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

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Lembit Öpik: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he has not grasped the intent from reading the body of the order? We are not passing the explanatory memorandum.

Mr. Wilshire: I grasp only too well what the order is seeking to do. I am merely trying to find out why it is necessary to say that it is consequential. It may be consequential, but the Government should tell us why. Why is it necessary, and why is it being done in this way when there is a perfectly good, alternative way of doing it? Those are entirely legitimate questions, which the Government are obliged to answer before we can make up our mind whether we will support them.

Mr. Quentin Davies: My hon. Friend is making some important points. Has he noticed that paragraph 5 of the explanatory memorandum says:

    ''No extra costs will be incurred as a result of this Order.''{**4**}

That is, no extra costs as a result of the suspension. It may be that there is a saving on a net basis—I have no idea. There must be some extra costs, if only for more Ministers who have to be paid, must have their staff, and must visit Northern Ireland. Therefore, there must be some extra costs on a gross basis. I put it to my hon. Friend that it would be extremely desirable if the Government explained in the course of their response to his points the meaning of this otherwise slightly obscure paragraph.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend is perceptive. He understands exactly the point that I was about to make, and I thank him for giving me that introduction. There is some difficulty in dealing with this point because it is consequential. If it were not, it would be easy enough to say that if the whole process of withdrawing devolved government from Northern Ireland caused the peace process to collapse, a huge extra cost would fall to the Ministry of Defence to send the troops back. However, I accept that that relates to the first order, not the second. I will therefore not be tempted to make that point, as I would have done. What I will do instead is focus attention on the fact that the explanatory memorandum states:

    ''Financial Costs. No extra costs will be incurred as a result of this Order.''

The Minister should explain why he is focusing only on the extra cost, because there is a clear financial consequence of this order. In paragraph 9(2) of the schedule, a change is being made to the way in which

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Members' remuneration and pensions are dealt with. It states:

    ''But the Secretary of State may determine that no salaries are to be paid to members of the Assembly.''

The order focuses attention on the wording of the way in which that is done. If salaries were stopped, the memorandum would be misleading, to put it gently, because it focuses on extra expenditure. If salaries were stopped, there would be a financial effect, so it would have been helpful if the memorandum had explained that although there might not be any extra expenditure, there could be a saving. If the Government were to say that they had found a way of saving taxpayers' money, I would be happy to listen to them because that argument would be appealing. The explanatory memorandum could have been helpful, but it is not.

What worries me more than anything else is the question of scrutiny. Paragraphs 8 and 9 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000 state that expenditure incurred will be paid from money provided by Parliament. We are being asked to change that. I sense that the Secretary of State will come to Parliament, whether in Committee or in the Chamber, and ask us to provide money. The Government will say that they have to spend money now that they have returned to colonial administration, but they need permission from Parliament. That gives Parliament the chance to ask them for an explanation and to vote. However, we are being asked instead to substitute the words

    ''the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland.''

I have been here 15 years—

Jim Sheridan: Too long.

Mr. Wilshire: Some hon. Members say too long, but I have a few years to go yet, because my constituents will be happy to re-elect me.

In my experience, a Consolidated Fund debate is a rubber stamp. We usually discuss something obscure and then, at 10 pm, we troop through the Lobbies and spend more taxpayers' money than I can get my mind around. One of the weakest parts of the British constitution and of our scrutiny in general is the financial arrangements of Consolidated Funds. During our consideration of the first order, I realised that there was a check and balance relating to moneys from Parliament. Although I do not believe that we should have suspended the Northern Ireland institutions, I thought that, as a result, our scrutiny of financial matters would increase. However, during our debate on the second order, I discovered that that was not the case, and that Northern Ireland expenditure would be treated in the same way as all other Consolidated Fund expenditure, with a great big rubber stamp.

If the Minister wants me to support the order, he will have to explain how proper scrutiny will take place and why this is a consequential measure. Nothing in the first order or the 2000 Act states that we must pass the second order and then go down to the Chamber to talk about modernisation. We have a choice. We do not have to approve the order. He did

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not say it at the outset, but he might care to say now, that if we vote down the order, devolved rule will instantly be re-established, because without it there can be no suspension. If that is the case, let him say so, but my understanding is that we have a choice, although I have not been told why we have to exercise that choice.

What is wrong with the words, ''money provided by Parliament''? That would give us the power of scrutiny. Ministers do not waste their time. They do not keep their civil servants up to this ungodly hour to listen to us, unless they have a good reason. I am sure that if the civil servants knew of a good reason, they would have given it to Ministers ages ago and we would not be here, but here we are. We are being asked to change an Act of Parliament—primary legislation—and by fiat of the dictator we can rewrite it. Why it is necessary to make the change, where is the scrutiny, and why oh why, did the change have to be made in a jackboot fashion when there is an easier way of going about it?

7.40 pm

Mr. Pearson: I begin by thanking Opposition Members for welcoming me to my new role in the Northern Ireland Office. I shall do my best to answer all their queries.

In essence, the measure is simple, limited and technical. I have a great deal of respect for the business acumen and expertise of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, and I assure him that there is absolutely nothing untoward in the orders. We are just trying to ensure that the costs of administration are met through the Northern Ireland block vote and are not a drain on the Northern Ireland Office vote. That is exactly what occurred before suspension, and that is what we want to mirror post-suspension.

The first question that the hon. Gentleman asked was whether the measure would simply mean a change of accounting categories. The answer is yes.

Mr. Davies: It is only by asking questions that I—and more importantly the general public—will understand the orders. I understand that the Northern Ireland block vote will continue, and will cover exactly the same categories of expenditure as it does now. Is that absolutely clear?

Mr. Pearson: Yes, that is absolutely clear. In many ways, that answers some of the points made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, too. We have taken legal advice, which showed that the phrase ''money provided by Parliament'' in paragraphs 8(3) and 9(4) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000 would mean that money would have to be paid through the UK Consolidated Fund, and therefore come from the Northern Ireland Office's budget. We will instead use the words

    ''the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland'',

so that payments can continue to be made from the funding already given to the Northern Ireland block. That block will continue.

To put it straightforwardly, all that we are doing is saying that, sensibly, the costs should, in good accounting terms, come from the Northern Ireland

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block. We want to make sure of that. Our legal advice says that the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 would be construed as meaning that costs have to come from Parliament. To avoid having to make many transfers, it makes sense to make a minor change to the wording. Then we can have the effect that we all want, and one that reflects good accounting practice.

Mr. Wilshire: As a matter of curiosity—and I realise that I should know the answer to this question—was that process followed for the previous suspensions?

Mr. Pearson: Because the previous suspensions were not long enough, special latitude was given, so it was not necessary to confront the problem.

Mr. Davies: The Minister will understand that the words ''special latitude'' must ring in the ears of every parliamentarian. Do I take it that ''special latitude'' means the discretion of a Treasury official, and if so, what is the scope for that discretion? After what time or beyond what sum is it no longer possible for a Treasury official simply to provide that special latitude?

Mr. Pearson: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the suspensions last year lasted only 24 hours. The proposed modification orders are the simplest course of action available to us. For the first suspension, we set up quite a cumbersome system. Because of that, and because we want to get it right now, we are proposing this course of action. It is a matter of good accounting practice that the expenditure should come out of the Northern Ireland block rather than from the Northern Ireland fund. That is all that we are seeking to achieve. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman said that there had been no public statement about the salaries of the Members of the Legislative Assembly. The Secretary of State's letter to the Presiding Officer was read out in the Assembly and is therefore totally in the public domain.

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002