Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Renton: Before my noble friend replies, will the noble Lord bear in mind that it is not good enough to leave it to chance as to whether the Secretary of State will express her views to Parliament about how the Northern Ireland Assembly has worked? Is it not better that she should be asked to review the matter and let Parliament know the conclusions?

Lord Dubs: Under the Belfast agreement the Government are committed to carry out such a review. That is a firm commitment. But we do not consider it appropriate to conduct such a review within 12 months. We should consider the most appropriate time when we know how the Assembly is working. I am sure that is the way in which most Members of the Committee would wish us to proceed.

The Earl of Onslow: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may refer to something he said which started an alarm bell ringing in my brain. He said that Parliament will take a very close overview of the Assembly. Perhaps the noble Lord can elucidate. I got the impression that that remark implied that if Her Majesty's Ministers did not like what the Northern Ireland Assembly did, irrespective of what the Assembly thought it was going to do, Ministers would overturn it without a justified fiat. Is that the case?

Lord Dubs: No, that is not the case. I do not believe I said that. I certainly did not intend it. In a general sense I believe that Parliament will show a great deal of interest in the way in which the constitutional changes in this country take place and how they are working out. I am sure that Parliament will want to discuss such

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1483

matters at intervals. It may be that the Select Committee of the other place will wish to keep such matters under review. That is all I meant.

Lord Fitt: This is a matter of tremendous importance. I have already spoken of the convention which existed between 1920 and 1972 when it was impossible to ask questions about specific subjects over which the Stormont Parliament maintained control. These were unemployment, housing, health and social services and all the myriad issues under its control. That meant that one could not ask questions at Westminster because those matters were reserved to the Northern Ireland Parliament. When the Northern Ireland Assembly is set up, will a new convention be created or will we still be able to ask questions at Westminster about health, social services and all the other issues that are to be taken over by the Assembly? Will a new convention be set up to the effect that these matters cannot be talked about because they are for the new Assembly?

Lord Dubs: I do not believe that it is up to the Government to say what issues should be discussed either in this House or the other place. It is a matter for those responsible for the procedures of this House and the other place to decide what may be debated. At this stage I would not wish to suggest a new convention--far from it.

The Earl of Onslow: I am sorry to return to the issue. Of course it is for the Government to say what they will answer for in relation to the powers they have over the subjects of the Queen and of the United Kingdom. One cannot just say, "We do not know whether we are going to answer questions on this or that". That is slaphappy to the degree of irresponsibility.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: Perhaps I may help the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, before the Minister replies. The noble Lord has raised a very interesting point and I would like to enlighten him about precedents. When I came to the other place in 1970, for two years I could do nothing but ask questions about defence and taxation. For some reason I could also ask questions about the obscure issue of imperial pensions, whatever they were. Then the shutters came down when Stormont was abolished and everything was returned to Westminster.

It will be of interest to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that in 1974-75 the power-sharing executive was installed. Immediately that body took effect and began its work, the day after I returned with my usual questions on agriculture, education and everything else, the young Clerk in the Table Office said, "I am sorry, you have to address that particular query to Mr. Faulkner or Mr. Fitt, who are now in charge".

5.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs: Perhaps I may repeat what I said earlier. The House of Commons Procedure Committee is considering many of these matters. I believe it is prudent

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1484

for us to see the outcome of its deliberations before asking any one else to pronounce on how we might go forward.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: We have had an interesting debate on this question. At one point I thought we were eavesdropping on a meeting of the Speaker's Conference old comrades association. That is one of the wonders of this House. The experience which has been on show in the past few minutes of this debate has been valuable to us.

I shall respond to some of what has been said without attempting to reply to the whole debate. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, suggested that my amendment should have been drawn in wider terms to cover Scotland. I tried to do that, but the Long Title of the Bill confines the issue to Northern Ireland matters. That is why the amendment is drawn in a rather narrow form. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, suggested that I was trying to hold up this Bill as a result, but the amendment does not do that. It asks for a report in 12 months time. It does not hold up the Bill or the whole process of setting up the Assembly. The amendment asks for reflection on the matter.

My noble friend Lord Onslow suggested that the Conservative Party as well as the Labour Party somehow forbade candidates standing in Northern Ireland. That is not so. On the contrary the Conservative Party produced candidates but, I have to admit, without any great degree of success. Nevertheless, they had my support on occasions, and perhaps that is the reason they were not successful. They stood as Conservatives for Parliament and local government as well, and may they continue to do so with increased success in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, accused me of being frightened of federation on account of that word. That is not so. But I believe that a federation that consisted of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be very unbalanced. That is why I do not believe that to be a very attractive route.

The question which underlies all this is what is going to happen in respect of the West Lothian question. I was careful not to advance a single answer to it, but several for the Committee to choose from, as it were. My intention was to put the question in the Northern Ireland context, and that has been achieved. Whether or not we were able to carry an amendment of this character, we shall all have to return to this matter, including the Government and the Secretary of State. Perhaps I should have included the Prime Minister in the amendment instead of the Secretary of State, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, suggested, because inevitably he will be drawn into the issue.

This matter will not only affect Northern Ireland, but the answers to the West Lothian question as regards Scotland will affect Northern Ireland. There is no getting away from that, because one hinges on the other. It is a very difficult question. As he said, the Minister resisted temptation. He said that there were no plans at this time, but the Government will have to review the matter both in the context of the Belfast agreement in specifically Northern Ireland terms and also in response

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1485

to the Select Committee in another place and public pressure as time goes on. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Alderdice moved Amendment No. 116A:

After Clause 43, insert the following new clause--

Grounds of Stormont Estate

(" . The grounds of the Stormont Estate shall only be used for events other than those authorised by resolution of the Assembly where permission has been granted by the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 194 to 199, which also stand in my name and refer to Clause 75. In so doing let me declare an interest. Some Members of the Committee may be aware that in June this year I was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as a Member for the East Belfast constituency in which the Stormont estate is situated. Therefore, unusually for a Member of your Lordships' House, this is a matter which I can regard personally as a constituency matter.

After my election I was appointed initial Presiding Officer of the Assembly. As such I feel that it is inappropriate during my tenure of that office to speak in your Lordships' House on issues which might be contentious in Northern Ireland or which are or may become the responsibility of the Assembly.

As initial Presiding Officer, I am also chairman of the shadow Assembly Commission, a body analogous in a designate form to the Commission of the other place. The purpose of tabling these probing amendments--their rather inelegant construction, particularly Amendment No. 116A, reveals them as probing amendments--is at the request of my colleagues on that Assembly Commission. Let me explain to the Committee why I do so.

First of all, I must set out the background to the concerns. One of the first acts of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921, when it was established, was to look for a site for the new government buildings. The site at Stormont on the outskirts of Belfast was chosen and Parliament Buildings erected, at a cost to the Treasury on this side of the water, as a gift from the rest of the United Kingdom to the people of Northern Ireland, and opened in November 1932. The land and estate were transferred under the Stormont Regulation and Government Properties Act 1933 to the Northern Ireland Ministry of Finance to be held, retained and used for the accommodation of Parliament and public departments.

In those days the notion of Parliamentary Commissions established as bodies corporate was not envisaged. Indeed, it was almost 50 years later when the House of Commons Commission was established. This Bill and the Scotland Bill make provision for the establishment of relevant commissions for the newly devolved bodies. It is surprising therefore that the old system of vesting ownership in a government department is contained in the Bill. It is even more remarkable, as Erskine May points out, that since 1992, as a result of a report by Sir Robin Ibbs, each House of this Parliament takes full responsibility for managing its

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1486

own internal administration. This involved in particular taking over from the Department of the Environment responsibility for the maintenance of the fabric of the Palace of Westminster and the Parliamentary estate. In other words, the maintenance, repairs, works services and all matters which were previously the responsibility of the Department of the Environment have come directly within the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission and are borne on its vote. It is remarkable that, given this development, the Bill takes the retrograde step of vesting the responsibility, the ownership and the management in the hands of the Department of the Environment, not in the hands of the Assembly Commission which the Bill establishes. Furthermore, the Bill establishes it as a reserved matter of the Department of the Environment--in other words, although changes may take place in Northern Ireland there is nothing that the Northern Ireland Assembly can do to address this matter subsequently.

Other matters follow. There has been no decision yet on whether there will be a Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, as Members of the Committee will know. It is for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Assembly to put forward a report to the Assembly on the number, type and form of departments that there might be, and for the Assembly to vote on the issues. There is a real question as to whether the current Department of the Environment in its present form will continue or whether it will be divided up into a number of departments. If that were to be the case--and it is not altogether an unlikely scenario--then the Assembly could not regulate for the placing of the responsibility for this matter in one of the new elements of the Department of the Environment because it is a reserved matter. It could legislate for a change of department. It could legislate to get rid of the Department of the Environment. But it could not deal with one of the responsibilities of the Department of the Environment.

Furthermore, planning permission in Northern Ireland--unlike the situation on this side of the water--is not a local government matter. On the issue of the prime site, in political terms, in Northern Ireland, the ownership of the site would be vested in the Department of the Environment; any development of the site would be with the Department of the Environment; any planning permission required would be with the Department of the Environment; and even in respect of its consideration as an historic building, the historic buildings branch of the Department of the Environment would have the decision. No other government department and no other level of government in Northern Ireland would have the capacity to monitor what was happening on that site.

In the new system of government for Northern Ireland there is no collective Cabinet responsibility. Ministers will be elected in proportion to the number of Members they have in the Assembly. There is no necessity--and some would even speculate little likelihood--for collegiality among all the Ministers. It is therefore quite possible that the estate, the very seat of government in Northern Ireland, could become a matter of internecine squabbling and dispute between the Minister of the

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1487

Environment, if such there continued to be, and other members of the Executive with whom he or she might disagree. That is a completely inappropriate eventuality but one that it is not entirely difficult to foresee.

It therefore seems to the shadow commission, of which I am the chairman--and let us not forget that the shadow commission has been elected on a cross-community basis by the Northern Ireland Assembly--that it would be much better if the whole estate were to come under the ownership of the commission after the appointed day, although some elements of its use and management might be delegated to a relevant government department.

One further issue causes unease among my colleagues on the commission and Members of the Assembly. Under Clause 75 the Secretary of State is empowered to require the Department of the Environment to make available, for whatever purpose the Secretary of State may wish, any accommodation or facilities--other than the Parliament Buildings--within the Stormont estate. The shadow Assembly Commission is wholly supportive of the view that the Secretary of State should have accommodation for herself, her staff and her colleagues, and all that is necessary, on-site. Of this there is absolutely no question. It is vital for the functioning of the new arrangements that the Secretary of State, the new Executive, the Assembly as a whole and relevant civil service departments are in close proximity to each other.

However, the Secretary of State has also shown that she has an interest in holding rock concerts and other open-air events in the parliamentary estate. Some of these--such as the recent Elton John concert--are excellent. They are welcome, successful events. But the fact that any successor to the current Secretary of State may--without any prior consultation with the Assembly or its commission--simply require the Department of the Environment to make available any accommodation and facilities, temporary or permanent, has created a degree of uneasiness in the shadow commission.

It is clear that there could easily be a conflict between leisure activities going on outside on the front lawn of Stormont and parliamentary and government activities going on inside. Some of your Lordships might say that this is simply Assembly Members insisting that if there is entertainment to be provided they should have exclusive propriety over providing the entertainment. But it is much more serious than that. People who live in the area have concerns about what happens on the estate. Both they--my own constituents, people in the area--and the Assembly Members would be astonished if the Northern Ireland Assembly did not have any say about what went on in the grounds of their own Assembly building.

As I have noted in correspondence to the Secretary of State, I am sure there is bound to be a way in which all the interests can be accommodated. Much more difficult and controversial matters have been accommodated in other agreements that we have reached. I have no doubt that this matter can be resolved, too. I very much hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to clarify the

21 Oct 1998 : Column 1488

matter in a way that the Bill manifestly does not. That is the purpose of these probing amendments. I beg to move.

6 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am sure we would all agree that if the Assembly is to gain respect as a governing body it is surely right and proper that the standing of the estate should be restored, particularly in the aftermath of certain carnival events in the grounds. I wonder how the curtilage of what the noble Lord referred to as the whole estate is defined. Would Stormont House and Stormont Castle be included, or would that perhaps have the effect of downgrading the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a tenant?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page