NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
Memorandum to the Liaison Committee
Scope of the memorandum
- Our memorandum is concerned only with the
work of the present Committee, as the previous Committee reported
on its progress in May 2001.
2. Since the Committee was appointed on 19th
July we have completed our first inquiry and have embarked on
two others. The first inquiry, into the introduction of the aggregates
levy in Northern Ireland, was undertaken as a matter of urgency
in the light of the Government's intention to implement the levy
across the UK from 1 April 2002.
3. We were pleased that, following our discussions
with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, our concerns about
the impact of the levy in Northern Ireland were recognised by
the Government through a concession for Northern Ireland in the
Pre-Budget Report. However, the concession was partial and temporary,
and we have pressed for a more lasting solution in our recommendations.
4. Financial matters, and the implications of
the land border with the Republic of Ireland, are proving a significant
theme in our initial programme. Our second and third inquiries
concern the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland and, following
the previous Committee's Report in 1999, the impact in Northern
Ireland of cross-border road fuel price differentials. Policy
in the areas of cross-border trading and prevention of organised
crime is increasingly pursued through inter-agency co-operation:
for all three of our inquiries to date we have sought written
and/or oral evidence from other Government Departments, notably
H M Treasury and the Home Office, and we are grateful to them
for their assistance.
Relations with the Northern Ireland Office
5. We are pleased to report that relations with
the Northern Ireland Office have been generally extremely good.
We have received extensive informal briefings from Ministers and
officials on the various aspects of the NIO's remit. We are
particularly grateful to the Secretary of State for the occasions
when he has briefed us personally on political developments: we
have found these private discussions a valuable supplement to
formal evidence, and hope that the practice will continue.
Government responses to Reports
6. While the content of Government responses
to the previous Committee's Reports has been generally positive,
we were rather disappointed at the time taken to respond to the
Committee's Third Report, published on 11th April 2001, on Relocation
following Paramilitary Intimidation.
Although this Response was due, under the Osmotherly Rules, on
11th June it was not received by the Committee until 4th December.
7. We understand that some extra time was required
for the response because of the need to confirm details with other
agencies. However, now that we have seen the response, we are
somewhat sceptical as to whether a full six months on top of the
agreed two months was really necessary. We would point out that
the Northern Ireland Executive replied concerning devolved matters,
to which substantial parts of the Report related, within four
months of its publication. We would have hoped that the Northern
Ireland Office would do better. We believe that the Northern
Ireland Office did not give sufficient priority to the production
of a Response to the Third Report in the last Session. We
are disappointed, since the NIO's performance in responding to
Reports had significantly improved in the latter part of the last
Parliament. We hope that those concerned will ensure higher standards
of performance are restored in the current Session.
Progress in preventing electoral malpractice
8. We contrast the slowness in producing this
Response with the swift action by the Government in introducing
the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill at the very start
of this Parliament. In its last Annual Report, the previous Committee
welcomed the Government's commitment to introduce primary legislation
to combat electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland in advance
of Assembly elections scheduled for 2003.
The commitment was made to the House on 29 March 2001,
and the Bill was introduced in the new Parliament on 28 June 2001.
We are pleased that the Government is demonstrating its intent
to combat electoral malpractice, and we will continue to monitor
its progress in this area.
Relations with the Northern Ireland Executive
9. We also enjoy good relations with the Northern
Ireland Executive and Assembly. On our first visit to Northern
Ireland we were welcomed to the Northern Ireland Assembly by Rt
Hon David Trimble MP MLA and Mark Durkan MLA, and we are grateful
to them for their courtesy. The formal communications between
the Committee and the Executive, established in the last Parliament,
have also continued. We are pleased that, in spite of recent
political difficulties, the Northern Ireland Executive were able
to provide a written memorandum in relation to our first inquiry
into the aggregates levy: in different ways this is a subject
of interest to both Westminster and Stormont. We value the Executive's
co-operation and hope that such exchanges will continue.
10. Legislation in response to the Review of
the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland has been anticipated
since publication of the Review in March 2000. When it did not
appear in 2000-2001, the previous Committee recommended that the
Government provide ample opportunity for scrutiny of the draft
legislation in the new Parliament.
11. The draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill
and Implementation Plan were finally published on 12th November
2001. The Government provided a consultation period of one month,
which on 29th November was extended by a further four weeks to
7th January 2002.
12. While we are pleased that the Government
recognised the inadequacy of the original consultation period,
the extension was not very generous, given that it included the
Christmas and New Year holiday. By the time publication of the
draft bill was confirmed, we were firmly committed to our urgent
inquiry into the aggregates levy. The holiday - when potential
witnesses are also on leave - rendered the prospect of taking
evidence on the draft bill, let alone producing a report on it
within the consultation period, remote.
13. We nonetheless wrote to participants in the
previous consultation on the criminal justice system in Northern
Ireland inviting comments on the draft bill. To date we have received
only a handful of responses, some of which emphasised the difficulty
of giving proper scrutiny to detailed proposals in such a short
time. We were further surprised to hear that the Government did
not intend to alter the legislative timetable for the Bill, following
the extension of the consultation period on the draft bill. The
Bill was introduced during the consultation period, on 18th December
2001, and the Second Reading debate has been scheduled for 21st
January, exactly two weeks after the consultation period ends.
It would seem that the only way the Government could respond to
points raised by the consultation, given the legislative timetable,
would be by amendment - possibly heavy amendment - of the Bill
in its later stages. It hardly seems satisfactory to enter into
the process of scrutiny with this prospect in mind.
14. We are disappointed that in this instance
the Northern Ireland Office has not acted in the spirit of our
predecessors' recommendation concerning the timing of draft legislation.
We believe that the nature and extent of the changes proposed
in the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill are of political
as well as administrative importance to Northern Ireland, and
merit proper scrutiny and debate. As it stands we believe
that the process of formal scrutiny of the Bill may turn out to
be muddled and complex: it need not have been. We hope to be proved
17 January 2002
137 Government Response to the Committee's First
Special Report 2000-2001 and the work of the Committee in Session
2000-2001, Fourth Special Report HC 2000-2001 Back
Introduction of the Aggregates Levy in Northern Ireland, First
Report HC 333 2001-02 Back
Relocation following paramilitary intimidation, Third Report,
HC 59, 2000-2001 Back
Government Response to the Committee's First Special Report
2000-01 and the work of the Committee in Session 2000-01,
Fourth Special Report 2000-01 HC523, paragraphs 4-5 Back
Official Report, 29 March 2001, Vol. 365, c345WH Back
Government's Response to the Committee's First Special Report,
Session 2000-2001 and the work of the Committee in Session 2000-2001,
Fourth Special Report HC 523, 2000-01, paragraph 11 Back
Official Report, 30 November 2001c1071W Back