Northern Ireland: National Crime Agency

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Tuesday 4th November 2014

(9 years, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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The noble Lord refers to the words of my noble friend Lord Taylor and to the Government responding with responsibility. It is important to remember that this is a devolved issue. In order to retain the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland across the communities every effort should be made to reach the decision within Northern Ireland. The Government believe that the efforts being made by David Ford as Justice Minister in Northern Ireland are working towards that end.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Northern Ireland Act, which implemented the agreement, expressly reserves and protects this Parliament’s right to override that legislation, in just the same way that it has the power to override others in the national interest? How long will the Minister wait before the inevitable exercise of that power?

Northern Ireland: National Crime Agency

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Wednesday 16th July 2014

(9 years, 11 months ago)

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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My Lords, the Government are well aware of the impact on the PSNI and of the need for agreement to be reached as soon as possible. I understand the noble Lord’s concern. It is clear to us that the NCA in Northern Ireland obviously has less capability than elsewhere. However, this is a devolved matter and it is right that discussions are ongoing between the Justice Minister, the NCA and the political parties—but UK Government Ministers and officials remain fully engaged.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I understand the Minister’s desire to proceed by agreement, but with regard to the particular issues of trafficking, drugs and the related matters that she mentioned, is it the Government’s view that it is in the national interest that the National Crime Agency be fully operational throughout the United Kingdom on those issues?

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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My Lords, in our view it is clearly in the national interest that the National Crime Agency is fully operational throughout all parts of the United Kingdom. However, the Sewel convention must apply at this point, and it is clear that we do not normally intervene and legislate on matters within the competence of the devolved Administrations without their consent.

Northern Ireland: On-the-runs

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Tuesday 8th April 2014

(10 years, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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My Lords, it is an administrative review and will not be conducted according to the 2005 Act. This Government have always been clear that we have reservations about the use of public inquiries to deal with the past. There is an issue about the length of time that many of them take and there is in this case a clear public interest in early publication of the report.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I wonder whether the Government intend that the inquiry—or review, as it is now termed—will go ahead without having heard from the people who designed the process, the then Secretary of State and Mr Gerard Adams. Is it satisfactory to try to operate without having the power to compel Mr Adams to come to give evidence?

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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My Lords, government officials will of course appear before the inquiry and will give evidence. Others will be invited to do so. It is entirely up to Lady Justice Hallett how she reads her remit in that regard, from whom she will request evidence and how far she takes the scope of her inquiry, but, for the reasons to which I have already referred, she is asked to report by the end of June at the latest.

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Tuesday 4th March 2014

(10 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for bringing forward the amendments that we are going to consider. They go some way towards addressing the concerns that have been expressed and it is very welcome that she has responded to them in that way. I also thank her for her acknowledgement that we could not pass by the events of last week. We have not had the opportunity in this House to refer to these matters because Statements were not repeated. If we were simply engaged in a mundane debate, people outside looking in would wonder what on earth was going on. Therefore, I am very glad that the Minister has widened the scope of the discussion, and I am going to take advantage of it in just a moment.

I very much agree with quite a few of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. I was particularly attracted to his analogy of teenagers, although he should perhaps go a little further and bear in mind that some teenagers have delinquent tendencies and it is slightly better to view the matter in that way. We all know that it is absolutely essential that teenagers with delinquent tendencies have clear boundaries. In that situation, nothing is worse than letting people think that the boundaries can be blurred and that they can get away with things. Unfortunately, that has been done again and again over the past 15 years with regard to the republican movement.

Although what the noble Lord says about institutional memory is true, one tendency has not been forgotten. In the old days before the agreement, we used to say that the default mode of the Northern Ireland Office was to make sure that it kept the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade happy. Since the agreement, the default mode of the Northern Ireland Office has been to keep Gerry and Martin happy, irrespective of any other consideration—or that is how it seems. What was revealed last week regarding the letters that were sent out in connection with 187 cases, and what was described by Dominic Grieve in his Statement to the other place as the administrative process involving the Northern Ireland Office, the public prosecutor and the police, certainly ought not to have happened in the way that it did, and perhaps it ought not to have happened at all.

There are a number of really interesting aspects of the judgment, which I recommend to everyone. I am going to mention just a couple of paragraphs, one being paragraph 36. It reads:

“On 2 June 2000 the Attorney General”,

who I think at that time was Lord Williams of Mostyn,

“wrote to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland … Peter Mandelson stating: ‘… I am seriously concerned that the exercise that is being undertaken has the capacity of severely undermining confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland at this most sensitive of times. Individual prosecution decisions have to be justifiable within the framework in which all prosecution decisions are reached and I am not persuaded that some unquantifiable benefit to the peace process can be a proper basis for a decision based on the public interest”.

Interestingly, that last phrase about the peace process was echoed by the judge, Sweeney J, in this case at paragraph 168, in which he said that he was not taking that into account, adding,

“that is a matter for politicians and Parliament”,

and not for judges. I heartily applaud that.

Paragraph 37 is even more interesting. After referring to the letter from the Attorney-General, paragraph 37 states:

“That was followed by further correspondence and meetings (whether between Ministers or officials) during the course of which the need to proceed ‘by the book’ was accepted”.

So afterwards,

“the need to proceed ‘by the book’ was accepted”.

The implication is that before this stage people were not proceeding by the book. Of course, the great danger of this scheme is that it will create pressures on officials in the prosecuting authority and among the police not to stick to the book and to give what they think is the answer that Ministers want. One has seen that happen in Northern Ireland in other circumstances as well.

I urge noble Lords to read paragraph 82 of the judgment, which is a lengthy statement by an official from the prosecuting authority indicating all the problems and difficulties that this caused. If noble Lords read that, they will come, as I have done, to the conclusion that this whole exercise was misconceived and that it was asking questions of the police and the prosecuting authority that they could not reasonably and properly answer, and that the whole process is one that should never have been undertaken. If you have any doubt about the undesirability of it, you only have to read paragraph 52, which states:

“At a meeting with the SSNI”—

the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—

“in May 2001 Mr Adams expressed the view that … it would be better if there was an invisible process for dealing with OTRs”.

Even Mr Adams wanted it to be kept but of course he wanted it to be kept invisible because it existed for the benefit of the IRA only. That is part of the reason why Lord Williams of Mostyn was so concerned about it. That concern comes out in paragraph 82 if you read it alongside.

This scheme was being put in place deliberately for the purpose of benefiting only one party and only one side of the community, and obviously was to be kept secret from the rest in so far as was possible. Incredibly, it was kept secret for so long, partly due to Answers to Parliamentary Questions given from the other side of the House which were quite simply lies. There is no other word to describe that. It is appalling that this happened.

I feel particularly ashamed that it continued after 2010 and that our Conservative Ministers were engaged in the decision. The decision to continue doing this was made by Owen Paterson. I wonder what advice he received to lead to that. I am very disappointed that it did not occur to him or to the other Ministers involved to say, “This is something which we should not have anything to do with. The previous Government may have done it but this is not something which we should put our hand to at all”. I have to say that I applaud what David Ford has said on this matter that he is not going to tolerate it in his department. Of course it should have been devolved to his department in 2010 but it continued after that being run by the Northern Ireland Office. It was interfering with criminal justice matters even though it no longer had responsibility for criminal justice matters. That is really very strange. It could only happen in the Northern Ireland Office. At that, I think I should conclude.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan (CB)
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I wish to speak first of the reduction, the possible reduction and future reduction in the number of constituencies. The constituency in which I live is some 75% or 80% unionist. Of the original seats, two managed to elect nationalist, non-unionist politicians. The boundaries were withdrawn. One of the nationalist seats disappeared, so we are now down to five unionist and one nationalist seat. I declare an interest because my husband held one of those seats in the Assembly.

My point is that the impact of reducing the number of seats on the possibility of there being any purpose at all in voting in Northern Ireland is something of which the people of Northern Ireland are very aware. There are whole constituencies on both sides of the divide where people feel that at present there is little purpose in voting. We have single transferable voting so there is some purpose but I would very much endorse the words of my noble colleagues in regretting any attempt not to preserve the current numbers of Members of the Assembly.

I also want to talk about a matter which other noble Lords have addressed; namely, the crisis—it is a crisis—in the justice system in Northern Ireland at present. It is reaching right across the community. It has introduced a sense of distrust, which was beginning to be healed, throughout our community.

There has been no discussion in your Lordships’ House about what was done. Last week, a man walked free from court because he had had a letter that said the police had no interest in him. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, we believe that there are 187 such letters. I heard one former Secretary of State talk of the possibility of 200 such letters.

The problem is that letters of comfort may or may not have had the effect of removing the possibility of any future prosecution—not least because their very existence gives rise to the possibility of an abuse of process application in the event of any attempt to prosecute, but also because the letters of comfort have generated such consternation. There was no knowledge of these letters of comfort among the general population of Northern Ireland. It was a betrayal of the people.

Great courage was needed to do some of the things that had to be done, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for what he did to bring peace to Northern Ireland. However, it was a very difficult time, and I have said repeatedly in your Lordships’ Chamber that this deal is not done and settled; it is a very fragile state of affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, told us that Adams said it would be better if it were an invisible process—but it was an invisible process. I know, because in 2001 I was investigating cases involving IRA men who were acting as agents of the state for the police. In investigating those cases I had to look at the criminality of the IRA personnel. The HET is investigating the criminality of the IRA personnel, and the PSNI currently is also investigating that criminality. Neither the HET nor the criminal investigations branch of the PSNI was informed of the situation. None of us knew who we might have in our sights, if you like, and who would have been taken out of the sights of the Director of Public Prosecutions by virtue of a letter that may or may not have been issued, which may or may not have been correct in its terminology but which ultimately might have the effect of compromising any possibility of prosecution.

In such circumstances, the Government are spending huge sums of money to sustain a criminal justice system in Northern Ireland that is based on, to some extent, very significant failure. Throughout the Haass talks, there was a lot of talk about how we would deal with the past; it was one of the three strands of the talks. As I understand it, the possibility of letters of comfort did not at any stage get a mention.

We knew about royal pardons and the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. We could identify where both those might have happened, although the information was generally not made public. However, we did not know about these letters. It is profoundly important that this Parliament should concern itself with them. This Parliament is concerned that those who might have abused children in years past, and who are being investigated in the Savile investigation, should be prosecuted. Surely this Parliament has a duty to have the same standards of justice for the people of Northern Ireland.

The final thing I will say is that this was a secret process that has, as I said, undermined our justice system. The fact that it would do so was recognised in 2000 when the process started. There is much work to be done to try to explain what happened and what the ongoing implications are for the operation of the justice system in Northern Ireland today.

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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I am certainly not saying that your Lordships’ House is not worthy of an answer, but I am anxious that the answer should be legally consistent and robust. This situation has arisen in the last week. It is important that the Northern Ireland Office and the Government are able to check their records to look in detail at the history of the scheme. They will do so as part of the evidence that they give to the inquiry. It is obvious that both civil servants and current and previous Ministers will give evidence to this inquiry, and it is important that the overall picture is taken to make sure that it is accurate. I am sure that, once this inquiry reports, noble Lords will want to examine the outcome of that inquiry in considerable detail.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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The noble Baroness may or may not be aware that for the past few months a Select Committee of this House has been engaged in post-legislative scrutiny of the Inquiries Act 2005, and I am a member of that committee. It has now wound up its proceedings and finalised its report, which will be published on about 11 or 12 March. When that happens, I ask the noble Baroness to draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because there are things that will be in that report that will bear very much on the inquiry that has just been announced, in the light of which it would be wise to make some changes to the way in which the Government are proceeding. I do not want to go into further detail. I happen to know what is in the report, but it is not published, and it is not appropriate for me to say further than this. But I urge the Minister to make sure that the Secretary of State gets her head around some of the significant recommendations in that report.

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Tuesday 25th February 2014

(10 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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My Lords, I supported my noble friend Lord Empey’s amendment in Committee and I support the current version of this valuable amendment with no less vigour. He has explained its aims and objectives fully and I have only a little to add from my own Conservative and Unionist perspective, which is identical to that of my noble friend, who is the chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party. The not unimportant constitutional issue which the amendment seeks to address is simple and straightforward. The Northern Ireland Act 1998, which created the devolved institutions through which the Province is largely governed today, made no provision for the establishment of an Official Opposition with the appropriate rights and privileges. My noble friend has explained the reasons for that omission and this amendment would fill that constitutional lacuna.

It contains, as my noble friend has emphasised, no element of dictation or compulsion. It makes soundly based constitutional provision for the establishment of an Official Opposition, while leaving the Northern Ireland Assembly entirely free to judge when it would be appropriate to invoke this valuable addition to the constitutional order under which it conducts its affairs. In other words, by inserting provision for an Opposition into the 1998 Act, this amendment would supply the one element which is missing from Northern Ireland’s remarkable constitutional dispensation that followed from the Good Friday agreement, and so complete that dispensation. It therefore has great significance but it would do something else of importance as well. It would signal this Parliament’s support and encouragement for the evolution of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions in the direction that public opinion in the Province increasingly favours: towards a state of affairs in which the Government are challenged in detail, day by day, by an Opposition who fulfil the great constitutional function prescribed for them of providing,

“a standing censorship of the government, subjecting all its acts and measures to a close and jealous scrutiny”,

as one leading late 19th-century authority on the constitution put it in resounding language.

Is it not right—is it not indeed the duty of the Parliament which brought into being Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional order—to support and encourage its evolution so that the devolved institutions that operate under it can carry out their work with ever growing success as the years advance? Your Lordships might consider what beneficial effect an Official Opposition could have had if they had been in existence today. They could have prevented the restrictions that limit so worryingly the operations of the new National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland—a matter that aroused grave disquiet when we discussed it in Committee. An Official Opposition might also have made it unnecessary for us to hold the debate on defamation which is to follow shortly.

Some say, “Leave the Assembly entirely free to follow its own course. Do not trouble it with advice from Westminster. Do not disturb it by strengthening the constitutional basis on which it operates by making statutory provision for an Opposition and placing that provision at the Assembly’s disposal for its introduction”. That does not seem to me the right, constitutionally sound approach. As my noble friend has explained, the Assembly could establish an Official Opposition under its own Standing Orders. However, that, in his own striking phrase, would be a grace and favour Opposition, existing through the good will of the Executive with their commanding majority in the Assembly. To work well, an Opposition would need stability and confidence. If they rested on a statutory basis under this Parliament’s legislation they could not be removed precipitously or capriciously. Let us now take the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to the point that is now needed by adopting this amendment.

In replying to the debate in Committee the Minister said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 3/2/14; col. 22.]

I hope at the end of this debate my noble friend will be able to tell the House that the Government will either adopt this amendment or will bring forward something similar at Third Reading.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Empey, tabled his amendment on this matter in Committee I added my name to it. I make clear that the absence of my name from this amendment today does not mean that I have changed my mind. I agree with what the noble Lord has said and I hope he gets a very positive response from the Minister.

Lord Alderdice Portrait Lord Alderdice (LD)
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My Lords, in Committee I made it clear that I was very supportive of the principle of establishing an Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I remain of that view. In fact, I think it could be a very helpful improvement and evolution of the constitutional arrangements. It is clear that Standing Orders in the Assembly can accommodate this. When the Assembly was first established it had a very flimsy little pamphlet of Standing Orders. It was very important that the Assembly on all sides agreed to a process of negotiating and ultimately passing Standing Orders with cross-community support in the Assembly. That meant that all Members of the Assembly felt they were their Standing Orders. I would prefer to try to find that way forward. I do not accept the proposition that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to about this being an imposition. I agree with him that this is not about imposition; it is about facilitation. The dilemma is, as he described, that it requires the larger parties in the Assembly to buy into the proposition before his amendment, even if passed, would come into operation. It is a bit of a Catch-22 situation. To achieve the things he and the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Trimble, want to achieve will require a process of negotiation between the party or parties that wish to have the possibility of being an Official Opposition and the current parties of government. Of course, these things can change—they have changed since the agreement, with the size of parties and their influence and so on.

Is there any leverage? I think there is considerable leverage. For example the Ulster Unionist Party, which is no longer as substantial in this House as it once was, has a substantial number of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and indeed has ministerial positions. It would be possible to negotiate with the two largest parties in the Assembly on the basis that, as vacating ministerial presence on the Executive to take up opposition status would be to the advantage of the other parties, appropriate recognition as the Opposition would be sought in return.

This leads me to two areas where I feel some dissatisfaction with the specifics of this amendment. First, there is the suggestion that a party with one Member could become the Official Opposition. I would rather see a slightly higher bar than that in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The idea that a single Member could form a party of their own and have the status of Official Opposition seems unwise. There should be some more substantial number; it is going to be a bit arbitrary whatever it is, but one is both arbitrary and unwise. I can think of many individual Members of the Assembly who might choose to adopt that status and create merry hell for everyone, including themselves and the Speaker. I would rather that there were more.

The second is related to that: the special position that is accorded in the chairmanship of committees, as suggested in the amendment. Again, for a very small party of one or two people to be able to corral those significant positions seems unwise. However, I emphasise again that the principle that is being supported by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Lexden, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is one that anyone who wants to see the evolution of the Assembly should espouse, and if there are things that can be done by the Secretary of State and our own Minister here or by others in your Lordships’ House to move that forward, we should certainly do so. However, I remain to be persuaded that this amendment is going to take us in quite the direction and for quite the distance that its proposers might hope.

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Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
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My Lords, when this amendment was tabled, I thought it was going to be a fairly simple, straightforward matter—but as very often happens, that has not proved to be the case at all.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has not asked for any powers to be devolved with regard to the Civil Service Commissioners. Indeed, as we look at the next amendment, it has not asked for any of those powers to be devolved either. Contrary to the rumours, the people on the Newtownards Road do not speak of little else. My point is that this proposal has come from the Government of their own volition. It has not been sought. I have never heard anybody raise the issue at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred to the letter that some of us received in January from the chief commissioner. If I may be permitted to quote a little from it, it says:

“We have a similar role to that of the UK Civil Service Commission chaired by Sir David Normington, which regulates appointments to the Home and Diplomatic Civil Service. However, unlike Sir David’s Commission, the Northern Ireland Commissioners do not have the benefit of formal legislative provisions”.

It goes on further:

“Rather, our role continues to be governed by a Prerogative Order in Council”.

The noble Baroness is suggesting new proposals. We know that there is a clash between what is devolved and what is not devolved, but what is not devolved is currently excepted. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, a number of issues were deliberately left as excepted issues because they were potentially so sensitive. They went to the core of areas where people felt that things had not been well handled in the past, and it would be better for the long term to leave them to the one side.

The other point to bear in mind about the Civil Service in Northern Ireland is that the statutory role, function and power lies with the department, not the Minister. There is a complete difference. If the Minister is not there for whatever reason, the department can continue to apply policy that has already been decided. The law states that the Minister directs and controls the department, but in the absence of the Minister, the department itself has the power to continue implementing policy. That is a very distinct difference.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I must apologise as my memory is not clear enough on whether the noble Lord was present at a discussion I am going to mention. However, he will recall the time when, for political reasons which are not relevant to this point, I had resigned and I was proposing that my other Ministers would also resign. There was a discussion of senior officials about what we do in this situation. I cherish the comment made by someone who I will not identify, who said, “We must be very careful because we don’t want people to find out that we can take decisions without Ministers”.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
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The noble Lord is perfectly correct. I recall being at a number of meetings where that issue was discussed. The law states that the Minister directs and controls the department when the Minister is there, but the power is vested in the department. That is why this is such a sensitive issue. We are in the House of Lords but the department Permanent Secretaries were known as the six barons in the direct rule years, because it was to them that people turned for resources and other things. There is a very distinct difference, and that is why this is such a sensitive issue. As I have said, the Civil Service Commissioners themselves clearly have anxieties. The Assembly has not asked for this but the Government, for their own reasons, have decided to bring it forward. If they were prepared to drop it, I am quite sure that Members here would be more than content. However, in view of what the Minister has said and in view of her letter, and the fact that she intends to hold further consultations, I believe it appropriate that I now beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord King of Bridgwater Portrait Lord King of Bridgwater (Con)
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My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in something on which such distinguished legal brains have been brought to bear but, briefly, as a layman in these matters, I am very impressed by the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and the power of the argument about the desirability of uniformity in the application of defamation laws. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, said that the advantage of devolution is that we can all make different laws. However, as a good unionist he will know that it is very desirable that as a union we stick together as closely as we can and do not make a principle of establishing every different law that we can between the different parts of the United Kingdom.

As a loyal member of the United Kingdom, I think it is desirable that the Executive of Northern Ireland should look at these matters as it seems that they are likely on some occasions to significantly disadvantage some of their own supporters, who might find themselves caught up in some very unfortunate implications. Although there is the devolved power, that power should be exercised also with respect to the position of other parts of the United Kingdom, which may find from the illustrations given by the noble Lords, Lord Black and Lord Bew, that these are difficult matters.

I hesitate to deviate from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, as he and I have a bit of history as well in some areas, as anybody will know who remembers the broadcasting ban or the amazing events when the chief constable decided to deprive female constables of the right to carry arms. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, was active during my time in that area.

At the end of the day, I am not quite clear from the exchanges that have taken place whether this is just genuine inertia or whether there is a fundamental objection within the Executive to doing this, thinking it totally undesirable in Northern Ireland, and exactly what the background to this is. However, I am prepared to accept that it is the determination of the Executive to address this, although they are moving very slowly. That is the most preferable way to go in terms of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, said, and not to get caught by being unnecessarily accused of trying to undermine the devolution proposal. The message should go out very clearly from this House that we think this is highly desirable and almost essential to do. We look to the Executive to do it as speedily as they can and bring this matter into line, without imposing it in the amendment as proposed.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, the great advantage of this debate is that it has enabled a wide range of people across the House to express their views on the desirability of extending the modern defamation law to Northern Ireland. I very much hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will pay attention to the views that have been expressed here. There has been no argument presented in favour of retaining the old, outdated laws. I have not heard any and, from what has been said, I gather that nothing has been said by the Northern Ireland Executive to explain what is going on. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the decision inviting the Northern Ireland Law Commission to look at the matter. I hope that will happen quickly and that it indicates that action is being taken, rather than something being done just to fend off criticism. I hope that something happens there.

I must also attach significant weight to the hesitation and reservations that have been mentioned. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred to what might happen in Scotland if this was to happen. That brought back to mind what happened in Northern Ireland in, I think, 1923, when on a certain measure London was indicating that it was likely to override the decisions being taken by the then Northern Ireland Ministers. I think it was suggested that they might seek to withhold Royal Assent from legislation that was going through Stormont, and the then Northern Ireland Prime Minister made a very robust response to that. It was of such a nature that the proposal disappeared and there was then no attempt to interfere with the exercise of devolved powers.

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Moved by
4: After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Election of the First Minister
(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit sections 16A (appointment of First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election, 16B (vacancies in the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister) and 16C (sections 16A and 16B: supplementary).
(3) Before section 17 (Ministerial offices) insert—
“A17 First Minister and deputy First Minister
(1) Each Assembly shall, within a period of six weeks beginning with its first meeting, elect from among its members the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
(2) Each candidate for either office must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.
(3) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without the support of a majority of the members voting in the election, a majority of the designated Nationalists voting and a majority of the designated Unionists voting.
(4) The First Minister and deputy First Minister—
(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Minister and deputy First Minister.(5) The holder of the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister may by notice in writing to the Presiding Officer designate a Northern Ireland Minister to exercise the functions of that office—
(a) during any absence or incapacity of the holder; or(b) during any vacancy in that office arising otherwise than under subsection (7)(a);but a person shall not have power to act by virtue of paragraph (a) for a continuous period exceeding six weeks.(6) The First Minister or the deputy First Minister—
(a) may at any time resign by notice in writing to the Presiding Officer; and(b) shall cease to hold office if he or she ceases to be a member of the Assembly otherwise than by virtue of a dissolution. (7) If either the First Minister or the deputy First Minister ceases to hold office at any time, whether by resignation or otherwise, the other—
(a) shall also cease to hold office at that time; but(b) may continue to exercise the functions of his or her office until the election required by subsection (8). (8) Where the offices of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister become vacant at any time an election shall be held under this section to fill the vacancies within a period of six weeks beginning with that time.
(9) Standing orders may make provision with respect to the holding of elections under this section.
(10) In this Act “the pledge of office” means the pledge of office which, together with the code of conduct to which it refers, is set out in Annex A to Strand One of the Belfast Agreement (the text of which Annex is reproduced in Schedule 4).””
Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, we have reached the final straight and I shall try to get round the track as quickly as possible, and not delay those who are coming to debate other matters later.

I tabled Amendment 4 for the Committee, but unfortunately when it sat I was out of the country and unable to express my views on that occasion. However, I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made an excellent exposition of the issues involved, so I will not go back into that history. I want to focus more on what might be coming up in the future. Before moving on to that, it is important to remind noble Lords of the position as it was under the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—and as it was changed later, not as part of the St Andrews agreement but in some other way.

The key thing for noble Lords to bear in mind about the provisions in the Good Friday agreement is that there was a provision for the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which means that a ticket had to be formed. There had to be an agreement on who would stand. A six-week period for this to happen was provided, but because it was a joint ticket and there were six weeks in which to do it, there was the opportunity for the largest party on the nationalist side and the largest party on the unionist side to interact; they had to come to an agreement. There were opportunities for views to be expressed about who might be the nominees.

In 2006 we had provisions that swept that away and provided for a mechanistic provision whereby the various provisions rather obscurely expressed in the legislation would apply, and it would be possible to identify immediately who should be First Minister and Deputy First Minister. This was to be done within a matter of days; I think that a week was provided for it. It was to go through automatically. I will not discuss what the motivations for that might have been.

I will look at the future and pick up the very important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that because of the way in which the Administration has carried on there is widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and, in my interpretation of what he said, that is likely to have an impact when we next have an Assembly election. Participation rates in Assembly elections have been dropping. They will continue to drop. The drop will be felt most among people who feel dissatisfied about inaction. There are those who are feeling sore because they believed in the Democratic Unionist Party when it attacked the agreement and who then felt disgruntled after it decided that it was going to implement the Belfast agreement with merely cosmetic changes, as well as the significant change in identifying the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

This opens up a very serious possibility, which I think that we need to be on guard against. It is possible that, as a result of declining participation, especially by working-class unionists, we will find that the unionist vote drops to a point where Sinn Fein becomes the largest party. The DUP will do what it has done before, running a campaign that says, “Vote for us, or else you will get a Sinn Fein First Minister”. It has done that several times—so often that it is not likely to carry much weight anymore. People can see that they were given this argument and then saw the results from the elections, which showed that the argument had no substance to it. So I am afraid that “Wolf” has been cried too often on this.

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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My Lords, I want to preface my response by referring specifically to comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. Noble Lords have been in the Chamber this afternoon and may not be aware that I have issued a Written Statement that deals with that issue. I do not feel that it is appropriate to try to tackle it in this Chamber at this time, because it is not part of this debate.

I turn to the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, will be aware that the Government opposed amendments on this issue both in Committee in the other place and in Committee in this House. Despite the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, we retained our opposition here. Again, we will maintain that position to this amendment on this occasion.

I recognise the noble Lord’s views on the matter, and he clearly has a close personal interest in the issue. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, highlighted in Committee and again just now, the St Andrews agreement, which led to this mechanism, ultimately led to the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. It would be, to say the least, an unhelpful step if we were to start to unpick certain aspects of it.

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s views on whether the revised method for electing the First and Deputy First Ministers at Stormont was discussed at St Andrews. It is certainly the case that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, made that point in Committee. However, the revised method was enacted through the legislation which followed the St Andrews agreement in 2006. That legislation was endorsed and passed through this House. Whatever the merits of the amendment in the abstract, it would command limited support in Northern Ireland. Very probably, it would get virtually no cross-community support. It would provoke serious opposition and potential instability.

The current Northern Ireland settlement is imperfect, but it is what we have. I welcome the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and her party on this issue. Her words echo my thoughts.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made some very important points. In response, I would say that the Government are acutely aware of the tensions and difficulties in Northern Ireland and within the Executive. That is one reason why we do not want to destabilise the settlement either by changing or attempting to change the mechanism for selecting the First Minister and Deputy First Minister or by involving ourselves in the devolution settlement on issues that are devolved. It is important that we do not disturb the situation. That does not mean that we are sleepwalking, or allowing Northern Ireland to sleepwalk, into any unravelling of the current situation. I agree strongly with the views of the noble Baroness. With every month that passes, the institutions of Northern Ireland become more firmly established in the country and as part of the politics, and it becomes less likely that they will hit the sort of problems that occurred soon after devolution was established.

As I highlighted in Committee, reopening old debates of this nature is liable to create a distraction that would shift the focus of Northern Ireland politics away from the pressing challenges that Northern Ireland faces—issues such as community division and economic renewal. I hope the noble Lord would agree that those issues should take precedence at this time and, in doing so, will be willing to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this little debate, which has gone on longer than I had hoped. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, said, these are issues that I have dealt with before. I remember certainly the first time I dealt with them in 2006. I divided the House, and I was very happy to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, in doing so. He has changed his position somewhat since then. I merely mention this from the point of view of spreading news on the matter.

I note the statement of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, who said that if one was to make a change, the change would require cross-community support. She is right. That is how the agreement was made. The agreement was made based on a broad support —a “sufficient consensus” as we called it—and the majority of unionists and the majority of nationalists supported it in the talks. If you are going to make a change to it—although no express provision has been made as to how changes should take place—then the noble Baroness is quite right to say that the changes would be legitimate if they were made by the same procedure by which the agreement was made in the first place.

That is not what happened in 2006. I was finding it somewhat difficult to follow what the Minister was saying at some points, but I think it is absolutely clear that the change to the identification of First and Deputy First Ministers was not actually in what is called the St Andrews agreement. It came into the legislation to implement it, but it only popped up at the last minute without any coherent explanation of where it came from, and with no indication that there was the sort of cross-community support that ought to have been sought for it. People say going back would be a bad thing to do. The Minister says that going back would have limited support in Northern Ireland. The original agreement had a referendum, and it was supported by an overwhelming majority; that referendum is ignored. It has been said many times in this debate that we should not upset the devolution settlement. The devolution settlement was upset, peremptorily. That is undeniable. Consequently this is something to which we will return, until we get things sorted out on this. We have at present a bad system which may have bad consequences; I hear what the Minister says about not sleepwalking and I hope that that is the case. We shall see. Let us make sure that we do what we can to ensure that there is no sleepwalking. I think I can guarantee the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office that we will return to this aspect of this issue, to try and ensure that people are on top of this. We have a rotten system which may turn round to bite us. This is not the time to press the matter further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Tuesday 3rd December 2013

(10 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, this is a worthy Bill and I welcome it, but when we go through it in detail I would like us to deal generally with devolved matters as opposed to excepted and reserved matters. During the interparty talks that preceded the agreement of 1998, I raised this issue on a number of occasions. We were then using the devolution provisions in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, with minor changes, as the basic starting point. However, I thought—and still think—that some matters which were devolved in 1920 were no longer suitable for devolution in 1998. Unfortunately, this was considered to be a side issue, but I do not think that is any longer the case.

In those discussions I gave two examples. The first concerned commercial law. I am not sure whether it was seriously intended in 1920 that there could be regional variations in the law concerning commerce, but it is not a valid idea now. Now, commerce operates within a single EU-wide market, and there is no scope for any regional variation and no real function for the Assembly. However, because of its 1920 Act inheritance, the Assembly must pass legislation identical to that enacted here to give effect to European directives. To have this matter no longer devolved would relieve Stormont of drudgery and add to its resources to do something useful.

The second example which would relieve the Assembly of even more drudgery concerns social security, and that is because of the operation of the principle of parity. That principle flows from the existence of the unified tax and benefits system, which is at the heart of being part of the United Kingdom. I do not have to remind folk in Northern Ireland that that parity was hard won and is of huge importance to poor and unemployed persons. The Stormont Parliament stuck firmly, step by step, to UK national welfare policies, whether it liked them or not, and resisted opportunist suggestions from some within its own ranks to depart from parity. The Northern Ireland Executive have done that until now.

I am not going to debate the advantage or otherwise of recent changes to social security because those changes are not relevant. What we are dealing with here is a matter of principle. I say to those in Belfast who are seeking regional variation that they have to bear in mind the consequences that would flow from it. If the door was open to regional variation, it could be a two-way street, and it could apply to other things as well. What comes to mind immediately are things such as public sector pay. Therefore, I suggest to the Northern Ireland Executive that they should close this Pandora’s box as quickly as possible.

If one favours, as I do, a nationally unified tax and benefits system, it does not make sense for part of that system to be under Westminster and part to be devolved to Stormont. Both parts should be together, which is the case with regard to Wales and Scotland, where welfare is not devolved. The anomaly could be tolerated while Stormont adhered to parity, but now, when Stormont has departed from parity, the matter should be addressed properly. I am sure that the Government here would prefer to sort things out quietly, but so far that has not worked and, as noble Lords will know, a financial penalty has been imposed. That is scheduled to increase but one cannot be sure that that will be the end of the matter.

Westminster has the power to enact its new welfare policies over the head of Stormont. However, if there is to be legislation, there is a case for transferring welfare to Westminster as an excepted matter so that this issue will not recur in the future.

There is an instructive example in another part of the Bill, and it was mentioned by the Minister. After devolution in Wales and Scotland, the national parties were against dual mandates. Originally there was a suggestion of legislation, but a voluntary approach has been adopted and that works after a fashion. However, with regard to Northern Ireland the voluntary route is being abandoned and this Bill legislates to put an end to dual mandates. Therefore, that, in a sense, is a precedent for what I am suggesting in this case.

If there is legislation to transfer welfare, I doubt whether there will be serious opposition at Stormont. I suspect that Sinn Fein has raised the issue of these welfare changes because of its embarrassment at the contrast between its bitterly opposing austerity in Dublin while appearing to implement it in Belfast. I suspect that privately it would be relieved if this burden were removed. I am not sure what the DUP’s position would be, but parity is a unionist position.

It may be objected that this is swimming against the tide when one considers what Calman has suggested regarding a fresh commission in Scotland amid talk of devo-plus and devo-max. However, while there have been suggestions in Scotland that some relatively minor welfare powers might be devolved in the event of a no vote, there appears to be no inclination to devolve welfare as a whole, and I would advise caution on that matter. I look forward to returning to this issue in Committee.

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Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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I thank the noble Lord for his intervention and for his comments in respect of accepting the fact that this is a devolved issue and that the right way to deal with it is via the Justice Minister. The devolution of justice and the failure to accept the role of the NCA does not mean that it does not operate at all in Northern Ireland. Only some of its functions are affected. I say again that the Home Secretary is very proactively working to encourage a solution that will enable the NCA to be answerable within Northern Ireland.

Comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about the past on this topic were similar to those made by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and others. This relates to the Haass talks and the whole topic of the past. It is important to bear in mind that the Haass talks are reaching a conclusion. The expectation is that there will be a report before Christmas. The Northern Ireland Executive once again owns this process. These are sensitive and difficult issues, and it is important that we give our support to that procedure so that we are able to take from it any positive outcome that is possible. Three issues are being dealt with by the Haass talks. They are separate but intertwined issues and the past is a very important part of them.

I remind noble Lords of the words of Her Majesty the Queen when she said that as a society we must respect the past but should not be bound by it. It is important that, when the Haass talks are concluded, we give full support to the Northern Ireland Executive in the way in which they intend to implement any recommendations.

As my noble friend Lord Trimble pointed out, welfare devolution has existed in Northern Ireland since 1920. It would be a serious piece of undevolution to take that back now in the context of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure so far to introduce parity. It is important to bear in mind that it would be open to the Northern Ireland parties to seek to have the responsibility in these fields taken back, but it would require the agreement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. There would also have to be cross-community support in the Assembly and votes here and in the other place, so it would be a very complex issue.

To my knowledge, there been no call for control over welfare to be brought back to this place. It is, however, to be seriously borne in mind that the failure of the Northern Ireland Executive until now to address the issue of welfare reform will impose a serious financial penalty on the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive because of the costs of a more expensive welfare system.

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I appreciate the points that the Minister has made, but I just wanted to point out to her that her earlier comments about this being a serious and grave matter are completely beside the point. This has in the past been a mere formality. There has been no substance to the devolved character of welfare in Northern Ireland. It is not a matter of significance at that end at all. With all respect, I think that the Minister's comments on this are inaccurate and premature.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson
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At the moment, for the first time, I believe that we are seeing that the devolution of welfare to Northern Ireland is becoming a separate and tricky issue. Until now, it has not been of any great significance on a day-to-day basis because, after all, the welfare system in Northern Ireland has mirrored that in the rest of the country. Only now are we seeing an issue. Once again, it is an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive to take on board. There is a possibility that the legislation would make a successful passage through the Assembly.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of dual mandates and whether this legislation was only for Northern Ireland, although the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned that legislation would also be going through for Wales in the near future.

On the issue of not legislating in relation to the House of Lords, we are talking about a dual mandate. The House of Lords enjoys a very separate and interesting role, which is almost unique in the world. We are not elected, as such, and have no fixed terms. Indeed, many noble Lords rejoice in the fact that we are enriched by having so many Members who have very active lives outside this place. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Government would regard any restrictions on Members of this House in that respect.

Can I make a point about there being a lack of legislation in relation to Scotland? The Government are very concerned not to legislate to solve a problem that does not exist. This has not been a problem in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Therefore there is no proposal to deal with the dual mandate in relation to Scotland.

I turn to the comments made by my noble friends Lord Alderdice and Lord Shutt. In relation to the size of the Assembly and the proposal to enable it to become smaller, I take on board entirely the warnings that they both made in relation to making the Assembly so small that you could not allow breadth of opinion or enable minority parties to be elected. The Government and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State certainly will be considering that very seriously. The most commonly suggested figure is that each area should be represented by five MLAs rather than six, which would bring the number down to 90.

Comparison was made with the Welsh Assembly. I know from my personal experience that membership of the Welsh Assembly is a stretching exercise, because Members of the Assembly—there are only 60—have to be so broad in their approach. However, I do not think there are suggestions that would take the Northern Assembly down to that level.

I note the comments of my noble friend Lord Alderdice in relation to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the need for independence of view. I am sure that I can look forward to some probing amendments and some interesting points.

I note particularly the comments of my noble friend Lord Alderdice about David Ford. My noble friend said that he had done a good job as Justice Minister; I add my own endorsement. David Ford has tackled a heavy workload of very difficult issues with great sensitivity and imagination. We can rapidly forget how controversial it was when justice was devolved to Northern Ireland and the success he has made of that. His tremendous contribution is to be applauded.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the issue of transparency on donations and supported the proposals in the Bill. He rightly reminded us of the difficulty of getting donations in past years. Those of us who are politicians in mainland Britain probably find it hard to imagine how difficult it was in Northern Ireland in years gone by to encourage people to donate to political parties.

I want to address particularly the issue of donations from Ireland and Irish citizens living abroad. The Secretary of State already has the power to deal with that, should she wish to do so; but because some parties are established on both sides of the border, it can be very difficult to deal with that issue. However, I say to noble Lords who are concerned about this that the Bill makes the first steps to greater transparency. We do not yet know how much of a problem this is; the noble Lord, Lord Bew, speculated about it. We will know in the future, when the Electoral Commission is in a position to tell us the type of donation and where it came from. We will have those categories in the immediate future, even if we do not have the names of the donors. It is important that we welcome the Bill from that perspective.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, also referred to the petition of concern and asked whether the number there should go down proportionately if the number of MLAs is reduced. I remind the noble Lord that 30 was specified in the Good Friday agreement, so we would be open to changing that only if there was broad cross-community agreement. However, I share his support for the Bill in the hope that it will keep politics moving forward.

My noble friend Lord Brooke spoke from his own extensive experience. He referred to the name of the Bill and to the d’Hondt system. The d’Hondt system is very close to my heart as a Liberal Democrat because it is intrinsically connected with proportional representation. I think that MLAs in general understand the purpose of d’Hondt, even if they cannot actually do the intensely complex calculations. However, I share my noble friend’s comments about the need for, and the hopes for, improvement.

I ask noble Lords whether they will bear with me and accept that I will look through their speeches carefully and respond to any specific questions noble Lords have asked me at this point. Some things are clearly going to crop up time and again.

Finally, I know that the changes in the Bill do not go as far as some would like and that, in some cases, they go faster than others would like. I look forward to a flurry of amendments as noble Lords apply their creativity and test the provisions of the Bill. It may be miscellaneous but it has certainly provoked some very serious thought here today. The Government are focused on the priorities of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and creating a shared society. We do not view legislation as the answer to Northern Ireland’s most important problems but this Bill is an important step along the road to ensuring that politics and the constitutional structure in Northern Ireland become more normal and more like the rest of the UK.

Wales: Council Tax

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Thursday 27th October 2011

(12 years, 7 months ago)

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Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness
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My Lords, I am sure that the Welsh Government are getting plenty of helpful suggestions as to how that money might be spent. I sat in on the debate on the Barnett formula initiated earlier in the year by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and listened carefully to it. The Government have made it clear that their priority is to reduce the deficit and get our public finances in order. Therefore, any change to the system of devolution funding must await stabilisation of public finances. However, as I have already indicated, separate bilateral discussions are continuing between the Government and the Welsh Government on the proposals arising from the Holtham Commission.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I presume that there was a Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland as well. Can my noble and learned friend the Minister tell me how much that payment was and what it has been used for?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness
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My Lords, I can tell my noble friend that the amount was £22.6 million. I regret that I do not know how the Northern Ireland Assembly chooses to use it, but the same principle would apply: it must determine its own priorities and be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland for them.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Wednesday 16th February 2011

(13 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Kilclooney Portrait Lord Kilclooney
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My Lords, I have watched the Bill’s progress over the past few weeks with increasing concern because of the way in which matters affecting the constitution of the United Kingdom are being dealt with by the present coalition Government. We read criticism of the Opposition, and quite rightly so, and of their lengthy and sometimes very boring speeches in this House. But I can understand why they did that—because when we look at the Conservative Benches, we find bony-faced silence on their faces, and when we look at the Liberal Benches, we find faces of total embarrassment.

This is a major constitutional issue and it should not be dealt with in the way in which it is being dealt with by the Government at the moment. Why is it happening? It is because they have this coalition agreement. We now have the first example of that coalition agreement. It means that Parliament does not give proper consideration to the issues before it. There is criticism of the other place for not giving enough time to this debate. A lot of time was given to the subject in our House, but there was very little participation by the government Benches—the coalition Benches. There was not proper debate in this House either.

I am increasingly concerned at the way in which this subject is being dealt with. I understand that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mr Nick Clegg, like a schoolmaster, summoned a selected number of individuals from the Cross Benches within the past few days to tell them what he thinks of them. That is absolutely disgraceful. For those reasons I would be very unhappy in supporting the Government, so I shall support the amendment.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My Lords, I know that we are getting towards the end of this debate but I want to make just one short point. I understand the argument for this threshold—it is the fear that there might be a yes vote on a very low turnout, and the wish to have this protection against it—but if that did happen, we would be repeating what happened with the Scottish referendum in the 1970s.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
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There is another point that is being missed: the idea, which the Minister repeated in the other place, that this threshold would be the same as the one in the Scottish referendum. In the Scottish referendum there was a threshold not on turnout but on the result, which is why it caused such resentment. A 40 per cent threshold on that would of course be unacceptable. So the comparison is a bogus one.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I will make the point none the less, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has given me assistance in making it. I take the point with regard to voting rather than turnout, but we are getting into the same territory; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, it caused great resentment. Will noble Lords please consider whether this device, if it works as intended, will not also cause great resentment? I have strong views on AV and look forward to the campaign against it. I wish that we could get on with that instead of wasting our time on this matter.

Baroness Trumpington Portrait Baroness Trumpington
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Many of us, I believe, voted for the Government out of loyalty to the Government, and not for the matter on which we were voting in the last round. I have listened to all the arguments today and I am thoroughly convinced by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and by the speakers who have spoken. I fully intend, for the first time, to vote against my Government.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

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Tuesday 8th February 2011

(13 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness
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My Lords, as the Bill is set out, at each relevant date the quota for the Boundary Commission—the number of registered voters—will take that into account. Given that the Bill provides for five-yearly boundary reviews, the population is unlikely to increase by 2.5 million in one boundary review, although it could happen over time. We are still talking about 600 seats. Therefore, the quota would increase, still allowing for a variation of 5 per cent either way. My point about the noble Baroness’s amendment is that with the quota being set in the Bill—if her amendment were to be carried—an increase of 2.5 million in the population would significantly increase the number of seats and move further away from her other objective, stated in her amendment, of not being substantially in excess of 600.

The next issue is that of the 7.5 per cent tolerance from the parity quota. Your Lordships’ House has discussed increasing the tolerance from the quota set out in the Bill on several occasions. I merely confirm that the Government are committed to the principle of equity and of equally weighted votes. Five per cent is the minimum variance necessary to ensure that the Boundary Commissions are able to take into consideration the important practical factors set out in rule 5 without undermining the principle of fairness for voters that is at the core of these reforms. A greater tolerance in these circumstances would be unfair to electors. The discretion given to the Boundary Commission by a tolerance of 7.5 per cent allows for the possibility that different Boundary Commissions could adopt different practices and, therefore, that there could be an imbalance in the number of seats in each part of the United Kingdom.

The amendment also sets up a potential for internal conflict. The provisions in the Bill have been praised as a substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions because they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory. However, the provisions in the amendment do not have such a hierarchy and there is no guarantee that the commissions will be able to draw constituencies of 76,000 people without crossing historic county boundaries—a term that remains undefined.

I turn to the other leg of the noble Baroness’s amendment. To ensure that constituency boundaries do not cross various other boundaries, we have listened to the concerns of noble Lords and are bringing forward an amendment later this evening that will put into the Bill the local government boundaries that we know each Boundary Commission considers when drawing up constituencies. The 5 per cent variation will allow the Boundary Commission for England to use wards as building blocks in most if not all cases. We expect that it will do so. However, it is important to allow the Boundary Commission for England discretion as it carries out its independent duties. The amendment talks of historic county boundaries and specifically mentions Devon and Cornwall. I thought I heard the noble Baroness say that historic boundaries had never been crossed before. I am told that the Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency crossed the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. If there ever was an historic sensitive boundary, I suspect that it might be that one.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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On the question of historic county boundaries, I do not have the precise facts, but I think I am accurate in saying that half the current constituencies in Northern Ireland cross historic county boundaries. It would be totally impossible for the amendment to operate in Northern Ireland.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness
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I hear my noble friend and, although I do not have an exact figure, a significant number of county boundaries within England are crossed by constituencies. I am not quite sure whether those counties would be defined as historic.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

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Monday 17th January 2011

(13 years, 5 months ago)

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton
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I agree with all of that. I very much hope that we would not succumb to that temptation, but once the door is open, it becomes harder and harder to resist.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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The noble Lord refers to this as a “hallowed principle of our constitution”, but it was not applied to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace said, with regard to the Scottish Parliament, that there were some really arcane discussions, which he said he might reveal to us some time, that resulted in the rather unusual figure there. I know myself, and I will not weary the House, about the political considerations that drove the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I confess ignorance with regard to the Welsh Assembly. But that “hallowed principle” has not been applied by Governments drawn from both sides of this House over the past few years.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton
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I do not want to go into Northern Irish politics because I feel that if I did, I would make a number of mistakes. I can talk about Scottish politics, and I can say this: the effect of the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in Scotland was, in political terms, wholly to the detriment of the Labour Party. However, it was introduced by a Government with a substantial Labour majority. Yes, it was done by a Government, but it was plain that it was being done in a way that was to the detriment of the interest of that Government. So, in my view, it does not raise the issues that the noble Lord is raising.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord has misunderstood the point that I was making, which was with regard not to the number of Westminster Members from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but to the size of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a different matter.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton
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I accept that as well but I can see no process by which, when you are setting up a Parliament, you can do so except by the passage of a Bill in Parliament.