|Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) rose
Mr. Browne: I had hoped that my reply dealt with the questions asked by the hon. Members for South Antrim (David Burnside) and for Reigate, but it has encouraged another one. That is the problem with speculation.
Mr. Field: The case has been made clear or perhaps unclear by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate. In UK parliamentary terms, there is a convention with by-elections, which is analogous. I am sure that it is not set in stone, but there is a convention that, within three months of a Member's death, the relevant party announces a date.
In an ideal world, this legislation would also be guided by convention, as would the whole Assembly, but that is clearly not the case. I fully understand the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim that the matter needs to be tied down. That is all that we are arguing for.
I appreciate that the Minister does not want the matter to be nailed down, but he must understand that there is a great concern that a coach and horses will be driven through the legislation if there is no obligation on a Minister to act until June 2003.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that intervention, but I can do no more on the statutory provisions within which the devolved Assembly and its electoral process work than describe again the statutory framework passed by this Parliament. The devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland and the whole process are a creature of this Parliament. The situation is unlike a dissolution of this Parliament, because it is sovereign and the constitution must come into play. Of course, the UK has an unwritten constitution and, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, our election process is embarked on and the rules applied by convention.
The rules under discussion are laid down in statute and are amenable in certain circumstances to applications to court, as we saw this morning. The Secretary of State is obliged to act according to set standards and the courts are prepared in appropriate circumstances to judge his actions against those standards. What I can say is that he is operating within the statute. That was tested in court this morning: an application that depended on a criticism of his behaviour was unsuccessful and the courts reaffirmed that he was acting lawfully.
The Secretary of State continues to act lawfully, but I am not privy to his thinking. I am therefore sure that the Committee will excuse me if I refuse to be drawn on any speculation as to what date will be fixed. However, I can reassure Members that he will continue to act within the Act's framework. He will do nothing that drives a coach and horses through the legislation and he will act at all times commensurately with appropriate legal standards.
Mr. Blunt: I am listening carefully to the Minister's explanations. I ask him to write to members of the Committee when he can to set out the background to the Secretary of State's legal position and the limits and obligations placed on him, given the public undertaking that he gave on Saturday, which was reinforced by today's judgment.
Mr. Browne: I have no difficulty in giving that undertaking, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman and other Members will allow me to await the extension of the notes of this morning's debate in the High Court, if they are to be extended, so that I can be precise about the exchanges that took place and the judge's observations. If I can be allowed that indulgence, I have no hesitation in undertaking to write to try to make the legal position and the relevant obligations clear.
The hon. Member for Reigate sought further information in relation to the Alliance party's preconditions. My understanding is that there are no preconditions, but for the edification of all members of the Committee I point out that the proposed review will be conducted under the provisions of paragraph 36 of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement, which says that
Mr. Blunt: What the Minister did not read out from paragraph 36 are the words ``after a specified period''. Will he enlighten the Committee as to whether the review has formally begun, what the period is and when we can expect it to report?
Mr. Browne: If it is of assistance to the hon. Gentleman, I can say that someone will need to specify a period at some stage, and the review will take place after that. The necessity for a specified period is to enable those who are involved in a review to prepare for it. That does not preclude an agreement: there appears to be an agreement among a significant number of the parties to the Assembly and, indeed, the Secretary of State, that such a review would be appropriate. It is implicit in the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate that such a review would be appropriate. I am grateful for his suggestion for resolving the difficulty and I will ensure that those who take part in the review are aware of it.
Question put and agreed to.
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