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House of Lords

Monday, 3 February 2014.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Question

2.37 pm

Asked by Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of recent developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, after the surrender of M23 last year, 2014 provides an opportunity for greater stability in the DRC. We encourage the Government of the DRC to deliver on their commitments under the peace, security and co-operation framework, including the disarmament of militia groups, security sector reform and an elections timetable. We will continue to work closely with the UN special envoy Mary Robinson and other partners on these issues.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab): My Lords, on the disarmament of militias, it is now nearly 12 months since the peace, security and co-operation framework was signed by the 11 countries of the region. Although there has been some success against the M23 armed group, other groups, including the FDLR, those responsible for the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, are still operating in the eastern DRC. Will the UK use its seat on the UN Security Council to press for continued action on this front to create conditions for development that require the removal of these armed groups?

Baroness Warsi: Of course, the noble Lord will be aware that part of the conditions of the peace, security and co-operation framework, signed by 11 countries including the DRC and Rwanda and other countries in the region as well as the African Union and the UN, was about these militia groups laying down their arms. The M23 laying down arms at the back-end of last year is a hopeful step, but we continue to press countries and individual groups, including those linked to the FDLR, to move towards disarmament and reintegration.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are now some 2.9 million people displaced in the DRC, 60% of them in the North Kivu and South Kivu areas, where the M23 was most active? Half of those displaced people are children. Does the Minister therefore view with consternation the report from the United Nations group of experts that the M23 is continuing to recruit fighters in Rwanda and that sanctioned M23 leaders are moving freely in Uganda? Has she seen Navi Pillay’s report accusing both countries of hosting some of the most serious perpetrators of human rights violations in the DRC? When did we last raise this with the High Commissioners of Uganda and Rwanda?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord will take some comfort from the fact that the Minister for Africa, my honourable friend Mr Simmonds, will be landing in the DRC in about two hours. Part of his role is to look at these particular camps. The noble Lord will be aware that DDR—disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, which is effectively bringing these fighters back into the mainstream—has happened in the DRC, predominately in relation to foreign fighters, but there is not a particular programme, or a detailed enough programme, in relation to Congolese fighters who have laid down their arms. These are matters upon which my honourable friend is hoping to make progress over the next two days. I can issue a statement or put a letter in the House to give an update.

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Lord Chidgey (LD): My Lords, the news that the Government of the DRC are to postpone—basically, to suspend—a controversial oil extraction bill is welcome news. However, will the Government support the NGOs, other donors and local MPs in using this delay to press for the inclusion of strong transparency measures to root out corruption and to ensure that the country’s oil wealth goes towards helping the very poor in the Congo rather than disappearing offshore in dodgy deals through companies such as Nessergy, with links to the controversial businessman Dan Gertler?

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend makes an important point and he is right: corruption means not only that the wealth of the country does not help the poorest but that money earned from minerals in that country serves to finance conflict and abuses of human rights. That is why we have been pushing both for UK businesses engaged in that country to make sure that they follow the OECD guidelines and for the DRC to make progress on the EITI, the extractive industries transparency initiative. The noble Lord may be aware that its candidate status was suspended and we hope that it will be restarted. We also hope that the new DRC oil law, which is under consideration, will make some progress.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that my colleague and friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting the DRC today with the Minister for Africa. Could she inform the House of the work of Her Majesty’s Government, currently being promoted by them, in the protection of women in the DRC, particularly from gender-based violence?

Baroness Warsi: The Minister for Africa will have meetings with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of the DRC, particularly to support HEAL Africa, a project which aims to support women who have been subjected to sexual violence.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab): My Lords, is the Minister aware that, since 1990, rivalries over the exploitation of natural resources have been among the root causes of at least 18 violent conflicts, particularly in Africa? In view of that, does she acknowledge the substantial risk that companies operating in the UK that purchase minerals are indirectly but significantly contributing to the conflicts in Congo and the Central African Republic, consequently undermining the peacekeeping efforts of the UK and others?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Baroness’s assessment is of course right and that is why we expect UK businesses to respect laws and agreed international voluntary standards for responsible business when they conduct business in the region. The OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises are part of that.

Lord Bach (Lab): My Lords, can I say from the opposition Front Bench how delighted we are that the Minister for Africa is in the DRC today along with

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the most reverend Primate? My question goes back to the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, or DDR, programme that the Minister talked about. What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken in the past, and are taking now, to support the implementation of this crucial programme, especially in terms of funding?

Baroness Warsi: I am not aware of the specific amount of funding which has gone into DDR. Of course, we have a very large aid programme, as well as work around the preventing sexual violence initiative. I know that the Minister will be going to a DDR camp to look at how much further we can assist and encourage other donors to be supportive as well. Once the Minister returns, perhaps I may formally write to the noble Lord and give him an update.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab): My Lords, what discussions did the Prime Minister have with President Hollande about Franco-British co-operation at their recent meeting?

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, this clearly shows that I did not get through all my boxes this weekend. I did not read the complete update on the meeting so I do not know what discussions were had in this area. I am, therefore, 48 hours out date, but I will write to the noble Lord.


Schools: Pupil Premium

Question

2.45 pm

Asked by Lord Horam

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to increase the Pupil Premium for the most disadvantaged primary school children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash) (Con): My Lords, pupil premium funding will rise from £1.875 billion to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. The primary school pupil rate will increase from £900 to £1,300 to reflect the importance of early intervention. For the first time, all pupils who are looked after or leave care through adoption, special guardianship or residence orders will attract £1,900 from April 2014.

Lord Horam (Con): My Lords, this is a very important educational programme and I am pleased that it is going to have a further boost above what it already has. What advice is available to schools on how best to use the money they receive? What means does the Minister have to check that they are using the money wisely?

Lord Nash: My Lords, advice is available from, for instance, the national college, which lists a database of schools with excellent practice. We direct schools to the teaching and learning toolkit run by the Education Endowment Foundation, which provides an accessible

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summary of research on key education interventions that have an impact in this area. Ofsted’s report last year on the impact of the pupil premium in schools that do this well was very informative. In addition, any school judged to be requiring improvement, where the leadership is also deemed to require improvement, is expected to carry out a pupil premium review. Schools must publish online details of what they do with the pupil premium and Ofsted will be looking very closely at its use and effect on pupils’ attainment.

Baroness Massey of Darwen (Lab): My Lords, in the past, some schools have used the pupil premium not for individual pupils but to support general provision. What is being done to check that?

Lord Nash: As I said, my Lords, schools are required to publish online how they have spent the pupil premium and the effect it has had on attainment. If it had been used on general provision, they would have to justify how that had impacted all pupils. Ofsted inspections are increasingly focused on the achievement of disadvantaged pupils. It is now very unlikely that a school which is not showing good progression for disadvantaged pupils would make an outstanding rating.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland (CB): My Lords, having information online is very helpful. It is even more so when heads are able to meet and share information about the way they have been developing programmes. I have recently seen work done by family learning programmes using part of the pupil premium. Will the Minister encourage head teachers to share good practice more directly, as this seems to have a real impact?

Lord Nash: The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Good practice, of which there is a lot available, should be shared. We are encouraging, at every turn, all schools to do what good schools do. School-to-school support is the best way of improving performance.

Baroness Walmsley (LD): My Lords, since my noble friend clearly believes, as I do, that early intervention is a very good strategy, will he go further and agree with the Liberal Democrat policy of putting pupil premium into the early years sector?

Lord Nash: Funding is tight, as my noble friend will know, and we have no plans to do that in the near term.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the Government are considering ways in which an increase in the pupil premium can be targeted at the forms of deprivation most difficult to address? Rural deprivation, for example, particularly in church schools, is very significant in our part of West Yorkshire, in the Diocese of Wakefield.

Lord Nash: The right reverend Prelate is quite right to point out the problems with rural deprivation; it is similar to coastal deprivation. There are particular

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schemes that schools follow: mentoring; systemic feedback; much more involvement of parents; early intervention, particularly using the better teachers; and peer tutoring. Much can be learnt from groups like Ark, whose academy in Portsmouth, for instance, which is in a classic coastal town, has improved results in four years from 24% to 68%.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford (Lab): My Lords, as the Minister himself just said, Ofsted has a crucial role in improving the standards of attainment for the most disadvantaged pupils. Does he therefore agree that its effectiveness depends on it being a very strong and independent organisation? Does he therefore regret the political interference of the Secretary of State in the reappointment of the current chair of Ofsted, who by all accounts has done an excellent job?

Lord Nash: The answer to the noble Baroness’s first question is yes. The answer to the second is that I cannot regret something that is not taking place.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (CB): My Lords, does the Minister agree that Ofsted must be judged on the basis of the quality of its evidence and of the surveys that it carries out in schools and the implications for a policy such as this, rather than on political matters?

Lord Nash: The noble Lord is absolutely right. Of course, given his background, he is vastly experienced in this. I could not agree more. Ofsted is doing an outstanding job. It is our sharpest tool. The first thing that the chief inspector did was to abolish the appalling and mediocre term “satisfactory” that had been allowed to exist for years. That shows where he is coming from, and he is having a great effect. Indeed, Ofsted reports that last year our schools improved at a faster rate than any other time in history.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab): My Lords, will the Minister remind the House what the key measures of deprivation are against which the allocation of the pupil premium is measured? To go back to the question from the right reverend Prelate, are those standard measures applied consistently across the whole country?

Lord Nash: The noble Baroness has asked me a question that has a very detailed answer. There are about six key measures. We attempt to apply them equally across the country, but the answer is so complicated that I will write to her, if I may.

Schools: Emergency Life Support Skills

Question

2.52 pm

Asked by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many secondary schools teach emergency life support skills as part of their compulsory school curriculum.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash) (Con): My Lords, the ability to save a life is one of the most important skills that a young person can learn, and many young people take part in activities on emergency life support skills in schools. For example, in 2012, St John Ambulance provided support resources for the direct teaching of first aid to more than 500,000 young people in schools. It is for schools to decide whether, how and when pupils should learn emergency life support skills. The Government do not collect data on school provision in this area.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB): Given that 60,000 people a year have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest and yet three-quarters of our population are not trained to give basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation, does the Minister recognise that this is a problem? It is devastating for anyone, particularly a child, to see someone have a cardiac arrest in front of them and not know what to do. We know that immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation will triple the chance of survival. Life-saving skills really should be mandatory in schools, as they are in other European schools. I ask the Minister to reconsider. Has the current consultation over key stage 4 curriculum content in English, maths and science considered including heart function, cardiac arrest and CPR as part of science teaching?

Lord Nash: The noble Baroness is quite right to draw attention to this very important point. Emergency life-saving skills are extremely important. In addition to the St John Ambulance provision, the Red Cross and the British Heart Foundation run excellent schemes. The BHF’s Heartstart scheme has to date trained more than 3.5 million people.

The answer to her curriculum question is that I do not believe we are intending to put this in, but I will investigate that and write to her about it. With regard to particular incidents in schools, we are looking at that in the context of defibrillators to see if there is anything more that we can do.

Lord Storey (LD): My Lords, the Minister may have heard of the Oliver King Foundation, named after a 12 year-old boy who died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. The foundation set up in his name is campaigning successfully to put defibrillators in every school and public place. Would the Minister consider how the Government might support this campaign, and would he be prepared to meet the foundation?

Lord Nash: I am aware of the Oliver King Foundation. Our current policy is that it is a matter for individual schools to decide whether to have defibrillators and to arrange individual training. However, as many noble Lords will know, we have tabled an amendment to the Children and Families Bill to create a new duty on the governing bodies of maintained schools to make arrangements to support pupils with medical conditions and have regard to guidance in that respect.

We are looking at the issue of defibrillators. I am particularly interested in this myself and I would be delighted to meet the Oliver King Foundation with my noble friend to discuss the matter further.

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Lord Kinnock (Lab): My Lords, does the Minister agree that the imposition of a compulsory universal requirement for schoolchildren, especially those in their young teens, to learn life-saving skills would have all the advantages spelt out by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and directly contribute to the character-building that the Secretary of State rightly says he would like to see imparted in schools? Will the Minister reconsider the latter part of his Answer to demonstrate even more enthusiasm for the addition of this essential skill to the school curriculum?

Lord Nash: As the noble Lord will know, this Government believe as a matter of policy that prescription from the centre has not worked. The evidence of the performance of our school system over the past 15 years speaks for itself. However, we believe, as we have debated many times in this House, that PSHE and programmes such as first aid are incredibly important, and we are sending out messages as far as we can. We have a new PSHE review and we are engaging with bodies such as the PSHE Association to get the message out to all schools that this kind of programme is very important.

Baroness Hollins (CB): What impact assessment has been made of the effect of relying on voluntary organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade, the Scouts or St John Ambulance to teach vital emergency life-saving skills, instead of including this on a national curriculum? I agree with my noble friend that the biology course could teach these highly relevant practical skills.

Lord Nash: I am not aware of any impact assessments. If I hear of any I will send them to the noble Baroness. The view of the Government is that, as with PSHE, rather than have prescriptive detail—in words on a piece of paper—of what should be taught, it is much better to encourage schools to engage with expert organisations, such as the ones to which the noble Baroness referred. They are the professionals: they are focused on a particular area and can constantly update their material.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Con): My Lords, is the Minister aware that it requires remarkable strength to resuscitate someone simply by pushing on their chest or whatever? As a trained dentist, I went on an adult course and I was amazed by how hard you had to press on someone’s chest to revive them, although we did not have a real person to try it on. The Minister should realise that learning this as a child at school would be much more valuable than learning it at a later stage of life. For that reason, we should all support the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

Lord Nash: I know the experience of my noble friend in this area and I do not think I can add to the answers that I have already given.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno (LD): My Lords, with cutbacks in education and probably a reduction in the number of school nurses, how is the Minister monitoring the situation to make sure that schools have a school nurse facility, and that nobody will be endangered by the withdrawal of the service?

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Lord Nash: My Lords, I know that the Department of Health is developing a better vision for school nurses. There are 1,300 school nurses but all schools have access to a much wider range of health professionals who may be appropriate depending the particular conditions. It may be the school nurse’s job to be the bridge between that wider range. We are conscious that, with the new medical condition provision that we put in the Children and Families Bill, we will need to watch carefully to ensure that there is capacity in place to deliver it.

Lord Colwyn (Con): My Lords, as we have heard, the British Heart Foundation found significant support for teaching emergency life support skills in schools. Is the Minister aware that, in your Lordships’ House, Mr Phipps and his team have signed up to a London ambulance accreditation scheme, which includes the use of defibrillators? The scheme could easily be used in schools nationally, 78% of children having stated that they wanted to undertake this training.

Lord Nash: I have already said that this is something that we are looking at.


Ethnic Minorities: Ministers’ Statements

Question

3 pm

Asked by Lord Avebury

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they issue to Ministers about making public statements on allegations about the general behaviour of ethnic minorities.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, Ministers are expected to behave in a way which is consistent with the Ministerial Code.

Lord Avebury (LD): My Lords, when Ministers, or officials on their behalf, refer to homeless Travellers as a blight on the community, or as having a negative impact on business, does this not reinforce local authorities’ failure to produce a five-year rolling programme, as required by the Government’s planning policy for Traveller sites? Will they desist from using pejorative language about Travellers and instead embody the PPTS in statute law, with a power for the Secretary of State to direct local authorities to grant permission for such a number of sites and caravans as he may specify, as already happens in Wales?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I think the noble Lord is referring to a DCLG press release of last summer, which used the unfortunate term “blight”; the word was shortly afterwards removed and replaced by “problem”. In the previous survey of Travellers’ caravans, there were estimated to be 20,000, of which 15,000 were on authorised sites of one sort or another and another 5,000 were on non-authorised sites.

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Baroness Whitaker (Lab): My Lords, last week we commemorated the Holocaust, which encompassed the genocide of about one-quarter of the Roma people of Europe, whose violent persecution still continues. Should not our political leadership be more mindful of where prejudice and bigotry lead?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we remember the Holocaust and that, I hope, although the Jews were the primary target of the Holocaust a great many others also died: nearly 2 million Poles, perhaps 200,000 Sinti Roma, gays, people with Asiatic features and others. The West German Government recognised the Roma dimension of the genocide in 1982; I understand that in 2012 a memorial to the Roma and Sinti who died in the genocide was unveiled in Berlin.

Lord Taverne (LD): My Lords, what is the advice given about migrants? Can the Government publish the apparently mysterious reasons why the report commissioned on migrants by the Home Secretary has been shelved?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I think the noble Lord is referring to the EU balance of competences review, particularly the free movement of persons report. In view of the considerable uncertainty about the impact of the free movement of persons this January, it was felt that we should postpone that paper until the third semester, this coming summer, to make sure that we had accurate figures.

Baroness Thornton (Lab): My Lords, the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, concerns all democratic parties, and how we ensure that racists and extremists are pushed back into the political margins where they belong. Are HMG committed to ensuring that all their Ministers have a self-denying ordinance not to pander to the racists by echoing their messages for short-term gain? Secondly, how will HMG ensure that our laws to combat racism and xenophobia are reflected in the language that their Ministers and MPs use?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the Ministerial Code is entirely clear on the way in which Ministers should behave. I am not aware of many other occasions on which such language has been used. Ministers are extremely careful about references to particular communities, migrants or others. We all understand how very delicate this area is.

Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD): My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the sort of language we saw in the run-up to 1 January in reference to the latest wave of migrants—Bulgarians and Romanians—was wholly unnecessary and negative, and had an impact on the ground on the perception of people from other countries coming here to work? I mean words like “scroungers”. Does he agree that this sort of language has no place in our society? After all, are we not all part of the big society?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I entirely agree but I think it is a question for the editor of the Daily Mail more than for any Minister in the current Government. There was quite absurd language and, indeed, some entirely untrue stories about extra planes,

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packed buses and so on that appeared in December, and which have not been denied since by the newspapers that published them. That is very unfortunate in an open, free and democratic society.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab): Could the Minister remind the House how complaints against the Ministerial Code are made and to whom, and how they are dealt with?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, they are dealt with by the Cabinet Secretary. The only other case I am aware of during the last year was where a Minister was thought to have referred to electoral fraud within the south Asian community in an unfortunate fashion. The Minister responsible apologised immediately.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB): My Lords, would the Minister not agree that his very welcome words about Ministers being careful about using any words that might encourage racism or xenophobia would be rather more believable if the Government were not opting out of the European Union’s decision on racism and xenophobia?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely strong point. I offer no further comment than that.

County Court Jurisdiction Order 2014

Motion to Approve

3.06 pm

Moved by Lord Faulks

That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2013 be approved.

Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 28 January.

Motion agreed.

District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order 2014

Motion to Approve

3.06 pm

Moved by Baroness Randerson

That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2013 be approved.

Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 28 January.

Motion agreed.

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Scottish Parliament (Constituencies and Regions) Order 2014

Motion to Approve

3.06 pm

Asked by Earl Attlee

That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2013 be approved.

Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 28 January.

Motion agreed.

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill14th Report Delegated Powers Committee

Committee

3.07 pm

Relevant document: 14th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Clauses 1 to 5 agreed.

Amendment 1

Moved by Lord Empey

1: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

“Opposition status in the Northern Ireland Assembly

(1) The Northern Ireland Assembly may, at any time after the passage of this Act, request that the Secretary of State introduce opposition status and rights for members of the Assembly, subject to the provisions of this section.

(2) Within six months of receiving a request from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Secretary of State shall, by regulation, introduce the following rights for Assembly members with opposition status—

(a) speaking rights;

(b) supply days; and

(c) chairmanship and deputy chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee,

and shall make clear that these rights are to be allocated to members with opposition status in a manner that is proportionate to their relative number in the Assembly.

(3) It shall be for the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to determine what is proportionate under subsection (2) and to set this out in the Assembly’s Standing Orders.

(4) For the purposes of this section, opposition status shall apply to any party with at least one seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly which is not a part of the Executive and which has notified the Speaker in writing of its desire to be accorded opposition status.”

Lord Empey (UUP): My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is very simple. Basically, Members will recall that in 1998, in the Act that implemented the Belfast agreement, a rather complicated form of mandatory coalition Government was introduced to provide for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland. Let me say at once that, while it is a complicated and unusual system, I support that system and that nothing in the amendment before the House alters it

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in any way at all. In other words, if parties achieve at the election sufficient support to entitle them to sit in the Northern Ireland Executive and exercise executive powers and occupy ministries, then that is entirely a matter for them. At present, if a party decides not to sit in the Executive or does not have sufficient numbers to qualify for a seat in the Executive, it has the option either of not taking its seat in the Executive or of remaining on the Back Benches. However, the missing link here is that those who are not in the Executive have no status as regards the Assembly’s proceedings.

Amendment 1 seeks to give the option to allow the Assembly, should it so wish, to apply to the Secretary of State, who would respond. That would allow the Assembly to draw up Standing Orders, under characteristics that she would determine, which would provide parties that wish to seek opposition status with the opportunity to seek that status from the Speaker. That would give people who took that position basic rights such as speaking rights, where the Speaker would call a member of the Opposition in response to a government amendment or a government proposal, but in proportion to the size of the parties. It would give the opposition the power to have supply day debates, which I think would be accepted in any reasonable jurisdiction. Finally, it would ensure that someone not from a Government-supporting party chaired the Public Accounts Committee and occupied the deputy chair of that committee. We must be the only jurisdiction in these islands where government party representatives also chair the Public Accounts Committee; that is a severe weakness of our current system.

Much has been made of the Assembly perhaps already having sufficient powers to create an Opposition, and there is no doubt that there are Standing Orders that the Assembly could make which could provide for such a facility. However, what the Assembly gives, the Assembly can take away. The main purpose of doing this through London is to ensure the independence of that Opposition and that it is not dependent on the good will of whichever parties happen to dominate the Assembly at any point in time, so that it does not have to rely on other parties for its supply days, speaking rights or any resources that might be made available. That would be one small step on the road to a more normal political set of arrangements. Given the fact that the vast majority of the 108 MLAs in the Stormont Assembly are supporters of the Government in one form or another, we do not believe that this is anything but a minor step in the road to making the Executive more accountable for their actions or inactions.

Some folk have said, “Would we be interfering in any way with the current arrangements and the rights and entitlements of parties under the Belfast agreement?”. The answer is an emphatic no. The time is neither right nor appropriate for any significant change in how the Executive are constructed, albeit I am sure that many of us wish to look forward to a day when we have a more normal arrangement for a Government, such as we have in Scotland or Wales. However, we are not there and perhaps will not get there during the lifetimes of most of us in this Chamber. We can, however, make one small step to give those who do not occupy positions in the Government the opportunity to hold

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that Government to account. No rights would be removed; I see this as an additional right that currently does not exist.

When this amendment was tabled a number of comments were made at home in the local press. I must say that I have not yet heard anybody come out and say that they are opposed to the concept of an Opposition. It is a very hard thing to stand against. I noticed in the Irish news that on 24 January, a spokesman for the Social Democratic and Labour Party said that the SDLP believes that the British Government should make provision for legislation for opposition in the next mandate in a way that protects partnership working under d’Hondt and is in line with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. That is precisely what this amendment is designed to achieve, and it sums up clearly exactly what I and my colleagues wish to see.

3.15 pm

It is perfectly clear that any changes that one makes or proposes in relation to arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland are very sensitive. For that reason, the amendment makes it clear that, while provision might be made, the actual application and trigger for its implementation would have to come from the Assembly itself. In other words, although it could legally do so, there would be no question of this Parliament imposing this change without the Assembly’s consent. Therefore, to reassure the many people who are mindful of the Sewel convention in devolved matters—and much has been heard of it in terms of Scotland and elsewhere—the convention is not offended by my proposal for two reasons. First, matters pertaining to the Assembly and the Executive Committee of the Assembly are actually excepted matters. Secondly, and more importantly, the fact that the Assembly itself would have to trigger a request, which could be triggered only by cross-community consent, would mean that the convention would not be offended.

For those reasons, I believe that the time is right; we have, unfortunately, been going through a period of great stalemate. Looking to the years ahead, a modest move such as this, which does not offend anybody’s rights or require any imposition, would be the minimum movement that most people would expect 16 years after the agreement was reached. Those of us who were involved in negotiating that agreement—there are a number in the Chamber today—know that nobody foresaw that, so many years ahead, we would still not be further down the road to a more normal political situation than we are. However, if the system is made more accountable and it is not possible for parties simply to stall things, in the sure and certain knowledge that they control 95% of the membership of the Assembly, giving an opportunity for an opposition and accountability to take root can only have a positive impact on the governance of Northern Ireland and the political process in general. I beg to move.

Lord Lexden (Con): My Lords, I attached my name to this important amendment readily and enthusiastically. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Empey that a firm, statutory basis should be provided through this Bill for the creation of a formal Opposition with

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the appropriate rights and privileges if and when the Northern Ireland Assembly should wish to bring it into being. This proposal has been formulated by my noble friend, drawing on his deep knowledge of the Assembly in which he served and of the Executive, of which he was a distinguished Member. It has attracted widespread interest and no small measure of support in Northern Ireland, as recent comments in the Ulster press have indicated, comments to which my noble friend has referred. Within the Assembly itself, advocates of the need for an Opposition are making themselves increasingly heard. They do not believe that the Assembly should remain in perpetuity the only legislature in these islands in which the Government face no Official Opposition who could hold them publicly to account.

Speaking as a staunch Conservative and Unionist, I am convinced that my noble friend’s proposal should, through his amendment, be incorporated into this Bill. Over the years, I have always been inclined to back forward-looking measures proposed by members of the Ulster Unionist Party, with which my party was closely allied for the best part of 100 years until the relationship broke down after 1972. My noble friend, as chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, has done much to encourage closer contact with Conservatives once again. Indeed, at the previous general election, Conservatives and Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland stood on a common platform. It included the following statement:

“Over time we would like the institutions of Northern Ireland to evolve into a more normal system with a government and opposition. But we recognise that any changes are for the future and will only come about after full consultation and with the agreement of the parties in the Assembly”.

This amendment seeks to give effect to that Conservative and unionist commitment.

However, the amendment has not been brought forward in any narrow party spirit. My noble friend has made clear that it rests on a conviction that the prospects of political progress would be assisted in the longer term if the Northern Ireland Assembly had available to it the power to establish an Official Opposition on the basis of primary legislation passed in this Parliament. As he said, that would give any Opposition who are called formally into existence a greater independence and strength than one established under the Assembly’s current standing orders, as is perfectly possible. All the central elements of the Assembly, including the arrangements for the appointment of chairmen and deputy chairmen, and for the modus operandi of the committees themselves are enshrined in schedules to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The role and functions of an Official Opposition are obviously no less important. They, too, should rest on a statutory basis.

I have stressed that the amendment reflects no narrow party political interest. I hope that it will attract support throughout the House as a measure which seeks to encourage a significant useful step forward in the government and law-making processes of Northern Ireland without in any way dictating to the Assembly or attempting to impose a timetable for change upon it. Should we not seek to give the Assembly

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firm, open encouragement to move in a direction that we believe to be right at a time that it believes to be appropriate?

During Northern Ireland’s first period of devolved government after 1921, Parliament at Westminster gave no advice and guidance and ignored Northern Ireland for more than 40 years, with disastrous consequences. We must not repeat that terrible error, as my noble friend Lord Empey has often reminded us. Here, in this amendment, lies an opportunity to offer a view on a crucial aspect of Northern Ireland’s political future and to provide the means by which progress towards it could be achieved. When my noble friend on the Front Bench comes to reply to the debate, I hope she will be able to indicate that the Government will give this amendment sympathetic consideration, paving the way for the incorporation of its extremely important objective in the Bill itself.

Lord Alderdice (LD): My Lords, I should like to pick up on the latter part of the helpful speech of my noble friend Lord Lexden. He reflected on the fact that ignoring the problems of Northern Ireland from 1921 onwards turned out to be disastrous not just for Northern Ireland but, indeed, for the United Kingdom. Therefore, I support the notion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, my noble friend Lord Lexden and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that the question of opposition within the Northern Ireland Assembly requires attention.

Indeed, if one looks back at the period up until the breakdown of Stormont, I think it is true that in the whole of that period only one person occupied an executive position who was not a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. That was the right honourable David Bleakley from the Northern Ireland Labour Party, who was for six months the Minister of Community Relations in the very late stages of that unionist Administration. That represents the problem. Those who wanted to be in government were denied that opportunity and were kept in permanent opposition. This was very much to the fore in the minds of everyone during the negotiations on the Good Friday agreement—how to make sure that those who wanted to be in government but had a permanent minority status could participate in the Government and share responsibility. It was not in the minds of anyone at that time to insist that people had to be in government; the problem was the blockage as regards getting into government.

There were many other things that were not clear in the minds of some of those involved. For example, I think it is probably the case—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is not yet in his place—that the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and of the SDLP, which were the two largest parties within unionism and nationalism, scarcely at that time conceived that they might not continue to be the two largest parties. Of course, the situation changed dramatically. When the new institutions were constructed, instead of bringing people together across the community divide, they promoted strength within the two sections of the community. Not only did they not provide for an official status for an opposition but they did not

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provide for a proper status for those who did not want to describe themselves as unionists and nationalists. Instead of the cross-community voting system being as I and my colleagues tried to promote, with a need for a two-thirds majority to form an Executive, it was decided that they needed a majority within both the unionist and nationalist communities and a majority of the whole. That made it very difficult for people to appeal across the community divide and to have a proper and reasonable status for those who did not want to consider themselves either unionist or nationalist. Once one moved down that road one created a real problem for any formal opposition status.

What the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said about the absence of an Official Opposition being a problem is true. He is right to raise it and I support the fact that he has raised it. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to indicate to us that the Government will take this matter seriously as we go through the remaining stages of the Bill. Does this way of addressing the problem achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and his colleagues want? First, the noble Lord has rightly said that it would be perfectly possible under standing order arrangements to be made in the Assembly for there to be a position for the Opposition. That is the situation in this Parliament and it would be perfectly possible. However, he made the point that the two largest parties as they are at present probably have little motivation to support such a thing. That is quite true but that is also true of the amendment before us as it requires the two largest parties with the majority in the Assembly to sign up for this. It does not give the Secretary of State the opportunity to push it. I understand why the noble Lord does not want in any sense to suggest that there should be imposition from outside. The people of Ireland, north and south, respond particularly badly to being pushed in any direction at all, even one they would agree with if left to themselves. Nevertheless, the great vulnerability of the proposition he puts forward is that it does not take us much forward beyond what the Assembly could do itself if it chose to do so.

My erstwhile colleagues in the Alliance Party tried to play a role as an Opposition when they did not have sufficient support to get a ministerial position. Undoubtedly, they felt that the speeches they made and the stances they took were constructive. However, the observation they made is exactly the one that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes—that there is no official position and that is a substantial weakness. Would it be possible for a party at present simply to go into opposition? Yes, it would. It simply means that during the running of d’Hondt the nominating officer of a particular political party does not put a name forward. The party is then automatically not in the Executive and therefore is in opposition. The problem is that it would not have any further status without some kind of negotiation.

I was encouraged, as I know the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was encouraged, by the editorial in the Irish News as it suggested that not only had we presently a cross-community basis for government but that it was possible that we might have a cross-community basis for opposition. The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists might come together on this and make a presentation

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to the Assembly that said, “Together, we think it would be more constructive for us to go into opposition”. There is a bit of a tendency in Northern Ireland to say that the Government over here should sort out the problem. However, I would urge that not only do my noble friend and Her Majesty’s Government here take this issue seriously, but the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and his colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party should take it seriously in discussions with the SDLP. A cross-community presentation that said, “Let’s have an opposition and we will form that together by volunteering not to take executive positions”, would be a very powerful political position to take. Along with some legislative encouragement of the kind the noble Lord suggests, that might begin to make a difference.

In principle the noble Lord is right. The Belfast agreement was a good agreement but not a perfect agreement. The noble Lord pointed to one of the things that is imperfect—an imperfection that will become clearer as time goes on. My uncertainty is not about the principle or the value, but the delivery. This gentle nudge might help to push us in the right direction or show that something further is necessary. I hope that my noble friend, the Secretary of State and others in the Government will take the principle seriously to see whether through this amendment, another amendment or by another process it is possible to move our politics in Northern Ireland forward.

3.30 pm

Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP): My Lords, I am sure that we all desire to see the Assembly at Stormont working better. This means reforming our political institutions and how government works. I believe that many clauses in this Bill will go a long way towards achieving progress on normalising politics in Northern Ireland.

Following four decades of terrorism and division, politics in Northern Ireland is changing and it is our duty to deal with the legacy of that period and seek to build a more united community. My party leader the First Minister of Northern Ireland has made it abundantly clear time and again that we are prepared to facilitate any party which wishes to opt for an opposition role within the current structures at Stormont. To date no party has taken up this offer. The DUP has always been willing to support additional resources and speaking time for a genuine Opposition as a first step towards the normalisation of our democratic structures.

In the long term, the best means of governing Northern Ireland would involve a voluntary coalition Executive and weighted majority voting in the Assembly, resulting in an end to community designation. This would be consistent with normal democratic institutions while respecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. While a voluntary coalition could improve the performance of devolution in Northern Ireland, it would be a mistake to assume it is a panacea. However, that system could provide for both an Executive and an official loyal Opposition outside government instead of a disloyal Opposition within government. This should be the long-term goal of all the parties of Northern Ireland. However, we must be realistic about the ability to achieve it in the short term.

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As the party which has constantly sought to improve the Assembly structures in Northern Ireland, we are in favour of an Opposition. In truth, this process could and probably should take place at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, I should be most grateful if the Minister could clarify whether at present the Stormont Executive and Assembly have the full power to approve an Opposition with speaking rights. I am of the firm belief that in a democracy there needs to be an Opposition, and I am firmly behind the principle of the amendment. However, I am not convinced as yet that this amendment is the best way to achieve that aim.

Lord McAvoy (Lab): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes, and has made in discussions with us, a reasonable case for this principle. Like the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, we can see where the pressure for this is coming from. Words such as “unique” have been used several times to describe the situation in Northern Ireland, and that is still the abiding mantra that we need to take into account. However, devolution is devolution, and this is a matter for MLAs to consult and decide upon. Should any newer reforms be proposed which require necessary legislation to be brought before this House, we should fully consider them.

The issue of an Opposition is not mentioned within the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is therefore a devolved matter that can and should be dealt with at Stormont. Despite the Irish News, and despite positive statements that have been made, there is no detectable overall consensus among MLAs on a move towards a formal opposition model such as exists here at Westminster. The point has been made that the Assembly is the only legislature not to have these powers, but there are people here who know better than me and who have more experience of the situation in which the 1998 agreement came about. It divided a society. As was so eloquently put by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, the problem of a permanent Opposition was that it never had a chance of getting power and felt it had no say. The Belfast agreement was designed to deal with exactly that situation.

In June 2013, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee concluded that it was possible to grant informal recognition to non-executive parties in the Assembly on a proportional basis. As has been mentioned, this could be achieved through additional speaking rights, recognition of non-executive status in the order of speaking and the allocation of time for non-executive party business. All this lies within the purview of the Assembly; it requires no legislation in Westminster. There has been a widespread desire expressed to see a situation such as this come about. Surely the true test will be when the Assembly brings forward a unanimous recommendation along these lines and takes action within the powers that it already has. The structure of the committees within the Assembly already provides a vehicle for regular accountability. They are organised so that Ministers face a committee within their jurisdiction which is headed by a representative of another party.

The 1998 agreement established an Executive in Northern Ireland which would be inclusive. In the same way, the responsibility for accountability must be exercised in an inclusive manner. The committees

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of the Assembly already allow the Executive to be held to account, commensurate with the fundamental principle of inclusivity. Furthermore, there is a broad consensus about giving non-executive parties informal recognition. This could be given by the Assembly itself. It would have much more power behind it if it came about in that way. There does not appear to be a full consensus among MLAs about reforming the structure to create an Official Opposition. It is essential that all the structures within the Assembly operate in an inclusive manner and are supported by broad cross-party consensus. The question is: do these conditions exist or not? It is the responsibility of MLAs to consult and agree upon newer structural reforms for an Opposition. This is an ongoing process. If, once consensus is reached, it is necessary for legislation to be brought before the House, we shall fully consider it.

We are very responsive to and aware of the sentiments that have been expressed, but the Assembly is on a journey. Unfortunately, we do not yet seem to have reached the stage where it can take the next step, but we believe that it is getting there and the move must come from there, although at present the necessary conditions do not seem to exist. For this reason, although we understand the amendment of the noble Lord, we cannot support it.

Lord Empey: My Lords, perhaps I may first respond to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He made the point that he felt the amendment would not achieve the purpose being advocated for it. I understand that, but there is a clash between the issue of imposition and the issue of consent. While the mandatory coalition has been set out in statute, during those negotiations we did not set out in statute proposals for an Opposition because, to be honest, the main objective at the time was to get agreement on devolution. That was seen to be the way we could move on from where we were, in those bad dark days, to where we wanted to be. But, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has just said, it is a journey.

I am not, and I know that my noble friend Lord Lexden is not, totally wedded to the language of the amendment, but perhaps I can elaborate on why we feel that something needs to be done here as opposed to leaving it to Belfast alone. The reason is simple: we have to remove ourselves from the current political arrangements and look ahead a number of years. If we are going to establish an institution or see it modified, we cannot confine ourselves to the current politics; we have to look at the long term. I will tell the Committee, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, why we feel it is necessary to have a dimension of this set out here. First, we happen to have a legislative vehicle in front of us, and that does not often occur. The second reason is this. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned that the First Minister had said that he would be happy to facilitate any party at Stormont that wished to take up the opposition role. However, that is not the point I am getting at because it would apply only if a particular party, at this point in time, wanted to fill that role. Of course it would be up to any party to say so, but so far no party has said that it

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wants to. The point, though, is that it would be at the grace and favour of whoever was in place at the time, and that is the difficulty.

I can give an example that happened last year in the Assembly. At a very late stage in the Planning Bill, at the very last moment an eight-page amendment came in from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister which would have had the effect of taking power away from the existing Minister. The amendment had not gone through the Committee procedure because it came in late. It was bounced on to the Floor of the Assembly at the last moment and it was put through. It failed to be implemented only because of legal activity by the Minister and it has not come into effect, but the example illustrates why it is necessary to have an element of independence. For instance, as my noble friend Lord Lexden said, under Schedules 3, 5 and 6 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, even a simple body like the NI Assembly Commission, dealing with property issues, grass cutting and appointments of staff, is set out in statute. Standing orders are indicated so that they set out the characteristics of the committees. It is not impossible, therefore, to marry these two things.

I accept entirely the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that the weakness lies in the fact that you still have to get consent, but I feel that having the trigger at Stormont to implement something that is enabling—this is an enabling amendment—and thus having it on the stocks so that it is ready to go, would shorten the time the Assembly would require to move forward and take the next step. There would be no imposition.

I still think that this is the best way forward, albeit I accept that there could be a stalemate. The fact is that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee has been sitting for years. It has talked about everything, but nothing has actually emerged. For that reason, I believe it is necessary to move forward with these proposals. I would certainly request the Minister to consider them, that we should have discussions with the Opposition and the other parties between now and the Report stage, and that we should see whether we can find a mechanism to square this circle and achieve our objectives.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office (Baroness Randerson) (LD): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Trimble for tabling this amendment. It has given us the opportunity to discuss and debate an important issue. This has done the process of government in Northern Ireland a service. There has been considerable support across the House for the principles behind this amendment, although some doubt in some quarters as to whether the amendment would work in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, believes that it would.

We all recognise that an effective, responsible Opposition perform a valuable service in a democracy in keeping a Government on their toes and ensuring they deliver effectively on the basis of sound policy. That has been common to the speeches made this afternoon. Opposition helps to expose abuses. It gives

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people a clear choice between alternative approaches to issues of public concern. It is likely to enhance challenge to government and to spur on innovation. That is something that the present system in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding much scrutiny work by the Assembly, arguably lacks.

The system of government under the Belfast agreement in Northern Ireland is unusual, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, complex, in that it involves a mandatory coalition in which all parties meeting certain size criteria are entitled to take part. Oppositions therefore do not come into being as they do here. Parties, as noble Lords have pointed out, are entitled to decline their right to fill their allocated posts. They are entitled to take up an opposition stance. However, as noble Lords have pointed out, no party has so far sought to do so. The noble Lord’s amendment seeks to deal with the issue of why there would be that insecurity in seeking opposition status.

The Government consulted on the question of an Opposition in 2012, but concluded that there was not sufficiently broad support among the parties to justify proceeding with legislation that would change the legislative structure deriving from the Belfast agreement in any way. At that point, the Government also made clear that they would in no circumstances envisage departing from the basic principles of power-sharing and inclusivity.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked for clarification on the issue of powers. At the time that they consulted, the Government raised the possibility that the Assembly itself could make some greater provision for an Opposition through changes to its procedures, as laid out in Standing Orders. This point has been well canvassed here this afternoon. It would be open to the Assembly to make provision in that way for, as has been suggested, extra speaking rights, entitlement to supply days, and arrangements for the chairing of the Public Accounts Committee, with which the amendment deals—the “missing link”, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, called it. Those are the attractions of opposition. There are attractions to being in government. If you want parties to choose opposition status, they have to have a guarantee for that to be an attractive position to seek.

The issue has been considered by the Assembly’s own Assembly and Executive Review Committee, but no consensus has yet emerged. Many will find this failure to provide more effectively for opposition a disappointment.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked whether the Assembly had the powers to accord the rights set out in the amendment through its Standing Orders. As I understand it, the point of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is to prevent those rights being removed at a point in the future. The Assembly could do this itself but, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out, it could take away that right in the future. I believe it is that uncertainty that the amendment seeks to address. It is important that a formal Opposition should have sufficient status if they are to be effective in holding the Executive to account. The Government will reflect on what has been said in the debate and we will certainly return to this on Report.

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My noble friend Lord Lexden reflected on the breadth of support for the principle of opposition. That is clearly the case here today but there are of course, at the same time, differences among us as to how you might seek to enshrine that position of formal opposition status within the Standing Orders of the Assembly. My noble friend Lord Lexden also pointed to this as an important step in what one would call the normalisation of Northern Ireland politics. That is the thread that runs behind the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Alderdice looked back to the history of the situation and referred to what was, at one point, the permanence of the Ulster Unionist Party’s position in government for a long period of time, and the dramatic change that then occurred. He discussed the reasons why that happened and the problems within the current arrangements for those parties that do not want to be designated as either unionist or nationalist. Those parties also have to be taken into account in the arrangements for any future Opposition. My noble friend Lord Alderdice pointed to some technical problems with the amendment, which the Government will have to take away and consider.

As the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, this is really a decision that must be taken within the Assembly. The UK Government can point in a direction, facilitate and encourage, but the Government would certainly not, in any way, seek to impose anything from outside. The principles of power-sharing and the Belfast agreement are absolutely fundamental in this, and any arrangements must be made with cross-community support and with a broad agreement across society. The Assembly has also discussed this. Mr John McCallister MLA raised the issue and is contemplating a Private Member’s Bill in the Assembly on the issue of opposition in the coming months. I regret to say that, so far, there is no indication of any greater consensus forthcoming on that than there was when the Government consulted on the issue of an Official Opposition in 2012.

I return to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which would not overcome that lack of consensus. In the view of the Government, there would need to be an approach from the Assembly to the Secretary of State before any of the rights that he envisages could be accorded. However, as he explained, the intention behind his amendment is that the Assembly could not then unilaterally withdraw these rights. Once accorded by the Secretary of State, they would presumably be permanent. The noble Lord has made a very good point. He has called this “one small step” and “an additional right”.

The debate has given us all a good deal to think about. The Government will certainly reflect on what has been said on all sides this afternoon, and no doubt the House will return to the issue on Report. I hope that at that stage there might be a clearer sense of how we should proceed on this issue, essentially of what steps might be taken, consistent with the Belfast agreement and the current legislation, to facilitate the operation of opposition parties.

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Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting. This is an important point. Will the Minister bear in mind the wise and experienced opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that opinions that can be seen as instructions from outside are often counterproductive?

Baroness Randerson: The noble Lord is absolutely correct. He is emphasising the point that I made that the Government are well aware that there should be no direction from outside. It is absolutely fundamental that the Assembly itself reaches this agreement. The Government see their role as that of facilitating the operation of the opposition parties within the Assembly when the Assembly reaches that decision for itself.

There will clearly be views on this from well beyond this Chamber today, including from Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I emphasise that the Government are interested in hearing those views. I hope that, in view of the indications that I have given, the noble Lord will agree at this point to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Empey: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her decision that the Government will reflect on this. It is interesting that everyone around the Chamber agrees the basic principles. Perhaps we should invite Mr Richard Haass to come in and help us between now and Report. Failing that, if the Minister and other parties—

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, if cross-community were the key element in reaching an Executive, some kind of cross-community negotiation of those parties that could reasonably be expected to be in opposition might be a very fruitful way forward for consideration.

Lord Empey: I do not think that it would be appropriate to turn down any suggestion. However, we must not look at this purely in the current context of who happens to be around at this point in time. We must look years ahead. This is a structural issue. The Minister got the main points in her summing-up. The tensions here are that, first, we do not want to impose and, secondly, we must be consistent with the Belfast agreement. However, if you have to ask somebody for the right to be in opposition then there is a flaw. That is why one further step is required. Nevertheless, on the basis of the Government’s announcement that they will reflect on these issues and, I hope, discuss them with those who have participated in this debate today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.


4 pm

Clause 6: Reduction in size of Assembly to be reserved matter

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord McAvoy

2: Clause 6, page 6, line 30, at beginning insert—

“( ) In Schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (reserved matters), at the end of paragraph 1 insert “except such functions as are specified by the Secretary of State by order made by statutory instrument.””

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Lord McAvoy: My Lords, the amendment allows us the opportunity to reflect on the continued importance of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Office in Northern Ireland. There is a vital role for Governments and the Secretary of State in bringing peace, progress and prosperity to Northern Ireland. These are areas where, at times, it is appropriate for the Government to lead and others to support, at all times working in partnership with the Assembly, the Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Much progress has been made since the Good Friday agreement, but there remains a need for a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past—the name Haass comes to mind—a process that has the victims and survivors of violence at the centre. As yet, there is no consensus within Northern Ireland as to the structures which would enable this. Nevertheless, it should be a priority of the Northern Ireland Office to facilitate and advance dialogue in this area. Dealing with the legacy of what has become known as the Troubles is expressly a responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. The publication of the Executive’s cohesion, sharing and integration strategy is good news, and the Secretary of State should co-operate with the Executive and provide support for initiatives designed to build, and to continue to build, a shared future in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s future, like that of other parts of the United Kingdom, can be built only on a strong economy and a compassionate welfare system. These are additional areas in which the Government must work with the Assembly. The Government should also acknowledge the effects that their policies on the economy and welfare are having in Northern Ireland. What could be regarded as inattentiveness has been evidenced in the Government’s inequitable welfare reforms. Thirty-two thousand households in Northern Ireland will be affected by the bedroom tax. Northern Ireland is being disproportionately affected, since almost 90% of social housing stock is family homes of three bedrooms or more—another exposure of the falsehood that people can somehow easily downsize their homes.

This amendment restates the important role that Westminster and the Government have to play within Northern Ireland. The use of these powers would help. The Northern Ireland Act established an important role for the Secretary of State; this Bill will reaffirm this. Both restate the need for active engagement by the Secretary of State with issues that affect Northern Ireland. The amendment is entirely probing to enable some discussion on the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Baroness Randerson: I thank the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, for his amendment. It is always worth considering whether the arrangements in place for devolution are as effective as they might be and whether there is anything we can do to improve the way in which we work with devolved Administrations.

The noble Lord referred to the role of the Secretary of State and to the Haass talks. I reflect back to his speech on the previous amendment, in which he made it absolutely clear—and rightly so—that it was vital that we respect devolution and that the Government do not intervene where it is a matter for the devolved Assembly. I remind the noble Lord that the Government

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on occasions walk a narrow line between encouraging and leading in relation to the development and the firming-up of devolution in Northern Ireland. They walk a narrow line between that and interfering.

As noble Lords have already pointed out, interfering is a major mistake. The Secretary of State is very aware of this, in relation to the Haass talks in particular, because those talks were convened by the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. It is a sign of the development and firming-up of politics and political institutions in Northern Ireland that these leaders felt confident enough to put hugely complex and difficult issues—the most difficult ones they face—into the discussions led by Dr Richard Haass. I am delighted to see that those discussions are still going on, with two meetings of the leaders of the political parties scheduled for this week. It is therefore absolutely essential, at this moment, that we trust them to take those issues forward and avoid the temptation to interfere. That does not mean that the Secretary of State is not watching this moment by moment and day by day or that she is not anxious for the Haass talks to succeed and for there to be progress on those difficult issues.

The noble Lord made it clear that this was a probing amendment, but it is essential that I address the details of it. Amendment 2 relates to ministerial functions. It is already the case that, if the Assembly wants to legislate to alter the functions of a UK Minister, or confer functions on a UK Minister, all it needs to do is ask for the Secretary of State’s consent. The formal consent process takes about 10 days. The amendment would, therefore, have a very limited impact because it would only remove that consent process in a small number of cases specified by the Secretary of State in advance.

The current process is not onerous and there have been no complaints from the Northern Ireland parties about the way that procedures have operated in this area to date. It is also notable that the consent process is very rarely used. Only one Assembly Bill—the marine Bill—has so far required the Secretary of State’s consent since the current Assembly was elected in 2011. Consent in relation to that Bill did not relate to ministerial functions, so it would not have been affected by the proposed amendment. Although I am grateful for the opportunity for debate that this amendment has brought, I do not believe that we should legislate for a problem that does not exist. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Empey: My Lords, before the Minister sits down I apologise: I should have been in a moment earlier. I want to reflect on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. Clause 6 deals with the reduction in size of the Assembly being a reserved matter. There is a general view that, at 108 Members, the Assembly is too big. Compared with the Welsh and Scottish assemblies it is proportionately far bigger, but the reason for this was a deliberate decision to try and make it as inclusive as possible. Some two years ago we thought that a solution would be brought upon us with the change in parliamentary constituencies, because reducing the

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number of parliamentary constituencies would automatically reduce the size of the Assembly—QED. However, one or two people around your Lordships’ House and in other places had different views, and consequently that did not come to pass. However, it would have been an important step.

I have to caution the House that the Assembly deciding on how to reduce its numbers is as important as actually reducing the numbers. Using the existing system, if you reduced the numbers and left the existing constituencies the same, it would be perfectly possible to have a major political impact. It is a bit like the American states: the winning party then determines the boundaries of the new congressional districts, and so it goes on. This is a similar type of issue, and we have to be very cautious as to how we deal with it.

There is a general sense overall that the operation of the Northern Ireland institution is far too complicated and expensive, and everyone has the general view that it should be reduced. How you do that is very important and can have a significant political outcome, so I caution your Lordships that if we agree to this, it will hand the ability to whoever happens to be in charge when this happens to draw up the numbers to suit themselves, because proportional representation under the single transferable vote is very sensitive to the number of seats in each constituency that are contested.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I spoke to this question at Second Reading. I have a concern about the question of the reduction in the numbers of Members of the Assembly. I do not share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others in other places that the Northern Ireland Assembly is too big. I think that there is a certain minimum size; I hear from colleagues in Wales that the Welsh Assembly is too small, and that it is actually very difficult for it to accommodate all the requirements for committees to scrutinise Ministers, for internal committees and to do all the necessary things. There is a certain minimum size below which it is difficult to address all the required functions. Of course, in the case of Northern Ireland, unlike in Wales and Scotland, there is a very significant cross-border responsibility that is present in dealing with another state, which is not something that has to be done in quite the same way by other devolved institutions.

I am not convinced about the question of the reduction of the size of the Assembly, particularly since, after the Belfast agreement, there has been a decision to bring a major reduction in the number of local authorities and the number of elected representatives. We are going to move from a substantial number of elected local representatives to a much smaller number, while at the same time talking about a possible reduction of Assembly Members. I am not persuaded by that.

The second issue is the question that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, picked up: the people who will deliver on a decision will be the majority. In the old days the majority was from one side of the community, and the manipulation of electoral boundaries and votes was not at all unknown—in fact, it was quite a significant issue. One of the problems that I find,

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looking back at it from this side of the water, is that people over here sometimes assume that if major parties on both sides of the community agree, that is all you need to know. It is perfectly possible for two large parties, one on either side of the community, to agree to do something that is a major and inappropriate disadvantage to minority parties on both sides of the community or from neither.

There is a real danger that if this became a reserved matter, the two largest parties, one on either side of the community, could come forward with an agreed set of proposals that would advantage them electorally and politically in a way that was inappropriate but would be very difficult to resist because of, if we take the argument that the Minister made, the danger of a Secretary of State or people from this side of the water imposing their will. What does that mean? It means that if the two largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly came forward with a proposal, it would be rather difficult for a Secretary of States to withstand it and not be accused of inappropriately affecting affairs when there would be a cross-community agreement to move on that front. So there is a real danger, and I have to say that I am not at all enthusiastic about giving powers to the two large parties in the Assembly—that is what this amounts to—to affect the number of elected representatives per constituency. That would have a major impact, and we could live to rue the day if it were able to proceed.

4.15 pm

Lord Bew (CB): My Lords, I support the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. This is a more significant change than the House has fully grasped. We have recently lost a distinguished Member of the House of Commons, Mr Paul Goggins, who was widely respected on all sides. When he was Minister of State for Northern Ireland he used to say at the Dispatch Box that, “Electoral law will remain in this House for all time”. Today we are, in a sense, changing that. The reasons why he thought that are very close to the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that there is a general public perception in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom that there is great expense associated with the running of the Stormont Parliament. However, it is a lot easier to make a case for a reduction in the number of relatives assisting and the number of special advisers, as well as in this area, to deal with the question of public expenditure.

There is a fundamental point here. The very large number of representatives—108 for a small population—permits a greater role for smaller parties than otherwise would have happened, and these smaller parties have something relatively fresh to say in the context of Northern Ireland. Do not forget that we have a Parliament at the moment where 105 out of 108 Members support the Government. All of them would support the Government if it were not for the fact that we have this very broad system of allowing 108 people to be elected.

Lord McAvoy (Lab): My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to restate the important role that Westminster and the Government play within Northern Ireland in

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building a shared future. The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office must be actively involved and engaged in assisting the people of Northern Ireland to deal with past violence and the legacy of the Troubles. The Government have a duty to lead, but not prescribe, working with the Assembly, the Executive and the Irish Government. The Government must also take responsibility for and consider the effects of their economic and welfare policies in Northern Ireland. However, having listened to what has been said, and having indicated that it was a probing amendment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed.

Clauses 7 to 9 agreed.

Clause 10: Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland

Amendment 3

Moved by Lord Empey

3: Clause 10, page 9, line 7, at end insert—

“(3) Subsections (1) and (2) shall only enter into force after the remaining provisions of this section have been complied with.

(4) The Secretary of State shall establish a body corporate called the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commission (“the Commission”).

(5) The Commission must publish a set of principles to be applied for the purposes of recruiting persons on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.

(6) Before publishing the set of principles (or any revision of it), the Commission must consult the Secretary of State.

(7) Northern Ireland Civil Service management authorities must comply with the recruitment principles.”

Lord Empey: My Lords, I know that a number of your Lordships have been contacted by the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland. While the commissioners do not oppose the devolution of their functions, they are very concerned that they at present do not have the benefit of formal legislative provisions. This distinguishes them from their counterparts here in Whitehall. Civil servants generally are sometimes, like politicians, the butt of jokes, and I am sure many a cartoonist has made a living out of it, but the Northern Ireland Civil Service over many difficult years ensured a degree of civilisation where proper governance continued, despite threats, both personal and real. It is important that its impartiality in serving whatever Administration it happens to serve is maintained.

I see one distinguished former Secretary of State in his seat. He will know the importance of having that impartial advice available. I believe that the Civil Service Commissioners want to ensure that that remains the case. They would like the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—it puts the Home Civil Service Commission on a statutory footing and enshrines in law the requirement that selection of appointment to the Civil Service should be on merit, following fair and open competition—to apply to the Northern Ireland

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Civil Service. I think that they are very anxious that devolution of this function should not take place until that is achieved.

That is not a very difficult issue. We have seen in the past 24 hours what can happen when people have to say things about public appointments. Given the circumstances which we come from, and the history, background and substantial achievements of the Northern Ireland Civil Service under difficult circumstances, it is important that we take any and every measure we can to ensure that that impartiality is guaranteed, is in statute, that there is no ambiguity and that no political influence could subsequently be brought to bear were attempts to be made over the years to try to interfere in who was appointed to which posts.

This is a sensitive issue throughout the United Kingdom. The amendment is just another small step in attempting to ensure that that impartiality is guaranteed long into the future, and that it, and the respect in which the Civil Service is widely held in Northern Ireland, is retained. I beg to move.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I was happy to put my name to the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pioneered. I support many of the things that he said.

I will give two examples; a modest one, and one perhaps more substantial and persuasive. This question of maintaining the non-partisan stance and community appreciation of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is of enormous importance. Quite a lot has been written about the peace process in Northern Ireland, and most of it concentrates on negotiations between politicians, the people who are brought in from outside to assist, the role played by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach and, in some cases, the impact of the United States, the European Union, the NGOs and so on. Very few of those papers point up the importance of civil servants in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, yet they were absolutely critical. A few of those civil servants—nominated by the Secretary of State and his successors—basically spent all their time engaging with politicians right across, and in some cases beyond, the spectrum to keep the process alive. Whether Governments changed, whether leaders of the political parties changed, with all the ups and down of elections those civil servants continued to meet. They would make minutes. They would ensure that meetings were held. They would keep people in touch with each other.

Very little is written about it. It was absolutely essential. As I have involved myself in peace processes in various other parts of the world, I have come to realise how important it was. In many places, almost right across the Middle East, for example, this is not a tradition in the civil service. It is difficult to make peace processes work in some of these places precisely because there is no civil service there of that kind—no non-political, non-partisan civil service.

I give another example. One of the problems I had when I became the first Speaker of the Assembly was how to staff it. Nobody had been there for decades, running, as clerks or other officials, an Assembly. There was only one body of people who could be called upon in sufficient numbers: the Northern Ireland

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Civil Service. People, particularly on the nationalist and republican side, were very anxious about this. They had come to a view, for particular reasons, some of them based on experience and some of them on suspicion, that the Northern Ireland civil servants would be biased towards unionists. We had a lot of negotiation about it, but we all came to the conclusion that there was no alternative, so the agreement was that we would take these people in—however, on only a three-year contract. During that period, there would be open advertisement, and people would come in from other places in society and outside Northern Ireland. There would have to be this transitional process.

The fascinating thing was this: as that period of three years went on, it became increasingly apparent to nationalists and republicans that the concerns they had had about the non-partisan nature of the Northern Ireland Civil Service were actually pretty groundless. As we came near the end of the time, people from those communities wanted to keep on many of the staff who had proved themselves perfectly capable of being loyal to a power-sharing cross-community Executive and Assembly. That was the quality of people and, to some extent, the culture, which was a more non-partisan one than was realised.

I have a real anxiety—in this situation, I do not think that examples on this side of the water are necessarily perfect—that Members of the Government on both sides in Northern Ireland might well be tempted to influence the appointment of some senior civil servants in a way that would not ultimately be in the interests of any of us in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to take very seriously the amendment put forward in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and myself, and to take it away and look at whether it is possible to accommodate the very legitimate concerns—not concerns about devolution of the function but about protection of the devolution of this function from adverse and partisan impact.

Lord Butler of Brockwell (CB): My Lords, I was one of those contacted by the chairperson of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commissioners about this matter and I support the amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey said, this is a simple matter. It really should be straightforward and I cannot see that there can be a serious objection to the amendment that the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Alderdice, have tabled.

In the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the provision was made to enshrine in statute the obligation of the Civil Service Commissioners that appointment to the Civil Service should be on merit following fair and open competition. We have always taken that as a constitutional principle of our Government. That Act did not apply to Northern Ireland—not that it was deliberately excluded for any particular reason, but it simply did not apply. However, exactly the same principles should apply, and I think everybody would want them to apply, to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Indeed, because of the divided history of the Northern Ireland community there is a particularly strong reason why they should apply.

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I was very pleased to hear what the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Alderdice, said, because over many years I worked with members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as it were from the inside rather than working with them from a political perspective. My experience was exactly the same as theirs, as I would have expected: that members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service were politically impartial and appointed on merit. It took 150 years before these principles of fair and open competition were embodied in statute in Britain, following the Northcote-Trevelyan report. Once they have been embodied in statute, it seems to me that the same thing should be done for Northern Ireland, and before a question of devolving this function should take place. I strongly support the amendment. I hope the Government will say that they see no objection to it.

Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken on this. I too support the principle of the amendment before us. It is a very important principle. I was also contacted by the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commissioners and they make a powerful case. They were established, as noble Lords will know, by the Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The principle is that a person shall not be appointed a situation in the Civil Service unless a selection is made,

“on merit on the basis of fair and open competition”—

the merit principle. The commissioners have the power to consider, make decisions, and have appeals made to them under the Northern Ireland Civil Service code of ethics, and their notepaper says:

“Ensuring appointment on merit and safeguarding ethics”,

which is, indeed, their role.

Noble Lords from different backgrounds have made important points, and I will also make a point, having served as a Minister in Northern Ireland and in Whitehall. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is a much smaller unit. Everybody knows everybody else in Northern Ireland, and sometimes it seems—I am sure that other noble Lords will confirm this—that everybody knows everything about everybody else in Northern Ireland. Many senior Northern Ireland civil servants had a profile that was not known here in Whitehall, but they were known across Northern Ireland in their respective roles as Permanent Secretaries. Therefore this is not just about things being done in the right and proper way and about there being impartiality; the perception of impartiality must also be there for all those who are appointed, and for others.

4.30 pm

On the point on the transfer of powers, I have not seen anything that did not agree with devolving the responsibilities. However, before they are devolved the Government have to work with the Assembly to ensure that legislation brought forward to provide those safeguards ensures the continued impartiality of appointments made to the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the impartiality and independence of the commissioners who regulate those appointments. As we have heard, that provision is in place for other UK Civil Service posts, but it is not currently there as a

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devolved matter. Therefore before responsibility is devolved, something in legislation should enshrine that impartiality. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to give an assurance today that there will be no further devolution of these issues until that impartiality is enshrined in statute.

Baroness Randerson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Alderdice, for their amendment and the spirit in which it was put forward, and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. They rightly emphasise the key issue: the importance of the impartiality of the Civil Service. My noble friend Lord Alderdice referred to the key role of the Civil Service prior to the days of the Good Friday agreement. I was in a small way involved in the early discussions and, from my own experience, was acutely aware of the key role of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland in that regard, the importance of its expertise and, above all, the importance of its impartiality and the trust with which it could therefore be regarded.

It is worth emphasising that Clause 10 does not change the current procedure for the appointment of Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland. Appointments are currently an excepted matter; the Bill proposes to make them a reserved matter, in common with the functions and procedures of those commissioners. Commissioners will continue to be appointed by the Crown: that is, on the advice of the Secretary of State. The Civil Service Commissioners (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, which currently governs the functions of the commissioners, will continue to apply. However, that leaves open the possibility of the future devolution of responsibility for appointment of the commissioners and that of their functions and procedures. Under Section 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, that could only happen with the agreement of Parliament and that of the Northern Ireland Assembly voting with cross-community support. However, before any proposal of that sort is put forward we would certainly intend to consult publicly.

We believe that the devolution of responsibility for the commissioners at some point may well be appropriate. Matters have moved a long way since the Good Friday agreement and the initial devolution of responsibility in 1999. For example, we had big changes in 2010, focusing on policing and justice. The commissioners’ independence and the maintenance of an impartial public service are of paramount importance. I thank the noble Lords for their suggested safeguards in this regard. It is clear across the Chamber today that there is agreement on the importance of the impartiality of the Civil Service and agreement that there should be additional safeguards to those currently provided for in legislation. The Government are certainly open to the possibility of new statutory safeguards at the point of devolution and welcome the suggestions made. We hope to hear more when the time comes for the consultation. We have heard what your Lordships have said here but we believe that it is premature to specify preconditions to devolution in the Bill today. The necessary protections should be carefully debated before devolution takes place, as it would be inappropriate to make such significant changes without a thorough consultation.

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Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab): I apologise to the House for asking a question as a disinterested observer, although not an uninterested observer. Given that this is Committee stage and that there seems to be general agreement around the Committee on the principle of the amendment—unless I have missed something—why does the Minister not find it possible to say that consideration will be given to this matter before the end of proceedings on the Bill?

Baroness Randerson: My response to the noble Lord is that, as I was in the process of saying, we do not disagree with the concept of the safeguards that have been suggested and laid out in the amendment. However, we believe that before we devolve the Civil Service Commissioners’ role, we need to have public consultation so that we have a fuller understanding of what the public expect. It is also worth pointing out that safeguards are already in place in relation to the Civil Service Commissioners in England. Therefore, it is right and appropriate to compare the safeguards proposed in this amendment with those in place for the Civil Service Commissioners in England. In the case of England, they go to several pages; they are very much more detailed. The proposals in the amendment are an indication of the sort of lines one would wish to put in place, but the Government believe that they are nowhere near detailed enough for the final situation. They would need a great deal more fleshing out and should rightly be fleshed out following public consultation.

Lord Hurd of Westwell (Con): I have been following this debate with some care and would like to join, from my own experience as Secretary of State, in welcoming the spirit with which the Northern Ireland Civil Service conducted its affairs at a time when the pressures on civil servants as individuals must have been really quite substantial, coming from several parts of the community. They resisted those pressures, as far as I could tell, with persistence because they believed in the principles which have been endorsed in every speech made here, including that of my noble friend. She is straining at a gnat. We are all familiar, from being in government, with occasions when Ministers are asked to take this line. She is saying, “Yes, the principle is fine,” and so on, “but we need more thought; we need more time, we need more consultation”. We have had quite a substantial consultation in this House this afternoon. The principle is not at stake and is not being questioned. Is this not an opportunity to endorse that principle, which is hugely important for the future of the Province? It seems that the House should take the opportunity offered to it this afternoon to underline its strong endorsement of the principle, rather than be deflected by the arguments for delay.

Baroness Randerson: I thank my noble friend for that point. However, I do not see this as an argument for delay. This measure must go through the appropriate legal processes and there should be proper public consultation. With all due respect to your Lordships, there is another side to public consultation which involves, for example, asking the opinions of the elected representatives in Northern Ireland.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon: If my understanding of the noble Baroness’s lengthy speech is correct, she is not arguing that there should be delay as regards the principle but is saying that it is absolutely accepted by the Government, and is talking now only about process. Is that correct?

Baroness Randerson: Absolutely. The noble Baroness is entirely correct. I had hoped I had made it clear in my opening remarks on this issue that the Government fully support the principle and intend to ensure that safeguards are put in place. However, they believe that there should be public consultation to ensure that those safeguards are as full and detailed as is necessary. The Government also believe that although the intention of the noble Lord’s amendment is entirely satisfactory in many respects, it is deficient in technical terms because the safeguards it specifies are nowhere near detailed enough compared with those for the Civil Service in England.

Lord Butler of Brockwell: The Bill contains the powers to devolve this function of the Civil Service Commissioners. If we are going to put that in the Bill, surely the sensible time to legislate for the safeguards is at the same time as making that provision. If not, why have this provision in the Bill? If the provision is to go ahead, the Government ought to undertake such consultation as they think necessary but introduce a suitable amendment on Report.

Baroness Randerson: The Government are listening very carefully to what is said this afternoon, which will inform the content of our consultation paper when it is produced, and we will take close account of what is said more generally by parties and public figures in Northern Ireland. The body that it is proposed to devolve—the Civil Service Commissioners—has, as the noble Lord pointed out, raised our awareness of this issue and is very much involved with the whole process. I should point out that there will be a vote here and in Stormont before the Civil Service Commissioners are devolved. Therefore, noble Lords will be able to discuss once again the details of the safeguards to be put in place as regards the impartiality of the Civil Service. I hope that noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon will contribute fully to the consultation that will take place in due course. However, for the present, I hope that the noble Lord will not press the amendment. I cannot agree to it for the reasons I have outlined—namely, it is technically deficient and does not provide the detail that is required properly to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland.

4.45 pm

Lord Lexden: Can my noble friend confirm that she will consider most seriously the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, about the extension to Northern Ireland of the 2010 Act, which, after 150 years, as he mentioned, finally enshrined in law the Northcote-Trevelyan principles of impartiality? I speak in part here as a member of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which contains most enthusiastic supporters of the 2010 Act.

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Baroness Randerson: I thank my noble friend for his intervention. I am fully aware of the noble Lord’s tremendous expertise and am very happy to take into account the point he made. I assure noble Lords that the Government will be taking careful note of everything that has been said here this afternoon.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve (CB): Is the Minister willing to confirm from the Dispatch Box that, should the consultation reveal that public sentiment is not going to endorse the principles of Civil Service independence, it will not be the outcome of the consultation that is carried through but rather those principles for Civil Service independence?

Baroness Randerson: In public consultation in Northern Ireland, the Government look particularly at a consensus across parties and communities. Therefore, it seems to me highly unlikely that there would be a consensus of opinion—a broad agreement across parties and communities—that there should not be an impartial Civil Service. That would be highly unlikely. In that consultation, we would be looking for the details that we would require for proper safeguarding of the position of civil servants in Northern Ireland.

Lord Butler of Brockwell: I am very sorry to ask the Minister one more question. She said that there would be a further vote before devolution took place. Can she say that, if there is agreement that these principles should be applied, the effect of that vote would be to give them statutory force?

Baroness Randerson: It is the Government’s intention that we would be moving to devolution with safeguards that would have the kind of statutory enforcement that exists for England. I hope that satisfies the noble Lord.

Lord Empey: My Lords, when we started out on this amendment, I thought it was a very simple matter that would not be at all controversial. It just shows you that you never can tell around these parts. First, nobody in Northern Ireland has asked for this. The Assembly certainly has not made an approach. To some extent, the issue has come as a bit of a surprise. As I said—I think there is widespread acceptance round the House—the Northern Ireland Civil Service did a good and impartial job. There are a number of former Ministers in their places to confirm that, including the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench, who ran a number of departments and has many years of experience. I accept that there may well be technical deficiencies in the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and I have tabled. We are very happy for the amendment to be taken away and those technical deficiencies resolved. However, the Minister referred on a number of occasions to consultation. It is not clear to me what the consultation is on—whether it is the principle of devolution or not. To have a consultation on the merit principle would take us back to ground zero. If we do not or cannot accept that, we will pretty well have thrown in the towel.

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I suggest that the Minister should look at this before Report because it is an issue to which we may well have to return. Everybody in the Chamber agrees, so it ought to be possible to resolve it. In that spirit, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11: Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

Debate on whether Clause 11 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, this clause deals with the potential for devolution of certain aspects of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Human rights is a particularly important and sensitive issue in all jurisdictions, not just those in which there are conflicts. It takes on particular characteristics where there is communal and intercommunal conflict. I well remember discussions at a very early stage among the political parties and the two Governments, well before those with which George Mitchell and colleagues were involved—right back to the days of Sir Ninian Stephen, whom some of your Lordships will probably have forgotten. It was very interesting because at that stage four political parties and the British and Irish Governments were involved. It was fascinating that the four political parties could all agree that we needed robust human rights protections. It is generally not that difficult to get people, particularly opposition parties to agree. In those days, all the parties in Northern Ireland were opposition parties. If you say, “Do you want the rights of your people to be protected?”, they say, “Yes, of course”. If you say, “Do you want the rights of everybody else to be protected?”, it is difficult to say, “No, I just want our rights protected”.

The four parties involved at that stage all agreed and those who found it most difficult were the British and Irish Governments. They could see the implications of embodying this in statute and setting up human rights commissions, and so on. What is important about that is that when people are in government they have a very different perspective on human rights from when they are in opposition. This is why I have a real anxiety and wonder how much thinking there has been about the question proposed in Clause 11. I would be interested to know from the Minister who exactly has asked for this; certainly the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has not asked for it. If the Northern Ireland Government have asked for it, I am particularly suspicious—not because of the occupants of those offices but because, in principle, the point of human rights commissions is to speak truth to power and to challenge.

That is why in Scotland, it is not the Scottish Government but the Scottish Parliament that addresses these issues. I want to explore whether we are talking about devolution to the Executive—to government—of more control of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, about which I would have considerable

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anxiety, or whether we are talking about the possibility that it might be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, where a whole range of the community is represented by elected representatives. There is a sort of reason for this. One of roles and responsibilities of the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly is that every piece of legislation, before it comes to First Reading, must have the Speaker’s approval that it conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights. Before the legislation leaves the Assembly, in case any amendments have been passed that change that, it must have approval again. At various stages, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission can intervene in the legislative process precisely to make sure that the governing parties cannot of themselves put into legislation things that do not conform to proper international human rights requirements.

I would be interested to find out where the drive has come from for this particular change. Is it a question of giving more power to the Northern Ireland Executive to control those who are supposed to hold them to account, or is it possible that we might look at devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly? That would at least ensure that it was not those in government appointing those who scrutinise government, but rather that it was the Assembly as a whole. At least that would be some form of protection.

Lord Bew: My Lords, I support the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. Clause 11 embodies a significant step towards the devolution of function in relation to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

I do not want to leap ahead to the amendment in my name and the names of the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Black. That will be discussed in its own time. There is, however, a particular irony here. The key issue in that amendment is the continuing reluctance of the Northern Ireland Assembly to accord to the citizens of Northern Ireland the same level of freedom of expression that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom since the recent passing of the Defamation Act 2013. It seems a heavy irony that we should be proposing to devolve functions related to human rights precisely at the same time as we have a denial by the same Assembly of what is a pretty sensitive question in this particular respect. I do not want to anticipate a later discussion but it is relevant to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. The timing of this seems at least a little odd.

Lord Empey: My Lords, I have some sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. This kept coming up time and again in the Haass process—and I am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to sell tickets for it at an earlier stage; I know it would have been a sell-out for many noble Lords. It goes to the core of what people feel about their cultural identity and how they express that identity. Everybody talks about human rights in that context. What might seem a relatively modest administrative change does have significant consequences, and it could not have been put better than by the noble Lord, Lord Bew.

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Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. We have an asymmetric situation in the United Kingdom, whereby Scotland has a separate human rights commission reporting to the Scottish Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said; Wales does not have anything separate; and Northern Ireland has a human rights commission. However, the status of all three human rights commissions is jointly considered under the United Nations process. The A status of the human rights performance of the UK is an extremely important feature of our foreign policy. The fact that we retain an A status, despite the asymmetries and anomalies of the way in which we are structured at the moment, seems to make this a matter that deserves further consideration.

I know that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has given this some consideration along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, suggested—namely, that it might be better if the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, at present without a chair, were to report to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I take no view on this matter, but I think it is something that raises wider issues and needs further consideration.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: My Lords, I was taken by the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. I was surprised when he said that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had not asked for this. He said that he had not really expected it in this Bill. I wonder if it was consulted prior to the Bill being drafted. Who else was consulted prior to this coming forward? Obviously, the impartiality and independence of the commission is crucial and must be both retained and maintained. The comments that have been made beg questions which I hope the noble Baroness can address and thus give the Committee some reassurance. I look forward to her comments and to being given some information on who was consulted prior to this move being made.

5 pm

Baroness Randerson: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions on such an important topic. My noble friend Lord Alderdice emphasised the fundamental importance of human rights to the successful establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. I shall deal first with the bread-and-butter issues for the clause to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11 moves certain functions relating to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from the excepted to the reserved category. Human rights issues have long been politically sensitive in Northern Ireland and at the time of the 1998 Act it was considered that functions relating to the new commission should remain in the Secretary of State’s hands. In the context of stable devolved institutions and of their development in the future, it may become desirable in due course to devolve responsibilities relating to the NIHRC if the Northern Ireland political parties so wish and if the Secretary of State considers that the Northern Ireland institutions are better placed than the Government to carry out the functions concerned. Clause 11 will mean that the appointment, functions, procedures and funding of the NIHRC will be reserved.

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The Government made a commitment, in their response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report on the draft version of this Bill, to consult formally on any future devolution of responsibilities relating to the NIHRC and the other arm’s-length bodies discussed prior to any such devolution taking place. I reiterate that commitment today. We will also ensure that the NIHRC retains its responsibility for the scrutiny of non-devolved matters relating to Northern Ireland such as national security and terrorism in the event of any future devolution of responsibilities for the institution.

We understand the concerns that have been expressed both in this Committee and elsewhere that in the course of devolution the independence and freedom of action of the NIHRC should not be compromised. Indeed, not only do we understand those concerns, we fully share them. The independence of the commission is essential to its effectiveness. Its international standing is high and reflects that independence. We are well aware of the importance to the commission itself of the Belgrade and Paris principles, and it is essential that those are abided by. I also ask noble Lords to consider the benefits of devolution. I understand the concerns, but I ask them to consider the benefits. We believe that if it can be accomplished without compromise to the independence and important international standing of the commission, it would be a good thing. It would show that the institutions have matured. After all, in 2010, we accepted that they should take responsibility for sensitive matters such as policing and justice. It is not outrageous, therefore, to suggest that they should be capable of accommodating the independent oversight of institutions, as indeed they already do in various areas such as that of the police ombudsman, with due respect for propriety. So we do not believe that it is unthinkable that, at some point soon, the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland should take on responsibility for the NIHRC, but we are not asking for decisions at this point. All that the Bill does is to make it possible for such decisions to be reached and for effect to be given to them at a later date. If that happens, it will be after full consultation, because these issues need debate in Northern Ireland, of which we have had very little so far. Devolution would require votes in the Assembly by cross-community support and in both Houses here, so we shall certainly come back to these issues before any act of devolution.

I shall respond to some of the points made by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, referred to the current lack of a chair of the commission. In fact the position will be advertised in the immediate future, so this temporary situation will be rectified in the near future. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to the issue of timing. We shall come back to this, because it is the topic of an amendment later in these proceedings.

My noble friend Lord Alderdice asked who had initiated this, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made a similar point. The Government have had discussions with various Northern Ireland political parties about possible devolution of the commission. Officials have also discussed the matter with the chair and the chief executive of the commission, and I discussed it with them a couple of weeks ago. I emphasise

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that the Government believe that it is important above all that there is broad support across the community for devolution before it takes it place.

Lord Alderdice: My noble friend may be able to help me and the House with one question of information that I asked, on whether what we are being asked to do is devolution only to the Executive, or whether it would open the possibility of devolution to the Executive or to the Assembly.

Baroness Randerson: I apologise to my noble friend for omitting that. We are not looking at a precise model of devolution at this moment, because that, of course, is to be effected after consultation. However, we are well aware that devolution in Scotland has been to the Parliament and that that is a very successful model of devolution. It is sensible to follow successful models where they exist rather than to apply a different model. However, the details will be subject to further consultation and will become obvious after there has been full consultation.

Clause 11 agreed.

Clause 12: District electoral areas for council elections

Debate on whether Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Empey: My Lords, there is no question that, from an administrative point of view, having the district electoral areas dealt with by the same commissioner who deals with each individual ward makes sense. However, as has been mentioned in the context of other issues, this is a very significant development under proportional representation, because the drawing up of district electoral areas out of wards has two consequences. The decision on how many seats to award for each district electoral area has consequences under proportional representation, and which particular wards make up that DEA is also an extremely sensitive issue. There are grey areas in many respects.

You cannot of course go around in life with a conspiracy theory always at the front of your mind, but I have to say that current experience—within the past couple of years—is not encouraging. I refer to the recent reorganisation of local government, which I have previously referred to elsewhere. The recommendation of the commissioner was overruled in one case. In my opinion, a scandalous gerrymander has occurred in the city of Belfast, and barely a word is said. I have absolutely no confidence that the time is right for this particular function to be considered for devolution. A lot of people say they want the single transferable vote system of proportional representation but fewer people perhaps have had full experience of it. We have had 40 years of experience and understand the significance of deciding on the number of seats. For each local government area, you have a number of district electoral areas, each of which is a collection of wards. Those areas can include, in our case, five, six or seven; in the Irish Republic it could be four or three. Those decisions on the number are very significant. Equally, deciding which particular group of wards form the DEA is also significant.

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In many respects, that can lead to putting the cat in charge of the cream, to be perfectly blunt. At this stage, I feel that this is not an appropriate thing to do. Recent experience, as I said, is not encouraging and we could start to create the particular problem which, as referred to, was a problem in the past. Do we really want to go back down there again? It is not a big deal—I have to tell noble Lords that the people on the streets are not talking of little else—and not a source of difficulty, so why move to a position where that could happen? The point might well be made that we have done our local government DEAs—we have just passed the order today—so this is not something that will arise in the near future. That is indeed true, but so what? If it will not arise, and will not be necessary right now or in the foreseeable future, we can wait. Whenever it does come round, and when is needed, we can hope things will have sufficiently matured politically so that anxieties such as the ones I am expressing today are no longer held by individuals. It is for that reason that I put down this proposal.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, suggested that this is not a matter that is talked of every Friday and Saturday night in the pubs of Belfast. He is right about that, at this point, because it is not an issue. However, I have found in conversations with political friends and colleagues in the United States that districting is very much a matter of debate, because it is actually in place. You do not need to be a particular student of Northern Ireland history to know that manipulation of electoral boundaries and arrangements was a fundamental problem which led to many of our difficulties. I am a little puzzled as to why this has come up at this stage. I am delighted that we are 15 or 16 years on from the agreement, but we are not 15 or 16 years more mature than at the time of the agreement and it is quite clear that it is very difficult to reach agreement on a whole raft of issues in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would feel much more relaxed about this if, over the past 15 or 16 years, we had passed a whole series of constructive pieces of legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly and agreed on all sorts of community initiatives that had to be done, and if the walls of partition were coming down in the city of Belfast and the word “dissident”—whether loyalist or republican—was consigned to history and so on. In that case, I would probably not be standing up here.

However, I am not persuaded that the situation has changed so dramatically. If issues of flags, parades and the legacy of the past are bringing people out onto the streets, I fear that applying districting to Northern Ireland could well become a matter of enormous contention. I am not persuaded that adding this to the pot at the moment assists the parties in Northern Ireland in reaching agreement. It adds a further complexity and difficulty, and I am not persuaded that we need or could benefit from that at the moment.

5.15 pm

Lord McAvoy: My Lords, Clause 12, with Clauses 10 and 11, will have the effect of converting some of the functions relating to certain arm’s-length bodies

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from excepted to reserved matters. This is a small change but it is right that we support it. It grants more power to the Assembly, allowing it to legislate on these matters, but only with the consent of the Secretary of State. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is absolutely correct to refer to past difficulties. I would not accuse him of being pessimistic about the progress made over the past 16 years. However, there is a failsafe with the involvement of the Secretary of State.

The district electoral areas for council elections in Northern Ireland are in need of reform and rationalisation. It is only right that the Assembly plays some role in such rationalisation. The changes effected by this clause are a recognition and endorsement of the growing maturity of Northern Ireland’s political structures. It reflects faith in the ability of the Stormont Assembly to scrutinise changes properly and to reach cross-community consensus. Concerns have been raised over whether it is possible for the Assembly to oversee such important and sensitive changes. Again, this clause reflects the proper functioning of devolution within the framework of Northern Ireland. The clause recognises the ability of the Assembly to make decisions in the cross-community interest and to hold the Executive to account, while clearly outlining the responsibilities of the Secretary of State and Westminster in aiding and scrutinising change in Northern Ireland.

Any legislation by the Assembly regarding these matters will require the consent of the Secretary of State. Governments in Westminster will therefore be beholden to study extensively whether such changes truly have cross-community support within Northern Ireland. That is a big responsibility. This guarantees that changes to district electoral areas in Northern Ireland cannot be designed for the benefit of two or a handful of political parties, but in full accord with the guiding principle of the 1998 agreement—that of inclusivity. This is not Westminster abdicating responsibility in this area. Instead, it imposes a major responsibility on Westminster Governments to impartially scrutinise legislation from the Assembly.

Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill as the changes it makes are part of the process of normalising politics within Northern Ireland and accord a suitable and appropriate role to Westminster in this. The clause allows the Northern Ireland Assembly to rationalise local government electoral areas, but appropriately requires the Secretary of State to give assent to any of the Assembly’s legislation. This empowers the Assembly and endorses its ability to make inclusive decisions and scrutinise them. It also retains a vital role for the Secretary of State in the scrutiny process and allows her to make decisions when the Assembly cannot reach cross-community consensus. This short clause strikes an important balance between Westminster and Stormont in this sensitive area of boundaries and should stand part of the Bill. It is another step in a long journey.

Baroness Randerson: I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. I must address the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice, who have both expressed doubts about this proposal.

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Clause 12 moves matters relating to district electoral areas to the reserved category. Noble Lords will be aware that in Northern Ireland local government boundaries are determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly following a report by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner for Northern Ireland. Local government electoral areas are then determined by Westminster following a report by the District Electoral Areas Commissioner. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, clearly explained that the responsibilities are split at the current time.

It has been the clearly expressed view of successive District Electoral Areas Commissioners that this method of establishing district electoral areas could be improved. Separating out the two processes as I have described leads to increased costs, extends the timetable for boundaries processes by about a year, creates barriers to public understanding and participation, and reduces accountability in the process.

In concluding his December 2013 report, the most recent District Electoral Areas Commissioner, Mr Richard Mackenzie, noted that he had received a number of representations which were outside his remit. This indicated a lack of understanding about the difference between the local government boundaries and district electoral areas processes. He recommended that the processes of setting ward boundaries and electoral areas should be carried out simultaneously and under one authority. This proposal is for a process of potential rationalisation of a cumbersome system. The previous commissioner, Dr Maurice Hayes, also recommended that the reviews be combined. He believed this would lead to higher public participation and a reduced timetable for boundaries decisions.

Moving these matters to the devolved category would allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to rationalise the way in which local government electoral areas are set, subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. For example, the Northern Ireland Executive might create a single local government boundaries commission responsible for both local government and electoral area boundaries, such as exists in Scotland, Wales and England. However, electoral areas would continue to be set via legislation at Westminster in the event that the Assembly did not reach agreement on a suitable alternative model.

I am grateful to noble Lords for expressing their concerns about this. If the Government decide that it would not appropriate to devolve these matters, it may yet be appropriate for the Assembly to legislate on this issue with consent. I therefore resist the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that Clause 12 should not stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12 agreed.

Clauses 13 to 20 agreed.

Amendment 4(rev)

Moved by Lord Shutt of Greetland

4(rev): Before Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—

“Civic forum

(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.

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(2) After section 55 insert—

“55A Civic forum: establishment

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall consult with the civil and voluntary sector within Northern Ireland in order to bring forward proposals to the Northern Ireland Assembly to give effect to a working and effective Civic forum.”

(3) In section 56 (civic forum), after subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) A motion for approval under subsection (2) shall be made no later than 1 April 2015.””

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I see that this amendment has been reprinted on another sheet of paper and described as Amendment 4(rev). I have looked at the amendment on the main document and I see that “Civil” has become “Civic” I am rather in favour of a civic forum being civil as well. However, I turn to the substance.

The business of having a civic forum was set out in paragraph 34 of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. Earlier today we heard the Minister say that the principles of the Belfast agreement are fundamental. The Civic Forum was then enshrined in Section 56 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The problem is that, in terms of that Act, it is almost an aspiration, or something that may happen between now and infinity.

A Civic Forum was established in October 2000 but it was suspended, alongside the Northern Ireland Assembly, in 2002. That is now 12 years ago and the Civic Forum is still not functioning. We must realise why it was put there in the first place. When the Belfast agreement came to pass, there were tremendous numbers of people in civic and civil society in Northern Ireland egging on that there was an agreement and they wanted to be part of it. There is a sense that we are all in this together, but there are those who cannot bring themselves to be part of political parties. We know what has happened throughout our kingdom with membership of political parties. There are plenty of people who are interested in the political process and civicness but cannot bring themselves to be associated with political parties. An opportunity arises, under the Belfast agreement, for such people and those in non-governmental bodies, quangos and everything else to be involved in this forum. It will bring people together. We hear about there being a “shared future”—a splendid phrase—in Northern Ireland. The establishment of the Civic Forum will hold the political parties to making certain it is a shared future and not a shared-out future.

In 2013 the Northern Ireland Assembly passed two resolutions that the Civic Forum should be reconstituted. The amendment in my name is gentle but firm. It is gentle because it suggests there is time—up to 12 months—to re-form the Civic Forum and that there is further consultation. This is not putting it into legislation with a heavy hand. I hope we can, by legislation, make certain that the Civic Forum happens and is effective and that the principles of the Belfast agreement are fundamental. I beg to move.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland and support his amendment. We have been discussing a number of amendments which go way beyond what was agreed

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by the Northern Ireland parties and the two Governments in the Good Friday agreement. There is some space for debate and discussion on those issues, but at least one of the parties which supported the agreement had the mantra that it has to be in the agreement; the Belfast agreement has to be fully implemented. Here, in one hugely significant element, the Belfast agreement is not being implemented.

One might ask why, if there was sufficient enthusiasm to get it into the agreement, it fell into disarray so quickly. One could look at the forum itself and whether it performed to its maximum; one could, perhaps, say the same thing about the Assembly. However, there was a dynamic there which may not be familiar to the House. During the long period of direct rule, the Government here at Westminster—the Secretary of State and members of the Northern Ireland Office—wanted to find some way to relate with the Northern Ireland community. There was great difficulty in relating with elected representatives who were, in any case, elected either to the other place or to local authorities because there was not an Assembly. It was very common to invite people from NGOs and civil society generally to drinks at Stormont and Hillsborough, and to discuss with people who were running sometimes very commendable NGOs what would be a good way of spending money locally, how things should be organised and who might be appointed to bodies.

5.30 pm

I have to say that a considerable resentment grew up between politicians and those in political parties on the one hand and members of civil society on the other, because politicians felt that they themselves were often in danger and considerably exerting themselves—going out, knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and desperately trying to get votes—and then being ignored by the Government when it came to sharing things out, whereas those who did not go out to try to get votes but set up their own frequently unaccountable, though in many cases quite commendable, organisations were actually being favoured. So, when politicians started to take control of things after the Good Friday agreement, they were not in a mind to share them with anyone, certainly not those who they felt had been the beneficiaries of government largesse over a period of 20 or more years. There was antipathy towards the Civic Forum and civil society organisations on the part of the newly elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. So not only was there not quite the momentum that there might have been in the Civic Forum but there was a real antipathy.

Has that changed in any way? There are still feelings of that kind around, but I revert to the very first debate that we had in Committee about an Opposition. One of the difficulties when so many people are in government is that any opposition parties will be a minority, possibly in some cases a permanent one. If they are going to have an impact—noble Lords will recall that I raised questions about the amendment at that stage because of the lack of leverage that smaller parties had in the Assembly—then one way in which those who question the Government within the Assembly might gain some help, strength, leverage and public accord might well be if there were a civic forum that

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could also address these issues and might well also say, “Well, actually, here’s a situation where the Opposition in the Assembly may not have the numbers but they have the argument”. In this way, a civic forum could help the Assembly to strengthen its scrutiny function when a majority of Members of the Assembly were members of government parties, under any kind of arrangement based even loosely on the Good Friday agreement.

While we can understand where this important element of the agreement was not implemented beyond 2002, it seems that there could be a change that may well make it possible to bring it back into play. The Civic Forum will never be any kind of emulation of your Lordships’ House, but it may nevertheless be able to perform not a governmental, parliamentary or legislative function but still a useful one. In any case, we should all be trying to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, because that is what most of the progress of the past 15 or 16 years has been based upon.

Lord Empey: My Lords, there is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is correct that the Civic Forum was and is in the agreement. It fell into disuse in part because of the resentments that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to. People said that many of these individuals were usurping the role of elected representatives, and that feeling persists. The other reason, though, was that it did not get off to a terribly good start. It did not distinguish itself during the relatively short period of its existence. That does not rule out having a look at it again, but I suspect that that was the reasoning.

Another issue, and we will be coming to this in the next amendment, is that if the agreement had been left as it was agreed, there would be strong pressure on those who signed up to it in principle to follow it. However, as we will be referring to in the next amendment, the Government unilaterally changed the agreement in 2006, so therefore a lot of people do not feel as obligated to the full agreement as they would have done prior to that happening.

Another point is that people are getting a constant stream of criticism about the costs of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its complications, and they felt, “Well, here we have another layer. Were we right to agree to this in the first place? Is it going to be too expensive? Do we really need it? With 108 MLAs representing the people, do we need this?”. That is the kind of argument, but there is no question of doubt about the fundamental point that the noble Lord Shutt, makes: it is in the agreement. It is not the only thing that is not implemented—I hear a sound from a sedentary position that I know may well emerge in a moment or two from this chrysalis and bring blinding light to the House. Those are some of the reasons why we are where we are.

Lord McAvoy: My Lords, once again the Labour Front Bench will come to the rescue of a Minister who is under siege from her own side of the House. I do not usually see myself as a knight in shining armour coming to the rescue of a Conservative Government, but there is always hope for sinners repenting.

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I will be repeating a familiar refrain. The Civic Forum is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and does not require legislation in this House. The 1990 Act gave responsibility for the creation of the forum to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and gave them the responsibility for scrutinising the body as well. Provisional arrangements for the Civic Forum were created and approved in this manner. These arrangements also established that there would be a review of the forum after one year of its operation. This was deferred until 2002, but unfortunately the suspension meant that that was not completed.

Since 2007 the Civic Forum has once again been under review, and surely a six-year to seven-year review tells a story of its own. The review was initiated by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. This decision and the review have rightly been approved, scrutinised and debated by the Assembly. The transitional Assembly’s Committee on the Preparation for Government concluded that a review of the mechanism for civic society to promote its views was necessary. Here, sad to say, the opinions expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the role in society of quite a large Assembly raise necessary doubts. It serves some nebulous cause to have a good thing in operation, but on the other hand we have to be professional and sharp about things and not just have bodies just for the sake of them. Anyway, as I said before, this comes under the aegis of the Assembly.

The best way in which to engage with the community in the political process is surely a matter for the Assembly and Northern Ireland politicians to decide upon. There are indications that there is a nationalist/unionist split—I use the terms roughly—about the worth of the forum and whether it should be reinstituted. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, in this era of austerity the costs of an extra, subsidiary body have resulted in some doubts about it as well. Once again, though, I say that the initiative must come from the Assembly. This is devolution in practice.

I regret that I have not been able to support the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, because he has a respectable record on Northern Ireland issues. No one doubts his concern about the Northern Ireland situation or his anxiety to contribute to that process. I respect his record on Northern Ireland and genuinely regret that we have not been able to support his amendment on this occasion.


Baroness Randerson: I thank my noble friend Lord Shutt for his amendment and all noble Lords who have contributed to a short but interesting debate. As my noble friend highlighted, the community and voluntary sector plays a vital role in Northern Ireland society, as it does in my home country of Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom. Alongside the important services it provides to citizens, the community and voluntary sector can be particularly influential in informing debate and helping to shape our society. I believe that is what led to the Civic Forum being established under the Belfast agreement. However, as noble Lords have already said, the Civic Forum has not always commanded the support of the parties in Northern Ireland. In its short existence between 2000 and 2002, the forum met a total of 12 times and produced a number of papers

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on various issues. There was a wide range of useful papers. For some in Northern Ireland that was seen as beneficial and important in delivering good government but, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has just pointed out, for others it was seen as poor value for money. Others also pointed to it being ineffective.