Northern Ireland: National Crime Agency

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
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

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
Wednesday 16th July 2014

(9 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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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

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
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

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
Tuesday 4th March 2014

(10 years, 3 months ago)

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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

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
Tuesday 25th February 2014

(10 years, 3 months ago)

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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.

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Debate between Lord Trimble and Baroness Randerson
Tuesday 3rd December 2013

(10 years, 6 months ago)

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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.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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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.