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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I, too, share the great pleasure and satisfaction with this news on procurement. I hope the Minister agrees with me and accepts that the many other concerns being voiced last week, not least by me, were about spending on people, spending on housing, spending on training, exercises and so forth. That is what we were very concerned about as well as the other issue. But this is splendid and I look forward to the Minister doing something about those concerns.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for reminding us of the importance of spending on people as well as on equipment. I should say to the noble Baroness that it is very important, when we are trying to bring young people into the Armed Forces and trying to persuade those who have already joined to stay, that we do indicate how much we value our Armed Forces by equipping them properly. It is a vital component in ensuring that the Armed Forces, not only are properly valued but feel properly valued. Everything I have heard today from our friends in the Royal Air Force indicates that they are delighted with these decisions and that they--and I hope others--will take heart that the Government are doing what they can to equip our Armed Forces properly.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for making that point. I think it is very good, particularly at this time, that we have been able to take a decision which is such good news for British jobs. I stress to my noble friend and to others in your Lordships' House, lest there be any misunderstanding, that we have taken these decisions principally for two reasons. One is that they offer a superb capability to our Armed Forces and the second is that they offer very good value for money to the British taxpayer. I am delighted that they have the additional benefit to which my noble friend also referred.
The key provisions of the draft order are essentially the following: to provide the Secretary of State with regulation-making powers to regulate the flying of flags on government buildings in Northern Ireland; to ensure that the regulations would be referred in draft to the Northern Ireland Assembly; to provide that the Secretary of State shall consider any report made by the Assembly of the views expressed in the Assembly; to require the Secretary of State to have regard to the Belfast agreement when making regulations and to provide that the regulations are laid in draft before, and approved by, both Houses of Parliament.
Under direct rule, the position was that the Union flag was flown from all government buildings on certain set days. These included most of the days on which the Union flag was flown from government buildings elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but also included some extra days specific only to Northern Ireland, including, for example, St Patrick's Day and 12th July.
The basis of practice on flag flying is, formally, a Royal Command by Her Majesty issued on the Royal Prerogative. Under devolution, these powers of the Royal Prerogative were transferred, in respect of devolved matters, to the individual Northern Ireland Ministers and departments.
During the 10 weeks of devolution, there was no common position among the Northern Ireland Ministers on how they should exercise their prerogative powers in relation to flags. The result was that most departments flew the Union flag from all their buildings on all the specified days; but two departments, under the instructions of their Ministers, did not fly the Union flag at all.
The Government believe that this difficult--though symbolic--issue is best resolved by the Executive Committee itself. Its members are best equipped to identify a basis on which practical and symbolic expression can be given to the underlying principles of
However, the Government do not want to see the Executive distracted by an essentially symbolic issue from their work to build up a sense of common collective purpose and approach to the business of governing Northern Ireland in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
So this draft order provides a reserve power to set regulations on flag flying from government buildings in Northern Ireland. This reserve power will only be used if it becomes clear that the Executive Committee is unable to agree a way forward and the issue is becoming a palpable source of division among its members.
This reserve power has a number of important safeguards. As I have already said, the power to make regulations about flag-flying on government buildings in Northern Ireland will not be exercised until the Executive Committee has had an opportunity to see whether it can resolve the issue itself. But if this power is to be exercised to remove a potential source of division, it shall be done only in consultation with the Assembly and the Executive Committee. The draft order requires consultation with the Assembly on any regulations and any views it reports are taken into account.
The draft order also requires, very properly, that regard is paid to the provisions of the Belfast agreement--provisions on the principle of consent, on the principle of equality of treatment for the different identities and the provision for symbols and emblems to be used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.
The Government are not imposing proposals. If, at the end of the day, there is a need to exercise this reserve power there are a number of questions which will need to be answered. What arrangements for flag flying are suitable for government buildings in Northern Ireland and which respect the provisions of the Good Friday agreement? Is it right that the Union flag should be flown from government buildings in Northern Ireland on more days than is the case elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Is it necessarily helpful to require the flag to fly from every government building, wherever it is located and however significant or insignificant it may be? What other arrangements should be in place for flag flying?
The Government believe that a common-sense arrangement, respecting all the principles of the Good Friday agreement, can be arrived at with good will by the members of the Executive Committee. It is on that basis--hoping that the Government never need this power, but ready to use it if the Executive Committee cannot reach agreement--that I commend this draft order to the House. I beg to move.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, before saying anything on the order, I should like to thank the Government Chief Whip's office. The business today has been fairly confused and the Government Chief Whip's office has been extremely helpful. It has gone out of its way to make sure that those of us concerned with this order had a reasonable idea of when it would be dealt with.
I thank the Minister for the clear and precise way in which he explained the need for the order. I do not like it. I think it is a great shame that we must legislate not only in the House and another place but also, perhaps, in a Northern Ireland Assembly about whether and when we fly our national flag from our nation's government buildings. I find that very distasteful.
I feel that it is yet another move in the wrong direction. It would have been very much more helpful if the actions of the two Sinn Fein Ministers had not been highlighted in that way and they had quietly been told to go on doing what is customary to be done by the nation's Government whom they are serving. I should like to point out that those two Sinn Fein Ministers are serving in a British Government in a British state and, indeed, in part of the United Kingdom. It is traditional. As the Minister said, it is the Queen's Prerogative that the Union flag will be flown on government buildings within the United Kingdom on certain given days, ordered by her.
I do not like this order; I do not like the way that it is pointing; and I do not believe that the 60 per cent of the population who are Unionists in Northern Ireland will appreciate it either.
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