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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: We owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for putting down the amendment which has introduced into our rather pedestrian proceedings peals of constitutional thunder which have relieved us of our labours for the past 20 minutes or so.
One would have to have a heart of stone not to feel great sympathy for the noble Lord on the Conservative Front Bench, agonising about these constitutional issues and torn between being a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party and an English nationalist party, knowing that the logical conclusion is federalism but also that thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, federalism has become an "f" word not to be used. He may yet find himself with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in a federalist position--a position adopted by this party for a long time. However, I shall not detain noble Lords on that subject.
Is the Minister aware that the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure has already set in hand a review of the interrelationship of legislation in the Assembly and the Westminster Parliament? I think I am right in saying that the Northern Ireland Assembly has
Baroness Park of Monmouth: It does not seem to me unreasonable that there should be a review after a year of the impact of the legislation. I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said. Some provision may be in hand to produce a result. But with the creation of the British-Irish Council and a number of other bodies with which we shall be constantly interacting internationally on the affairs of Northern Ireland, we should derive benefit from having Irish Members sitting in the House of Commons who will be conversant with the day-to-day problems.
I recognise that the Assembly will have its own important part to play. But it does not seem unreasonable that after a year stock should be taken of the impact of this entirely new world which we are entering as regards the Irish political scene: that we should have a review and consider the result.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: It is true that in former times there was some misunderstanding over the attitude of my party. In self-defence I can only say that as a party we tended to vote on the merits of the item before us. Under my reign, we tended to incur the displeasure of people who criticised me for keeping, first, a Labour Prime Minister in power for two years, and, later, a Conservative Prime Minister in power for two years longer than might otherwise have been the case. When I was asked at that time, usually every week, "When will you bring down the Government?"--of whichever colour--I had this formula, which I think I repeated in my sleep occasionally: "Provided that Her Majesty's Government are governing in the best interests of the United Kingdom in general and Northern Ireland in particular, we see no good reason for terminating the life of this Parliament prematurely".
I had not intended to contribute to this debate but I have been stimulated by comments from many noble Lords. I wish to keep on the right side of the noble Lord, Lord Cope. Now that he has raised the standard of St. George, there is the danger that if we annoy him too much he may take England out of the United Kingdom. London is almost certainly bound to go when Ken Livingstone is elected!
When the 1978 Speaker's Conference was set up by the Callaghan Government, the late Enoch Powell and at least three noble Lords at that time avoided pressing a case for representation on the scale of Scotland. Without great difference of opinion, we decided to opt for the same scale of representation as Wales rather than Scotland. We saw the possibility in the future that Scotland would be given a form of devolution, perhaps leading to home rule, or perhaps independence. We in Northern Ireland did not want our scale of representation thrown into that melting pot. Looking with hindsight, I believe that we were probably prudent to do so. The Speaker's Conference report referred to 17 or 18 members, as the Boundary Commission thought fit. In mentioning the word "fit", perhaps I may say that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, wanted even fewer members--ideally none!
We should like to consider the establishment of a Select Committee for what I would call the devolved regions of the United Kingdom. I am glad to be reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that steps are being taken to study the impact of devolution on other parts of the United Kingdom, I hope including Northern Ireland. Given that for the time being the United Kingdom Parliament remains the sovereign Parliament and Government of the United Kingdom and will be responsible for a great many of the matters of importance throughout the United Kingdom, it seems sensible, practical and workable to have a Select Committee considering the relationship between the sovereign Parliament and the three new devolved assemblies and government.
Lord Fitt: The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has opened up a can of worms. If I were to go into reasons for an increase or decrease of seats in Northern Ireland it would throw the Government Front Bench into the frenzy of a nervous breakdown. The only people who would be more concerned about that would be the Members of Parliament in another place representing Northern Ireland constituencies. Any diminution in the number of their seats would have an effect on them. Whatever may be said in public, I do not think that anyone wishes to see a diminution in the number of seats. Two Northern Ireland MPs at present do not attend--Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Whatever decision may be taken, I do not think that Northern Ireland representation will have any effect on the complexion of a British Government for the next 10 years. It is highly unlikely that Northern Ireland MPs can decide what the complexion of the government will be.
My noble friend Lord Hardy, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and others--many are here as colleagues--attended the Speaker's Conference in 1978 under the chairmanship of the then Speaker to decide whether there should be an increase in the number of seats held by Northern Ireland constituencies. In one of my usual roles in politics in Northern Ireland, I was in a minority of one. I said month after month that there should be no increase. Everyone else--Labour, Conservative and Liberal Members--said that there should be an increase from 12 to 17. When Stormont came into being on the partition of Ireland in 1920, it was given certain devolutionary powers. It was in control of health, social services, housing and employment--all the issues which affected the everyday living of people in Northern Ireland.
I remember when I first came to Westminster in 1966 running in and out of the Table Office, as it was then, trying to put down Questions on Northern Ireland--about housing, jobs, discrimination and social deprivation--and continuously being told, "They are matters for the Northern Ireland Parliament and cannot be dealt with at Westminster". I was told that all I could talk about here was defence and financial matters. I had a very frustrating time trying to break the convention--
In 1972, the Speaker's Conference was set up on the abolition of Stormont. Sure enough, the Unionist Party, as it was then, under the joint leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and Enoch Powell, used all their political guile--particularly Enoch Powell--to keep the Labour government in power until they had what they wanted: the Speaker's Conference.
I remember the day it was set up and seeing the names of those who would be members. Martin Flannery, a Sheffield MP, said to me, "You would be as well not going there. They're going to increase the number of seats". We knew before the conference had even met or deliberated that there would be an increase in the number of seats from 12 to 17. I thought that the additional seats would go to my opponents in the Unionist Party. As it turned out, they did not; some of them went to the SDLP.
If there were to be any diminution in the number of seats there would have to be a re-drawing of the boundaries. In Northern Ireland, boundaries for local government and parliamentary elections are drawn far more frequently than anywhere else because they have to take into account where the Catholics, the Protestants and the Sinn Feiners live and sometimes where Alliance Party supporters live in Cherry Valley and North Down. All those factors must be taken into account when drawing the boundaries.
At present, we have 18 seats, two of the Members not attending. I do not want to cause a revolution in Northern Ireland, but if the boundaries were re-drawn I would not be too sure about Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness sticking by their pledge not to take up their parliamentary seats. That is a matter for them. If they will take advice from me--and they certainly will not--it is to take up their seats because, after all, they are elected by their constituency voters.
Northern Ireland was given 12 seats. The way in which the boundaries were delineated in the run-up to the abolition of Stormont in 1972 almost assured that the Unionist Party held those 12 seats for the most part. As a result of the divisions which existed among the nationalists, there were always split votes which meant that the Unionists would always win. When I won West Belfast in 1966 it was a miracle and they thought that I was a man from Mars. The Unionists could not believe it, but I won it and held it for five elections.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, provides that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should have a say in whether or not different issues would have arisen with the involvement of the Assembly. That would not be a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; it would be for the Prime Minister of the day to decide whether to change their representation. The Secretary of State should not have the authority to decide. Although I see the ramifications of introducing the West Lothian question into Northern Ireland, I do not believe that Northern Ireland representation will have any effect on representation at Westminster or the complexion of the Government for at least 10 or perhaps 20 years.
Lord Dubs: The House is full of temptation this afternoon. There has been temptation to discuss the West Lothian question, temptation to discuss Labour Party or Conservative Party representation in Northern Ireland; temptation to discuss the constitutional changes in this country with the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and so forth; temptation to discuss the thesis of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, about supporting the Government or not; and even temptation to discuss English devolution. I shall resist all those temptations--perhaps they are for another day--because they go way beyond the amendment before us.
Of course we will all watch what the Assembly does. We will be fascinated by how it works. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, and I have seen it and I am sure that your Lordships will be interested to see how it proceeds with its deliberations.
The intention behind the amendment is apparent; namely, in the wake of the Bill being passed to examine whether there is a case for modifying the functions of the Westminster Parliament in relation to Northern Ireland and altering Northern Ireland representation at Westminster. While we understand the thinking underlying the amendment, the Government would not wish to commit themselves on the face of the Bill to completing and publishing such a review within 12 months of the Bill being passed.
Under the Belfast agreement, the Government are committed to carrying out a general review of the arrangements following devolution, including the details of electoral arrangements and of the Assembly's procedures. But it surely makes more sense for any such review to take place only after the devolved institutions have bedded in. We need a little more time and do not wish to provide on the face of the Bill that the review process shall be carried out within 12 months. I believe that Members of the Committee will agree.
Nor am I sure whether the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is necessarily the best person to carry out the review. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, has already referred to the Procedure Select Committee of the House of Commons, which has already commenced a review of the impact of devolution in general on working practices in Westminster. I suggest that that might be the most sensible forum to discuss many of the issues which noble Lords have raised today. A Select Committee for the devolved regions of the United Kingdom has been suggested. Again, that is a matter for the other place, but a forum where such deliberations could well take place.
As regards Northern Ireland representation in Westminster, there are no plans to reduce it. Unlike Scotland, Northern Ireland is not over-represented. The legislation provides for between 16 and 18 constituencies, with 17 as the optimum. The Boundary Commission recommended 18 constituencies, the basis on which the 1997 election was fought and on which the election arrangements for the assembly were founded. The average size of constituency in Northern Ireland is 66,000, not far off the English average of just over 69,000 and a lot higher than that for Scotland of
However, there are a number of other reasons why Northern Ireland Members of Parliament at Westminster will have a significant role to play. Initially, as your Lordships are aware, important powers relating to criminal law, the police and prisons will remain at Westminster. Northern Ireland Members will rightly have a close interest in such issues. Indeed, I believe that Parliament will not wish to take a complete hands-off attitude to the Assembly and I am sure that people in Northern Ireland will welcome the close interest and support of the rest of the UK in the path on which they are embarking.
Furthermore, there may be many politicians, particularly on the unionist side in Northern Ireland, who would not wish to have their significance reduced to a lower representation in this Parliament. Finally, Parliament will continue to have a role in legislating for Northern Ireland in a number of respects. For all those reasons, I believe that it is right and proper that Northern Ireland parliamentary representation in the other place should continue. Indeed, I believe that there is no need to set on the face of the Bill a review in a year's time. The Government are already committed to carrying out such a review when it is most appropriate.
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