Parliament: `No time for full debate on Ulster'

TORY MPs have attacked the Government's failure to publish detailed legislation on Northern Ireland devolution in time for yesterday's Commons sitting.

As the Northern Ireland Bill received its formal first reading without a vote, they objected that the measure was not available for them to scrutinise. Ministers are aiming to get it through all its Commons stages today and to complete its passage through the Lords on Wednesday and Thursday.

But Sir Brian Mawhinney, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told theSpeaker, Betty Boothroyd: "This Bill affects the realm of the peace process. Do you have the power to indicate that there is a certain time beyond which it would not be acceptable, on behalf of backbenchers, for this Bill to be presented, if it is to be considered tomorrow?"

Miss Boothroyd said it was "not unusual" for such legislation to be delayed.

"It is not disorderly and there is no discourtesy to the House, not to have a Bill ready at this stage. This happens on a number of occasions ..."

Sir Brian said he would want the "protection of the Speaker against arrangements which ... are being done in corners and behind benches, even with the most distinguished MPs".

Eric Forth, the Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, asked whether it would be possible to consider and consult on the Bill properly over such a short timescale. Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the House, sought to reassure MPs, stressing that William Hague and other relevant parties were being kept informed on the discussions.