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Lord Smith of Clifton: Does the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, agree with me that the composition of the company leaves much to be desired in that it does not involve important social partners? Does he agree that

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it would be much better for Northern Ireland if such an important agency were to proceed with the assistance and experience of those sectors?

Lord Rogan: I am not aware of what the composition of the board will be. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that it will be to the board's benefit if the greatest number of people throughout the community who can be involved are asked to be.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Fitt: I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has a point when he says that this order would not have been passed if it had come before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the order is about regenerating Northern Ireland in every aspect, there are also political considerations. Some of the objections in Northern Ireland are about the disposal of the available military lands. Some would like to see the disposal of those establishments while others would be bitterly opposed to it.

The previous speaker drew my attention to the composition of the board. The order states:


    "The membership of the company's board will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister".

Currently, the First Minister is a Unionist and the Deputy First Minister is a nationalist. If it is within the power of those two to appoint the board's members, what will that say about the powers of the other elected Assembly Members who do not agree with every aspect of this order? This order is so important to the whole future of Northern Ireland, and I believe that all the political parties should try their best to find an accommodation to which they can all agree.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that he tabled an amendment which will be considered tomorrow in the Chamber. As we are all aware, however, those who will take part in tomorrow's debates are currently sitting in this room. Most noble Lords in the Chamber tomorrow will not be overly concerned about what happens in Northern Ireland. If they read some of the accounts of what happened last week in Northern Ireland, I could understand why they do not want to be concerned with Northern Ireland.

If this order is accepted, it will be accepted under the aegis of the presently constituted Assembly. However, there has to be an Assembly election in May, after which the composition may be totally different. The new Assembly may not wish to go along with every aspect of this order. So the question is whether it is urgent to pass this order now. If not, I believe that all shades of opinion in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be taken into account. The most important point, however, is one that I have made. As I said,


    "The membership of the company's board will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister".

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Both are highly political figures in Northern Ireland. If they were to take decisions that could in any way be interpreted as excluding other Assembly Members, it would not bode well for the future of the board.

Viscount Brookeborough: Although very few people are against the idea of the objectives of the order—to increase opportunities, investment and development—we have to consider the principle. The Government have said that they do not want the Assembly's suspension to hold up the government of Northern Ireland and that they want the passage of the legislation which was under consideration or was soon to be considered in the Assembly. However, the Government themselves admit that this order might not have been passed by the Assembly. Although I personally do not oppose the order, there is a principle here.

The Government expressed their hope, which we all share, that the Assembly will soon be restarted. Nevertheless, they expressly said that they would not wait to see whether that happens. They said, "We will continue what the people of Northern Ireland started because we want to show that the Assembly is effective". Still, they have admitted that this order would not have been passed. As I said, however, I am not against the order.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: On a matter of correction, I said that at no time did I admit that it would not have gone through. I said that it was speculation.

Viscount Brookeborough: My apologies.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I have just one query to put to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, and that relates to the transfer of the bases. I am ashamed to say that I have not been back to May 2002 and looked at the detail under which the original agreement was made. However, I live within two miles of an RAF base which was surrendered from Ministry of Defence use in 1993. Ten years later, it is still in the Government's hands. I have no criticism of that fact, which involves about 500,000 of expenditure annually. Am I right in assuming that, when the bases are handed over, all potential military damage to them will have been removed so that, although they are brownfield sites, they are free from pollution? If they are not free from pollution, on whom will the expense fall? Will it fall on the Ministry of Defence or on the new owners?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am grateful for the contributions that have been made. I am particularly grateful for the generosity of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in expressing appreciation for what we tried to do about producing a procedure that is quite novel in this place.

It seems to me that the division of question and criticism has been twofold: one, should we be doing it; and, two, the nature and constitution of the board. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that the Assembly is sovereign. Speaking for the Government, we should prefer that the Assembly had never been suspended. It was suspended with great reluctance.

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Our present hope, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said time and again, is that we shall have elections on 1st May. However, let us assume that we do not. Are we then to let these opportunities of which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, spoke so glowingly dribble away? The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is a good one. He spoke of about 10 years that have been wasted or not used fruitfully. I do not think that we will discharge our duty to the people of Northern Ireland if we let these opportunities go. I am very grateful for the support that the noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Glentoran, have given to this.

It is possible that this order would have gone through the Assembly—I do not know, and I do not think that any Member of the Committee could possibly be in a position to know with any degree of moral certainty. What I can say is that all the parties on the Executive—the four major parties—took part in the discussions. It is possible that the Assembly would have passed it, but it is possible that it would not have done. Are we then for the future to say either, "The Assembly might not have passed it", or even, lamentably, "The Assembly never even considered it"? Are we then to do nothing? I think not.

The order has the support of the two biggest political parties, the SDLP and the UUP. All four Executive parties were represented on the project board. The Executive Committee met on a number of occasions to look at the contents of the legislation and the path that it would take. This order itself has been the subject of further consultation between the Minister, Mr Ian Pearson, and the Alliance, the Women's Coalition and the PUP. The Minister has also met the DUP and Sinn Fein. So I think that we have done our very best, and acted as honourably as we can, in taking this matter forward.

A number of Members of the Committee—the noble Lords, Lord Fitt, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough—asked about composition. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, talks about needing to ensure that the board would be a model of social partnership and involve key stakeholders. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is quite right. The membership of the board has not been set. However, it would be wrong of me not to share the current thinking with the Committee. The current thinking is that there should be one public sector representative, the interim chief executive, the chair of PUK plus three or four other experts who, of course, will be able to take representations from anyone who is interested. Quite careful thought will have to be given to who should be on the board.

The real dilemma is as follows. Should we do nothing at all—against which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has counselled—or must we go forward in circumstances which we all recognise are not ideal? The circumstances are not ideal, but it seems to me that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to our going forward with economic regeneration. Let us not forget that the history of economic regeneration—investment and falling unemployment—is a success story of which we should speak more strongly.

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On the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, my advice is that we shall ensure that there is no contamination of the sites. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is quite right. We shall have to examine all the assets. Of course, the new body will have to look at the best possible asset utilisation.

I shall pass on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State the concerns expressed about the identity of the board. I think it is fair to say that Members of the Committee know him to be an open-minded person who always pays careful attention to those matters.

We are faced with this problem. No one wants to be in a Northern Ireland order Grand Committee—we would rather that the Assembly was doing its work. Absent it doing its work—I must not use the word "absent"; the Prime Minister was criticised for being a lawyer when he used it the other day—without the Northern Ireland Assembly, we must do our very best. I have no doubt that, when it comes to tomorrow, I shall be able to commend to Members of the Committee and others in the Chamber that this ought to go forward.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


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