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

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Mr. Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Pearson: May I answer the hon. Gentleman's original question before moving on to his latest worries? The matter was notified to the Assembly when it was in office. We have reviewed allowances and it is clear, as the Secretary of State said in his letter, that if the Assembly remains without its essential responsibilities, the arrangements will have to be reviewed. It is reasonable to say that that should be done in December, which is what the hon. Gentleman asked about.

Mr. Davies: So, as I assumed, December did not appear in the public statement and is pure speculation. Is that correct? My concern is that a decision will be made in December on more than technical financial grounds alone. It will be a qualitative decision made by the Government about the prospects for restoring the institutions. I worry that a financial rule that a decision must be taken by December will present us with a gratuitous mini-crisis, because the Government will then have to decide whether the restoration of institutions is imminent. One can easily see the political consequences that will flow from that in either direction.

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Mr. Pearson: It would have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had read the Secretary of State's letter.

Mr. Davies: December was not in it.

Mr. Pearson: The hon. Gentleman is right. It said that we would review the situation by the ''end of the year''. I leave the Committee to draw its own conclusions.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about accounting responsibilities. The accounting officers for the Northern Ireland Departments continue to be the permanent secretaries of those Departments. Paragraph 12 to schedule 1 of the 2000 Act stipulates that the accounts for Northern Ireland will be laid in the House of Commons, so scrutiny through the normal House of Commons procedure is provided for in the Act. He also asked about a possible peace dividend. I hope that that will be the case, and I look forward to a future peace dividend.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that military expenditure is covered by the UK Consolidated Fund. We will welcome the day when the army presence in Northern Ireland is smaller than it is now. However, he will be aware that the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund continues to exist. The point of the order is to ensure that, during suspension, expenditure that should properly fall into that fund does fall into it. If there is a peace dividend, we shall want to consider how those resources can be put to better use.

Mr. Davies: That is an important point. The answer to my question about the peace dividend is that there is no automatic peace dividend in the sense that if there is a reduction in military expenditure, there will not necessarily be more money for other expenditure in Northern Ireland. It might be that, as a result of political decisions and negotiation, some adjustment is made so that Northern Ireland receives, de facto, some share of the peace dividend. However, there is no automatic mechanism whereby reduction in expenditure that is currently in the Consolidated Fund would be reflected in a greater budget for what remains of the Northern Ireland block vote. Have I understood the situation correctly?

Mr. Pearson: If I understand the hon. Gentleman's convolutions correctly, that is exactly right.

Lastly, in terms of accountability, may I also confirm that the Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland will continue his work, and his reports will be made available to the House of Commons as well, as part of the normal process.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne also raised several points, one of which I dealt with previously. He also raised a significant constitutional point when he said we were seeking to amend an Act by subordinate legislation. That was the precise intention of the 2000 Act, which is why it provides for the modification of enactments. Under section 6(6) and (8), enactment includes a provision of an Act, including the 2000 Act. That was specified as part of the Act, because we recognised that it was right and proper that such actions might need to be taken.

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The hon. Gentleman clearly has strong views on subordinate legislation in general. He has had his say, but Governments of all parties find themselves obliged to resort to such legislation in the interests of good government, which is exactly what we have done in this case.

Mr. Wilshire: I readily accept what the Minister says, but just because an Act says that one ''may'' do something wrong, he should not be surprised when I say that he ''does'' do something wrong. If he has any doubts about why I ended up in the Whips Office, it is because I spent 15 years on the Back Benches complaining about all Governments, and it was the last throw to shut me up. He has now discovered how successful that was.

Mr. Pearson: The hon. Gentleman was going well over the top when he referred to dictatorial fiats and jackboots. All we are trying to do is to establish good accounting practice. Opposition Members have tried to make a meal of it. I do not necessarily blame them for that—it is legitimate for them to scrutinise Government, and to ask questions about how scrutiny may be delivered effectively—but they have had their say on the matter, and we should now agree the order in the interests of good accounting practice and sensible government in Northern Ireland.

7.53 pm

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Mr. Davies: Apart from the Minister's unfortunate phrase about the Opposition making a meal of something, I am grateful for his elegant debut in Northern Ireland affairs. It sets a very good example, because we have asked some questions, and have had conscientious and serious answers. If that is the spirit in which we move forward in this new and, we hope, temporary phase of direct rule, that is very encouraging, and both the Government and the Opposition will be doing a good day's work.

I hope that there is no resentment about us asking those questions. I realise that Northern Ireland financial matters are not everybody's favourite cup of tea, and they will not compete with league division football for public interest, but anyone who does take such an interest will find in the Minister's response to our questions in the Official Report a sort of locus classicus—a source of understanding—of the way in which the new accounting system will work.

We have had value from the Government, for which we are grateful. They have genuinely attempted to answer our questions, so it would be churlish of us to vote against the order, and we do not propose to do so.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002 (S. I. 2002, No. 2587).

Committee rose at six minutes to Eight o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Beard, Mr. Nigel (Chairman)
Bottomley, Peter
Browne, Mr.
Cruddas, Jon
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Irranca-Davies, Mr.
Jackson, Helen
Lyons, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Öpik, Lembit
Pearson, Mr.
Plaskitt, Mr.
Sheridan, Jim
Swire, Mr.
Trimble, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

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Prepared 29 October 2002