The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill continued its proceedings through parliament yesterday, this time in the Commons, where two of the amendments passed back to the Commons from the Lords were disagreed with – they’ll receive a report on the reasons. The first amendment to be rejected was on reforming the way Orders in Council are dealt with, the second rejection, following division, was the amendment removing the ability of donations to political parties here from the Republic of Ireland. Although the second debate was heated, it’s the debate on the first amendment that is worth focussing on more closely [And was Lembit Öpik actually quoting *ahem* Bruce Banner? – Ed]The amendment on Orders in Council was only rejected following a government assurance, this time through NIO Minister David Hanson, that “the Government have given an undertaking that, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable”
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
In all parts of the House, there has long been awareness of some of the real concerns about the way in which Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with through the Order-in-Council procedure. We have had many debates about such matters with Members on both sides of the House in the past 15 months during which I have had the privilege of holding this office. We have had discussions in Committee, which have sometimes spilled over into discussions on the Floor of the House. The Government have been considering how to improve the procedure, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the official Opposition spokesman and other parties last year. As it happens, the other place has helpfully tabled an amendment to deal with those matters, on which we are focusing today.
My noble Friend Lord Rooker and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have considered the procedures in the House, and we have concluded that we need to examine how the Order-in-Council procedure is to be changed. Following last week’s Lords amendments, the Government have given an undertaking that, if we are unable to restore devolution by 24 November, we will quickly introduce measures to make direct rule more accountable. Our intention is for the restoration of the devolved Assembly by 24 November. Many of the matters dealt with under the Order-in-Council procedure are properly dealt with by the Assembly, should it be reconstituted. In the event of the Assembly not being reconstituted—of course, I hope that it will be—we will consider how to make those measures more accountable, agreed through the usual channels, if I may say so, with a stage of parliamentary consideration at which Northern Ireland Orders in Council can be amended. We will also ensure that, whenever possible, we legislate for Northern Ireland through primary legislation.
During the debate several MPs attempted to firm up that commitment to reforming the way NI laws are debated and passed in parliament.. as in this exchange between Lembit Öpik and David Hanson for example..
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so clear that the Government have finally listened to this request. Will he assure us, however, that in the unfortunate circumstance that the Assembly does not recommence by 24 November, we will not wait for months or years for the changes to take place? Can he assure us that the timetable will be a matter of days or weeks, not months or years?
Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions on these issues. Obviously, the Government’s first priority is to get the Assembly up and running, with the co-operation of colleagues on both sides of the House, by 24 November. In the unhappy event that the Assembly is not reconstituted, we will take an early opportunity to examine how to make the Order-in-Council procedure more appropriate, as has been discussed in another place and here. Although that will be considered as a matter of urgency, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that the first priority of officials and Ministers is to get the Assembly back up and running.
Also worth noting is that there were indications that more than just Orders in Council could come under consideration.. as suggested by the Conservative Party’s NI spokesman David Liddington..
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory remarks, and in particular for the significant concession that the Government have announced today in response to repeated arguments from my right hon. and hon. Friends here and in the House of Lords, and from the Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist parties, about the unacceptable and undemocratic nature of our present system for Orders in Council affecting Northern Ireland.
Let me say at the outset that I share the Minister’s hope that devolution can be restored in Northern Ireland by 24 November, and I hope that the Government succeed in that objective. It will come as no surprise to the Minister if I repeat what I have said on many previous occasions—that in my view restoration of devolution will be possible only if the republican movement is finally willing both to recognise the legitimacy of the police service and the courts in Northern Ireland, and to give its full and active support to those institutions. But if for whatever reason devolution cannot be restored by 24 November, Conservative Members will look to the Government to move quickly—I use their own word—to introduce new legislation to change the way in which Orders in Council are dealt with here.
It is intolerable that legislation which, if it concerned England, would be dealt with by a Bill, and which would be amenable to amendment and detailed debate by all parties and by Back Benchers in all parts of the House, should, in respect of Northern Ireland, be the subject of a time-limited debate on a single Order in Council, almost always taking place in a Committee Room upstairs. Worse, the Committees allow only perhaps four Northern Ireland Members to participate in discussions of measures relating to education, local government reform and health which directly and significantly affect the lives of the people whom those Members are sent here to represent. Insult is added to injury by the fact that in the case of Orders in Council as in that of any secondary legislation, Parliament must either accept or reject what the Government put before it. It has no power to amend an Order in Council.