We support the Government's view that non-designation should be the exception rather than the rule.

III. The Committee's work during Session 1999-2000

16. Once again, we have sought to tackle a broad range of subjects, thus reflecting the breadth of responsibilities of Northern Ireland Ministers during periods of Direct Rule. As we have mentioned earlier, our pattern of work has been significantly influenced in this Session by the political changes in Northern Ireland. One important difference between the introduction of devolution there, as compared with Scotland and Wales, is that the change was introduced within a very much shorter timescale. We also had to take account of the suspension, and subsequent restoration, of devolved government, both of which also took place at relatively short notice.

17. Besides following up some of our earlier work, as described above, we have again sought to pursue a balanced mixture of short inquiries into matters of topical concern and other longer-term inquiries. These longer- term inquiries have included continuation of our series of 'public expenditure' based inquiries. The inquiries into the problems facing the livestock industry in Northern Ireland[22] and into financial provision for new rolling stock for Northern Ireland Railways[23] were examples of short topical inquiries, while our report on inward investment[24] was our third inquiry of the present Parliament to focus on a specific aspect of Northern Ireland public expenditure. We also started longer-term inquiries into the work of the Parades Commission, one of the few non-departmental public bodies for which the Secretary of State retains responsibility post-devolution, and into relocation following paramilitary intimidation. An inquiry into aspects of legal aid in Northern Ireland has also been put in hand. This will focus on the Government's plans for the future of legal aid in Northern Ireland, which were presented to Parliament in September 2000.[25]

18. Besides our inquiries, we have also held two 'one-off' evidence sessions. The first[26] was with the Secretary of State in April 2000 and ranged widely over recent political developments in Northern Ireland. The second,[27] in June 2000, was with Northern Ireland Office officials, and dealt with resource accounting and budgeting, and the financial provision in 2000-01 for the Northern Ireland Departments.

19. As in previous Sessions, we continued to take evidence from major non-departmental public bodies in Northern Ireland whose work was unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to fall within the scope of more general inquiries. We held one such session in Session 1999-2000, with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. However, with devolution, responsibility for all but a handful of Northern Ireland non-departmental public bodies transferred to the Northern Ireland Administration. In our First Report,[28] we summarised our work to date, both formal evidence sessions and informal visits, in this important area. Our future pattern of inquiries will determine the extent to which we need to continue with free-standing examinations of the non-departmental public bodies remaining within our remit.

20. We have continued our practice of previous Sessions of seeking to make regular visits to Northern Ireland, and of taking formal evidence there. We made seven visits in all in the course of the Session, at four of which formal evidence was taken.

IV. Government Replies to Reports of Session 1999-2000

21. Our First Report, on scrutiny of non-departmental public bodies, did not need a reply. The Government sent a Response[29] to our Second Report, on problems relating to the livestock industry in Northern Ireland, on 8 May, which was received within two months of publication of the our report. This Response addressed all the principal points in our report. We expect to publish the Government's response to our Third Report, on the Northern Ireland Office 2000 Departmental Report, in the near future. The Report was published in April 2000.

22. As we have mentioned earlier, both our Fourth and Fifth Reports, published in August 2000, related primarily to matters which had been within the responsibility of the Secretary of State at the time the inquiries started, but were the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Administration at the time the reports were published. We are continuing to give thought to the implications of this in the context of securing responses.

V. Relations with the Northern Ireland Office

23. Our relations with the Northern Ireland Office are generally good. The quality of evidence is satisfactory, although there are have been some difficulties over the time taken to prepare written material. We are kept adequately informed of general developments.

24. Difficulty has arisen in the past when the Northern Ireland Office has given insufficient consideration to our commitments in the context of the scheduling of Northern Ireland parliamentary business in the House. Thus in May 1999, we discovered, at very short notice, that the consideration by the House of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill was to coincide precisely with our visit to the United States in connection with our fair employment inquiry, the dates of which the Northern Ireland Office had been made aware of some considerable time previously. Despite vigorous representations by us, the Government was unwilling to change the arrangements, so members faced an unenviable choice and several felt obliged to drop out of the visit. A similar situation arose in July 2000, when the scheduling of the Remaining Stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill for 11 July disrupted our plans to visit Northern Ireland on 12 July as part of our Parades Commission inquiry.

25. In subsequent correspondence, the Secretary of State apologised for the latter "wholly unintentional coincidence" and stated that he had asked that "urgent steps be taken to ensure that such slips never recur". We are pleased to report that these steps appear to have been effective to date. Consultations took place which ensured that a possible clash was avoided in November 2000 between the arrangements for a planned visit by us to Northern Ireland and a meeting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee at Westminster. We hope that these improved liaison arrangements will continue to prevent clashes between our own arrangements and parliamentary business relating to Northern Ireland.

VI. Legislation

26. We have not yet examined any legislative proposals. However, we have noted that, in the current Session, the Government intends to publish a draft bill on the implementation of the recommendations of the Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland.[30] We understand that this Bill is likely to be published in the late spring. This will be the first draft bill to be published which relates primarily to Northern Ireland.

27. Section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 introduced a new procedure for legislation by Order in Council on certain categories of reserved matter. In essence, under this procedure, the House and its Committees have an opportunity formally to consider, and make representations on, a proposal for a draft Order before the draft Order proper is laid before the House for approval. Two such proposals have so far been laid before the House: a proposal for a draft Financial Services (Northern Ireland) Order, laid on 21 November 2000, and a proposal for a draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order, laid on 15 January 2001.[31]

28. Throughout the period of Direct Rule, there were periodic criticisms of the inflexibility of the Order in Council procedure used for the bulk of Northern Ireland legislation. We therefore welcome this new variant, which gives the House a formal opportunity to influence the contents of certain draft Orders in Council brought forward for approval. We shall consider in each case whether an inquiry by us is appropriate and therefore request that the Northern Ireland Office routinely send copies of each proposal to us at the same time as it is formally laid before the House. We recommend that there should be a presumption that each such proposal will in any event be debated in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. We also recommend that consideration be given to introducing into the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, for use when considering proposals for draft Orders in Council, a procedure similar to that used in European Standing Committees, whereby Ministers of the Crown may make statements about the proposal and answer questions thereon for a period, before the Committee embarks on the debate. Use of such a procedure might make the Committee's scrutiny even more effective.

VII. Resource Accounting and Budgeting

29. As we have mentioned earlier, we have taken evidence from the Northern Ireland Office on its progress towards the introduction of Resource Accounting and Budgeting. We have been assured by the Department that it is on track to implement Resource Account and Budgeting in 2001-02 and that no substantive issues of concern arose from the Comptroller and Auditor General's informal scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Office's 'dry run' 1998-99 resource accounts. We expect to publish the Department's evidence shortly.[32]

VIII. Other activities

30. In the light of the devolution of responsibility for many areas to the Northern Ireland Administration, we are seeking further to develop relations with both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. Shortly before the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland, we hosted an informal meeting with the Assembly's Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee and, a few days after the resumption of devolved government, Sir Reg Empey MLA became the first Northern Ireland Minister to give evidence to a Select Committee when he gave evidence to us on inward investment, a transferred matter.

31. We attach particular importance to developing relations with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive for a number of reasons. Thematic inquiries, such as our current inquiry into relocation following paramilitary intimidation and our earlier Fair Employment inquiry, do not necessarily respect neat administrative boundaries. We anticipate that we may conduct further inquiries of this type in the future. In some areas, policy responsibilities are inextricably linked as, for instance, in the case of the Equality Commission. The Secretary of State appoints the members, but its staffing and funding is a transferred matter. In the key area of finance, it is the Secretary of State's responsibility to secure Northern Ireland's share of public expenditure, although it is for the Northern Ireland Administration to allocate the substantial annual grant-in aid (which constitutes the bulk of its revenues) voted as a single cash block by this House in support of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. Given the cross-linkages between our respective interests and responsibilities, development of closer links will be a priority for the coming year. We believe that these will have the potential to bring considerable mutual benefits and will strengthen parliamentary oversight of both Executives.

2  First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999-2000 (HC 300), paras. 50-55. Back

3  Second Report, Session 1997-98, HC 316. Back

4  Third Report, Session 1998-99, HC 836. Back

5  Fourth Report, Session 1998-99, HC 837. Back

6  Fourth Report, Session 1997-98, HC 716. Back

7  Minutes of Evidence, 27 October 1999, HC 866-i (1998-99). Back

8  First Report, Session 1997-98, HC 295. Back

9  Third Report, Session 1997-98, HC 337. Back

10  A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland, September 1999. Back

11  First Special Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 178. Back

12  First Report, Session 1998-99, HC 587. Back

13  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 62. Back

14  First Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 79. Back

15  Administering Elections in Northern Ireland, Cm. 4081. Back

16  Minutes of Evidence, 5 April 2000, HC 409-i. Back

17  HC 409-i, Q. 43 and Ev. p. 15. Back

18  HC 409-i. Q. 44. Back

19  See, for instance, the Belfast Telegraph, 8 January 2001, p. 1. Back

20  Fourth Special Report, Session 1998-99, HC 836. Back

21  Official Report, 15 March 2000, Vol. 346, Cols. 47-66 WH. Back

22  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 62. Back

23  Fourth Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 512. Back

24  Fifth Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 198. Back

25  Cm. 4849. Back

26  Minutes of Evidence, 5 April 2000, HC 409-i, Session 1999-2000. Back

27  Minutes of Evidence, 28 June 2000, HC 639-i, Session 1999-2000 (not yet published). Back

28  HC 179. Back

29  Published as the Committee's Second Special Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 535. Back

30  Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland, March 2000. Back

31  An earlier version of this proposal was laid on 19 December 2000 and withdrawn on 21 December. Back

32  HC 639-i. Back

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