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 know how well the hon. Gentleman values the oxygen of an intervention. I noticed that he was drowning and I thought that the least I could do was to grant him some oxygen. Security and policing in Northern Ireland have always been the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. They have not yet been devolved. As he knows, we hope that we might be able to devolve policing and criminal justice. That gentle suggestion might disabuse him of the factual misunderstanding in part of his contribution to the debate. However, I will be quite happy if it does not.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman has obviously not listened to me again. We will both have to submit to

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the arbitration of the Official Report. When he reads the report of our proceedings, he will see that I precisely said that policing and—I think that I can recapture my words of only a few minutes ago almost verbatim—military and security expenditures were already part of the Consolidated Fund. I understand that they were not part of the Northern Ireland block vote, and that was precisely my point. However, all expenditure in relation to Northern Ireland is now in the same category. I take that to be the purport of the motion. Everything is part of the Consolidated Fund. Is not that the case? My question is extremely relevant.

There was a distinction. Whereas before there were two pots of money, both of which benefited Northern Ireland in different ways, there is now only one pot of money. We clearly need to know the answer to my question, which was whether savings and expenditure that previously would not have been part of the Northern Ireland block vote would be regarded as being a notional part of the total Consolidated Fund reserved for Northern Ireland, if there were such a thing. If they were, could any such savings therefore be used for the benefit of other expenditures in Northern Ireland, or would they be lost in the Consolidated Fund as a whole?

Had the Minister listened to what I said, he would have understood that the description of the position that he gave in his intervention was the one that I had precisely assumed in formulating my question. My question stands, as it has still not been answered. Perhaps I shall have better luck from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson). From Government Members' body language, I have at least some hope that they have understood my question. That is real progress; it has only taken about five minutes for me to repeat myself three times, and I now gather that the question has been taken on board.

There can be no doubt at all. Wilfully or otherwise, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, seems to have a habit of misunderstanding what I say, or trying to misunderstand what I say. That tendency will have to be combated, as our debates on Northern Ireland are likely to be frequent under the new arrangements. I hope that we have the privilege of serving under your chairmanship on as many of those occasions as possible, Mr. Beard. It is important that we should not waste too much time in wilful misunderstandings. I do not easily accept it when I am told that I have said something diametrically opposed to what I actually said only a few minutes before. My memory is not that bad, and I hope that the Minister will give me credit for that.

We need to know about two central issues, and I hope that the Minister and other members of the Committee will answer on them directly. First, we need to know exactly the impact on financial flows, which includes the short-term impact of suspension and the longer-term impact of any changes that may come about in different spending areas in Northern Ireland as a result of the advance in the peace process.

Secondly and no less important, we need to know about the accounting procedures. That is new territory

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for me. I do not pretend to be familiar with the procedures that might have been used when Northern Ireland was governed directly by this Government or previous, Conservative Governments, or when the whole island of Ireland was governed directly from Westminster and Whitehall between 1800 and 1922. No doubt there are many precedents but, as I said in the previous context, although we should always be aware of the precedents, we should not necessarily just accept them as the final word. If we have opportunities to improve matters, particularly on democratic accountability and transparency in the use of money and the formulation of policy, we should do so.

I hope that the Minister will not simply say, ''Well, this happened in 1974—or 1914—so this is the way we're going to do things.'' I hope that he has thought through carefully how we can best adjust to the new circumstances brought about by the Government, and that he will come up with precise mechanisms and procedures to enable us to get to grips not only with the present financial position, but with the future position as it evolves. That would enable us to ask questions and to see how money was being spent, who was taking decisions on resource allocation in Northern Ireland, who had decided to spend more money on motorways and less on hospitals, and whether money was being spent properly.

If there were allegations of misuse of funds—it occasionally happens—we would know exactly how to pursue them. We would know which bodies were responsible for auditing the accounts of the Northern Ireland Office and all public expenditure to Northern Ireland; whether the Audit Commission would take over the responsibility or whether some other body existed; whether it was dedicated to Northern Ireland; whether it was merely a question of finding time for the Audit Commission to consider Northern Ireland among its vast range of responsibilities; and whether there was a change in that as a result of suspension.

We need precise and clear answers on all those matters. Again, if we are satisfied with the answers, we will not resist the motion. However, if we are told, ''We're sorry. We've got a majority here and we're not interested in your views,'' we will make our stand as best we can and vote against the motion, whether or not we will be outvoted.

7.21 pm

Lembit Öpik: I can see already that a delightful consequence of the suspension will be that my treasured collection of speeches by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford will be added to. If he is willing to sign it, I may give it to my mother for Christmas.

It is tempting to ask a series of questions about the financial consequences of the suspension and whether we can save money on window cleaners or by turning the heating down a bit, but the reality, as far as I understand it, is that this is a technical measure that follows directly from the previous debate, which lasted two and a half hours. Assuming that the Minister can assure me that it is, as he said in his introductory

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remarks, a technical consequence of what we have already discussed, the Liberal Democrats have no problem with it.

7.22 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I welcome and congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and the Minister. They managed to avoid a contribution from me during the first debate, or I would have said this then: I hope that they find Northern Ireland as enjoyable and beautiful as I found it my first 10 years in the House. I made it my business when I became a Member of Parliament to spend that time looking after that integral part of the United Kingdom. I hope that it remains so and that they do their best to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland remain British for as long as they want to.

You rightly said, Mr. Beard, that this was a narrow order. It has been suggested that it is consequential—that it automatically follows on—but I disagree. With regard to the legislative process of this country, this order raises more fundamental issues about how we deal with Northern Ireland legislation than does the first one. Let me explain why. The order is labelled ''Constitutional Law''; it is not labelled ''technical'' or ''consequential law'' or ''minor matters''. There is a reason for that. It flags up the fact that this measure goes to the heart of the way in which the United Kingdom governs itself. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) says no. I will happily give way if he will explain why the order has the label ''Constitutional Law'' if it is not to do with the constitution of this country.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): I certainly will. The hon. Gentleman will find that the reason is that the measure follows upon the order that we have just debated. It is a technical consequence of that constitutional law order.

Mr. Wilshire: Not at all. The first order was, but the hon. Gentleman did not have the benefit of my contribution on that. If I try to tell him how wrong he is, Mr. Beard, you will rule me out of order for talking about that first order, so I shall stick to the second, which is about constitutional law. I consider it to be significant because it seeks to alter the Northern Ireland Act 2000. We are being asked to—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is deviating greatly from the matter in hand, which is the financial consequence of the present suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland. It does not stretch to a dissertation on the constitution.

Mr. Wilshire: I accept that, Mr. Beard. I understand it only too well. The difficulty is that in order to understand what we are being asked to do, we need to link it to the Act. However, I accept entirely what you say, Mr. Beard.

We are being asked to make two alterations—to change words in schedules 8 and 9. We need to be clear about why it is necessary to alter the wording of an Act of Parliament in that way, whether or not it is consequential. That is the matter before us. The alteration of an Act of Parliament is particularly important. I therefore turned to the explanatory

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memorandum to the order, so helpfully provided by the Government.

I expected to see a number of things in the explanatory memorandum, because we are changing an Act of Parliament by order of the Secretary of State. I believe that such matters should be debated on the Floor of the House, and if you were to allow me, Mr. Beard, I would explain why. However, I shall not tempt you to stop me again. Nevertheless, we are being asked to do something, and I therefore assumed that I would find an explanation of why it is necessary in the explanatory memorandum.

Why is the Committee being asked to agree to the alteration of an Act of Parliament? It is a serious matter of constitutional law, and there should be some justification for it. I see a policy objective in the order. The explanatory memorandum tells me that the order provides that during the suspension of the devolved government of Northern Ireland,

    ''expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in exercising the functions of the Assembly Commission''—

and so on—will be provided from the Consolidated Fund rather than from money provided by Parliament. It tells us what it is seeking to do, but not why.

The other thing that the order does not tell us is that the way in which the order is being made relates to section 7(5) of the Act, which states:

    ''Except in the case of an order made under paragraph 1(4) of the Schedule, subsection (4) does not apply if the order declares that the Secretary of State considers it expedient for the order to be made without that approval.''

Under normal circumstances, and in advance of that provision coming into effect, both Houses would have been asked to approve it. That is what the Act says—unless, under section 7(5), the Secretary of State ''considers it expedient'' for it to come into effect straight away.

It is a hugely draconian power. It is saying that the Act of Parliament does not matter, and nor do scrutiny or justification. It is the Secretary of State saying, ''I say, under the order, that I consider it expedient.'' It is a draconian use of a power to say, ''Forget scrutiny: I order it to happen now.'' Only afterwards do we have this opportunity to debate it. That flies in the face of the whole democratic process in almost every country about which I know anything. A Minister of the Crown is telling us, ''Forget Parliament: I decree.'' I accept that using a power is legal, but the order uses the word ''expedient''. I therefore do not consider it the least bit unreasonable to expect to find in the explanatory memorandum a justification for the use of that draconian power, but there is none: the explanatory memorandum is silent on the matter. The Government will use these powers without feeling any need to justify them.

It is not a matter of life or death whether one changes the accounting by a week or two, which is the sort of explanation that I would expect. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will tell us why the Secretary of State considered it expedient. What was so important about this order—this change—that he had to take his jackboots and stamp all over the

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democratic process to introduce it in the first place? [Hon. Members: ''Oh!''] Government Members do not like it when it is spelled out to them how their Government conduct themselves or what their Government's attitude is to the democratic process of this country. Of course they do not like it because they are being forced to vote for them week in, week out. They will be forced to vote tonight, and will be party to supporting an order whose explanatory memorandum has no explanations and that uses draconian powers for a very straightforward matter. I understand that they do not like having that pointed out to them, but I am sorry: they must come to understand what they are doing to democracy in this country.

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