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

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Several hon. Members rose—

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Mr. Davies: I am glad that I have stirred up interest in this Committee.

Mr. Wilshire: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a bit rich for a Minister to criticise him for not being able to see into the future when the Minister comes with a record of making one one-sided concession after another, telling us that that is the way we can get decommissioning and the disbanding of the IRA. If anyone is incapable of seeing into the future, it is the Government.

Mr. Davies: I am not going to quarrel with anything that my hon. Friend has said. As there is a new Secretary of State, I am trying not to be too aggressive. I noticed for the first time yesterday a degree of humility on the part of the Government. I set out a series of criticisms—perhaps ''strictures'' is a better word—of them. The Leader of the House is a very doughty debater for whom Conservative Members have great respect. I understood why the Secretary of State, in his new role, did not want to intervene, but the Leader of the House, who in previous debates had got to his feet every 15 seconds to try to quarrel with something that I said, did not move at all. At one point, he pretended to bury his head in his papers, but he never said a word.

It was clear that the Government were thinking again. I hope that they are and that I am not deceiving myself. It is important for the people of Northern Ireland that the Government learn lessons from their mistakes and if they do, we will not try to make that process more difficult. We will try to make it easier.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): It is rare for a Committee to deal with probability theory and chaos theory in one go, although I welcome the opportunity to do so. In terms of chaos theory, I suspect that it would not require much forward thinking to anticipate the implications of expelling Sinn Fein from the Executive. What thought did the hon. Gentleman give to that, and what calculations did he make?

Mr. Davies: I am not going to produce an econometric equation. I am not a mathematician and do not want to venture out of my depth, but a mathematician would say that the point about chaos theory is that the more variables there are, the more difficult it is to make a prediction. That is why we probably do not have a deterministic universe. We do not believe in a clockwork universe anymore because the equation f=ma cannot predict everything that will happen in the world; the world contains too many things. If the number of variables is reduced, irrespective of how difficult it is to make a prediction of likelihood, that difficulty is reduced. That is an unexceptional statement about which I do not believe anybody would quarrel.

Many of the mistakes that are made in politics and business—I thought this during my days in business—are elementary. Most of the things that the Government have done wrong, such as doing nothing when people breach their obligations, are elementary mistakes. There is no great complexity. We all need a period of calm reflection. We have reached a nasty impasse after dissolving the institutions. That has brought devolution to an end sine die, with no

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particular time limit, unlike last year, and we should all use this moment to reflect carefully.

I shall move on because we have covered those points as exhaustively as hon. Members—mostly Labour Members—wanted me to. I shall address the problem that we face. We have suspension. If we succeed in voting against the order because my eloquence persuades sufficient Labour Committee members to do that, we will not have suspension. That would cause an interesting situation to arise. Whatever we do tonight may depend on the assurances that I receive from the Minister.

We should prepare ourselves for the possibility of suspension continuing and appreciate that it may be a little late to implement the rather better solution that I advocate. We should make the best fist of it that we can for the people of Northern Ireland and for the sake of British democracy, in which we all take pride. The best principles of democracy are not served by the Government's complete lack of foresight and arrangements to prepare for this unfortunate eventuality.

When the former Secretary of State announced suspension, my first reaction was to ask several questions, many of which were about how Parliament would deal with its new responsibilities. I have welcomed the new Ministers to the Treasury Bench twice, and I hope that they will have the chance to come to the Dispatch Box. It is thoroughly regrettable to appoint people whom we can never hear and have a chance to question. It is utterly absurd to have five Ministers and only half an hours' Question Time.

No one will catch me saying that the Conservative Government, let alone the 1992–97 Administration, never made a single mistake. Even I did not support them all the time. I do not mean that, because the Conservatives did things in a particular way, that was the perfect way to proceed—often, it was not—but in those days at least we had three quarters of an hour for Northern Ireland questions. I have not heard any suggestions from the Government about that. I wrote to the former Secretary of State and asked him for a meeting to talk about that issue; I hope that meeting can still be held. Democratic life is enhanced when we can discuss such matters, with all the usual channels and other mysterious people taking part. That is something that we should talk about and resolve. I hope that the Government are open-minded about that issue. I do not want to prejudice anything that may be said in a meeting that I still hope will take place, so I shall pass over that point. It would, however, have been wrong for me to not to mention it on this occasion.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sorry to have slipped out during my hon. Friend's comments. I came back in time to hear him query the length of time for Northern Ireland questions. Perhaps it would be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that the Clerk informed me last week that

    ''In the 1992–97 Parliament, Questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland were usually taken monthly, immediately preceding Thursday PMQs, and lasted for 40 minutes.''

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Mr. Davies: That is 33 per cent. more time than we have at present. That would be a step in the right direction. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. Perhaps the Government will ruminate about it, bearing it in mind that neither my hon. Friend nor I had any responsibility for such matters in that Parliament. I think that it is right to decide what needs to be done and do it now without being too hidebound by positions that have been taken up.

The same sort of consideration applies to debates on the Floor of the House. There is no doubt that the main forum for discussions on major issues of strategic importance must be the Chamber. That is, rightly, where the press and the public focus; one cannot expect them to focus on several Committees that sit simultaneously. That is not a reasonable way to consider matters of strategic importance. Those should be considered in the House. The Minister will recall that I protested about that issue quite strongly.

Last year we did not have a single debate in Government time on Northern Ireland policy matters. There were Second and Third Readings of Bills, but no opportunity to discuss the peace process or Northern Ireland policy in general. Ministers are now directly responsible for many more Northern Ireland policy matters. I hope that the Government are not going to do what they did last year, when they waited for us to act in July at the end of the parliamentary year. Having hoped that the Government would do the decent thing, we had to find time ourselves in which to debate Northern Ireland.

I cannot believe that the Government are proud of that episode. I hope that we will not have to go through that process again. I hope that I will be pleasantly surprised and that the Government will take some initiatives in their time, bearing it in mind that 90 per cent. of House of Commons time, from Monday to Thursday at least, is under their de facto control. Things have worked that way for 100 years or more, so, for the time being, it may be difficult to make a change. The matter under discussion is important. We would be letting down the people of Northern Ireland immensely if there were no opportunity to have major debates in the House in the coming Session—I am not, of course, talking about the next 10 days.

The important matter of legislation is at the heart of Parliament. We make laws and bind our fellow citizens, we impose obligations and costs on them and we impose constraints on their freedom. There is an important issue at stake in relation to the present debate. Statutory instruments are never satisfactory vehicles. I have said that many times on the Back Benches over the years, including under Conservative Administrations. I have been press-ganged many times on to a statutory instrument Committee. For example, I received a little note from a Whip saying, ''Will you appear next Tuesday at the Committee that is considering the British-Venezuelan double taxation agreement?''

I was not remotely interested in the British-Venezuelan double taxation agreement, so what did I do? I did exactly what colleagues have done. I went

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along with some constituency correspondence and hoped to God that the whole thing would be over quickly so that we could get out and do some proper work; or I took telephone calls from constituents or the press while waiting to vote. That is a hopeless situation.

Since coming to this House, I have often put on record what a disgraceful procedure that is. What would be a better solution? What if someone wanted to take the task seriously and get into the detail of the legislative proposal? What opportunities are there for briefing? What opportunities are there to talk to civil servants? What opportunities are there to talk to people who will be interested in, and affected by, the prospective legislation? We receive no papers. It is absolutely hopeless. It is an insult to the people who send us here that we legislate in this way. The affairs of a whole province are now being taken under the direct administration of Westminster and Whitehall—I fear that it will be an awful lot of Whitehall rather than Westminster—so we surely have a special responsibility to do things better.

As I said yesterday—I chose the word advisedly—we are imposing a colonial form of government on the constituents of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and his Northern Ireland colleagues. We had better discharge our responsibility in a way of which we can feel proud. We sure as hell will not do that if we simply rubber-stamp a lot of Executive orders.

It is disgraceful that we cannot even amend those orders. Even supposing that our eloquence could persuade hon. Members to vote against their Whip, and that hon. Members were able to inform themselves directly by reading some papers, doing some homework, meeting some people, talking through the issues and taking an independent line, hon. Members still could not amend the order. One hundred per cent. of the members attending the Committee—or 99 per cent. if we do not include the Minister—could want to amend something, but still we could not do it. What kind of legislative procedure is that? It is not a parliamentary legislative procedure. It is simply rule by the Executive, rubber-stamped in an especially humiliating way in a Committee Room that has been packed in a certain way. It is a disgraceful process and not one that we should be happy with.

What are we going to do? I am grateful that the Minister has volunteered that he will—in principle, when he can and with the various let-outs that he was careful to include in his remarks—give us some notice of such matters. I think that the Minister said that draft orders would be tabled 30 days in advance. I hope that we all have that figure in our minds, because we ought to hold him to it.

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Prepared 29 October 2002