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The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I welcome the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on taking up the Northern Ireland portfolio on the Opposition Front Bench. I look forward to co-operation with him in the usual way.
The draft Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 before the House today seeks to consolidate with amendment the law dealing with the administration of public services in Northern Ireland by government departments.
It is the first in a series of pieces of legislation paving the way for the transfer of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, following the Good Friday agreement, the referendum and the elections to the new Assembly last year. In that context, I fully understand the concerns surrounding the issue of decommissioning, an issue which we shall have ample opportunity to discuss on Wednesday, 16th February in this House.
One of the issues which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to the Assembly for consideration in July 1998 was agreement on the number of ministerial posts and the distribution of executive responsibilities between those posts.
The First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) issued a statement on 18th December 1998 setting out their proposals for the structures of Northern Ireland departments and north-south implementation bodies and areas of co-operation. This order deals with that part of the statement which concerns departmental structures. As a result of the order there will be 10 departments plus the department of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. In accordance with that statement concerning departmental structures, the order provides for the establishment of five new Northern Ireland departments and renames three existing departments. The titles of the three other Northern Ireland departments remain unchanged.
I should perhaps clarify that the changes are to the Northern Ireland departments, not to the Northern Ireland Office. The Northern Ireland Office will remain under the direction of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whose responsibilities in relation to Northern Ireland will be greater post-devolution than those of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales after devolution.
The order does not deal with the functions of the Northern Ireland departments. The redistribution of statutory functions across the new departmental structure will be effected by subordinate legislation through a transfer of functions order, the details of which are currently being settled. Although the transfer of functions order will not be considered in this House, there are a number of other pieces of legislation related to devolution for Northern Ireland which will be brought forward in coming weeks. These include an order to make consequential modifications of enactments, orders to commence various provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and an order setting the date on which power will be transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
This order is therefore a further step along the road to a devolved administration for Northern Ireland. It frames in law the proposals on departmental structures set out in the statement made by the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) on 18th December last year. The proposals were contained in an interim report by the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) which was discussed and approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly on 18th January 1998. I believe that should be 18th December 1998. A final report will be brought to the Assembly on 15th February with a determination by the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) on ministerial offices.
Most of the provisions of the order are not new. The order is largely a consolidation of existing law. Unlike the situation in Scotland and Wales, there is already in Northern Ireland a constitutional framework for devolution. There thus exists a body of law dealing with the administration of public services by government departments spread over many years with numerous amendments. This order has provided the opportunity to consolidate and update the language of that body of law into one enactment. There are two elements which are not a consolidation--the provisions for the new
Articles 1 and 2 deal with the title, commencement and interpretation of the order. Commencement will be by an appointed day order. It is proposed that that will take effect from a date prior to the introduction of devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Article 2 also deals with the exercise of departmental functions by junior Ministers. It enables junior Ministers to exercise functions under the order to the extent authorised by determination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister under Section 19 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is thus an enabling provision only.
Article 3 introduces the main changes to the existing law and provides for the new departmental structures. It provides for the new structures to comprise three existing departments: the Department of Education, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Finance and Personnel. It provides for the renaming of three departments: the Department of Agriculture would become the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; the Department of Health and Social Services would become the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and the Department of Economic Development would become the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The order also provides for the creation of five new departments. These would be the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure; the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment; the Department for Regional Development; the Department for Social Development; and the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As I stated earlier, the functions of departments will be addressed separately in a transfer of functions order which is currently being prepared.
Article 4 re-enacts existing provisions and in doing so enables the departmental Minister to distribute the functions of his or her department among its officers and provides for departmental functions to be exercised subject to the direction and control of its Minister.
Articles 5 to 7 also re-enact existing provisions. They give departments the status of corporate bodies, make provision for the use of official seals by departments and for documents issued by them and their Minister to be received in evidence as official documents. Article 8 transfers the existing powers of the Secretary of State to assign functions to or to transfer functions between Northern Ireland departments to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly.
Normally an Order in Council is published for public consultation. This order has not been published. However, the changes it will introduce comply with those set out in the agreed statement of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of 18th December 1998. Also, the order has been circulated to and considered by the First Minister (Designate), the Deputy First Minister (Designate) and the Northern Ireland Assembly party leaders.
Lord Blease: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the detailed and informed way in which he introduced this important Northern Ireland order. Like many others in this House, over many years I have sought to apply my practical experience and reasoned opinion to Northern Ireland legislative measures. I consider this order to be most crucial and challenging, especially concerning the future for parliamentary democracy, community well-being and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Some of the changes in the departments mentioned by my noble friend are extremely challenging and worth noting. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development could not be better in my view. It is an important aspect of the Northern Ireland scene. Questions also arise from the range of functions under the Department of Environment and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. They are challenging changes and very relevant to present needs.
Even a brief perusal of the order indicates that it is a product of many hours of acute study and the application of practical experience and knowledge of many listed Acts of Parliament going back to 1921. These are set out in Schedules 2 and 3 of the order. It requires a tremendous historical span to cover the application of the practical changes which are necessary. We warmly acknowledge the careful and experienced application by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Ministers, the advising staff, the Civil Service officials, and the parliamentary draftsmen who produced that challenging and important document.
I ask my noble friend the Minister whether such arrangements were made and, if so, how many training, advisory, information and other seminars or events for Assembly Members have been organised or planned by the Northern Ireland Office. How many of the 108 Assembly Members indicated their intention to attend each scheduled event and how many stayed for the full duration of each named event? Were senior Civil Service officials, having direct experience of the Assembly's legislative processes and of drafting and implementing Assembly business, included, to assist at and participate in such events?
It is important to ask that series of questions because there is quite a lot of talk about people not being involved in the arrangements. However, every effort has been made, and many hours have been spent, in trying to explain the new, devolved methods.
Perhaps I may refer to last Friday's published statement by the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. He told an audience, which included the First Minister designate, that the Northern Ireland Assembly will inherit an economy which is at its lowest point in the economic cycle for a decade. He warned that some 40 per cent. of Northern Ireland's GDP, representing 45,000 jobs, depended on the beleaguered textile and agri-business sectors and that there was every reason to fear for the short-term future of the economy.
He added that it is vital, therefore, that the Assembly Members and civil servants are able to take up the reins of government immediately and make a meaningful contribution to the future economic, educational and social well-being of Northern Ireland. It is important at this stage that those who are thinking of the well-being of their children, the aged, the sick and of all their neighbours in Northern Ireland should get down to the business of setting up the Assembly as quickly as possible.
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