Select Committee on Liaison First Report


APPENDIX L

NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

Memorandum to the Liaison Committee

Scope of the memorandum

  1.   Our memorandum is concerned only with the work of the present Committee, as the previous Committee reported on its progress in May 2001.[137]

Progress

2.  Since the Committee was appointed on 19th July we have completed our first inquiry and have embarked on two others. The first inquiry, into the introduction of the aggregates levy in Northern Ireland, was undertaken as a matter of urgency in the light of the Government's intention to implement the levy across the UK from 1 April 2002.

3.  We were pleased that, following our discussions with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, our concerns about the impact of the levy in Northern Ireland were recognised by the Government through a concession for Northern Ireland in the Pre-Budget Report. However, the concession was partial and temporary, and we have pressed for a more lasting solution in our recommendations.[138]

4.  Financial matters, and the implications of the land border with the Republic of Ireland, are proving a significant theme in our initial programme. Our second and third inquiries concern the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland and, following the previous Committee's Report in 1999, the impact in Northern Ireland of cross-border road fuel price differentials. Policy in the areas of cross-border trading and prevention of organised crime is increasingly pursued through inter-agency co-operation: for all three of our inquiries to date we have sought written and/or oral evidence from other Government Departments, notably H M Treasury and the Home Office, and we are grateful to them for their assistance.

Relations with the Northern Ireland Office

5.  We are pleased to report that relations with the Northern Ireland Office have been generally extremely good. We have received extensive informal briefings from Ministers and officials on the various aspects of the NIO's remit. We are particularly grateful to the Secretary of State for the occasions when he has briefed us personally on political developments: we have found these private discussions a valuable supplement to formal evidence, and hope that the practice will continue.

Government responses to Reports

6.  While the content of Government responses to the previous Committee's Reports has been generally positive, we were rather disappointed at the time taken to respond to the Committee's Third Report, published on 11th April 2001, on Relocation following Paramilitary Intimidation.[139] Although this Response was due, under the Osmotherly Rules, on 11th June it was not received by the Committee until 4th December.

7.  We understand that some extra time was required for the response because of the need to confirm details with other agencies. However, now that we have seen the response, we are somewhat sceptical as to whether a full six months on top of the agreed two months was really necessary. We would point out that the Northern Ireland Executive replied concerning devolved matters, to which substantial parts of the Report related, within four months of its publication. We would have hoped that the Northern Ireland Office would do better. We believe that the Northern Ireland Office did not give sufficient priority to the production of a Response to the Third Report in the last Session. We are disappointed, since the NIO's performance in responding to Reports had significantly improved in the latter part of the last Parliament. We hope that those concerned will ensure higher standards of performance are restored in the current Session.

Progress in preventing electoral malpractice

8.  We contrast the slowness in producing this Response with the swift action by the Government in introducing the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill at the very start of this Parliament. In its last Annual Report, the previous Committee welcomed the Government's commitment to introduce primary legislation to combat electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland in advance of Assembly elections scheduled for 2003.[140] The commitment was made to the House on 29 March 2001,[141] and the Bill was introduced in the new Parliament on 28 June 2001. We are pleased that the Government is demonstrating its intent to combat electoral malpractice, and we will continue to monitor its progress in this area.

Relations with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly

9.   We also enjoy good relations with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. On our first visit to Northern Ireland we were welcomed to the Northern Ireland Assembly by Rt Hon David Trimble MP MLA and Mark Durkan MLA, and we are grateful to them for their courtesy. The formal communications between the Committee and the Executive, established in the last Parliament, have also continued. We are pleased that, in spite of recent political difficulties, the Northern Ireland Executive were able to provide a written memorandum in relation to our first inquiry into the aggregates levy: in different ways this is a subject of interest to both Westminster and Stormont. We value the Executive's co-operation and hope that such exchanges will continue.

Draft legislation

10.  Legislation in response to the Review of the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland has been anticipated since publication of the Review in March 2000. When it did not appear in 2000-2001, the previous Committee recommended that the Government provide ample opportunity for scrutiny of the draft legislation in the new Parliament.[142]

11.  The draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill and Implementation Plan were finally published on 12th November 2001. The Government provided a consultation period of one month, which on 29th November was extended by a further four weeks to 7th January 2002.[143]

12.  While we are pleased that the Government recognised the inadequacy of the original consultation period, the extension was not very generous, given that it included the Christmas and New Year holiday. By the time publication of the draft bill was confirmed, we were firmly committed to our urgent inquiry into the aggregates levy. The holiday - when potential witnesses are also on leave - rendered the prospect of taking evidence on the draft bill, let alone producing a report on it within the consultation period, remote.

13.  We nonetheless wrote to participants in the previous consultation on the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland inviting comments on the draft bill. To date we have received only a handful of responses, some of which emphasised the difficulty of giving proper scrutiny to detailed proposals in such a short time. We were further surprised to hear that the Government did not intend to alter the legislative timetable for the Bill, following the extension of the consultation period on the draft bill. The Bill was introduced during the consultation period, on 18th December 2001, and the Second Reading debate has been scheduled for 21st January, exactly two weeks after the consultation period ends. It would seem that the only way the Government could respond to points raised by the consultation, given the legislative timetable, would be by amendment - possibly heavy amendment - of the Bill in its later stages. It hardly seems satisfactory to enter into the process of scrutiny with this prospect in mind.

14.  We are disappointed that in this instance the Northern Ireland Office has not acted in the spirit of our predecessors' recommendation concerning the timing of draft legislation. We believe that the nature and extent of the changes proposed in the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill are of political as well as administrative importance to Northern Ireland, and merit proper scrutiny and debate. As it stands we believe that the process of formal scrutiny of the Bill may turn out to be muddled and complex: it need not have been. We hope to be proved wrong.

17 January 2002


137   Government Response to the Committee's First Special Report 2000-2001 and the work of the Committee in Session 2000-2001, Fourth Special Report HC 2000-2001 Back

138   Introduction of the Aggregates Levy in Northern Ireland, First Report HC 333 2001-02 Back

139   Relocation following paramilitary intimidation, Third Report, HC 59, 2000-2001 Back

140   Government Response to the Committee's First Special Report 2000-01 and the work of the Committee in Session 2000-01, Fourth Special Report 2000-01 HC523, paragraphs 4-5 Back

141   Official Report, 29 March 2001, Vol. 365, c345WH Back

142   Government's Response to the Committee's First Special Report, Session 2000-2001 and the work of the Committee in Session 2000-2001, Fourth Special Report HC 523, 2000-01, paragraph 11 Back

143   Official Report, 30 November 2001c1071W Back


 
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