The Northern Ireland Bill, designed to assist the devolution process in the province, completed its remaining stages in the Lords yesterday. There were two noteworthy features.
The first was that the Government was keen to see it passed as quickly as possible, hence its expedited passage. The Govermment argued that it was necessary to get it enacted by mid-March. However, few others agreed with them. In the Commons last week, MPs from Northern Ireland – Nationalist as well as Unionist – argued that it was not necessary to rush it and joined with the Opposition in voting against the programme motion for the Bill. The issue of how Parliament deals with fast-tracked legislation is something we are now examining in the Constitution Committee. There is no clear framework for determining what constitutes ’emergency’ legislation: some legislation is fast-tracked that is not urgent and the Government sometimes adds provisions to emergency legislation when those provisions are not essential for addressing the emergency. It is an important but neglected topic. The evidence we have already received is extremely interesting. It is a short inquiry, so it will not be that long before we publish our report on the subject.
The other feature was how peers voted when the Liberal Democrats pushed an amendment to a division. They wanted to amend the proposed procedure for removing from office the minister of justice. The amendment was defeated by 212 votes to 52. Forty cross-bench peers toook part in the vote. When cross-benchers vote, they sometimes split fairly evenly and sometimes swing heavily in support of one side. On this occasion, all forty voted against the amendment.