§ Mr. Grieve
I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 21, page 10, line 31, at end add—'(5) Arrangements under this section between the Government of the United Kingdom and a Northern Ireland department shall be known as concordats.1331(6) The Government of the United Kingdom shall not enter into a concordat unless a draft of the concordat has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.(7) Northern Ireland departments shall not enter into a concordat unless a draft of the concordat has been approved by the Assembly, by such procedure as standing orders may determine.'.This is a probing amendment, but it seeks some answers to another hardy perennial topic that arose in relation to the devolution debates on Scotland and Wales. It is concerned with concordats. It is no criticism of the Government—I am trying to be fair—to say that, because of the way in which the Bill has been introduced, we have not had a White Paper in the accepted sense. Therefore, we have not had any detail about the arrangements that will be arrived at for dealing with devolved matters between the United Kingdom civil service and the Northern Ireland civil service.
In the two White Papers on Wales and Scotland, we were appraised of the existence of the delightful new concept called the concordat. The concordat is extremely nebulous, because it is not a legally binding agreement. It is usually signed by officials, and it deals with administrative co-operation and the exchange of information. Some concordats may not even be published if they touch on confidential matters which it is not thought to be in the public interest to disclose.
There is nothing in the Belfast agreement about concordats. Indeed, the agreement is, inevitably, short on the detail of how the devolved Assembly and the relationships in devolved Government will be made to work. Unfortunately, it is perhaps an inevitable feature of the discussion of this Bill—the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State have accepted this—that, because we have been so concerned with certain key issues relating to deeply held political convictions, we are in danger of not providing proper scrutiny of the detail on which, ultimately, the legislation is just as likely to trip up and founder as on the grand perspective.
I should like to ask the Under-Secretary what is being considered in clause 21 as it stands. I have the explanatory memorandum which deals with agency arrangements—I accept that agency arrangements and concordats may not be one and the same thing. Certainly, agency arrangements would seem to imply that there will be arrangements for the discharge of functions in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland civil service and Ministers on behalf of United Kingdom Ministers or the United Kingdom civil service.
If that is all there is on this topic in the Northern Ireland Bill, where are concordats to be raised and dealt with? I shall be surprised if the Under-Secretary, when replying to this amendment, says that there will not be concordats. It seems inherent in the way in which devolved government works that concordats there will be.
I have in front of me the document placed in the House on Thursday 26 February 1998 relating to the operation of concordats in Scotland—a similar document was placed in the Library in relation to Wales. Is it the Government's intention to do likewise in relation to concordats for Northern Ireland? If there are to be concordats, that raises an important issue that will need to be debated at some point during the passage of the Bill, because the principle of concordats raises enormously difficult problems about accountability.
There is a suspicion—the suspicion grew as I considered this matter during the passage of the Scotland Bill—that concordats were a mechanism for the exercise 1332 of control from the centre over the peripheral parts of the United Kingdom to which devolution was to be granted. The concordats were to be the facilitators for exchanges between civil services which might otherwise have divided loyalties as to who were their masters. It appeared to be a way of circumventing that which had no statutory basis whatsoever.
I am mindful that this is a probing amendment, and that the question of agency arrangements in clause 21 may not be the same as concordats. However, I hope that, during the debate, the Under-Secretary can at least enlighten us a little further on how the system will operate and what concordats will be brought into being to govern the relationship between the United Kingdom civil service and that part of it which will be operating solely on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
§ Dr. Godman
I will be brief. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had the grace to say that this was a probing amendment. It seeks to give a legal basis to the term "concordat", which is a concept that the hon. Gentleman described as nebulous.
Of course, in all sorts of areas, arrangements will have to be made, not just between Belfast and London, but between Cardiff and London and Edinburgh and London, and, indeed, between all four locations. Fisheries are an example of an area where joint decisions have had to be made.
§ Mr. McNamara
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to underplay his case. With the Council of the Isles, we will have Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man to consider.
§ Dr. Godman
I know my hon. Friend of old. He has a vice—that is what it is—of anticipating what I am about to say. I was about to come on to the Council of the Isles.
I believe, as does my honourable and equally old Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), that the Council of the Isles may well have to examine the arrangements for what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield called concordats. My hon. Friends will not be surprised to hear me using the fisheries issue as an example. I promise not to dwell on that for long, but you will not allow me to anyway, Sir Alan.
The issue of agreements is extremely important. It may be that the agreements entered into by the various assemblies and parliaments may one day require legal underpinning, but not by the nebulous idea raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.
§ Dr. Godman
If I may just continue.
Under the clause as it now stands, perhaps arrangements established between the United Kingdom and a Northern Ireland department as described in the clause will be examined at meetings of the Council of the Isles or at meetings of officials, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield suggested en passant.
§ Mr. Grieve
The hon. Gentleman will be aware from his detailed participation in the Scotland Bill that this 1333 matter caused considerable concern. The Opposition took the view that, if there were to be concordats, they should be subject to affirmative resolution, or at least approval by the House and by the Scottish Parliament. We believed that to be necessary if they were to be the underpinning arrangements for administrative contact to smooth the wheels and machinery of the operations of state. That was in a Scottish context.
In the Northern Ireland context, we do not know whether there are to be any concordats, because no one has told us. However, I would be surprised if there were not to be concordats. If there are to be concordats, we would repeat our view that they should be subject to affirmative resolution by the Northern Ireland Assembly and this Parliament. That is how we approach the matter, because we are constitutionalists on this—
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. We are in Committee, and that is a very long intervention.
§ Dr. Godman
Thank you for rescuing me, Sir Alan.
The very helpful notes on clauses points out that clause 21 provides foragency arrangements to be between UK Ministers of the Crown and Government Departments, on the one hand, and Northern Ireland Ministers and Departments, on the other, so that either can discharge the functions of the other.Such provision is precisely what we debated in our proceedings on the Scotland Bill—which the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) participated in and attended assiduously.
There will have to be agency arrangements between Departments in Belfast and those in London. However, the matter is more complicated than that, as some arrangements will include also the Cardiff Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. That is why I gave the example of fisheries. As we live in island communities, various arrangements may be required, and I should have thought that no self-respecting Member of this Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament would allow arrangements to go unchecked.
Clearly, democratic checks and balances of the arrangements will be developed over the years, in Belfast, Cardiff and Scotland, and in this place. There is therefore no need for amendment No. 13. Fortunately, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield described it as a probing amendment.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Is it not true that, even in this place, we are concerned occasionally when Ministers inform us of an action after it is has been taken? Would it not be better if Ministers had the approval of the Assembly or of this place before taking some actions? We can do very little about something once it is done.
§ Dr. Godman
For many years, the hon. Gentleman and I sat almost side by side on the Opposition Benches, and suffered from the previous Government the type of conduct that he describes. I should hope that matters will 1334 be done much differently by the new Administration, although he may be a little more cynical about that than I am.
Clause 21 allows four types of arrangements, and the Assembly partner may be dominant in some of them. I should think that Scotland would have a bigger role to play than Northern Ireland, or—dare I say it—London, in arrangements on fisheries, for example.
As amendment No. 13 is a probing amendment, and as the concordat—as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said in his graceful way—is a nebulous concept, we should stick with clause 21 as it is.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
It seems that clause 21 is really just repeating arrangements that existed between the old Stormont Parliament and United Kingdom Parliament on matters such as various national standards, social security, health and agriculture. The question is, how will the chain of command operate? Given that Parliament is supreme and retains its right to make laws, I begin to wonder what need there is for agency status.
Surely the United Kingdom civil service will still operate, at least to some extent, in Northern Ireland, and therefore will fall directly under the control of the responsible Minister in the national Parliament. Therefore, what will the relationship be between those civil servants and the Minister with responsibility for that particular element of Government service in Northern Ireland—or in Scotland or in Wales? To whom will those civil servants be responsible—to the immediately responsible Minister or to the United Kingdom Minister? If it is to the responsible Minister, will he be responsible to the United Kingdom Minister?
The arrangements will operate not only in one or two little corners but, presumably, in all social security matters and in many health matters, in health standards and in the training of medical staff. They will operate also in agriculture—at which point we run into the problem of United Kingdom agricultural policies that are, under the common agricultural policy, run in conjunction with European Community agricultural policies. If we are not clear about how the arrangements will operate in the months and years ahead, I think that we will get into an awful lot of very complicated difficulties. We will have to deal also with the whole matter of European money, which goes far beyond the CAP issues that I mentioned.
The Minister owes us a fairly full explanation of how the arrangements will operate. It is not good enough to say, "We're going to sort the matter out over the next few months." They have not only to sort the matter out now, but be able to tell us about it.
I am somewhat puzzled about the provision on the Post Office, which I thought was a national institution. I suppose that we will be able to continue using the Post Office for distribution of pensions and social security benefits. Perhaps that was the intention. However, if so, surely the Post Office in Northern Ireland would be acting as an agency of the United Kingdom Government, rather than as an agent of the Northern Ireland Administration?
Those are a few thoughts on the tip of a very large iceberg. The Committee and the people of Northern Ireland deserve a very full explanation of the matter. 1335 Perhaps we do not really need such an agency system. Perhaps it would be far better if many of those matters were dealt with directly by this place.
§ Mr. Worthington
I have reached my advanced age without bothering with concordats, and I do not think that, because of this amendment, I should change my life style now. The Opposition are trying to complicate the relatively simple but—I agree with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross)—important issue of relationships, which will have to be worked out, between this Parliament and the Assembly. In all fairness, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman all the answers now, but hope that I will be able to deal with the points that he raised.
There are relationships between the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and bodies in Great Britain. I can give some examples of how relationships will in future have to be worked out. The lottery, for example, will remain a United Kingdom function. However, some aspects of the lottery are currently dealt with by Northern Ireland institutions—so that, in sports and arts matters, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland administer the lottery on behalf of the United Kingdom lottery.
I see no reason to change that relationship. It seems perfectly sensible to maintain it, although there will have to be an agreement on that. Although the Northern Ireland Assembly will have responsibility for administering aspects of the lottery in relation to the Sports Council and the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, the responsibility for the administration of the lottery will remain with the UK Parliament.
Another example of an existing relationship that will have to be worked out involves the Child Support Agency. The CSA is run as part of the structure of the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland and deals with Northern Ireland cases, but it also administers cases for a large part of eastern England. We shall have to work out how that will be administered in future, but there would seem to be a need for an agency arrangement.
§ Mr. Grieve
Will the Minister assure the House that a paper similar to that produced for Scotland and Wales will be produced before the conclusion of consideration of the Bill?
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Worthington
I cannot give that assurance, because I am sure that dozens of papers have been produced for the Bills dealing with Scotland and Wales. The hon. Gentleman has to be much more specific. If he will write to me with details of his request, I shall deal with it.
Concordats may well be developed in future between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the UK Parliament, but they will not, as has been suggested, be a means of central control. A concordat involves concord or agreement between two equal parties which decide of their own free will to do something that benefits both of them.
There will be no problem about divided loyalties in the civil service. The devolved administration will be served very professionally by the Northern Ireland civil service. There may well be concordats but, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) recognised, clause 21 1336 re-enacts section 11 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, under which a number of agency arrangements have been agreed.
The clause 21 arrangements do not affect the ultimate responsibility of the principal Department or Minister for the discharge of the functions in question, and so do not involve any fundamental transfer of those functions to an alternative responsibility. They work at an operational level, not at a policy level. With a concordat, we would be dealing with policy and the development of different policies. We are simply saying that it makes sense in this context to have an operational agreement between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the UK Parliament. That is the sensible way to carry on.
§ Mr. William Ross
If a Northern Ireland Department is simply administering a UK function, to whom are the civil servants who are doing the work responsible? Are they responsible to their own Minister and, through the chain of command, to the Minister in this House, or to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? What is the chain of command and responsibility?
§ Mr. Worthington
I cannot answer hypothetical questions. The agreement would be different in each case. In each case, the chain of command and responsibility would need to be worked out between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the UK Parliament. When we ask a body that is part of the Northern Ireland Assembly to undertake what is essentially a UK responsibility, it seems sensible to promote good relationships between the two bodies. I therefore have to resist the move towards concordats, and I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to withdraw the amendment.
§ Mr. Grieve
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments, but it does not sound as if the matter has been considered as fully as it might have been. That might be a reflection of the way in which Northern Ireland has been governed over the years. It is a happy development that we are discussing a Bill that will bring about a great change in that respect. Will the Minister examine the issue carefully and, if necessary, discuss it with the Secretary of State for Scotland who has great knowledge of it?
§ Mr. William Ross
Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, perhaps he will inquire of the Minister whether the arrangements will be informal, or made by order so that the House has a chance to look at them?
§ Mr. Worthington
I am sorry that I did not spot earlier that the hon. Member for East Londonderry wanted to intervene. Obviously, when one is dealing with millions of pounds, as in each of those cases, formal administrative agreements would be drawn up. Clearly, it would not be on an informal basis.
§ Mr. Grieve
I am grateful for a little more clarity being cast. On the basis that, when I write to the Minister I shall 1337 have a more detailed reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.