Belfast Telegraph

Proposal to limit cuts in Assembly

The Government is planning to introduce measures to limit any cut in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Under legislation currently going through Parliament, the Assembly, with the approval of the Northern Ireland Secretary, could cut its number of members.

But following concerns raised by peers, Northern Ireland spokeswoman Baroness Randerson said she would bring forward changes to the planned new laws to ensure the Assembly would not become too small.

At present there are 108 members of the Assembly, with six elected in each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies.

Under the new proposals, only one seat per constituency could be cut, meaning the Assembly would retain at least 90 members.

Peers including former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey and former Assembly speaker Lord Alderdice argued at earlier stages of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that a significant cut could affect smaller parties.

Lady Randerson told peers at report stage: "In their view the Secretary of State's ability to withhold consent from such an arrangement was not a sufficient safeguard.

"The Government recognises those concerns. There is a significant body of opinion that favours some reduction in the Assembly size but it is certainly not our intention that it should become a radically smaller institution.

"When it was established it was the intention it should be a widely inclusive body and that remains an essential element of the Northern Ireland settlement."

She said the Government would bring in an amendment at third reading to limit any reduction in the Assembly size to five members per constituency.

"The amendment would make clear that such a reduction would require cross-community support," she added.

Later, Tory Lord Lexden called for the "benefits" of new libel laws under last year's Defamation Act to be extended to Northern Ireland.

Lord Lexden said there was "practically universal agreement that the new law strikes the right balance between protecting individual reputations and upholding freedom of expression".

He said: "The benefits of this major, far-reaching reform will be enjoyed fully throughout England and Wales but not in Northern Ireland.

"For the first time ever Northern Ireland now has a different libel law - the old law which belongs firmly in the past because it cannot provide properly for the needs of the present let alone the future.

"In this immensely important area of the law, which directly affects so many people and publications, Northern Ireland has been split from England and Wales."

Lord Lexden said the old law had been retained without "any explanation being offered" by the Northern Ireland executive - a situation that was "fraught with risk and peril" for the local community.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a Liberal Democrat and leading QC, backed Lord Lexden's move.

He said: "If freedom of speech is going to be enjoyed in London and Cardiff to a greater extent than in Belfast, because the common law there is unsuited for example to the internet, then we have a ludicrous situation that will lead to litigation."

Tory Lord Black of Brentwood, an executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said freedom of speech was "at stake" and called for the Government to act.

Lord Carswell, a former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, called for Northern Ireland to adopt the new defamation laws "without delay".

But he cautioned that defamation law was a devolved matter and argued against Westminster legislating on the issue in Ulster.

"If we do this in this piece of legislation where would it finish?" he asked.

Former Northern Ireland first minister Lord Trimble called called for the province's Executive to pay attention to the views expressed by peers.

"There is no argument presented that would be in favour of retaining the old outdated laws," he said.

For the Opposition, Lord McAvoy called for Northern Ireland to agree to the new laws "as quickly as possible".

But he said it was a "devolved matter" and Westminster should not intervene.

Lady Randerson told peers: "This is a devolved issue and it is important that we respect that devolution."

She added: "It would be destabilising in Northern Ireland if we were to pick and choose which bits of devolution we were to observe."

But she said the Government had made its view that Northern Ireland should adopt the new defamation laws "very clear" to the Executive.

Lord Lexden withdrew his amendment but said he would return to the issue if the Executive did not act.

Peers later completed report stage debate on the Bill.

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