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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I am the first to accept that the Northern Ireland constitution emerging here does not have to be on all fours with that of Scotland. The Minister made the case very well. It is a different case and the constitution or the rules we are constructing for the Northern Ireland Assembly derive from the Good Friday agreement. However, I am quite clear that there is no drive or imperative in the Good Friday agreement to say that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be on a completely different basis from Scotland when it comes to the question of varying the standards set by the Westminster Parliament on equality. Why is that? Why do the Government want to give the Northern Ireland Assembly powers which the Scottish parliament does not have in this respect?
Lord Dubs: As I said earlier, the historical basis for the way we are approaching the Northern Ireland Assembly powers is different from that which applies to Scotland where there is not that sort of historical basis. We have moved on accordingly. After all, we have a body of legislative practice which is based upon the Northern Ireland situation going back to Stormont and before, and we have tried to proceed in the Bill in conformity with that as far as possible.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I do not want to bore the Committee any more on this subject today. However, I wish to put one question, if I may, to the Minister. We ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1976, three years after the Northern Ireland Constitution Act was passed. That covenant obliges us to secure equal protection of the law without discrimination throughout the United Kingdom. The Government must know from their legal advisers that that is the obligation imposed by the covenant and therefore they must know that the Assembly will have no power to pass legislation to weaken the equality law because that would lead to unequal protection throughout the country. If that is so, why on earth are the Government not protecting this subject either by putting it into the excepted category or into the reserved category rather than waiting for some ghastly political row in 10 years' time--heaven forbid--in which the Minister has to use an over-ride power because we have not produced the right schedule to the Bill now?
Lord Dubs: I believe I have answered that question more than once today. The Government's position is clear. The noble Lord does not agree with the Government's position, I think that is also fairly obvious to everyone who is listening. We have taken the view that the Assembly has to have powers and has to act within the transferred area. We regard these powers as being more properly within that area.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I accept the Government's position. I accept the thrust of the argument. I accept that the whole idea is that the Assembly should have the greatest freedom to legislate, but I am still concerned about the functions. I believe, though I am not sure, that the noble Lord was saying
Unless some attempt is made to define those functions, it will be a source of trouble without doubt. If the situation is so plain from previous legislation and from the Belfast agreement, it would be very helpful if the Government could consider seeking to formulate the functions before some later stage of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his patience. I accept the thrust of his argument, but I am still a bit foxed about paragraph 1(c) and the oil position. I do not think it is at all clear how that will work out in practice.
Lord Dubs: I am not sure I can help the noble Lord, much as I would wish to be able to do so. If I understand his argument correctly, he would like some elaboration of what we mean by the functions of the various Ministers indicated. My immediate response is that the functions which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would have in the context of the Belfast agreement and the powers that are being transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly would cover the particular responsibilities attaching to those posts as well as to the Ministers of Northern Ireland departments.
I am not sure how useful it would be to spell that out in more detail. I would have thought that in one sense it is fairly clearly understood. After all, the functions of Ministers of the Crown in relation to British Government matters are not spelt out as far as I am aware. Yet they are readily understood in relation to their statutory and other powers and responsibilities. So, although I would like to help the noble Lord, I do not think I am able to.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, made a "final" contribution--at least for today--on the matter of responsibility for equality. The noble Lord and his colleague on the Liberal Democrat Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, seemed to be straying on to the subject matter of Amendment No. 224, so perhaps we shall not need to debate that amendment when we reach it.
These matters have been the responsibility of Northern Ireland Office departments. Legislation on fair employment has been Northern Ireland legislation and, therefore, under the agreement, falls into either the reserved or the transferred category as a result rather than into the excepted category.
My amendments relate particularly to functions of Ministers of the Crown--that is, Westminster Ministers--and to the property of departments of the Crown--that is, Westminster departments--in Northern Ireland. Why are those potentially to become the responsibility of the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland? I accept that, as the Minister said, the amendments ensure that both the functions and the property are in the reserved category rather than
I regard it as unthinkable that the functions of the Treasury Minister responsible for the Inland Revenue should ever be transferred to the Assembly and the devolved government. I also regard it as unthinkable that the property from which the Inland Revenue functions in Northern Ireland as it collects income tax and goes about its other business there should ever be transferred to the Northern Ireland government. To me, those are essentially matters which should remain with the Whitehall/Westminster Government. Therefore, they should be in the excepted category. To put them into the reserved category is to say that at some time in the future the Government may want to transfer them.
That not only seems to me to be wrong--I do not think that they are ever likely to be transferred--but also has the danger that it might encourage some people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to think that those matters might be transferred at some point; that there might be a separate taxation regime and that we might move to a different structure. There are people who say that taxation in Northern Ireland should be run in such a way as to match the taxation in the Republic of Ireland in every respect. Comparisons need to be made. Indeed, we shall draw attention to them later because one needs to have regard to them, but the idea that the Inland Revenue will be run from Ireland seems wrong.
I have used the Inland Revenue as only one example--although I think it a good example. Other central government departments would similarly be covered, but the Inland Revenue provides a clear example of a power and a function which should not be transferred and which should remain in the excepted category.
Lord Dubs: I should like to make just one further comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has said. He suggested that everything that is in the reserved category is in that category with a view to it becoming transferred at some point in the future. I think that I made it clear earlier this afternoon and on other occasions that that is not necessarily so. One advantage of responsibilities and functions being in the reserved category is that, with the Secretary of State's consent, the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate upon them. That is useful additional flexibility in our approach. If a matter were excepted, the Northern Ireland Assembly would not be able to play any part in considering it. It is an advantage of the reserved category that that is possible without necessarily saying that the matter will eventually be transferred.