P&J – “a mafia offer”

A Commons row broke out yesterday over the Government’s decision to rush the Bill transferring Police and Justice powers to the Assembly in a single day next Wednesday. The Bill I mean, not the transfer. Why the rush? As MPs on all sides regardless of their views on P&J pointed out, the Assembly hadn’t asked for a transfer timetable, as we well know. This is the British Government up to its old tricks of bouncing NI business through both Houses of Parliament in a single day, in as little as three hours , depriving MPs of the chance of proper scrutiny.

Why the row? Because in order to allow MPs to read the Bill and table amendments, a special Business motion had to be moved yesterday – rather than the usual procedures of tabling the Bill first and taking amendments during a series of debates in four stages, spread over weeks or months. The row was launched by that champion of MPs’ rights, fierce critic of the Iraq war and friend of unionism, Andrew Mackinlay – followed by our own lot, in chiming unison on the Bill’s treatment, even though differing on putting it into effect. It’s pretty clear the bounce won’t work. Hansard extracts below the fold.

Mr Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) Lab. The problem with the programme motion next week is that it is like a mafia offer. If we debate the programme motion, protest at how short it is and relate it to this debate, we will be eating into the precious minutes available for Second Reading, Committee and Report. Also there might be statements. It is a charade.

I rise because I have objected to this motion over the past two nights and because I have consistently criticised in this House successive Secretaries of the State for Northern Ireland for pulling the same stunt time and again. They always come to the House saying that legislation must be passed not expeditiously, but in one day. That is repugnant to me, and it should be repugnant to this House, as it makes a total nonsense of what we do here.

Note. A “programme motion”otherwise know as a guillotine, is moved by the Government immediately before the Bill in order to “programme” or limit the time to be taken. MPs rise to object to the short time for debating the Bill, but their objections are self-defeating as they eat into the time given for the substance of the Bill. If they keep their objections short, they save themselves time on the substance – an offer they can’t refuse – thus, a “mafia offer”.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a broad consensus in Northern Ireland about the principle of devolving policing and justice powers, but will he accept it from me that there is also a broad swathe of opinion in Northern Ireland among those who are quite content to allow the present position to pertain for months, if not years, in order to allow what is happening at the moment to stabilise, and only then to proceed in the fullness of time, thus negating the need for the process that is under way today?

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Like my hon. Friend, I believe that no legislation should be microwaved through the House in this way. The Bill makes changes to—and arguably does injury to, in some cases—at least four pieces of legislation that the House has passed in the last 10 years or so. The Bill will have unforeseen consequences, especially if it is passed hastily and legitimate amendments are not even considered. It will also have foreseen consequences for which no one should wish to provide—namely the collapse, or dissolution, of a Department in 2012, and possibly no Minister’s being appointed after 2011. That is not a sensible way for the House to legislate.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Is not the main factor in determining the timing of this matter whether there is an end date? As no end date has been agreed for the devolution of policing and justice, however, is there not plenty of time to have a full debate in this House and the other place, and to allow the Assembly to have legislation?

Mr. Dodds: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, he speaks with great authority on these matters as he is the First Minister of Northern Ireland as well as a Member of this House. He makes the point that was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell): the urgency on this matter seems to be coming entirely from one direction—the Government. It is not a demand of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the parties there. The Government must recognise that by seeking to build up a sense of urgency and a sense that these matters must be dealt with within a very constrained timetable they do not contribute to building confidence in Northern Ireland that the matters have been dealt with in a proper, sensible and thorough way.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London