Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 23 October 2002
[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]
Draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Modification of Enactments) Order 2002
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): On a point of order, Mr. Cummings. I wonder whether someone could put me out of my misery. If I understand it correctly, we are being asked to consider giving away powers of the House to the Northern Ireland Executive, but what is the point of doing so only to have to take them back five minutes later? Are we wasting our time?
The Chairman: That is not a point of order. I am sure that members of the Committee are not wasting their time.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Modification of Enactments) Order 2002.
The draft order was laid before the House on 18 July 2002. It transfers certain functions relating to agriculture and finance from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development and of Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was the intention on devolution to transfer to the relevant Northern Ireland authority all functions that, immediately before devolution, were exercisable by a United Kingdom authority but were concerned with a transferred matter. To achieve that, before devolution, the Northern Ireland (Modification of Enactments) (No. 1) Order 1999, was made to amend statutory responsibility for the relevant transferred functions vested in the Secretary of State. Those functions were transferred by means of that order to the appropriate Northern Ireland Ministers or Departments.
In 2001, Departments were trawled to find out whether there were any further candidates for a modification of enactments order that might have been missed at the time of the original order. Several statutory provisions have been identified and this order will provide for the required transfer of functions. I should emphasise that no new powers will be created.
The order is made under section 86 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for the transfer of functions in such circumstances. When the 1998 Act was passed, it was recognised that the trawl might not have identified all the functions, so a statutory framework was put in place to transfer any further functions that might be identified.
Under the terms of the 1998 Act, ''Northern Ireland authority'' means, among other definitions, a Northern Ireland Minister or Department. The effect
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of the order is to transfer functions to the relevant Northern Ireland authority. Articles 2 to 9 set out in detail how the enactments are to be amended and the powers transferred from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, in one case, the Lord Chancellor, to the Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development and of Finance and Personnel.
I stress again that the provision is purely technical—transferring functions so far as they relate to certain finance and agriculture matters—and that no new powers are being created.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Members will see that I was not selected for the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was, but he is unable to be here. I am sure that you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Cummings, but I understand that I am entitled to address the Committee briefly, although if there were a vote, which I doubt, I would not be entitled to take part in it. Those were my instructions.
The Minister has set matters out quite fairly. He was also fair in saying that the matter is technical and the result of experience—a little adjustment here or there, in the light of working practice. I was slightly intrigued to see that the explanatory note stated:
''Article 8(6) transfers a rule-making function in relation to the Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal from the Lord Chancellor to the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.''
I somehow do not think that that transfer is likely to lead to fighting in the streets, though I probably should not make remarks like that. [Interruption.] One should never play Northern Ireland politics for laughs. I accept that and will learn that lesson permanently.
The Conservative party offers the Minister's proposals a fair wind.
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I did what I have come to expect to do with statutory instruments: I read it, read it again and then thought, ''I really don't understand what this is about.'' Therefore, I went to the Library. The Library is a wonderful source of information and its staff are incredibly helpful. I do not know how I would have got through my first year in Parliament without their assistance.
Once I had done my research, I was puzzled over the point of the order. It does not seem to make an awful lot of difference to a number of areas. However, the Library brought to my attention the fact that the status of agriculture in the devolved Administrations is problematic. Agricultural matters have been devolved to all of them, but are dominated by European Commission policy, which is negotiated at a UK level. Any European Union obligations apply to the whole of the UK. Further, I was told that both Scotland and Wales have tried to vary their policies from that of England, but with little success.
I understand that there is one major exception, however, which is to do with environmental schemes. Environmental schemes were decided separately for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even
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before devolution. Each country has a rural development plan approved by the European Commission, containing environmental and other countryside schemes. There is pressure to increase the scale of rural development programmes, transferring more money to them from production grants. That has been recommended by several reports in the UK in 2002 and also forms part of EC proposals for the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. One consequence might be that the devolved Administrations would have serious autonomy over a wide range of agricultural policies.
I was suspicious when I read about seeds, because I immediately thought about genetically modified crops, and was concerned that I should be absolutely aware of what was going on. My understanding is that the order simply brings the Northern Ireland Assembly into line with other devolved Administrations, so that it will take part in the decision-making process in exactly the same way. Perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong. I understand that some seeds are likely to be approved and go through all the relevant stages, and could be grown as crops from 2003 in any part of the United Kingdom.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Some guide should be accessible to those who might be interested in the proposed change in the law. Article 8(2) refers to the Plant Varieties Act 1997. On reading article 8(3), though, one discovers all the exceptions to it—I shall not read them all out, as that might be a bit complicated to take in. The meaning does not jump out of the page and make itself plain.
Article 10(3) should be submitted to the Plain English Campaign. Just for the record, I shall read it out:
''Anything done (or having effect as if done) by or in relation to the Secretary of State or the Lord Chancellor for the purposes of or in connection with any function transferred to the Northern Ireland Department, or the Department of Finance and Personnel, by virtue of this Order shall, if in force at the time when the transfer takes effect, have effect as if done by or in relation to the Northern Ireland Department, or, as the case may be, the Department of Finance and Personnel, in so far as that is required for continuing its effect after that time.''
That makes sense, but it sounds odd when read.
I may get a letter from you, Mr. Cummings, or from the Minister, in answer to my next question, but how often do we find the words ''Clerk of the Privy Council'' at the end of a statutory instrument? I have obviously not read others very carefully in the past. I am not saying that it is wrong, but it is a matter of note. At some stage I would like to know whether the words commonly appear and why.
Mr. Browne: I shall endeavour to deal with the issues raised, and if I am not in a position to answer questions in the detail that I would normally prefer to use in Committees such as this, I will undertake to write to hon. Members.
I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) for his support for the order, and for the fact that, despite not being selected for this Committee, he was able to get to grips quickly with what could have been
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a complicated issue. I wonder whether his Whips could select him in such a frame of mind for future Committees—it would be very helpful.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) raised a germane and detailed point about agricultural policy. I have often been grateful to the House of Commons Library for its briefings. However, since I have become a Minister, I have not always been so grateful for those it provides for other hon. Members.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that, until comparatively recently, my stock answer to such questions on Northern Ireland would have been, ''That is a matter for the devolved authority.'' However, it is not, because the detail of the subject has become the responsibility of my fellow Under-Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela Smith) and for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson). I hope that Members will therefore understand why I did not come to the Committee briefed on Northern Ireland agricultural policy to such a detailed level. Nevertheless, the matter has exercised the Committee, so if hon. Members will bear with me, I will respond to the question in writing.
The hon. Lady seeks assurance that, in the context of devolution, the order creates a level playing field between the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland and those in Scotland and Wales. As far as I understand, she is perfectly correct: we are introducing the order because there is a different style of legislative framework for devolution in Scotland and Wales, where the functions were transferred in a generic fashion in the principal legislation rather than by Order in Council.
The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) raised a couple of points. Frankly, in my experience, all forms of statutory documentation require careful reading. We should all take on board his caution that Acts of Parliament and Orders in Council bear careful reading, and carefully read them. To some degree, he undermined his own argument by reading out a paragraph. I have always found that, if one reads parts of legislation out loud, they make far more sense. When I practised law, I quite often used to be found in quiet corners of the faculty library reading out pieces of legislation to myself until I understood them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has helped us all to understand the order. I am with him in his call for plain English; we should endeavour to use it in legislation whenever possible.
The hon. Gentleman asked why the order was signed by the Clerk of the Privy Council. The answer lies in the nature of the order because it is an Order in Council made by Her Majesty and, consequently, it must be witnessed by the Clerk. Thanks to the hon. Gentleman, our general knowledge and our knowledge of the structure of legislation in the House is better.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Modification of Enactments) Order 2002.
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Five o'clock.
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The following Members attended the Committee:
Cummings, Mr. John (Chairman)
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Murphy, Mr. Jim
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Taylor, Mr. John (Solihull)