Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 and Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002

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Mr. Browne: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my level of optimism or pessimism about the restoration of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland is not gauged only by my reaction to a partial quotation from a speech by another politician. I shall endeavour to come to a view about whether I think we can proceed to a positive resolution of the current difficulties based on a broader range of matters than that.

That speech—I noticed only yesterday that it was commented on by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, who may allude to it later—was reported to contain positive comments, although I did not hear them at first hand. The hon. Gentleman, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, will want to take more time to consider the whole speech in more detail, as well as considering particular parts of it, as he asked me to do. At this stage, I have not had the opportunity to do that in as much detail as I would like. I do not propose to comment on the part of the speech that he has extracted, doubtless in order to make a point. However, it does not surprise me that Gerry Adams would say the words that were quoted. I do not think that it is the first time that he has commented on the ability of the British Government, or a British Minister, in the context of devolution, to suspend the institutions. He may well have said similar things when previous suspensions took place.

On those previous occasions, we were able to restore the devolved institutions. So whether Gerry Adams repeats what he said about his approach in principle to suspension will not, in the long term, affect whether we are able to restore the devolved institutions. My experience of Northern Irish politics and my faith in devolution and in the Northern Irish

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people and their belief in devolution being what they are, I am confident that we will be able to restore devolution to Northern Ireland in the appropriate circumstances.

Mr. Wilshire: I was intending to pursue the question of the objectives. In view of the Minister's comments, will he clarify what I think that I heard him say about the speech made by the leader of Sinn Fein-IRA, namely that he had not read it? If I heard him correctly, I find that extraordinary. We are discussing a breakdown in trust and considering how long it will continue, yet he has not taken the trouble to study in any great detail one of the causes of that breakdown in trust: the IRA.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman will have to check the official record: I did not say that, and I do not think that any other members of the Committee understood me to say that. I said that I thought that the speech merited closer scrutiny and greater consideration. My experience of such speeches, emanating not only from Sinn Fein politicians but from other politicians in Northern Ireland, is that they warrant careful consideration over an extended period before views are expressed on them. That is what I intend to do, and I am not yet prepared to express the sort of view that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) sought to get me to express about the speech.

Mr. Wilshire: But you have read it.

Mr. Browne: Yes, of course I have. I think I read it on Saturday evening for the first time, if the hon. Gentleman wants to be pedantic. Although I was not in Northern Ireland, I had a copy of it on Saturday evening and I read it. If that puts his mind at rest and helps his hearing, perhaps we can proceed.

My hon. Friends and I will act energetically in striving to provide good government to the people of Northern Ireland, but we will not shirk difficult decisions. We will consult the parties and attempt with them to find a basis on which devolved government can be restored and political progress can continue. We will work closely with the Irish Government. My colleagues the Secretary of State and the Minister of State met representatives of the Irish Government last week, in the context of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference.

Our ability to restore the devolved institutions is dependent on the restoration of trust. Commitments need to be implemented: commitments to peace and to making the process work. We will do all that we can to bring about those developments.

The effect of the suspension order is largely dictated by the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2000. The principal consequence of the order is that the Assembly has lost its law-making powers. Indeed, neither it nor its Committees may meet. The Ministers in the devolved Administration cease to hold their office, though on restoration of devolved government, they may resume it.

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Meanwhile, executive powers are generally exercised by the Northern Ireland Departments subject to the direction and control of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, assisted by the junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. In place of the legislative powers of the Assembly, there is a power to legislate by Order in Council, subject to the approval of this House and another place.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): We understand that the extra Ministers will be helping to take decisions that would otherwise have been taken in Northern Ireland. Are we to believe from paragraph 5 of the explanatory memorandum that the costs are judged to be roughly equal? Not precisely, but on a general basis, was that the experience during previous periods of suspension?

Mr. Browne: Based on the experience of previous periods of suspension, and other factors, that is broadly the view. I cannot put my hand on the specific paragraph to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I will consider it later and if I have anything to add, I will do so if I can catch the Chairman's eye—but I think that the hon. Gentleman is broadly correct.

Arrangements for legislating by Order in Council will be familiar to many hon. Members from Northern Ireland. They do not significantly differ from the powers of direct rule that regrettably existed from 1974 to 1999. I readily accept that devolved government under the agreement is much better for the people of Northern Ireland and is what they deserve. As I have said, we will apply all our efforts to the restoration of that, but in the meantime we will consult widely and seek to ensure that the spirit of inclusiveness in the agreement informs our decisions.

There was a substantive legislative programme before the Assembly. In some cases, the legislation under consideration was urgent and had substantially completed all its Assembly stages. We will introduce some Orders in Council reflecting such Assembly Bills. One on employment has already been introduced, and I hope that it can be speedily dealt with. I know that many hon. Members are unhappy with the Order in Council procedures. As I have already said, it would be much better if we had an Assembly in place to scrutinise carefully every piece of legislation. As successive Governments have found, however, it is just not possible to give such scrutiny to Northern Ireland matters in this House or the other place.

During the earlier period of direct rule, it was frequently the practice to supplement the scrutiny that was given in this House to draft Orders in Council by making them available in advance, for a period of public consultation. That was found to be very valuable, and we might be able to boast that in that respect Northern Ireland led the way for the rest of the United Kingdom, because public consultation on draft Bills has since increasingly become the practice. In any event, we shall seek wherever possible to resume that practice for new proposals for legislation, generally allowing 12 weeks' consultation on them. There will, as before, need to be exceptions, such as technical financial orders and social security parity measures. There will also be cases of urgency in which such consultation will not be practical. In respect of

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legislative proposals that had made their way partially through the Assembly, we shall have to decide case by case what further opportunity for scrutiny is appropriate.

Mr. Wilshire: If I understand the Minister correctly, he is saying that the likelihood is that scrutiny will mainly take place on the Committee Corridor. Has he asked the Clerk of the House what happened before 1999, as I have? The Clerk tells me that as late as 1997–98, when Labour was in office, Orders were taken on the Floor of the House on seven occasions. Is he saying that he is not prepared to revert to the practice of the Government in 1997–98? We must be clear about that.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament for longer than I have, although I was a Member during the period to which he refers. My understanding is that Orders in Council that proceed by the affirmative resolution procedure are automatically sent to the Committee Corridor, as he says, unless steps are taken to deal with them on the Floor of the House. The Government, just as we were between 1997 and 1999, will be ready to consider representations and circumstances that would merit the consideration of orders by debate on the Floor of the House.

I was present last night when, on a point of order, issue was taken with the fact that these orders were being debated in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. I researched the point, as the hon. Gentleman did, because I was surprised that the point had been made. Indeed, we may all need to do some research and remind ourselves how direct rule worked between 1974 and 1999. My understanding is that the normal procedure for moving consideration of orders from the Committee Corridor to the Floor of the House was that the Opposition made formal representations through the usual channels or to the Northern Ireland Office. That is over and above the judgment that the Government may make about whether it is appropriate to take an order on the Floor of the House.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman, who has a role in the process in the official Opposition, that in relation to this order no such representations were made. He will understand why I was surprised, when I was sitting on the Treasury Bench last night, to hear a point of order being made about the fact that these orders were not being debated on the Floor of the House, given that the Opposition had not made such representations. I am grateful to him for giving me the additional information that he has discovered, but I gather that he, too, will be learning from this experience. We all need to learn to work in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002